Thoughts on Mad Men

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Has anything been more over-analyzed than Mad Men? Really, I should be embarrassed to join the fray… but I can’t help myself. Caveat lector – I saw every episode, but I didn’t watch and re-watch, or spend time researching it.  It wasn’t and isn’t my grail. But I’ll share a few thoughts on the finale and the series more generally…

  • I was a big Mad Men fan in the first few seasons, but less so as it moved on. I’m unsure of the exact time frame when I started to care less, but I can identify one of the main reasons – the world of late-‘50s/early-‘60s Manhattan is so alluring and glamorous to me… but late ‘60s Los Angeles is much less so. (The latter is something I actually lived through, and once was enough.)
  • I’m of two minds about the Pete Campbell resolution (reuniting with Trudy). It seemed to come out of nowhere – but I also think they’re both insufferable prigs who deserve each other, and something about settling down far away from New York feels appropriate for their fundamental suburban-ness.

    Pete and Trudy Campbell -- insufferable.

    Pete and Trudy Campbell — Insufferable

  • The Peggy/Stan tie-up was to me the only really false note in the show. Not that I wasn’t happy to see them together, but tied up in a bow, rom-com style? Matthew Weiner is better than that. (I actually winced at the moment when Peggy realized Stan wasn’t on the phone, only to see him appear in her doorway. This is the kind of scene I expect from a Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey movie.) I much preferred our last glimpse of Peggy in the previous episode – walking into McCann Erickson with a newfound swagger and sense of self-confidence. (For the first time I can remember in Mad Men, Peggy actually turned men’s heads.)
  • Another other reason I lost some patience with Mad Men was because I lost patience specifically with Don Draper, who went from being enigmatic to borderline uninteresting. I grew tired of the same cycle of flirtations, betrayals, regrets – and even more so, the odysseys for self-realization that mostly led nowhere. (Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s realistic. I know guys like Don, and Weiner wrote him – and Hamm acted him – superbly. I just didn’t want to spend more time with him.)
Don Draper -- enigmatic or uninteresting?

Don Draper — Enigmatic or Uninteresting?

  • That said, Don’s ambiguous ending seems perfect to me – perfect for the show, which has always made a point of ambiguity; and perfect for Don, because (as I read it) the final step in his California voyage of discover was the genuine insight that what he’s good at isn’t living a fulfilled life – it’s selling the image of one. (I take as a given that the Coca Cola ad is meant to be his Next Big Thing, and a return to form after the Burger Chef fumble. Surely, the eternally sly Matthew Weiner doesn’t intend for us to take seriously the therapeutic value of Esalen?)
  • The end for Betty Draper was extraordinary – surprising, but also absolutely right.   For me, she’s been the most intriguing character over the long arc, and I realize that when I think about Mad Men now, the scenes I remember most are those where Betty does something odd and unexpected: her strange flirtation with the young Glen Bishop; post-breakup sex with Don; looking for a runaway teenager in the East Village. In a way, I wish Weiner had left her story after we see her ascending (with difficulty) the stairs in the penultimate episode; though I recognize that her tearful phone conversation with Don was a sentimental moment the audience probably wanted. But I loved the last shot of her, sitting at the breakfast table, smoking – fabulously unrepentant, and totally herself to the end.

    Betty and her cigarette -- she'll go out the way she came in.

    Betty and Her Cigarette — Going Out the Way She Came In

1 reply »

  1. I would take a slightly different tack with Don’s final scene, which is that he realizes that his own fulfilled life is in his work, or, to put in other words, as an artist. His medium is the 60 second television spot, and the choice of that iconic Coca-Cola commercial was as perfect illustration of the commercial as (commercial) art: emotionally overwhelming (I literally burst into tears when the familiar song and images flooded the screen) and utterly memorable: a whole generation of people would recognize that commercial as instantly as I did, literally tens of millions of people.

    The beauty of using this particular commercial is that it is so precisely of its time: trying to launch it two years earlier would have made Coke seem like they were endorsing hippie culture, and by 1973 or so the warm fuzzy feeling of the peace-and-love movement had begun to recede. It is the perfect commercial for 1971, and Don’s genius lies at least in part in his ability to intuit why an ad angle is just right for exactly NOW.

    Even if we don’t take that last scene to imply that Don wrote the “Real Thing” commercial (which in this parallel world he certainly could have), it does give us an example of what Don’s art is like at its height, and therefore the strong implication that Don’s “breakthrough” was centered on his reaching an understanding and appreciation of himself as an artist.

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