The rich tapestry of Mad Men

Mad Men at its beginnings, circa 1960.....

Mad Men at its beginnings, circa 1960…..

In case you’ve missed the other 3,876,941,092 online mentions of it, the AMC drama Mad Men is ending its run this week, at the end of its seventh season.

I launched this blog in 2008, but I have to admit, I was late to the Mad Men party. I missed the first few seasons and then got so far behind it was hard to catch up. But I finally did, and it’s been the most rewarding serial drama experience for me in years.

It’s a mixture of the serialized elements, the fact that the show is a period piece, and the way that it actually tells a story that I find so engaging. It’s not for everyone; I often hear how “boring” the show is from people who expect a big event or plot twist at the end of every episode.

My fellow soap fan, analyst and writer Lynn Liccardo and I have talked about the fast-forward culture in soap watching, and I’ve said to her before that I tended to enjoy shows more when I watched them beginning to end, catching every nuance and every bit of story.

That certainly proved to be the case with Mad Men; except for these last seven episodes, I watched them all sequentially over the course of a few weeks.

But I think there are two things I’ve loved most about Mad Men. They’re related, and they’re also part of the parallels I draw to the halcyon days of daytime.

(1) They explore characters and relationships so well, so deeply and outside of grand plot movement, and 

(2) They spend a significant amount of time on small moments, like painting a portrait that eventually becomes clear as the art is realized.

It’s not as if Mad Men is plot free, of course. Things have happened. John Deere tractors have been unleashed. People have come and gone: Bob Benson, Lane, Sal, Miss Blankenship.

The central story is as old as Shakespeare: the dueling identities of Dick Whitman and Don Draper – one and the same, played by Jon Hamm. It’s fueled so much of the show’s narrative. It’s both a very meta story (Who are we? Who do we present to the world? Are those two different people?) and very specific to these people and this place. Don and Betty’s marriage was blown to smithereens by Don’s secret, both in the keeping of it and its revelation.

It’s also refreshing, and hugely ironic, that in an era when I’m still complaining about sexism and tired old representations of women on daytime, that a character from the 1960s — Peggy Olson — has given us one of the fullest, best portraits of a modern woman ever seen on TV. (And she’s only up to 1970!)

The relationships on this show are so rich, and it makes it so easy for the story to evolve organically from those connections. While Peggy mostly interacts with Don and her staff and coworkers, the scenes with Peggy and Roger (including the most recent one) are divine. Don and Joan have had a complicated relationship, but one with affection at its core. Peggy and Stan have challenged each other since they met, and have managed to become quite a team without becoming a couple.

The things that I take away from this show are the broad questions that soaps used to ask. Who are we? What do we believe about ourselves and the world? 

It’s the Harding Lemay question: Why? 

Or maybe I should look at it from the journalist’s questions: the who, what, when, where, why and how.  Daytime covers the who, what, when and where, but it’s not always paying as much attention to the why and how.

I know that Mad Men‘s where is an admittedly big part of my appreciation for it. I was born a decade after the show’s primary setting, but I recognize these people and their surroundings. My father worked for a computer company, not unlike the one that made that big, hulking machine that drove Ginsberg crazy. (It was a well known company, but it made the bet in the 1970s that no one would want a desktop computer. We all know how THAT story ends.)

He often worked in an office where his coworkers were very Sterling Cooper. I’m not sure they drank in the office, but there were many nights they hit the bar together after a long day. He had men like Don and Roger around him, to be sure.

I knew a lot of Bettys, women who were trained to focus on appearance. My mother certainly shared some of her disappointments about the limitations of the role she was expected to play.

The show captures both the feel of the city and the feel of suburbia perfectly, and the unease that was starting to creep into both at that time.

It hasn’t been completely perfect, of course. The pacing has for the most part been right on the mark, but some stories have dragged on a bit too long. I wasn’t one of the Megan haters (there’s a contingent who loathes her existence) but I definitely felt her story could have ended sooner. The whole Diana thing was a huge WTF moment, though I suppose it fits into Don’s habit of finding a new focus for his energies (as Dr. Faye once said, he only loves the beginnings of things). And, well, Glenn was an odd story then and an odd story now — though probably a bit realistic in its messiness and the uncomfortable weirdness of a kid and his crush on a grownup.

It certainly inspires the same level of fandom, of living in the story. Nearly every week of Mad Men will generate stories about that episode — not just recaps, mind you, but stories about what that episode means.

A recent article examined a Don Draper road trip. That fact is notable both for the level of attention the show gets from media (and fandoms), and also for the road trip itself. Mad Men takes advantage of the kinds of storytelling arcs that daytime has in the past — long side trips that allow a character to escape, to refocus, to resurface, to find themselves — and also lets writers stretch out and savor a story before it reaches its end.

Don’s journey may be the bookend at the end of the series, but it’s not the first time he’s bolted and made a trip to reboot and restart his life. Just like Lily Walsh running off to Wyoming, or Alexandra Spaulding contemplating her life while on an island, a journey can give a character and a story time to catch its breath and think about where it’s going next.

I’ll definitely miss Mad Men when it leaves next week, and I wish we could find more ways to reclaim this kind of storytelling in all of our shows – web and daytime. Grand plot reveals, wig snatches and Oh No She Didn’t moments have a welcome place in daytime, of course, but a few more scenes in that corner bar, a quiet chat between two friends, the romance of family — whether it’s in the Francis house, or at SC&P, or in the Bauer kitchen — would be a welcome return to form, and a reminder of why we watch, and why we still watch.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, we can’t let a MM post go by without mentioning the As The World Turns connection. While it was only a few minutes onscreen, we saw an early grab at the brass ring by Joan when she became engrossed in an early ATWT story, and brings it to the attention of Harry Crane.

We also see a brief bit of ATWT when MM shows the famous clip, interrupted by the news of President Kennedy’s shooting. Harry is a TV ad guy – one of the guys who thinks soaps are the things that fill up space between his ads.

And Mad Men now, circa 1970. (Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC)

And Mad Men now, circa 1970. (Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC)

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