Mad Men is the best show ever created. And I don’t mean that lightly – I will fight someone to win that argument. But maybe that only stems from the passion I have for this show. The intangible effects the show gives off makes one feel like they can feel time itself passing. And maybe it’s because that’s what the show is ultimately about: change – social change, cultural change, political change… if television is a medium centered on change – a flawed protagonist changing over a period of time based on the characters they surround themselves with – then Mad Men is the ultimate form of change.
The story engine centers around Don Draper’s flaw – his reluctance to change. There’s a reason Don Draper drinks nothing but old fashions – he sticks to nothing but his values and his loyalties. But in being so, he’s constantly trying to keep up with the times. He’s a salesman trying to sell products in an un-sellable world. In the very first scene of Mad Men, he tries to convince a war veteran to smoke different cigarettes when the public is growing increasingly aware that cigarettes cause cancer. “Yeah I heard about that,” Don responds sarcastically. This, in essence, is what drives Mad Men. There’s a reason why Sterling-Cooper only represents small companies nobody has heard of – Mohawk Airlines, Burger Chef, Topaz Pantyhose… companies that were never the leading titans in their industries. Sterling-Cooper was just always one step behind the tide, all pulled by Draper’s resistance to it.
Which is why, in particular, the show takes place exactly from 1960 to 1970. So many history altering events occurred in that decade, from JFK’s assassination to the Vietnam War to the moon landing. Mad Men uses these historical events as emotional narrative beats to map out Don’s internal journey. What results is an evolution in the way television portrays the past. It’s an echo of an echo, much like what There Will Be Blood did for westerns, in that it focuses on the oncoming of technology that humans weren’t prepared for – computers, Xerox machines. It’s like when humans rode trains for the first time: people had never traveled that fast, and they didn’t think that people should travel that fast.
But what really pushes Don to change is the people he surrounds himself with. Don is a man who desperately wants to become a different person, both literally and figuratively. But as we discover early on, that’s impossible. But who would’ve thought that the women around him do change. Peggy Olsen is the opposite of Don – fast rising, driven female who believes she should be paid and treated equally. Betty Draper is an extreme version of Don in that she is also resistant to change, and Sally Draper, his daughter, is the one who encourages Don to become a better person. And Roger Sterling is another extreme version of Don, old money that aims to womanize. All of the characters around him act against his flaw of not being able to adapt to the times.
There’s a line midway through the season where Don says “People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to almost anyone.” By saying that, what he means is people buy things to find identity, to find meaningfulness in their lives. And this statement is echoed by Don throughout the series several times (“What is happiness? Happiness is the smell of a new car. Happiness is seeing a billboard that says ‘you’re going the right way, keep it up.” “What is happiness? Happiness is just a moment before you want more happiness.”) However, Don and Peggy are above such materialism. They know better than to give into cheap exits of relief by owning things. Perhaps it’s because they’re two individuals who have both experienced trauma (Don witnessing his father die from a horse and Peggy witnessing her father die from a heart attack.) Instead, Don finds his solace of identity not in materialism but in women, which is precisely why he likes to surround himself with strangers: he can be whoever he wants to be around them, as long as they don’t find out who he truly is. There are a couple great lines that support this, one being from Faye, the psychologist Don briefly sees (“I hope she [Megan Draper] knows that you only like the beginnings of things.”) And the other from Betty (“Doesn’t she [Megan] know the worst way to get to you is to fall in love with you?”)
All of this comes as a result of being reluctant to change. That is until midway through the series (“The Suitcase”) where Don finally begins to embrace change – he starts to see Peggy as an equal, commits to a new marriage (Megan Draper) and abstains from affairs, and announces he’ll quit advertising tobacco. However, as a result of embracing the change of the times, who is the one that suffers? The ad agency, and Megan Draper. Don becomes too distracted with his new wife that the quality of the agency worsens, and while Megan is at Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price, she suffers by not going after her dream of becoming an actress. But when she leaves the company to pursue her passion, Don is thrusted back into peril as his love life begins to drift away from him, as symbolized by the empty elevator shaft shortly after her departure.
This ultimately leads to Don having to sacrifice this embrace of change as a result of his life crumbling around him: his daughter Sally catches him cheating, a computer is taking over the office and jobs, and the agency is being absorbed by another agency – McCann Erickson – and turning Don Draper into a pawn. But what really pushes Don over the edge is the moon landing. The event harks back to his failed pitch meeting with Conrad Hilton, when Hilton says “You didn’t give me what I asked for. When I say I want the moon, I want the moon.” However, when humans actually do land on the moon, the actual point where Don himself could not deliver, he becomes obsolete. He’s failed at his job. Time and change have moved too fast for him. As a result, what’s the very next thing Don does? He gives their major pitch with Burger Chef to Peggy, relinquishing responsibility, “This is no longer mine. This is yours now.”
When Sterling-Cooper & Partners is being absorbed by McCann Erickson, the company discovers their lives could be set. Yet, as the agency’s executive Jim Hobart puts it, they could be representing blue chip accounts like “Nabisco, Buick, Coca-cola.” But as he says this, Don thinks “What is there to sell?” All these companies are the standard, the leaders in their industries. Don’s special talent of spinning truth has become outdated.
And thus begins his bender across the country to California, eventually reaching the coast where he can no longer run. He attends a wellness retreat accompanied by his niece. At first reluctant, they go through meditative and impulse exercises (which look strangely not un-like acting exercises) in which Don attempts to get to his true, vulnerable self – the “real Don.” The experience culminates in a monologue given by a character we first meet in the last ten minutes of the show, Leonard.
In his monologue, Leonard explains how he’s never been “important” ever in his life, describing himself as a Coca-Cola can in a refrigerator, “Someone closes the door and the light goes off, and I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door, and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you. But maybe they don’t look right at you, and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.” This, in turn, strikes a chord with Don: Leonard just described what Don has failed to acknowledge. Don has spent his entire life on the other-side of a closed door, constantly moving forward and not looking back. Don feels he’s always been chosen by strangers, but never the people closest to him. He’s always chosen to stay in the dark and never fully expose himself (note how he always has some type of allergic reaction when he’s exposed to too much sunlight). Leonard represents Don at his most vulnerable, as Don gives in and gives Leonard an embracing, empathetic hug (also note how Leonard is an anagram for “real Don.”)
This brings us to the last sequence, which has been met with skepticism and controversy. We see Don in a meditative exercise when he hears a “ding,” and cracks a smirk, leading us into the legendary “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” Coca-Cola commercial. The somewhat ambiguous ending left viewers puzzled: Did Don go back to McCann Erickson and create that commercial? Was his whole retreat for nothing? Did he just go back to being the same person? In a conversation at the New York Public Library, the only time he publicly spoke about the finale, Matt Weiner gave a clear answer: Yes, Don wrote the commercial. But its implications are much deeper than that. Take note of how the costumes in the commercial are inspired by the clothing worn by the workers of the wellness retreat: the front desk girl with the braids and flower dress, the ethnic, Buddhist-type clothing worn by the other attendees – it points toward the theory that this coastal wellness retreat inspired Don to go back to work and make the ad. Also note what Don fixes the day before: a Coca-Cola machine at the motel he stays at. The creating of this commercial symbolizes Don’s ability to finally adapt to change. In creating the ad, Don discovers how to finally cater to a changing counter-culture movement through the revelation that the important things in life should be free, not sold (as theorized by Don’s visit from a deceased Bert Cooper: “The moon belongs to everyone.”) I think that’s what he means by “I’d like to buy the world a coke” – if he could give the whole world a coke, things would be that much easier to talk about. Another point of evidence is how Don always returns back to New York. Throughout the series, Don constantly bails work and heads to California much to his company’s dismay. However, as stated by Stan Rizzo in the season finale, “Don’t worry. He’ll come back. Don always comes back.”
What separates Mad Men from every TV drama is how it makes time – this intangible, fleeting thing – tangible. If there is a “glue” to the story engine to keep it moving, then time would be the glue itself. Yes, the set design is spectacular. It’s specific. It’s to period. But what makes it so cinematic is the significance it’s imbued with, which is the significance of change. It all signifies an innocence that was lost in the sixties. It was a time where women weren’t treated anywhere near equally, a time where it was frowned upon to be a single mother, a time where people would gather in a bar to listen to a boxing match on a radio. It reminds us that history is constantly occurring right before our eyes. It’s a show so littered and saturated with detail, that it begs for repeat viewings that bring new revelations with each revisit. You can’t ask more from a TV series than that.
Featured photo courtesy of Reddit