The only downside to a great TV show is that it has to end.
As the end of Mad Men nears it brings the sobering realisation that we’ll no longer be able to observe the complexities that constitute Don Draper, Betty Draper, Peggy Olsen, Joan Harris and Roger Sterling.
No other show has been as dependent on its characters as Mad Men. All fiction is, of course, reliant on its characters, but Mad Men stands alone as a show whose plot is secondary to your intrigue in them. They are the plot. Occasionally there’s boardroom strife, power plays, client foibles and creative arguments, but they are only the means of expediting behavioural examination.
Along those same lines I did consider Breaking Bad, but its universe belonged to Walter White. Pinkman, Fring, Skyler, Mike et al just existed in it. They were merely the collateral that allowed his metamorphosis to be documented. Their destruction by White satiated our voracious intrigue in the process that created him in the first place.
As characters there are superficial similarities between White and Draper, both had alter egos, both came to rely heavily on them. The difference is White created Heisenberg to compartmentalise and essentially quarantine what he was becoming and that he liked it. Don stumbled into his accidently and opportunistically. It offered a route of escape from a life being guided to likely ruin, or at best mundane insignificance. A life he knew he was better than. Being Don Draper offered Dick Whitman a blank slate that allowed him to conjure a bespoke caricature for any purpose or direction.
Here we can consider Don Draper as emblematic of a notion, wilfully embedded as a truism in America’s cultural psyche: that you can be anyone and thus achieve anything.
Don is the anecdotal antidote to that notion. Only when you pretend to be someone or something else, are you liberated to be yourself. As Don Draper, he, and his life, is both a success and a failure. It is both the truth and a lie. He is both his true self and not. He is both content and discontent. Weiner attempts, by using Don as a peculiar oxymoronic example, to convince us that we don’t have a choice as to who we are, and that our lives are controlled by circumstance and often detrimental choices made as a result of those circumstances. You can’t be anyone and achieve anything. There is no such thing as equality.
Even if it is difficult to envision Don Draper patrolling a used car lot in the late nineties in some Essex town that’s only good for driving through or past without stopping, sporting a Stuart Hall mahogany tinge, cheap aftershave, an even cheaper Goldie Looking Chain, and an ear ring, learning of Don’s history forces you to consider such alternatives. You come to realise that the scenario of Madison Avenue is irrelevant. It’s just where odd circumstances combined with Don’s talent allowed him to ascend to.
Early on Don was fearful of the truth of his desertion being exposed. Yet he willingly held onto the evidence that could expose him and his deception in a small box locked in the top drawer of his office at home. Occasionally we were gifted scraps of evidence as to why. The box was overtly symbolic of Don’s need to escape Dick Whitman, the life he should’ve lead, but it was also the only true physical documentation he had left of his past. The box represented Don’s sanctity, as Don had become enveloped into a culture of hedonism, he became a hedonist too.
Don isn’t fazed by reinvention, or by starting over, but as we reach the end, perhaps Don has come to believe and realise that his salvation lies in making the best of the self he is today. He knows he’s a really good Ad man. As muddled and perverse as the narrative of self that’s been perpetuated by the culture that surrounds him is, it’s all he has left. His meltdown at the end of season six was his catharsis. There was no point hiding the truth when he’d never lived a lie, he simply sold a version of himself that people believed. After all, selling delusion is Don’s talent, only he had used it to con himself. It made him liar and a perpetually dissatisfied one at that.
Intriguingly we’re given no definitive answers as to the source or causes of Don’s abilities. We’re presented with ample evidence that can corroborate whether Don’s creative mind is innate, as a consequence of the nomadic nature of his early life, which developed his recognition of the possibilities of reinvention, or a cumulative effect of both. We saw Don’s impulsive creativity in his switching the dog tags with Draper’s corpse. Then in his pre Sterling-Cooper days as a salesman of cars, then of women’s fur coats where he was discovered by Roger Sterling.
At various points throughout the show’s run, in flashbacks to his childhood, we witness Don learn the unforgiving nature of growing up impoverished in rural Pennsylvania. Then as a teenager living in whorehouses, continually exposed to shifting circumstances, often lonely, leaving him displaced and perpetually fearful of destitution.
So it was no surprise that Don strove for a sense of place, and possibly the notion that success would subsequently grant him it. Betty Draper, his first wife, comes to symbolise the fallacy of this notion to Don, and ultimately he becomes jaded by the delusional morass of cultural groupthink that she assumes. Don was living ‘the dream’ with all its generic facets, and found it totally unfulfilling because, just like being Dick Whitman, he hadn’t truly chosen it, or he had chosen it and it didn’t satisfy him as he’d hoped. Don’s numerous affairs have become his means of escape from the insidious relationship pattern he keeps slipping into. It leaves us wonder whether someone like Don ever be truly satisfied by adhering to the conventions of a cultural paradigm, when it enticed him to abandon his identity.
Betty is a systemic anachronism, typical of what was once pervasively and inevitably endemic. Nearly all the opinions and desires held by Betty are now meeting resistance, not only from the next generation, but from this current one. Betty can sense she is being left behind, yet she seems unable or unwilling to adapt. Instead we see the juxtaposition of her hypocrisy, she proclaims defiantly that she speaks Italian and used to be a model, yet she married a man that will allow her to reprise the same customary and inconsequential status she had with Don.
The show’s creator Matthew Weiner makes it difficult to consider Betty’s character fairly, when compared to Peggy Olsen, who consciously, like Don, eschews a path that she was deigned for – motherhood, for personal and professional validation, or with Joan, who achieved both with far less capital than Peggy. Here Betty, and the sphere she inhabits, epitomises the widening divergence in cultural expectations women could have of themselves towards the end of the sixties. We often cut to Betty in the kitchen brooding about the vacuous trivialities of middle class life, or arguing with her teenage daughter whenever she shows an independent streak. She is glamorous, vain, shallow, self-loathing, manipulative and entirely beholden to mores that betray her potential.
Joan ultimately becomes the shows most admirable character as she rejects the traits that Betty acquiesces to. Like Betty she is a stunning figurine of femininity, but she chooses to use this to her advantage and, as best she can, she tries her best not to let it define her or the decisions she makes. At several points we see her at her formidable best, she rejects the ‘opportunity’ of being demoted into a homemaker by her Army doctor husband. She pushes Roger Sterling away when he refuses to commit to her and acknowledges the realisation that he’ll never be capable of changing. Joan knows she deserves better and is prepared to wait for it.
The cost of Joan’s success becomes central to the best episode of the show’s run. She has the opportunity to guarantee that the firm wins an account by satisfying the whims of a grotesquely fat client. As an enticement the men of Sterling-Cooper place an incentivised value on her doing this, she would gain a percentage of the firm. This scenario is so agonising because Joan is the only character in the show that you can root for without reservations, yet the reality is laid bare that for all her endeavour, her success is still entirely determined by others. When Don calls at her door and tells her not to degrade herself, and it is revealed he is too late, it leads us to question would Joan have gone through with it regardless? At this point we’re inclined to see it from Joan’s perspective, to doubt whether Don’s motives were pure, or driven by his hubris in wanting to win the account without Joan’s assistance. Given what she was likely to earn as a result as a now single mother, it can be viewed as a selfless act, but even if this is the case, seeing her capitulate and demean herself, having come so far, leaves you bitterly disappointed that life can be so cruel.
Joan’s dilemma brings me back to how Charlie Brooker described the show. For those who were born well after the sixties, this show provides access to an alternate universe. One where glamour and aspiration made the misogyny, racism, homophobia and hedonism that pervaded the upper echelons of society seem normal. Once you look past the superficial façade that Mad Men offers, and the era it belongs to, you realise that many of these attitudes still exist, albeit in less emphatically elitist numbers and forms. Now you’re far more likely to encounter them in suppressed and dismal spheres, be it embittered private enclaves, the anonymity offered by a football terrace or one of social media’s many shitty symposiums of hatred.
On this egocentric terrain the character of Roger Sterling exists. What a marvel. It’s hard not to be enamoured by a combination headstrong hedonism on crack cocaine mixed with razor sharp wit lying on a bed of high functioning alcoholism. Roger Sterling also serves to emphasise the difference between then and now, as only someone that brash and that conceited could exist in an era where the boundaries of diplomacy were yet to be definitively defined. For Mad Men he is of course often the comic interlude; his quips straddle the fine line between crude and cringe, insightful and impertinent. Most of it is harmless stuff. He plays the part of the rascal, controversy is his covert defence mechanism set against a world that will soon render his strengths and manner undesirable.
Only Roger Sterling would marry a Jewish secretary then ask how culturally integrated a Jewish client is ‘fiddler on the roof: audience or cast’. Don asks him ‘what do women want?’ Roger’s answer is, ‘who cares?’ It is but an immediate preface to a train of thought where Roger attempts to find an answer. We find other paradoxes, later on he takes LSD, enamoured by the idea that it can offer him genuine levity or an epiphany, rather than hoping it will actually have any kind of lasting effect on him. To today’s culture, that’s sliding irrevocably into the doldrums of insufferably pious conservatism and a reverence of mediocrity, the bravado, arrogance and complete lack self-awareness Roger exudes is jarring, but it also frees him to think on his own terms. We could do with more of that type of free thinking today, albeit without the chauvinism and the black face routine.
In many ways Roger’s the photo negative of Don. Sterling is of an affluent background, deigned to be a success due to it. However, just like Don he lacks fulfilment, bringing us back to the notion of success and happiness and whether they can ever be truly achievable within preset social and cultural structures.
Roger Sterling’s daughter rejects these structures in the final series by absconding to a hippie camp in rural New York. Roger and his ex-wife go to retrieve her. Roger attempts to understand her decision to leave, and they share a moment of rare tranquillity. In this moment Roger realises, perhaps for the first time, without the usual means offered by the city to distract him, what his nature has cost him. Throughout this scene she wears a fixed smile, but her silence conveys dismay, after Roger confirms that his emotional abandonment of her has made her conjure false memories of him to fill the void. In this moment he realises it’s too late to repair his relationship with her, one of the legacies being that he cannot prevent her from repeating his mistake.
That’s good writing, which requires good acting and is therefore interesting. It’s also instructive of why Game Of Thrones is so fucking boring, and is infinitely more popular than Mad Men. Game Of Thrones’ complete lack of nuance is an appropriate analogy of today’s culture. Its fanboi’s can vicariously project the desirable goals that constitute and motivate many of the characters in Thrones onto the modern sphere, where preservation of ones self, wealth, position and a lack of empathy are lionised and encouraged as aspirational facets by the self-entitled. Game Of Thrones doesn’t require them to care or think about its characters or their plight, because they aren’t constructed sufficiently. There’ll always be a duplicitous warlock, some angst ridden self-entitled dickhead with a chip on his shoulder, or a generic brain-dead savage to replace the fallen, and in the mean time you can get a kick out of the inevitability of their predecessors being dismembered or disembowelled.
Meanwhile Mad Men’s characters will stay with us and survive after we’re denied access. We’ll all think about Don, Betty, Peggy, Joan and Roger, what the seventies will look like with them in it and how the seventies will affect them.
The final scene of this series posed us questions we’d previously considered, but had no reason to yet face. Is Don losing his mind? Is he having a nervous breakdown? Is he depressed due to being alone? That he cannot envision a future better than the present? That for all he’s achieved, for all he believes he has, this is the best he’ll do?
That’s the greatness of the show, it invokes questions we can all relate to, and it doesn’t give us those answers easily, because, like Don Draper, there is no truth, only what you can make it.