Mad Men: A Series Review

By Mike Visconti:

The Mad Men series finale just aired a couple weeks ago, you can find my thoughts on the series finale here . I am here now to tackle to the series as a whole. What it brought to the table that we as a TV audience had never seen before. What made it so great, and why its reach expanded to all television watching audiences. It truly is one of the greatest TV dramas/shows of all time.

How I found Mad Men:

It was the early summer of 2012. I was searching for a new show to watch. As an avid TV show consumer of the 21st century, the majority of TV shows I watched all had a common thread. At the time I did not know what exactly scratched my television itch but in the coming years I came to understand that I was drawn to a certain overriding and predominant theme in the TV shows I watch, something that has been the benchmark for the 3rd Golden Age of Television these last 15 years.

To this point in my TV experience, I had little to no time for the network programming, i.e. CBS, CW, ABC, FOX etc. To that date, some of my favorite series were on broadcast cable. A medium that had gained steam in the early 2000s. Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me, from the burgeoning TV network FX, were some of my favorite shows. I had just recently been exposed to Dexter, Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy. All those shows, especially the latter two, really peaked my interest and struck a chord with me. They all had a conflicted, complicated but still admirable male anti-hero as the lead character. This goes back to the late 80s and early 90s in its infant form but really broke out in a big way with The Sopranos, and the portrayal of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano. Most of the popular shows that followed, had that very same theme. And it made for can’t miss television.

Breaking Bad was probably my favorite show to that point. But with it in-between seasons till mid-summer time, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me already finished and SOA set to start again in the fall, I needed something to quell my TV fix. In comes Mad Men, with the benefit of Netflix (quite possibly the greatest creation ever) I had access to the first 4 seasons of this critically acclaimed series. And that is initially what drew me in, critics everywhere, people in the know about what good TV was, had heralded it one of the greatest TV series of all-time. I had to see what the fuss was about.

When I first delved into the series, the period of the 1960s immediately grabs you. In 2007 when this premiered, period pieces of the 20th century were not really commonplace. Especially when it was not centered around a war, a western or a glorification of organized crime. This show had its bread and butter audience hooked, the baby boomers, who lived through this very engrossing period in American history. But what would it bring to me? A millennial, a target audience that grew up with cutting edge video games, iPhones, Facebook and the information age at its finger tips. I guess in the initial foray into Mad Men was a little slow for me, but with all great things, time and patience pay off when you give it a chance. The costumes designs, the set décor pieces and the general feeling that this show was a departure from anything I had ever seen before, just added to the excitement. It was a fresh take on a time period that I had only read about the 1960s in school books, and as we all can attest, they did not do it justice. But all this is the superficial layer of what Mad Men brought to the table. Let’s delve in more than just skin deep.

Don Draper, the Male Anti-Hero:

I can’t go any longer without bringing him up or I risk losing credibility in writing about Mad Men. Donald Draper. The astronaut-looking, Old Fashion drinking, Lucky Strike consuming, woman chaser that had a commanding presence the first moment you laid eyes on him in the pilot when he asks a black waiter his thoughts on his cigarette brand preference. The man who walked into Sterling Cooper like a king and everybody was there just to service Don Draper. Even the name, it carries a certain gravitas and authority that should not be questioned. I had always heard about how great a portrayal the actor Jon Hamm did with Madison Avenue executive Don Draper. That greatest compliment you can give an actor/actress, is that they are the part, you don’t see a hint of the person who plays them, ie Walter White. And that is why I was so interested in the early part of Mad Men. For years I had heard that it was a travesty that Jon Hamm could not garner an Emmy win for Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Bryan Cranston had gone 3 for 3 from 2009-2011 in that category for his portrayal of Walter White. And believe me, he deserved it. But did Don Draper deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Walter White? With each passing episode I became more and more transfixed on WWDDD- What Would Don Draper Do? He was the epitome of every male and female fantasy. As the adage goes, every guy wanted to be him and every woman wanted to be with him. When someone questioned his authority like the snotty Pete Campbell did many times in season 1, he was never rattled, he put Pete in his place time and again. When one of his copywriters gave him sub-par work, even if they worked hard on it, he was demanding but left the littlest hint they could be better. He was even ahead of his time when he promoted his secretary Peggy Olson to Jr. Copy Writer after she flashed potential in her Belle Jolie ideas. This is 1960, women advancing in the workplace, especially in an Ad Agency medium dominated by males was not commonplace. Although he was never shy to fire a woman from his desk for incompetence and failure to manage expectations of being his secretary, as he did with Lois, and sent her packing back to the SC&P switchboards. I was mesmerized but the way Don handle every situation, I got the feeling he was untouchable, nothing was beyond his control, nothing could get to him. But as I found out later, Don was just selling us his perfect vision of himself. He was far from infallible.

Very early on, Mad Men upped its stakes at the end of their pilot, When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, by showing that this All-American fantasy for looks, charm, charisma and presence was only the surface of the complex male anti-hero, that we as an audience couldn’t get enough of. He went home at the end of the day to his perfect house in the suburbs, with his perfectly blonde wife, Betty Draper, and his two adorable children as he tucks them in. How could he balance everything seamlessly? And the reality was, he couldn’t. He was a deeply flawed man. He cheated on his wife. He lied about his actual name. He conned his way into one life and left his real family behind to think he died in the war. Even when his half-brother Adam comes to find in him in season 1 after years of searching, Don turns him away coldly, tells him to forget about him. The more I watched Don, the more I saw Tommy Gavin, Dexter Morgan and Walter White. Some of the things he did were horrible for a married man to do, but I couldn’t get enough of him, call it my man-crush on Mr. Draper. If I had the same type of power he held, would I do the same thing? Don always meant to be good and not hurt anyone, but on more than one occasion he threw caution to the wind and did as Don Draper wanted.

SC&P Deep Bench:

But as Mad Men is Don Draper, the sell line, the perfect idea that Sterling Cooper pitched in every meeting, Mad Men was more than a one person show. The wealth of characters that back up Don and make SC&P run reminds me of a an incredibly deep bench on a sports team. Sure they have Magic Johnson, but now here is Kareem, James Worthy, a little dash of Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis. Oh and don’t forget we have Byron Scott in the corner. Pick your character and they all bring something to the table. My personal favorite was Roger Sterling, Don’s personal drinking buddy. A throwback to the brash men of the 1940s and 50s. Never ran out of one liners, women he couldn’t charm or a glass that needed to be filled. For the prominent position Roger holds, partner at SC&P, you get the feeling that he’s that college kid who never grew out of the frat days. Throughout most of the show, I viewed him as the little red devil on Don’s shoulder. Always urging him to drop responsibility, turn a 3 martini lunch into a 5 martini bender. Convincing Don to forget dinner plans with Betty and go for a round with the boys, because it was good to keep your wife guessing. Was anybody really surprised when it was Roger who knew of a seedy little brothel house to take Don and Freddy Rumsen out as a last hurrah before Freddy’s “six month leave”? I could describe Roger all I want but I think a clip of his best one liners does more justice to why I love his character so much than words will ever do.

I cannot think a show except maybe Game of Thrones or The Wire whose cast of secondary and tertiary characters could rival a main character like Draper as unforgettable. Peggy Olson and Joan Harris come to mind. In the premiere, they couldn’t have been more polar opposites. Joan, the sexualized and gorgeous-looking head of secretaries, who knew the inter-office politics game and played it better than anyone. She knew how to use her looks to get what she wanted but at the same time, wasn’t prisoner to any barb or reference men threw at her. And Peggy, the wholesome girl from Brooklyn fresh out of secretary school and yet still stuck in 1955. The advancements that both made throughout the series were amazing. And really a comment on the progressiveness of woman in the workplace in the 1960s.

I cannot forget to list Peter Campbell, the sliver-spoon fed entitled rich kid. Whose privileged upbringing showed more unflattering personality flaws then I could list. But, I will say two things about him. At least he was self-aware enough to accept and own those flaws, even if he rubbed more than a few people the wrong way. As he said to Peggy in the finale during their goodbye, “people will brag about working with you”, in part because he knows they will never echo the same sentiments about him. The second lasting trait of Mr. Campbell, was his need for Don’s approval. In the early seasons of Mad Men, Peter Campbell was always trying to validate his worth to SC&P by his work, especially when it concerned Don. His insistence on hearing that he was a valuable part of SC&P’s future when they offered him a partnership stake in the soon to be newly formed Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce agency, could only be sealed if Don said it. In turn, he became the best account man the firm had, bringing in new business after new business. As much as he sought to earn new accounts, he was only trying to validate his worth to Draper. A man who he said he despised and considered a child on more than more occasion, but in reality, Don’s approval meant the world to him. And when we see Peter’s real relationship with his parents, it’s pretty easy to understand why he needed it. For as much notoriety as Bertram Cooper and Roger Sterling got, they had their names on the building for Pete-sake (pun intended). Donald Draper and Peter Campbell were the life blood of the agency. Don once said this about the Kennedy-Nixon campaign in season 1, “Kennedy is a rich kid who had everything handed to him. Nixon is a hardworking man who came from nothing and that got him to where he is today. When I look at Nixon, I see myself.” Now while Draper and Campbell weren’t running for president, they were in competition, and it made for great TV.

Mad Men’s core:

For a show that is centered around Madison Ave. and the 1960s, it gave us an unlimited view of the human side of things, on the reality of life. Whether it highlights its highs or more then often, its lows. This really highlights what is a dying concept in today’s TV shows. The unlimited series. And by that I mean that Mad Men, at its core is a sober look at the life and times of these characters. There is no end game in sight, like Walter White eventually getting found out by his brother-in-law, Dexter getting caught or a solution to the zombie apocalypse. What’s Mad Men’s end game? Is there some overriding arc that we can’t wait to see? There is Don’s secret of the truth of Dick Whitman. Maybe you could say that the end game is what will be the fate of Sterling Cooper. But I don’t buy it, and I know that is not what Matthew Weiner was selling us. What he did sell us on, was a show about humanity at its core. And that to me, even as a millennial, who is use to the over-riding threat of violence, death or despair that accompanies most shows, made me love this series.

Don is an empty bottle. At first glance it looks full of promise. But over the course of the show, he can never keep it filled, no matter what he tries to fill the void with. For the man that makes his living selling happiness or perceived happiness to his clients, he himself can never find it. Peggy even says, “You have everything, and so much of it” Don answer’s, “you’re right”, but deep down inside he is never satisfied. Not with Betty and a family, not with Megan and a fresh start. Not with Peggy either. There is a great scene with Don and Peggy, in what is considered Mad Men’s greatest episode (The Suitcase), where Don gets an urgent phone message from California. He knows what it is, Anna Draper has passed away and he doesn’t call back because he knows that he’ll have to deal with the reality of the one person who knew his closet full of skeletons, the real Dick Whitman, is gone. And with that, a part of Don is dead. He stays at the office, buries himself in the Samsonite campaign and takes it out on Peggy:

In this we see Peggy sum up Don. He has no friends, or family to go home to. Don’s auto-pilot is his work and he’s taking whatever he is dealing with out on Peggy. But she herself is dealing with the break-up of her boyfriend but decides to work, because like Don, she gets her satisfaction from her work. But this is one of the first times Peggy stands up to Don, as she got no recognition for her idea on the Glow-Coat commercial. And to me, this is what I relate to. Who else hasn’t buried themselves in their work when times are tough? Who else wants more recognition for their contributions? Who else thinks that their boss doesn’t value them as they should? As much as Don relates himself to Richard Nixon. I find the human story of Mad Men is what I relate to about the show the most. It’s about what would you do when your work doesn’t appreciate you enough and you leave to maybe not greener pastures but where you get validation, as we see Peggy do at the end of season 5. Sometimes it is about finding true happiness. Don has been searching forever for that. But he himself sums it up during a pitch to Dow Chemical, “What is happiness? It is the moment before you decide you need more happiness.”

The personal growth of all the core characters is what leaves me wanting more. In many ways I became fascinated with Mad Men during the shows final two half seasons. We saw the fallout of the Hershey pitch from Don at the end of season 6. As Roger so eloquently put, “You shit the bed in there!” Don was asked to go on leave. SC&P had had enough of his shit. His drinking, his personal problems, his flaws. Don Draper, the golden boy of Madison Avenue was done. He didn’t bother to tell his wife that he had no job. He thought many times of leaving for another agency, but he couldn’t. As suave as Don was, he needed SC&P. He wasn’t strong enough like Peggy to go out on his own. He eventually was brought back into a partners meeting, mainly because Roger didn’t want to lose his drinking buddy and his only friend at the agency. But for a man who prided himself on always having the power, (one of the many reasons Don didn’t have a contract at SC&P in the early seasons), his fate was at the mercy of his peers. He was brought back but on conditions. He was a stripped down version of a copy writer. He worked for Peggy of all things. Answering to her and making up tag lines. The role reversal was fascinating. I thought that was an amazing portrayal of a broken man just begging for second chance. Who would’ve imagine the infallible Don Draper like that?

End of an Era:

In the end, Roger saves the company and Don, in turn for selling SC&P soul to the devil. McCann. In the meanwhile, lead partner Bert Cooper’s death foreshadows the death of SC&P. These last couple weeks echo the fall of the Roman Empire for Sterling Cooper. The once vibrant SC&P is slowly but surely stripped away, colleague by colleague, office by office till there is nothing left but a bunch of walls, and Peggy and Roger in one of the better scenes of season 7 part II, have one last dance.

Courtesy of AMC

Courtesy of AMC

For Don, he finally had to relent to McCann’s advances. They finally got there white whale in Draper. But that didn’t last long as Don found out he wasn’t the biggest fish in the pond. In a creative directors meeting that ran 20 strong, Don stared out on to a view of the Empire State Building as a plane flew behind it in the background. He stood up and left. Maybe he wanted freedom, maybe he needed to escape. Whatever it was, Ted Chaough recognized it and quietly smirked, Don doing as Don does. We all know how the narrative ends. Don tries to chase down one last woman to save, but instead, gets the cold hard truth is that she’s not worth saving. He goes further and further west till he’s met the Pacific Ocean in California and finds Stephanie, Anna Drapers niece. But he can’t save her either as their trip to a wellness camp only lasts a mere day as Stephanie abandons Don. With no one left, Don shares a deep and profound moment with a stranger whose group therapy story is practically the life and times of Donald Draper. We see him meditating on a cliff-side with his group. He’s at peace, whatever enlightenment Don has found is very real, he smiles and we cut to the world famous Coke ad, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”.

Now I thought that Don had finally found his inner peace, accepted Dick Whitman and rode off into the sunset into the west. But as I was told from the horse’s mouth, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Don’s “moment” led him to create the world famous ad for Coca-Cola. Maybe a new and enlightened Don won’t need this monumental work success to fill his void, maybe he is changed in the way he can accept other people’s love and turn that into happiness for himself. Whatever it was, Don or Dick, is finally at peace with everything that is him.

Nostalgia:

Every character I have grown to love has evolved, changed, matured and even decayed. To see how this show ended and where all the beloved characters finally end up is satisfying to an extent, but with the end now here. I’m left with wanting more. I’m left with a certain feeling…

I think Don, as always, explains it best

When I look back on the End of an Era, I look back fondly but with that underlying pain that Don Draper and Sterling Cooper are no more. No more brilliance from Peggy in the pitch room, no more annoying Pete Campbell and his snobby attitude that makes me want to go Layne Pryce on him. No more eccentric words of wisdom from Bert Cooper, no more of the greatest one liners from Roger Sterling. No more Don breaking every rule in the damn book and yet, on the surface still coming out ahead. No more of one of the greatest TV shows ever. A show that the characters, themes and story, cement its place on TV’s Mount Rushmore along with The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Wire. Nostalgia, well done Matthew Weiner, you showed that this millennial doesn’t need the violence, the CGI or drug running drama to feel something in a television show. Just a relatable moment, a laugh, a human experience that will not soon be forgotten.

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