(WARNING: The following discusses character and plot points from the seven seasons of Mad Men that may be considered spoilers.)
I have obsessed over very few TV shows the way I have over Mad Men. (And yes, that includes Supernatural, Doctor Who, and various other TV shows popular with the Con-going set.) I came to it a few years late, immersing myself in the first three seasons via DVD and not getting fully current in my viewing until well into Season 5, but even as some early fans have grown a little disenchanted with the series, my attachment to it has stayed strong. It ends its seven-season run this month,and I’m going to miss it enormously.
Mad Men’s seven seasons spanned the entire decade of the 1960s—its last few episodes take place in 1970—and for the most part, it showed the period the way many people experienced it, with its changes and social upheavals occurring in the background while life went on. Most people felt their effects eventually, but they just weren’t actively involved in all of that on day-to-day basis.
However, current events did factor into the plot every now and then: Roger Sterling’s daughter got married on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and most of the wedding guests didn’t show up; Joan Harris’ doctor husband enlisted and volunteered to serve in Vietnam; a fancy awards gala was cut short by the news that Martin Luther King had been shot; everyone watched the moon landing on TV, and then Bert Cooper died. Roger’s LSD experiments and various pot-smoking creative types notwithstanding, Mad Men’s central characters were largely too old, and too busy working and being adults, to live the 1960s as “The Sixties,” and the young characters—primarily Don and Betty Draper’s kids—were mostly kids, and therefore too young.
Mad Men’s 1960s were portrayed through character and an obsessively detail-oriented attention to design, with design frequently employed as a shorthand expression of character. (You can easily kill many hours exploring that topic in Tom and Lorenzo’s “Mad Style” archives.) Longer hair, shorter skirts, wilder colors; Mid-century Modern tables and plastic-covered upholstery; bar carts everywhere. Shifts in hair, clothing, and decorating styles reflected how these characters engaged with the changing world around them…or, as Don’s slicked-back hair and boxy suits might suggest, how sometimes they didn’t.
Mad Men takes place in a New York City advertising agency (technically, several of them, thanks to various buyouts, separations, and mergers)–the title references the profession’s “ad men” and the industry’s home base on Madison Avenue while commenting on the show itself. The setting provides a framework for viewing and commenting on the era’s changing attitudes and lifestyles through industry’s role in reflecting and influencing trends and opinions.
This show has been very influential in its own right, but I recognize some of the reasons it has fallen a bit out of favor during the later portion of its run. While there were long-running threads and season-spanning arcs and themes, Mad Men was never especially plot-driven. The show would take its time resolving the questions it raised…when it bothered to answer them at all. Some of the characters were tough to like, and it could grow frustrating to watch them keep making poor decisions and not learning from their experiences, as Alan Sepinwall remarks in his recap of the series’ next-to-last episode:
“Mad Men has chronicled a period of enormous social change, yet it’s often seemed agnostic on whether individual change is possible. Over the course of the series, fashions changed and opportunities rose for women and minorities, but were the Mad Men characters themselves really changing with the times? Peggy has certainly grown, yet we’ve seen Don and Roger and Joan and others have epiphany after epiphany, only to eventually lean back on their old habits. (And even Peggy hasn’t been immune to backsliding in her personal life, even as she’s evolved professionally.) If anything, Don’s frequent backsliding has been one of the most common complaints I’ve heard about the series’ second half; the more recent seasons have been more complex and stylistically ambitious, but too many people seemed tired of watching Don make the same damn mistakes year after year.”
Then again, those difficult, frustrating attributes were also what made Mad Men’s characters appealing. They were intriguing and irritating, complicated and real. I rarely felt that Mad Men was a show I watch to see what happened—I watched to see what would happen to these people, and what they’d do about it.
More about “these people” to some in Part 2 (posting Thursday, May 14, 2015)
Did you watch and love Mad Men? Or did you watch it until you stopped loving it? Tell me what you loved, and what you didn’t, about this landmark TV series.