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Jul. 04 2013

Could “Mad Men” Be the Greatest Show in Television History?

By WBJC | Posted in Host Blogs | Comments Off on Could “Mad Men” Be the Greatest Show in Television History?


Mad Men finished its sixth and penultimate season on AMC a week ago Sunday. My wife and I have not stopped talking about it since. The last image before the credits roll of fourteen year old Sally Draper exchanging glances with her father Don Draper will stay in my mind for some time to come. We have already started to watch all thirteen episodes a second time. I have read about thirty critics’ blogs and over a hundred viewer postings discussing the show, many of which I have shared with my wife. Most of the critics have been enthusiastic, but a sizeable number of viewers think that this is the worst season of the series.  After several days discussing the show’s many levels of meaning, my wife said she thought this was the best season yet. I’m not sure I would agree, but it is likely the darkest, and may have the best final episode.

Just counting the number of lines that have been quoted by bloggers and posters as memorable and resonant, I would say fully half the lines in the final episode alone have received such interpretations, from Roger Sterling’s cynical, “Detroit is great until they shoot you in the face,” to Pete Campbell’s hillarious, “NOT SO GREAT BOB!”,  to the onerous greeting “Going down?”, when the exiled Don Draper is about to take his last elevator ride, and my favorite line of the entire season, in a flashback to the brothel owning “uncle” in Don Draper’s sordid childhood, “I’d tell you to go to hell, but I never want to see you again.”

My least favorite season is still the second (which was the least fun, but still great!), and my favorite is probably a tie between the first and the fourth. After that, it’s up for grabs.  Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men (and one of the writers for The Sopranos), has an amazing knack for ending each season with a jaw dropping plot twist. (Total spoiler alert from here on!) In season one, it was the scene in which Pete Campbell reveals co-worker Don Draper’s secret identity to his boss Bert Cooper, only to receive the response, “Mr. Campbell, who cares?” In season three, it was Don Draper’s idea to halt the sale of their ad agency by allowing themselves to be fired and staging a weekend coup. In season four it was the double whammy of  Don Draper writing a letter to the New York Times renouncing future tobacco advertising, and Draper’s last minute decision to marry his young secretary (set up so that, contrary to all probability, we want him to marry her too). And in the season just completed, in the twist to beat all twists, Don Draper is irresistibly motivated by the childhood memory of  a Hershey bar to reveal his deepest secret at the worst possible moment, only to reveal the secret almost wordlessly to connect with his alienated fourteen year old daughter in the final forty seconds of the show. I watched the scene eight times getting misty eyed.

Mad Men Season 1 Episode Photos

For those unfamiliar with it, Mad Men is the story of the fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper in the 1960’s. The first season begins in 1960 during the Kennedy Nixon election campaign, and the most recent season ends on Thanksgiving Day during the horrific year of 1968 (which Matthew Wiener calls, “one of the two or three worst years in American history”). The early episodes depict with stunning accuracy an era of casual sexism and racism, where hard liquor was consumed in the middle of the work day, cigarettes were everywhere, and white men in suits ruled the roost, a remarkably different world from the one we live in today. The subsequent episodes show how that world began to change over the decade.

If you want to know what is meant by “casual sexism and racism”,  just watch the opening minute of the first episode of the first season. Madision Avenue ad man Don Draper (the “Mad Man” of 1960’s advertising slang) is in a hotel restaurant and bar, where to research an ad, he asks an elderly African American waiter about his favorite cigarette. The white restaurant manager approaches Don asking, “Is that waiter bothering you? He does get a little chatty at times.” When Don mentions women reading magazine ads, the black server feels they have bonded, and with a relaxed laugh he says, “Women sure love their magazines.”

Later in the same episode, a young secretary about to start her new job goes to her gynecologist for birth control pills, which have just come on the market. The doctor says pointedly, “I’ll give you these. But if you — act like a HAR-LOT — you get no more.” And at the end of the show, Don Draper’s wife Betty has her first appointment with a psychiatrist. Later that night, the psychiatrist calls Don to give him a full report on his wife’s condition.

Is it necessary to say that we are in a Golden Age of Television?  Beginning with The Sopranos, and continuing with The Wire, Mad Men, and others, television has realized its potential as a great art form. The best cable TV shows tell an entire story with well-developed characters over a dozen or so episodes, instead of merely presenting a one hour, self-contained story every week. By doing this, it has eliminated the difference between the novel and film (which generally clocks in at more or less two hours and so must edit its material).

Mad Men‘s particular genius has been to combine the office and corporate politics of the workplace with the personal lives of its characters. In keeping with this, it sometimes is broadly comic (Manolo pushing Pete Campbell’s senile mother off a cruise ship is priceless; it only works because it happens off screen), and at others poignantly dramatic. But in the style of the best cable television dramas it is both cynical and enigmatic, and quite subtle. The viewer has to put the pieces together and come to their own conclusions. Wildly different opinions about the characters’ behavior can be found on the internet and in water cooler conversation, but ultimately the show demands empathy for its characters’ basic humanity. This is a testament not only to the brilliant writing, but the superb acting. And why the show has always been more popular with critics, who are attuned to watching closely for the nuances, than with the audience, who may be viewing less attentively.

The main character of Mad Men is Don Draper, the creative director of Sterling Cooper, and an advertising genius. (“He knows what a buyer wants before they know it,” says one co-worker.) Don (as portrayed by John Hamm) is devilishly handsome, popular with the ladies, and seemingly the man who has it all (including, for a time, a wife and kids). But he is living under a shadow. Don Draper is a false identity that he assumes during the Korean War when he switches ID’s with a dead officer. His real name is Dick Whitman. His mother is a prostitute, who dies in childbirth. After the death of his brutal father, he is sent to live with a relative who runs a whorehouse, where he grows to adulthood. All of this is revealed in flashbacks over the course of the show, and helps to explain Don Draper’s chronic sexual infidelities and his excessive drinking.

Even his beautiful wife Betty does not know Don’s secret. To her, he is a preppie estranged from his well to do father.  Although Betty comes to forgive Don’s infidelities, over the course of two seasons she leaves him and then returns, she cannot forgive him for being the lowborn Dick Whitman. When she accidentally discovers the truth in the third season, she divorces Don for good, and marries the kindly political consultant Henry Francis. Although Betty gains custody of their three children, Don has visitation rights. Nonetheless, his then eleven-year old daughter Sally Draper adores her father and comes to hate her mother. She even runs away from home to visit Don unexpectedly in his Manhattan advertising office.

Don Draper bases much of his best advertising on nostalgia for a Norman Rockwell boyhood that he never had. By extension, all advertising is an attempt to market to people’s dreams, as false as Don Draper’s fabricated boyhood. The rebellions of the 1960’s were an attempt to strip the mask from an America that had created a false image of itself. And this is the theme that develops over the six seasons of Mad Men.

In the first season, for example, Lucky Strike cigarettes has to find advertising to counter the Surgeon General’s report that smoking causes cancer. Don Draper comes up with the brilliant ad line, “Lucky Strike. It’s toasted.” “But all cigarettes are toasted,” the company representative says. “No,” Don explains. “Other cigarettes are toxic. They’re full of poisons. They’ll kill you. But Lucky Strike, it’s toasted.” (If memory serves, this was an actual ad line used by Lucky Strike in the early 1960’s.)

Peggy Olsen, the young secretary from the first episode, rises to be one of the first female advertising copywriters, and Don becomes her champion. Although they never become romantically involved, their relationship is often rocky. By the final episode of the past season, she is poised to take Don Draper’s place as creative director. Joan Harris, the buxom redhead executive secretary, who in the first episode tells Peggy, “Your job is to be as attractive as possible to all the men in this office,” eventually becomes a Sterling Cooper partner. Successful in business, however, Peggy and Joan are unsuccessful in love. They have terrible taste in men.

Season six begins with Don Draper on the beach in Hawaii reading Dante’s Inferno. His beautiful young wife Megan is sunning herself next to him. It is symbolic of everything else to come, for Don Draper must journey through Hell  before he can reach Purgatory at the end of the season, and, perhaps eventually, continue on to Paradise. Don’s marriage to Megan, his former secretary who now has acting ambitions, is almost too perfect. For all of season five they “work at it” and Draper for the first time remains faithful to his new wife. But in season six, Don loses his charm. His chronic drinking is no longer chic but the behavior of an obsessive alcoholic. His behavior becomes erratic and strange. Once while explaining an advertising campaign to his colleagues he degenerates into incomprehensibility. In spite of his attractive young wife’s devotion to him, he has an affair with the wife of his next door neighbor, a kind-hearted surgeon whom he considers a dear friend. It is difficult to watch, especially since we have seen this behavior before, but now it seems even less excusable.

There are times he seems to be straining to do a good deed, when it all misfires. We are reminded of the many magnanimous gestures that Don has performed in past seasons, one of the main reasons he can’t be dismissed as a mere “cad”, but now the magic eludes him. For example, it is Don Draper’s idea to merge two ad agencies in order to win them both the coveted Chevy account. The plan succeeds, but Don gets no credit, the new partners create ill feelings with his old colleagues, and Chevrolet proves a difficult client. In another incident, Don pulls strings to keep his doctor friend’s son from being drafted into the Vietnam War, and is praised by all.  But everything misfires when it becomes a way for Don Draper to get back in bed with the doctor’s wife.  Don Draper’s fourteen year old daughter Sally accidentally discovers them, and for the first time she turns against her father.  It is the worst thing that  Don could experience, and a turning point in his life. Even events beyond his control turn against him. When a client persists in making unreasonable demands, Don tells him to go elsewhere, not realizing that this could sabotage a public offering he has no knowledge of. The partners are furious. (At this point, Don is also a partner, and following the merger, he is one of six partners, which creates chaos in the agency).

And then, just when many viewers may have given up on Don Draper, he is offered an incredible moment of grace in the final minutes of the last show. He has convinced his wife Megan that they should move to California, where he wants to escape his hectic New York life. He says he can start anew with a West Coast Sterling Cooper account, that could be the start of a new business of his very own. Megan has begun her own career as a soap opera actress, and is overjoyed to move to California where film opportunities have appeared for her.

But the morning he is due to pitch an advertising campaign to executives visiting from Hershey Chocolate, he is approached by Ted Chaough, a partner from the merger. Ted is in love with ad writer Peggy Olsen, but he is married with children, and is too weak to leave Peggy. Desperately he begs Don to let him have the job in California so he can “hold on to my family, my only stability in this crazy world.” Don, whose wife Betty left him, now seems to have lost the love of his daughter Sally. As a result, Don sympathizes, but at first he tells Ted it’s too late.

Presenting the Hershey pitch, Don is in his best form. He shows a larger than life picture of the classsic chocolate bar, tells the Hershey executives that his Dad would take him to a store after he mowed the lawn to buy him candy, and the young Don would immediately choose a Hershey bar. (“It looked the same on the outside as on the inside,” Don recalls.) The Hershey bar reminds him of his father’s love, and this will be the heart of the ad campaign.

Suddenly, Don can’t take it anymore. His hand is shaking from alcohol withdrawal. He looks up at Ted Chaough’s anguished face, then he lowers his head. And in spite of himself, Don says, “The truth is, I was an orphan. I grew up in a whorehouse. A prostitute used to buy me a Hershey bar if I stole enough money from her john’s pants pockets while they were in bed. Eating that Hershey bar was the only thing that made me feel like I was a normal child.”

The amazed Hershey executive responds, “Is that how you want us to sell Hershey?” Don replies, “If I had my way, you’d never need a man like me to tell a kid why he wants a Hershey bar. Every kid knows.”

Before leaving, Don tells Ted, “You’re going to California.” Then he walks out of the office as if a heavy burden has been lifted from his shoulders. Typical of this season, his wife Megan is furious at his good deed, and will likely go to California without him.

On Thanksgiving Day, the partners call a special meeting to tell Don Draper he is being placed on indefinite suspension. “Try to see it from our side,” his sometimes friend account executive Roger Sterling says.

And then Don gets a call from his former wife Betty. Daughter Sally was caught getting drunk and has been suspended from boarding school. “I’ve tried everything,” Betty laments. “She needs something I can’t give her.”

Don picks up Sally, who has refused to speak to him, along with his younger sons Bobby and Gene. Driving to a place near Hershey, Pennsylvania, Don stops the car. “Why are we stopping here?” Sally asks. “This is a bad neighborhood,” Bobby complains. “Come on. Get out,” Don says. They walk across the street. “This is where I grew up,” Don says. It’s the whorehouse where Don lived as a child. Sally looks at her father in stunned amazement, and Don returns the glance, as Judy Collins sings “Both Sides Now”. Wordlessly, Don Draper has revealed his deepest secret to his daughter. Perhaps now he can win her back. And with this transcendent moment, the season ends.

One final mention is due to thirteen year old actress Kiernan Shipka, who has been widely praised for her amazing portrayal of Sally Draper over the last six years. It is one of the finest performances by a child actor ever seen on television.

Matthew Weiner has said in no uncertain terms that season seven of Mad Men will be the last. Theories are flying over the internet about what will happen next. One crazy theory says the entire show is a metaphor for the Vietnam War. Indeed, references to death and danger occur throughout season six. Many viewers were surprised that no major characters died. A fashion conscious blogger has found symbolism in colors and the fashions the actors wear. My wife thinks Don Draper will follow his wife Megan to California and become a screenwriter or an English teacher. With Pete Campbell also moving to California to co-manage an account, the characters are scattered further apart than ever before.

Now that Don Draper has reached Purgatory, can he find his way to Paradise? This is Weiner’s show, and only he has the answers. But to my mind, if season seven is as great as the first six, Mad Men may be the greatest show in television history.

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