MThe dramas of the olden days tell us more about the era in which they were made than the era in which they are set. Think of Downton Abbey, which arrived in 2010 at the height of post-financial crisis austerity, offering a gently comforting “Keep Calm and Carry On” noblesse that fit David Cameron’s new government like a glove. Mad Men premiered on July 19, 2007. Now that the show is 15 years old, enough time has passed for its prescient shake up of the passing American century to look more like an elegy.
As Don Draper (Jon Hamm) knew, the US in the 20th century was primarily an exercise in branding. What Mad Men did quite brilliantly was explore the gaps between grim reality and conceptual imaging’s most enduring gambit: the American Dream. Since the turn of the century, US branding has become less assertive. Most of the best dramas find a way to weave tiny, personal, emotional nuances into broader, larger stories. Mad Men’s genius was to show that they were one and the same. Pretty much everyone on this show was wealthy and attractive. They were also mostly unhappy. This is the backcountry where advertising thrives: where material solutions to existential problems can be offered.
In the last series there is a great fragment of a scene where the characters marvel at the moon landings. As Neil Armstrong says, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the camera cuts to semi-retired advertising executive Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). “Bravo,” he murmurs wryly, clearly seeing this moment of universal awe primarily as a brilliant piece of marketing. It is Cooper’s final scene: he will be dead by the next day, but the American Dream will have received another chapter with its own succinct, bespoke tagline.
The world of Mad Men is one where grand gestures come easily, but introspection does not – which is fitting, given that it follows the Madison Avenue gang that has been at the heart of building the national narrative. Characters projected outwards instead of asking questions of themselves; her inner workings remained largely stuck in the conservatism of the 1950s, even as the fashions and habits of the emerging counterculture emerge in the decade covered by the show; Hair is getting shaggy, skirts are getting shorter, cigarettes are becoming more exotic and herbal. Don gets less than halfway through the Beatles’ psychedelic milestone Tomorrow Never Knows before discarding it. The show’s final tableau is a moment of almost transcendental cynicism; Don’s post-meltdown meditation session at a retreat translates easily into an iconic Coca-Cola ad. Very little personal development takes place here, and the show is all the more boldly brilliant for emphasizing that. At the dawn of the consumer age, Americans tried on different personas for size and then moved on. If they didn’t keep going, advertisers would be out of a job.
Mad Men ended in 2015. The show is just a year away from perfectly dominating the presidency of Barack Obama. These were years when, for all the angst surrounding 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the financial crisis, Americans were only just able to build noble, unifying narratives about their society. One could still believe, as Martin Luther King once said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bows to justice.” And yet, despite casting Mad Men in a darker light, the years that followed have the show’s resonance only strengthened.
The office landscape portrayed in Mad Men is a dissonant symphony of microaggressions. The only colored people are secretaries. LGBTQ people keep their true sexual identity to themselves. The women are routinely belittled, patronized and subjected to textbook sexual harassment.
What Mad Men always did – and in this regard the series feels admirably ahead of its time – was to offer nuanced female perspectives. It dramatized the emotional impact of this routine abuse, but also the characters’ resistance to it. Despite her obvious talent, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) struggles to be taken seriously: her frustration is palpable, but so is her pernicious tendency to subconsciously internalize male judgments about her abilities. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is continually reduced to the sum of her physical attributes, her unrelenting practicality hiding the harm of a life of insults masquerading as compliments. January Jones’ Betty Draper maintains a life on the show despite her split from Don, and gains a degree of independence while pursuing a psychology degree. These women are given an inner life that feels rich and plausible – implying that society’s treatment of them has created a level of hard-won toughness and autonomy that none of the male characters possess. Your achievements feel radical after all.
Finally, there are the two Donalds – Draper and Trump. When “Mad Men” ended, the idea of a Trump presidency was still the stuff of a smart comedian’s after-dinner turn. It’s tempting to conflate these two narcissistic, weak, manipulative, pathologically selfish, deeply insecure, and ultimately easily pitiable men, given how much they seem to have in common.
But the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, identifies a fault line that continues to be infuriatingly exploited in American public life — there’s always room for a talented crook if he knows which buttons to push. Don Draper would probably have found Donald Trump crass. But he would have found a line if Trump ever wanted to open his checkbook. Because business is business. Because what is advertising if not the ultimate fake news? Mad Men was ahead of the curve the entire time. But like the best historical dramas, it was also a warning from history.