A Midcentury Bender

Revisiting Mad Men, 15 years later

John Hamm in <em>Mad Men,</em> Season 4, Episode 13, "Tomorrowland" (Everett Collection)
John Hamm in Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 13, "Tomorrowland" (Everett Collection)

In the aughts, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and several other television shows helped illuminate the possibilities of the genre with their layered narratives, cinematic camerawork, and nuanced character development. But one series from that golden age has maintained its hold on my imagination, has brought me back for repeated bouts of binge-watching. For years, I have revisited Mad Men—taking occasional sips of its boozy excess, reveling in its period allure. It was only this summer, though, in honor of the 15th anniversary of its debut on AMC, that I decided to rewatch the series in its entirety—all seven seasons and 92 episodes. At no point did this undertaking seem like a chore. If anything, the passage of time and our shifting political and historical vantage points have only confirmed Mad Men’s staying power as a seminal series in television history, one that manages to bring to the small screen a novelistic sense of pace and exploration of its characters’ interior lives.

Telling the story of a fictional 1960s New York advertising agency, Mad Men emerged as a kind of adjectival shorthand for a meticulously styled version of midcentury design and fashion: Knoll sofas, Saarinen tables, Italian bar carts, pencil skirts, skinny ties. So exacting was Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, that he once rejected some prop apples because, in their steroidal plumpness, they didn’t look period-appropriate. Indeed, this was a series for the tweed and sherry set. Professors developed courses on the show, and scholars parsed its deeper meanings in articles such as “Mad Men as Sonic Symptomatology of Consumer Capitalism” and “Women Don’t Buy Suitcases: Unpacking Liminality and Gender in Mad Men.”

Even the show’s protagonist, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), seemed at various points like he was “degenerating into a grating Freudian symbol—of America mostly, but also of late-twentieth century masculinity and capitalism, as if he were a thesis statement for some graduate student in semiotics.” This according to Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s television critic. But the show exerts a seductive pull, and for all its self-aware preciousness or periods of soporific plot development, it redeems itself with moments of heartrending compassion and cinematic delight that justify one’s continued commitment.

The grand narrative backdrop to the series, of course, was the turbulent ’60s, with assassinations, civil unrest, and moonshots piped in on period television screens. But at its core, Mad Men was a deeply personal and intimate affair, a forensic depiction of Draper’s drunken disassembly through countless extramarital dalliances, two divorces, and a professional unraveling, all culminating in one sublime moment of epiphany—an ending that has only come to seem more inspired.

To binge-watch the show again is to inhabit this finely articulated world and have it seep into your everyday headspace. It can take you to some dark places. Draper drinking alone at a bar, drowning in his misery before clocking a minister—the despair and the loneliness are visceral. Even more unnerving: observing how Madison Avenue helps manufacture and sell the American Dream, which today appears ever more as a hollowed-out myth. Mad Men may attempt to cast a harsh light on the inequities of the ’60s, but the series largely manages to sideline characters of color: we never see inside their homes, getting only passing insight into their hearts and minds.

Mad Men had moments of levity, to be sure—moments of dark hilarity, even gore. (Did you hear the one about the promising ad exec whose career was cut short by a tragic office lawnmower accident? He lost his foot right after getting it in the door.) But I also found an optimistic, almost idealistic note in the show’s backward gaze.

The son of a prostitute who died giving birth to him, Draper spends the series running from his past. He can be a vindictive narcissist capable of extreme pettiness; he struggles with intimacy. In a charming little set piece I’d forgotten, in one of the final episodes, Draper and one of his agency partners, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), get drunk in the smoky gloom of a New York bar, and after Sterling reveals that he’s now dating the mother of Draper’s ex-wife (it’s only half as inappropriate as it sounds), he reaches over and grabs Draper by the face, kissing him on the cheek and telling him, “You are okay.” We’re left with Draper’s haunted expression—a reminder of his struggle to find himself worthy of love. It is the subtle acting by Hamm and the rest of the cast that conveys these unspoken truths, the subcurrents that wind through the series.

In spite of Draper’s faults—let us not forget that he champions the benefits of napalm in an attempt to win an account with Dow Chemical—he also spends much of the show fighting for his creative freedom. There is an emotional depth to much of his work, but some of the organization men around him envision a future predicated less on poetic taglines than on computer-generated market research or the selling of TV ad space. After his firm gets swallowed up by McCann Erickson (an actual ad agency), Draper attends a meeting at which Bill Connolly from Connolly Research expounds on the traits of the everyman who’s the target of a Miller Light ad pitch: He’s from the beer belt, he only has a little college, and he likes his dog because it doesn’t talk back. Meanwhile, Draper, himself now just a cog in the corporate machine, glances out the window as a plane soars across the sky behind the spire of the Empire State Building: it may as well be a TWA ad evoking jet-age freedom. Draper walks out; his former partner Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) gives a knowing smile. It’s a masterclass in minimalism—no dialogue necessary—and in that moment, I think, despite the many reasons not to, we’re given permission to get behind Draper, to hope for a soft landing.

If you have watched the show, you undoubtedly remember the conclusion: Draper taking not to the skies but to the open road instead, on a cross-country expedition that leads to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. The man who has spent much of the series as a Nixon-supporting opponent of the counterculture finds himself in a group-therapy session sobbing and hugging a stranger and later sitting cross-legged and chanting om in an unexpected embrace of New Age healing. In the final scene, we cut to the famous “Hilltop” Coke ad (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke …”), an actual commercial conceived in 1971 by Bill Backer, a real-life McCann Erickson executive, and the connection is clear: Draper has traded on his emotional epiphany, his experience at Esalen, to create one of the most celebrated ads of his generation.

It’s a paradoxical ending for a series that feasted on contradictions—Draper appropriating the hippie mantra of love and acceptance to sell sugar water to the masses. But in my second go-around, I found it far less cynical. This isn’t an ad that any data or research from Connolly could have inspired; Draper has captured the Zeitgeist after plunging into the abyss and emerging on the other side. He’s been on a long descent into the gutter, but that descent has enabled him to catch a glimpse, however briefly, of the sublime, and in that creative act, like in much of the rest of the series, he has found a form of salvation.

If that sounds like a lot to hang on a Coke ad, let me remind you that, in real life, the Hilltop spot became a cultural sensation. The jingle was stripped of its Coke references and re-recorded as “I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing (in Perfect Harmony),” a single that cracked the top 10 on the billboard charts. And so a man who struggles to make lasting emotional connections with those closest to him manages to strike a chord with the multitude. He may not become a better father or husband if he remarries (and he will remarry); he will continue to struggle with his depression. On the world stage, the end of Vietnam will give way to the Iran hostage and oil crises. But amid all that, Draper leaves us with a hard-fought victory: that no matter how bad things get, we’re not beholden to our past; we, too, can come out the other side, catch a glimpse of the divine, and more than ever today we need than infusion of hope.

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Eric Wills has written about history, sports, and design for Smithsonian, The Washington Post, GQ, the Scholar, and other publications. He was formerly a senior editor at Architect magazine.


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