by: L.P. Hanners
On the heels of Jon Hamm finally receiving his just due for his portrayal of Don Draper, an ardent fan digs deep on Mad Men’s seven seasons of grandeur…
Mad Men affected me deeply. I can recall countless moments where the plight of Don, Joan, Pete, Peggy or any number of the extraordinary well-developed characters moved me to the very core. But it was in the 51st episode where Mad Men finally broke me. The episode was entitled “Blowing Smoke,” and this unforgettable installment not only granted viewers with one of the more memorable lines from the series (“If you don’t like what they’re saying about you, change the conversation”) but this is where Don was inspired to write the infamous article, “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco.” Don’s open letter was so impactful that I had to stop the episode and gather myself. It felt as if it were a tipping point for the series, where Don was overflowing with inspiration and the significance of this hard-earned moment of clarity was visceral. I ended up crying too. Mad Men had this ability. This power that was unmistakably omnipresent over the course of the final three seasons. Like the penning of the letter and the physical effect it had on me, I am still reeling from the fact that Lane killed himself in Season 5’s penultimate episode. Following that occurrence, in an episode entitled “Commissions and Fees,” I stayed up all night, completely unproductive. I wasn’t even thinking about Lane, or the episode. I was simply thinking about life. Lane’s suicide really stirred something up inside me, causing Mad Men to cross the threshold from mere television show to reality. This was the power of Mad Men.
Like the planets encircling the sun, Mad Men centered itself around the plight of Don Draper. Matt Weiner’s sharp storylines were what drove the show, but it was Don sitting shotgun, stately yet complicated, that appropriately garnered all the attention. I have always been able to relate to Don’s incessant acts of self-sabotage, and I have always admired his savant brand of genius. Don’s trek through life was littered with obstructions. He embodied the phrase “you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs” in that every step he took forward personally came with it a few steps back and a scattering of baggage. But in the final season, in an an episode entitled “Lost Horizons,” Don finally steps into the world of McCann/Erickson and into a much better tomorrow. In it, he is summoned to a meeting that revealed two dozen other men in a similar mold as Don, who shared his specific job title. In that moment, the integrity of his career was stripped bare as Don sits at a table lined with boxed lunches whilst a presentation begins to unfold about a product that deserves little to no creative attention. He hastily exits, boxed lunch in tow, moments after the presentation begins, unable to face this triviality of his life. Don was far more than a corporate cog. He was soul searcher. He was a man who attempted to patch his many wounds with an exuberance of vices, but in the end found within him a way to let go of that pain and find an inner peace.
Looking back, I am particularly fascinated with the pointed shift in direction that occurred mid-way through the series. The extended hiatus that occurred before Season 4 and Season 5 was excruciating, an eighteen month wait that made the return of Mad Men that much more sweet. Instantaneously, upon the series’ return, it became abundantly clear that things had changed. Don was devout, committed only to his wife. Betty had let herself go, while Roger was off exploring the far reaches of his mind with LSD. It was within this stunning season where the audience had an awareness of the show’s expiration, further intensifying the melodrama and reminding the audience that nothing lasts forever. And the tragic end of Lane Pryce’s storyline aptly setting the tone for the rest of Mad Men’s run.
Much like the pointed and shrewd plotlines brought vividly to life, the characters in Mad Men were all so unique and sophisticated. While Don and his officemates at SCDP were consistently the focal point, it was Don’s family, specifically Betty and Sally, whose story arcs highlighted the type of brainy character development that characterized Mad Men. In Season 4, Sally found herself in hot water with her parents for cutting her own hair and then masturbating at a friend’s sleepover. Who can’t relate to that? She went on to authentically convince a therapist her parents were the problem rather than her. Sally is no hero of course, but the series and Matt Weiner’s penetrating scripts brilliantly chronicled the loss of her innocence and Kiernan Shipka’s performance is masterful in that it finds a way to portray quintessential elements of both her parents personalities. Betty’s, Sally’s mother and Don’s ex-wife (played by January Jones), struggle was unmistakable, and in that way her character was so easy to relate to. We’re all damaged in our own ways and in Betty’s case, she was a codependent person who, through her husband’s infidelity, was forced to learn how to be independant. She grew to accept who she was and like many of the shows characters, evolved before our eyes into something she assuredly was not when the series premiered. Mad Men was a journey, as much for its characters as its storylines, and it was an arduous and rewarding one at that, affecting its fans on a deeply personal level.
Throughout the entirety of Mad Men the series was polarizing. You would have to be living far beneath a rock to not come upon the critiques concerning a lack of activity on the show (“nothing ever happens”, for example). But I think the diversity of opinions that were forged around Mad Men is something to be celebrated, for even Mad Men’s naysayers cannot deny the impact the show had on the landscape of television. Mad Men was a true game-changer and proved that excellent television wasn’t limited to HBO and cable outlets alone. It fashioned AMC into a viable network, a haven for original and innovative dramatic programming, and it directly paved the way for the existence of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Mad Men was the beginning of auteur television. Because of Matt Weiner’s very public and pronounced role on the show, Mad Men propelled television writers directly into the spotlight, and since then showrunners have become just as famous as the stars on their shows. And Mad Men ushered in the age of the strong female lead. In utter defiance of ignorant critiques about misogyny, the ladies of Mad Men, Joan (Christina Hendricks), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and Betty, were as integral to the show as their male counterparts.
Inarguably, Mad Men is one of the most important television shows of all time. As the shows final season unfolded, it brilliantly documented the era of the 1960s with its progressive ideals making way for more conservative beliefs and the arrival of Richard Nixon’s America. But in the end it was a show about Don Draper, with the times merely serving as a backdrop to his myriad struggles. It was about the everyman coming apart under the crushing weight of a modernity, facing the perpetual dilemma of whether to assimilate, or to continue to fight to exist on his own. And as the final scene unfolded with our antihero Don Draper meditating on a beach, we learned who he truly was, an advertising man. A Mad Man. A man who across a tortured journey fraught with hardship, loss and in the end a moment of self-discovery, finally, with a sun-soaked smile, came into his own.