As Mad Men arrives at its series finale this Sunday, you’re going to (or at least you should) hear a lot about the only show to win the Emmy for Best Dramatic Series four times in its first four years. You can expect generous encomiums to the show’s sumptuous period details, right down to the unshaking, fulsome camerawork. What you can not expect is an explanation of why advertising and the 1960s mattered so much to the show – why, exactly, the show wouldn’t have been as meaningful had it been about lawyers or taken place in, say, the 30s. Well, that is, unless you keep reading here.

For many academics and theorists, 1960, when Mad Men began, was roughly the year in which the modern became the postmodern. We need not wander overmuch, as, say, Judith Butler has done so effectively, into the considerable debates over postmodernism and poststructuralism…it’s enough to say that the 1960s was roughly the time when the image of the thing became as important as the thing itself. This was the time that Daniel Boorstin saw “pseudo-events” becoming more important than events, when Roland Barthes named the author and subject as having died, when Marshall McLuhan said the medium had become the message (and “the massage,” because “all media work us over completely”), when Jean Baudrillard (who hated McLuhan) saw the “simulacra” overtaking the real, and when Fredric Jameson noted “a new kind of superficiality” where old, traditional, foundational definitions were made obsolete and fragmented. Mad Men took this conflict between the truth and the “truth” as crucial sub-theme.

Perhaps you’re thinking: oh, come on. Mad Men was created by TV writers, surely they don’t know anything about all this hifalutin theory (unlike the creators of The Matrix?). 1) just because you don’t know a theory doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to you, 2) because of the brilliant way Mad Men is written, one can usefully see the characters’ experience of the 1960s as either the-rules-are-all-being-broken-now-here’s-my-chance, or the-rules-aren’t-as-broken-as-people-say-now-here’s-my-chance. That the 60s felt like a time of intense change is difficult to refute, but you can make the case that Mad Men is about those who saw the Generation Gap, saw America come apart, saw a nation re-orient itself toward youth and youthful values forevermore – but who didn’t actually enable that change, who were merely trying to withstand it. Mad Men has a message for you: advertisers were a crucial part of what we now call The Sixties, even if they didn’t know it then themselves. That’s one reason Mad Men is not simply some kind of rumination on the 1%, but a brilliant analogy for those seeking to understand who made the 1960s. Surprise! It was us, sometimes unconsciously.

Reviewers do know that Mad Men started with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the 1955 Sloan Wilson novel made into the 1956 movie starring Gregory Peck, which basically explores the contradiction in (re)presenting a happy, handsome, corporate-friendly face to the working world while repressing one’s individuality, memories of war, and ongoing horrors related to the plastic, atomic age. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s single greatest stroke of genius was to take that novel’s Tom and Betsy Rath, rename them Don and Betty Draper, and move Don to seek (and provide) life’s answers on Madison Avenue throughout Rath’s next 15 years. Had Weiner began Don in the 80s, after America had already given up on authority, that would hardly have meant the same thing. Instead, Don and the “Mad Men” exuded authority, questioned authority, spearheaded capitalist authority, and plunged us into the years when adult authority slipped away, never to return. To me, the infamous “falling man” in Mad Men’s opening credits was just the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit arriving at his office, feeling overwhelmed by 1960s’ images, advertising, and consumerist messages, and wanting to fall, or plunge, away from it…at least until his next libation brought him solace.

When critics mention the title of Mad Men, it’s usually to be defensive about the “Men” – here’s a show that strips down the edifice of masculinity. I don’t feel enough attention has been paid to the “Mad”: angry, crazy, insecure, and yes, short for Mad-ison Avenue and a pun on Ad-Men that was supposedly punned even then, but also, what about Mad, the magazine starring Alfred E. Newman? Ten years after debuting in 1952, Mad was far more than a parody machine of movies and TV: it satirized all aspects of life, popular culture, entertainment, and public figures. William Gaines’ Mad, along with 60s contemporaries like Jules Feiffer, Tom Wolfe, Andy Warhol, Mike Nichols, and many others, represented an antiestablishment attitude that destroyed, or at least replaced, authority with clever jibes (instead of real revolution). Their solution was to be young, to smile and laugh at it all (including sexism), and in that sense Mad Men is as scathing an indictment of the pop-worshipping 1960s as anything Todd Gitlin or Noam Chomsky have ever written. Of course it’s not only an indictment; we’ve also come to love Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Pete, Stan, Ken, and Betty, but is that partly because we feel sorry for them, as we feel sorry for us not being able to return to some idealized 1950s?

In 1972, John Berger wrote that ads create a distanciation effect:

Publicity can never really afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it. Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envous of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others….She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.

Did Berger’s observations hold true before 1960? Sure; Berger takes a chapter to connect the “absent, unfocused” look of models to Renaissance oil paintings. But the 1960s was when we gave ourselves over to (envy of) youth, and the youthful images from ads were an irreducible part of that shift. What do I mean by youth? Start with President John Kennedy, not just for his looks and lack of hat, but also his direct solicitation of youth, through creating the Peace Corps and saying “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Continue with Martin Luther King Jr., who, well before he turned 35, managed to overturn an entire way of thinking, so much so that by 1969, his example had enabled feminists, environmentalists, and “-American”s to label themselves that way for the first time (“Irish-American,” “Italian-American,” “Polish-American” – anything to borrow the cache of the civil rights movement). In 1959, the United Nations made its “Declaration of the Rights of the Child”; in 1960, the birth control pill became widely available; the Beatles proved (as Elvis didn’t) that you didn’t need older writer-producers; in 1964, Warhol declared “everything went young”; in 1965, kids too young to vote went off to die in a “police action” in Vietnam; at the end of 1966, Time put “25 and Under” as its Man of the Year even as young adults warned “don’t trust anyone under 30.”

All this is to say that the Generation Gap was real. And perhaps the reason Mad Men matters most is that we are still living in the world the 1960s made, as regular readers of sociological trends (and Thomas Edsall) are well aware. (How great was it that Edsall spent last week’s column on “Okie from Muskogee” only to have that song open last night’s episode of Mad Men? Pretty great.) We’ve spent the last 50 years closing that Generation Gap – wearing tennis shoes to work, parroting “sound bites,” making our peace with the profundities of movies made for kids. Did the baby boom make that inevitable? We’ll never know more than what we see on Mad Men, a show that is a front-row seat to the creation of a schism in American life, where we let ourselves envy young people and let their sometimes naïve attitudes stand in for American values. McLuhan in 1967 was celebratory – and well anticipating the internet – when he wrote “Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage” – but we now know that access to all knowledge hardly means we know everything. Certainly not when our first and last version of reality is produced by advertisers.

Through atomizing ad campaigns, Mad Men “deconstructs” (in postmodern parlance) the American dream, but it wouldn’t have been much of a show if it hadn’t also deconstructed the people who (re)present the American dream for a living. Sure, there have been other shows about the real lives of the wizards who say “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” but not with this sort of post-Sopranos, post-Wire we-don’t-need-a-rooting-interest gusto. Mad Men is about Don-being-Dick, about the distance between happiness and reality, about people who say things and believe other things, even as they tell themselves otherwise. It’s about the return of the repressed, the pain of alienation from modern life even as we must pretend otherwise. And I absolutely believe that Mad Men’s writers know about this distanciation effect, considering the subtle, profound ways they explore it. That’s why they give characters lines like Trudy saying last night, “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past. I remember things as they were.”

And how, after this Sunday, will we remember Mad Men? Hopefully, and whatever the series finale, we’ll remember it as an unalloyed triumph, a ground-level, step-by-step mirror held up to the way we were between bobby sox and Woodstock, a time that produced reverbations that lasted half a century. 100 years from now, Americans will look at the 1960s as we look at the 1860s today, and say “Wow, a lot changed in that decade.” And yes, they’ll be able to read a lot of good books about it, including some by authors cited here. But it’s also nice to know, that if they want to see that change dramatized with 92 hours of TV, they’ll have something as scrupulously detailed and honest as Mad Men.

UPDATE: Now that we’ve all seen the series finale, I have to say that writer-director-creator Matthew Weiner and I were more in tune than I thought. Weiner, unlike some of the people paid to write about the show, never lost the focus on the 1960s/advertising, and came up with an elegant, somewhat enigmatic ending that satisfied so many of the threads he laid. Did I call Mad Men an indictment of the 1960s? I might have been clearer that it was also a celebration, and in some ways just a testimony: “Wow, the 1960s.” Last night’s finale permitted a sort of Forrest Gump reading, where the whole show was leading up to Don at some hippie retreat (a place that clearly didn’t exist when the show began, in 1960), searching for answers and himself, and Don coming up with Coca-Cola’s most famous campaign, a somewhat deglamorized appeal to youth, to the imagined status of a world without status symbols. Sure, maybe. There are other readings, and no doubt some will cry out with their disappointment, but I like the forgiveness reading: by its very existence, Mad Men forgives all those wacky ideas people had in the 1960s, right up to self-help retreats and communitarian commercials. They tried. They had a certain louche glory. And anyway, they made us who we are.