Lately, Mad Men has lost its luster. It keeps losing at the Emmys, when they even bother to nominate it. AMC made the boneheaded decision to run it at the same time of Game of Thrones, a show that gives HBO dragon-size ratings and produces epic online banter, making Mad Men feel like an afterthought. Many have complained about the inherent cynicism of finishing the show with two half-seasons spread out over two years. A year ago, TV Guide ranked it sixth in its list of the greatest dramas of all time. Would it still rank that high if it did that poll today? Mad Men is like your favorite uncle after he got married. He’s still cool but…
Now, I still love Mad Men, but I can tell you one reason why the bloom is off the rose, a reason that you’re not gonna hear on Slate or THR or the other places where they write about it obsessively.
Back when Mad Men started in 2007, and for a couple of years there, it was the only show on TV set in the past. Read that again. Go back and do the research. No period shows on American TV in 2007-10 besides Mad Men (Lost and Battlestar Galactica don’t count, sorry nerds). If you felt unsure why the culture was oohing and aahing over Mad Men six years ago, don’t you wish you’d known that? Now it’s time for you to thank Mad Men for everything from The Americans to Boardwalk Empire to Game of Thrones. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Hi! Good to see you again. It’s hard to be the most special show on TV when everyone has stolen your thunder. Before, Mad Men was the only way for TV viewers to look at the past. Now, there’s lots of ways to get nostalgic with your boob tube. If that’s your kind of thing, Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Cosmos can take you all the way back to the Big Bang.
Lately, the pleasure of watching Mad Men is less about checking in on the past, and more about checking in on the 60s. Some dispute this, especially those who want to defend the show’s (non)treatment of race issues. They say, well, this is really just about Sterling Cooper and the people who worked there, and the 60s are barely mentioned. But I don’t think that’s quite right. The show would be utterly unlike itself, entirely unrecognizable, if set at an ad agency during the 80s. The show is about the rise and fall of The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit – a literary and filmic icon from the 50s. Don and certainly every man older than him – like Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper – thought that life would always be like the America they grew up in. Mad Men is partly about proving them wrong, but also about demonstrating that the younger crowd doesn’t necessarily know better. This doesn’t happen all at once, or even, sometimes, when one goes back to look for it. The most beautiful thing about Mad Men is its nuance. Thank heaven Mad Men isn’t a movie that has to fire all its rounds in one go; as a TV show, Mad Men can afford to linger on subtle, even contradictory details. As a generalization, however, it’s fair to say that with the possible exception of Stan, everyone in the main cast is unsettled, not only by their own choices, but by the changes of the 60s. No other show will ever be permitted to inhabit our most transformative decade like this. (Such a successor would seem derivative.)
As a student, teacher, and author of work on the 1960s, that’s something I’ve loved about Mad Men. That was the decade when everything was up for grabs – liberty, libertinism, war, peace, civil rights, women’s rights. Going from Charles Lindbergh to Neil Armstrong in a mere 42 years almost pales before the fact that we went from Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” to Jimi Hendrix burning a guitar onstage in, oh, about 5. By 1969, nothing was the same as 1960 – nothing. Young and not-so-young people had stopped wearing hats and spit-polished shoes; people had stopped dressing like Don Draper. They never went back. (Fashion is not as incidental to the show as a cynic might think.) White people sought to borrow the credibility of the civil rights movement, and began to identify as “-American” whether they were Irish, Hispanic, Jewish, or Asian. They never went back. Influenced by the baby boomers coming of age, people began to define the world and their personal freedom in terms of television, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. They never went back. In many ways, 1968 can be considered Year Zero of our ongoing era of jeans, tennis shoes, “identity politics,” anti-heroes, rights-based arguments, and especially the centrality of youth – many of which, particularly the latter, were and are brought to you by advertisers.
Critics agree that the show is really about characters figuring out who they are, without quite giving Weiner credit for atomizing a battle for identity and setting it just before the ubiquity of identity politics. The events and zeitgeist of the 60s are as important to Mad Men as the shadows of Venetian blinds are on the faces of film noir characters – they augment stories of fragmented identity. If Pete is Don ten years before, Roger is Don ten years after, and Don is secretly (a) Dick, then who the heck is anyone? Peggy, Joan, and Betty, as the women too often charged with maintaining the egos of these men (and others), are caught in a proto-Second Wave bind; how can they be who they were taught to be and also get what they want? We’ve seen other stories use, say, the coming of the Nazis as a feeling of impending doom (Cabaret, The Sound of Music, Casablanca), to show you: here’s how our society danced just before it all ended. I’ve loved that Matthew Weiner, with Mad Men, has been using the cultural-societal rift of the late 1960s the same way.
Perhaps, then, it makes some kind of sense for this bifurcated final season, set in 1969, to have been so fragmented and frankly odd. Dazed by days of rage, alienated by all the alienation, gobsmacked by the generation gap, Don, Roger, Pete, and Betty have spent this half-season half-heartedly trying to win back their kids, with predictably half-baked results. Joan has been forgotten (for which the show is not forgiven) while Peggy has come a long way, baby, only to see the glass ceiling keep rearing itself above her head. Yes, it’s been a weird run-up to the end, but 1969 was nothing if not weird.
I was happy with the episode-ending shot (of episode 6) of the first three actors in the credits, the ones playing Don, Peggy, and Pete, just sitting in the “Burger Chef” looking like they were finally at home. As a cinematic product, Mad Men has never pretended toward the contemporary realism of something like The Battle of Algiers; in its editing, lighting and framing, the aesthetic has been closer to “exaggerated crispness,” maintaining an uncanny sense that we’re seeing as much of every scene as we need to, almost like Hitchcock without the bomb under the table (well, the bomb is the counterculture). The crispness, including the high fashion, wouldn’t have worked in a story about auto workers; the show’s style indicated who the characters were, who they wanted to be, with a slight hint (again, as with Hitchcock) that they were trapped in their self-imposed gildings. By 1969, like everything else from 1960, this no longer obtained, and that’s why that Burger Chef shot said so much: the post-modern, plastic, image-conscious false intimacy of a place like McDonald’s is both a perfect home and a last refuge for who they’ve become. Unlike most of the world of the first years of the show, the McDonald’s-ish dining space will still be around in 50 years, just as the ambitions and follies of Don, Peggy, and Pete will remain to cast a shadow over who we are today.