MThe dramas of the rest of the period tell us more about the era in which they were created than the era in which they take place. Think Downton Abbey, which appeared in 2010 in the midst of post-financial austerity, touting a mildly comforting noble commitment to “Keep Calm and Carry On” that fitted David Cameron’s new government like a glove. Mad Men first aired on July 19, 2007. The show is now 15 years old, and enough time has passed for its visionary solicitation of the outgoing American century to be more like an elegy.
As Don Draper (Jon Hamm) knew, the US in the 20th century was primarily a branding exercise. What Mad Men did brilliantly was to explore the gulf between grim reality and the most enduring gambit of image-building: the American dream. Since the turn of the century, American branding has become less confident. Most of the best dramas find a way to build tiny, personal, emotional nuances into larger, grander stories. The genius of the Mad Men was to show that they were one and the same. Almost everyone in this show was rich and attractive. They were also overwhelmingly dissatisfied. This is the hinterland where advertising thrives, where tangible solutions to existential problems can be offered.
In the final episode, there is a great part of the scene during which the heroes admire the landing on the moon. As Neil Armstrong says, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the camera cuts to former advertising man Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). “Bravo,” he mutters wryly, clearly seeing this moment of general awe as a brilliant marketing ploy first and foremost. It’s Cooper’s last scene: he’ll die the next day, but the American Dream will get another chapter with its own brief, bespoke slogan.
The world of Mad Men is one where grand gestures come easy, but introspection doesn’t, which is fitting given that it follows the Madison Avenue gang that was at the center of building a national narrative. Characters are projected outward rather than asking themselves questions; their inner lives are largely stuck in the conservatism of the 1950s, although the roughly decade covered by the show is evidence of the emerging counterculture’s fashions and habits; hair is shaggy, skirts are shorter, cigarettes are more exotically herbal. Don gets less than halfway through the Beatles’ psychedelic hit “Tomorrow Never Knows” before filming it. The final scene of the show is a moment of almost transcendent cynicism; Don’s meditation after a nervous breakdown on a retreat easily turns into a cult advertisement for Coca-Cola. There is very little personal development going on here, and the show is all the more brashly brilliant for bringing that to the fore. At the dawn of the consumer era, Americans tried on different sizes and then moved on. If they didn’t go further, advertising managers would be out of a job.
Mad Men ended in 2015. Just a year later, the show completely coincided with the presidency of Barack Obama. These were years when, despite all the suffering associated with the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, and the financial crisis, Americans were still 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 leans toward justice.” And yet, even as they cast Mad Men in a darker light, the years that followed only added to the show’s resonance.
The office landscape depicted in Mad Men is a dissonant symphony of microaggressions. The only people of color are the secretaries. LGBTQ people keep their true sexual identity to themselves. Women are routinely belittled, patronized, and subjected to what we would now call textbook sexual harassment.
What Mad Men has always done — and in that context, the show is admirably ahead of its time — offered subtle feminine perspectives. He dramatized the emotional consequences of this routine violence as well as the characters’ resistance to it. Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) fights to be taken seriously despite her obvious talent: her frustration is palpable, but so is her pernicious tendency to subconsciously internalize male judgments of her abilities. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is repeatedly reduced to the sum of her physical qualities, her relentless practicality hiding the damage from a lifetime of insults masquerading as compliments. January Jones’ Betty Draper keeps a life on the show despite her separation from Don and establishes a degree of independence as she earns a degree in psychology. These women are given an inner life that seems rich and believable – it is implied that society’s attitude towards them has created a level of hard-won toughness and autonomy that none of the male characters possess. Their achievements in the end seem radical.
Finally, there are two Donalds – Draper and Trump. By the time Mad Men ended, the idea of a Trump presidency was still the subject of the witty comedian’s afternoon speech. It’s tempting to pair these two narcissistic, weak, manipulative, pathologically selfish, deeply insecure, and ultimately slightly pathetic men, given how much they have in common.
But show creator Matthew Weiner does define a fault line that continues to be vexed in American public life—there’s always room for a talented scammer if he knows what buttons to push. Don Draper would probably find Donald Trump rude. But he would find a line if Trump ever wanted to open his checkbook. Because business is business. After all, what is advertising but fake news? The Mad Men have always been one step ahead. But, like the best historical dramas, it was also a warning from history.
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