(WARNING: The following discusses character and plot points from the seven seasons of Mad Men that may be considered spoilers.)
In Part 1: How this show saw the 1960s (posted Tuesday, May 12, 2015)
The opening of Mad Men’s fourth season suggested that its central question—and perhaps that of the entire run of the show—was “Who is Don Draper?” Viewers had learned much earlier that “Don Draper” was born Dick Whitman, and had escaped his terrible upbringing by appropriating the identity of the commanding officer he’d watched die in Korea. Suspense lingered for years over when and how other characters would learn this about Don, and how they’d react when they did—but the answer to that question isn’t “Dick Whitman.” I’m not sure there is an answer; I think that the fluidity of Don’s identity and sense of self could well be the answer.
(Whether Don is the “falling man” from the show’s opening credits is a question some viewers still hope the series finale will answer.)
He’s one of the most interesting characters who’s ever been on television, but for me, “Who is Don Draper?” stopped being the show’s central question some time ago. What’s continually fascinated me about Mad Men is its women, especially the ones in the office.
The world in which twenty-first-century American working women operate may not be as advanced as we want it to be, but when I watch what Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway Harris have to deal with, I’m glad to recognize that some things really have changed—and mostly for the better. Much of the everyday behavior of their male coworkers would be considered sexual harassment now, but that concept barely existed in the 1960s. It was expected and accepted that no matter how skilled, women would only progress up to a point in the workplace, that they’d quit anyway when they got married and had children, and that men wouldn’t stand to work for them at any stage. But over the course of Mad Men’s seven seasons, Peggy’s talent and drive helped her work her way up from secretary to chief copywriter (and supervisor of several men), while Joan’s reliance on a more traditional female model—sex appeal and manipulation—aided her transition from office manager to account executive (and agency partner) as a divorced working mother.
To be fair, these two characters did suffer through some of the show’s soapier plots. Peggy spent much of the show’s first season not realizing she was pregnant. She gave the baby up for adoption when it was born, and while it’s been a steady undercurrent in the show ever since—particularly between Peggy and account executive Pete Campbell, the baby’s father—it’s rarely been openly discussed or even acknowledged. Joan got pregnant a few years later, nearly as inadvertently, and no thanks to her awful doctor husband—little Kevin is the last reminder of her long-running, on-and-off affair with Roger Sterling—but that was nothing compared to the literal act of prostitution that “won” her a partnership (and which is one more thing that Pete Campbell has to answer for).
While this wasn’t a “literary” show, technically—not in the “based on the novel” sense, anyway—Mad Men is as close to literature as television ever gets. This was one of the best-written shows of all time–always attentive to detail, and yet it encouraged viewers to read between the lines, adding context through the smart use of visuals in its storytelling Its stories were driven by its characters. The dialogue was frequently brilliant, and the show deserves credit for creating many moments of high comedy (and some lowbrow laughs, too). While there were plenty of times its characters were dishonest with each other—not to mention themselves—the emotional notes the show hits were anything but. Mad Men was genuine, human-scale drama that engaged viewers on every level. I’ve already said how much I’ll miss it, but I’m already planning to watch it again, all the way through—just like when you finish a great book with the joy of anticipating a re-read.
On that note, The New York Public Library has assembled an official Mad Men Reading List of books featured in the series. (Who is Don Draper? He’s a reader!)
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.