In honor of 2015, I’ve started a series covering various topics. Each post will be formatted into a top 15 list and will appear on our website on the 15th of each month (or as close to as possible).
Mad Men: Highs/Lows of this Revered/Reviled Show
Last night Mad Men concluded its illustrious, Emmy-winning run. Over the course of seven seasons, the show introduced an ensemble cast and walked them through some of the most turbulent years of American history, depicting the American culture (and sub-culture) of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.
When the show launched in 2007, it was immediately celebrated and lauded. It won the Emmy for “Outstanding Drama Series” a record 4 consecutive years. It has made stars out of Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, and Christina Hendricks. It has been called one of the most brilliant television shows of all time.
So why is my enthusiasm for the series finale so muted?
My interest in Mad Men has run hot and cold, burning most brightly during its first four seasons (when it won its 4 Emmy’s for Drama series). My investment has waned back and forth over the past three seasons, as I have come to experience some of the criticism that has been leveled at the show throughout its run.
Despite its near, unanimous acclaim, Mad Men has its fair share of critics and dissenters, claiming the show is sterile, emotionally detached, over-controlled, and boring. Although I do believe that overall the show’s strengths outnumber and outweigh the complaints, each one of those criticisms has been (or is) accurate and true.
To reflect on Mad Men’s strengths and drawbacks, I’ve invited Dr. Rachel Kitson to co-contribute and commentate on this 15 For ’15. It makes sense to have Rachel provide an additional voice. Among other things, the show tackled gender and generational issues. Rachel can keep my overbearing male perspective in check while also providing the perspective from a younger generation. Additionally, Rachel and I walked away with differing overall appraisals of the show. While I could appreciate many of the attributes of the show, overall I found the show lacking (see my low’s). Rachel, on the other hand, gave the show an overall thumbs up (see her counterpoints to my low’s).
So without further ado, here are 15 talking points about the legacy of Mad Men.
#1 – VISUALLY APPEALING TO WATCH (HIGH MARKS)
Jonathan: I’ve always respected Man Men’s detail to framing a shot and their cinematic composition. The show has often operated on an artistic and intellectual level on how to frame, space, and edit a shot.
Rachel: I agree. A random screen shot from Mad Men could serve as a piece of modern art, paying homage to the decades it portrayed. The attention to detail and aesthetic planning and care influenced my appreciation of the show. One of my pet peeves in movies and television is when there is an inconsistency or carelessness for the time period or plot.I appreciate it when the writers and actors respect the viewers’ intelligence. Mad Men created a visceral environment for me as a viewer—the word intoxicating comes to mind (in both the sense of escapism and inebriation!).
#2 – COMMITMENT TO FEMALE CHARACTERS (HIGH MARKS)
Rachel: Peggy has been a huge part of the show. In developing her, the writers have created a fully formed, three-dimensional character: someone who is vulnerable and can be emotionally clumsy, but is also incredibly bright, determined, and strong-willed. In a time period when females were discouraged from even dreaming of being on occupational par with men, Peggy fielded forward. Additionally, Peggy’s character brought out much needed depth to her co-stars, especially Joan and Don. She and Joan play off of one another well; one-upping and simultaneously supporting and rooting for one another. And Peggy seems to be one of the only characters who ‘gets’ Don, empathizes with him for the right reasons, and is immune to his sexual charm (probably in part because she sees beyond it). She doesn’t want to be with Don, she wants to be him. And although you get the impression that she often has to bite her tongue, her facial expressions convey she is no fool to the men who try to use her as a pawn. Elisabeth Moss has been given a character to fully display her acting talent.
Jonathan: I’d make an argument that Peggy has been the co-lead of the show since the beginning. Her overall character arc has been the most forward thinking and satisfying in my mind. I’ve also enjoyed Joan and Sally Draper, but only Peggy’s character has been given the time and detail to rival the attention that has been given to Don Draper’s story. In a male-dominated era and industry, all the women, even the ancillary characters, humanized the boys club.
Rachel: I also feel like Joan’s character has been given a lot of credit; she makes no apologies for her sexuality and allure but also knows how to set the men straight. Sally Draper is awesome, and provides some insight into how being a child and teenager during those years might have shaped someone. But, I really loved Betty’s character, even though I know many viewers absolutely despised her. I thought she was fabulous and was one of the most relatable characters in terms of complexity and being true to life. She was not just a caricature or symbolic representation of a 50’s housewife, even though I think a lot of viewers ultimately chalked her up to that. I found her character to be richly nuanced and emotionally complex, with a lot going on beneath the surface but having been conditioned and shaped to only show so much. A scene that really captured how much she knew was up was when she and Don have had the affair at their son’s summer camp, and she sympathizes with Megan stating, “(the) poor girl, she doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get you.” As they’re lying in bed, Don asks her what she’s thinking and she replies “Thinking about you before and after…I love the way you look at me when you’re like this, but then I watch it decay. I can only hold your attention so long.” I think the show used its female leads to tackle the emerging feminist movement in a sophisticated way.
#3 – ENGAGEMENT WITH 1950’s, EARLY 60’s CULTURE (HIGH MARKS)
Rachel: A lot of the 50’s kitsch was in style at the time. When the show premiered, there was somewhat of a revived interest and homage to that time period. The styles and dialogue of the time were so vividly realized that I think it sucked a lot of viewers in; I know it worked for me.
Jonathan: I believe that the 50’s and early 60’s culture depicted on Mad Men were characters in the early seasons. The presence and depiction of the time period provided commentary and exposition about the show and characters without ever speaking a line. The products that Don and crew had to devise a marketing pitch and angle for were inventive, creative, and drew attention to gender politics, consumerism, and the American family.
#4 – THE DEMISE OF DON’S AND BETTY’S MARRIAGE (HIGH MARKS)
Jonathan: I was always intrigued how Don’s secrets would impact his relationship with his family, especially his marriage to Betty. Watching their marriage crumble was painful and extremely discomforting. And I think the show somehow made me sympathize with two incredibly unlikeable people destroying their marriage and family.
Rachel: It’s interesting because I didn’t find their characters unlikable, just damaged. The demise of Don’s and Betty’s relationship was the star and centerpiece for the first half of the entire series. Despite Don’s cheating, Betty ends up getting sent to see a psychoanalyst, to whom she discloses that she is aware of Don’s affairs. But it was when she learned about his secret past, that the relationship really reaches its breaking point. Don’s past and his secrecy of it continues to prove damaging in his relationship with Megan, presumably above and beyond his sexual indiscretions.
Jonathan: I found Don and Betty to be both damaged and unlikable.
#5 – THE FIRST FOUR SEASONS OF MAD MEN (HIGH MARKS)
Rachel: I was pretty engrossed with the show during the first four seasons. Part of it had to do with where I was at in life, and as a group of grad students, we’d orchestrate Mad Men viewing parties, with appropriate cocktail accompaniments. The other part of it was, for me, the show’s plotlines grew bleak and static, and I lost some compassion for the characters. But focusing on ‘high’s’—the first four seasons really seemed to nail the tone of the era and provided that glorious escapism that good TV does.
Jonathan: Agreed. The show has never been perfect, but its strengths shined brightest during those first four seasons and the criticism/weakness of the show was kept to a minimum up to that point. It makes sense that, for me, the first four seasons were the peak seasons of Mad Men, given the attention and focus to Don’s marriage to Betty and those seasons focusing more on the 50’s and early 60’s era.
#6 – THE WRITING AND DIALOGUE (HIGH MARKS)
Rachel: When I returned to the show after an extended hiatus at the end of the 4th season, I felt like many of the characters had really come into their own. In addition to the strong female leads we mentioned, I felt like Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling in particular had really evolved into some characters, fit for spin offs, in their own right. Mad Men had a plethora of quotable quotes. Although Mad Men took an existential and dark perspective on life, I think it used humor and intelligent dialogue to keep it from sinking into despair.
“This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” - Don Draper
Jonathan: Matthew Weiner and his writers are masters of conversations. They know how to write interactions between people. It’s not just the words, but the cadence, pauses, and the use of silence. The show has relied heavily on music, products, and scenery for plot and exposition. But the dialogue, it was the sound of fully formed characters talking with coworkers, friends, lovers, and family.
#7 – ADDRESSING ADDICTION AND MENTAL HEALTH (HIGH MARKS)
Rachel: I felt like Mad Men addressed a number of topics and issues without beating you over the head that “WE ARE DOING AN EPISODE ON THIS VERY SIGNIFICANT ISSUE OF THE PERIOD.” Feminism, civil rights, the war, politics, and capitalism being a few. But I also felt like the show addressed how alcoholism really became an acceptable part of society, with the martini lunches and offices decked with liquor cabinets. The term “functioning alcoholic” is a product of these decades. I also felt the show brought to light how psychological stress and risk factors we may be exposed to in life can really exacerbate mental health issues. By not labeling the issues as such (i.e., Betty’s depression, Don’s attachment issues), the show also highlights the lack of appreciation or awareness for mental health during that time (not that it has necessarily vastly improved!).
Jonathan: The Harvard Grant Study, a 75-year study on men and happiness, identified alcoholism as a disorder of great destructive power. Alcoholism was the main cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives. Alcoholism also strongly correlated with neurosis and depression. Combined with cigarette smoking, alcoholism was the single greatest contributor to early morbidity and death among the men. I found the show’s depiction of sexism and misogyny to be nuanced and complex. I was not surprised to find out that the majority of the writers for Mad Men are women.
#8 – THE SHOW’S USE OF MUSIC (HIGH POINT)
Jonathan: From the get go, the show knew how to incorporate music. It was used for texture. It was used to signify changing eras and views of American culture. It foreshadowed or predicted events down the road. Matthew Weiner chose songs that are universally known and revered. He also selected quirky, offbeat tunes that hit the right notes and challenged the viewers to find the meaning in the lyrics.
Rachel: The soundtrack was great, and was obviously chosen with care and taste. I can’t remember a closing credits that didn’t have a great song playing that both fit the mood of the episode and the time period.
#9 – REPRESENTATION OF THE COUNTER-CULTURE (LOW MARKS)
Rachel: One of the biggest low points for me was how condescending and one-dimensional Mad Men approached the counter-culture of the sixties. The dialogue was contrived. In the later seasons, hippies were represented as dirty, troubled, and drug addicted. That the writers neglected to fully address the movement as a reaction to the materialism/capitalism and war seemed like a missed opportunity.
Jonathan: For a show that prided itself in sophisticated and methodical representation of American culture, it did seem like the 60’s counter-culture was terribly caricatured. I did feel like Matthew Weiner, the creator and mastermind behind Mad Men, had a clearer and more complex vision for the characters in the 50’s and early 60’s. I found the nuance of his writing and ancillary characters to suffer as the show progressed.
#10 – BORING AND REPETITIVE (LOW TO MIDDLING MARKS)
Jonathan: This is one of my biggest complaints about the show. Essentially, nothing happens. There is very little plot. Events and circumstances change – the core traits of the characters have not changed. They continue to be the pompous and unlikeable characters throughout the entire series. It has been very difficult to find a moral or emotional anchor to root for in the show. The few characters that I do have sympathy for (Sally comes to mind) are often left on the margins while the show focuses on characters and storylines that I have very little interest about. Here is how I would describe the show to those who haven’t watched it: Unlikeable characters do unlikeable things to other unlikeable people. They hate the other person for it. Then they hate themselves for it. Then we learn how horrible their backstory is – but they continue the cycle …
Rachel (Counterpoint): I started to feel this way toward the end of the 4th / beginning of the 5th season, when I took a break; but I have to say once I muscled through it I felt like the show had depth, range, and broke through some of the stereotypes it had even made for itself in terms of characters. I grew to see Betty as very engaging character, Peggy got her sea legs, Roger Sterling evolves and surprises you with his dalliances into the counter-culture world and through his relationship with his daughter, and ensemble characters provided hilarity and insight. As pop culture references for me, I found Breaking Bad to fall into all of the traps you listed above. And then there are works like Boyhood, which to some may have had “no plot”, however in my opinion following a life or lives along their course (and in Mad Men’s case, through a historical paradigm) is the most entertaining viewing of all.
Jonathan (Counter Counterpoint): Boyhood was 3 hours long. Mad Men clocked in at 92 episodes. If I watched Boyhood thirty consecutive times, I don’t think my appreciation for it would wane, but I know my enjoyment for it would suffer.
#11 – EMOTIONALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY PUNISHING (LOW TO MIDDLING MARKS)
Jonathan: If the show is a visual feast, it is an emotional train wreck. I found the show very easy to appreciate on an intellectual level but frustrating and unfulfilling on an emotional level. It feels cold and distant to me. Without heart, the symbolism, imagery, and all the commentary on consumerism, sexism, patriotism, etc., … becomes mechanical and an exercise of academia. A lot of folks have more fun dissecting the show than actually watching and enjoying the show. I have experienced that myself on numerous occasions.
Rachel (counterpoint): I do agree that there is a focus on the darker aspects of life, and there are a lot of unhealthy or not well put together characters; but I think part of that was that they were a product of that time. Other mainstream shows tend to skip over a lot of things Mad Men examines, which I think makes it a more sophisticated program; however it does tend to obsess over those details. Again, Don’s exploits, which the show initially depended on for its meat, began to bore and frustrate me. There were lots of relationships in the show—and I would agree that the romantic ones were depressing and exhausting—but the friendships of the show were where I found it’s emotional core and made it endearing to me.
#12 – DON BECAME LESS INTERESTING AS A CENTRAL CHARACTER (LOW MARKS)
Rachel: In the long run, I found the stories outside of Don’s history much more interesting. Don’s background and exploits become background noise and other characters took center stage. But, perhaps this is a success of the show rather than a diss. Good shows need to have a character that draws you in, but great shows have even more compelling casts.
Jonathan: I don’t know exactly when it occurred, but Don became too extreme of an antihero for me. His flaws and Achilles heel never changed or evolved. He kept making the same mistakes over and over. And yet, I’m not sure if it’s due to Jon Hamm as an actor or Matthew Weiner as a writer, but it feels like we’re supposed to root for Don Draper and have more sympathy than repulsion for him. Honestly, I don’t get why Don seems to have more sympathy and goodwill than Betty. Although both could easily be characterized as horrible people, it seems like Don gets more of a pass while Betty has been described as the most hated character not just on Mad Men but in the history of television. Where’s her sympathy? Her backstory is just as horrible and damaged. Is it because we excuse more and expect less from a father than a mother? Either way, my interest in Don’s story definitely diminished as the series progressed.
#13 – FLASHBACKS AND BACKSTORY OVERBEARING (LOW MARKS)
Jonathan: I already complained about the lack of plot involved in this show. But for a couple of seasons the show focused more on backstory and psychoanalysis of the characters’ motives. As a therapist I found the backstory to be informative. As a television viewing experience, I found it to be tiresome. It ran the show into a halt. Not only did the show not move forward, it spent more time looking backwards. To me, it felt like Weiner ran out of ideas of where to take the show and these characters, so he redirected the focus back to where these characters had already been.
Rachel: I felt like Don’s past was the most underdeveloped and contrived part of the show. His flashbacks were unconvincing and I felt like the show never got to the point of how these were relevant outside of them having damaged and scarred Don – they seemed to have been thrown in as after thoughts: “he’s a sex addict because he grew up in a whore house” or “he never had a father so he doesn’t know how to be one”—these felt psychologically unsophisticated to me. Certainly he needed a past to warrant or at least explain the man he had become, but I felt like there was always more they could have done with that arch. That may be a generational blind spot for me though.
#14 – THE DRAPER CHILDREN (LOW TO MIDDLING MARKS)
Rachel: I felt like more could have been done with these characters. His son in particular (a revolving cast of actors), felt underdeveloped. And while many loved Sally, I felt like that had more to do with Kiernan Shipka’s acting chops than the material she was necessarily given. Perhaps because I’m a psychologist, I wanted to see more about the intergenerational impact and parent-child dynamics explored further. I could see how others may have been satisfied with this however; and there were an awful lot characters in the show!
Jonathan: I think Kiernan Shipka has proven her acting talent. I believe Sally’s relationship with Betty has been the one I’ve had the most sympathy for and felt the most emotional connection. I became numb to damaged (and in my opinion pretty unlikeable) adults hurting one another. But watching the mother and daughter relationship and all the damage and vitriol being passed down from one generation to the next, that has been the most devastating aspect of the show.
#15 – THE FINALE WAS PERFECT (SPOILER ALERT)
Peggy and Stan found love, and Peggy’s realization of her feelings for Stan was a perfect conceptualization of Peggy’s instinctual strengths and poor emotional intelligence. Sally and Betty both had powerful conversations with Don over the phone (where the episode title, “Person to Person” took its title from the phone company’s catchphrase). Sally has stepped into a motherly role for her mother, cooking and caring for her while Betty sits and smokes as she draws closer to her ultimate fate. The fact that she’s smoking and has lung cancer shows her acceptance of (a) her fate, and (b) herself and who she is.
“I broke my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name … and I made nothing of it.” That was the statement that Don made over the phone to Peggy. That’s how I might summarize the entire run of Mad Men.
“Person to Person” could also refer to Don finally making genuine human connection, just not with anyone from his life or past. No, instead Don hears another man describe his own feelings of loss and inability to be loved. Don breaks down as he relates to this man’s own pain and suffering. It was very creative of Matthew Weiner to have another person, and not Don, open up and confess in a group therapy session. It would have felt forced and inauthentic for that character to initiate such vulnerability.
In the end, the finale showed the direction characters are heading without locking in their final destination. It was playful and hopeful, but not saccharine. And it wrapped storylines up without betraying the characters that it had meticulously created over seven seasons.
Did Don Draper come up with the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad? The hints are provided, and have been since the first season. However, you’ll have to work at it to find all the clues. And with that, Don, Peggy, Roger, Sally, Joan, and others will go on. Betty’s fate is more finite. But Mad Men as a show has ended, and it went out on a high mark.
About Dr. Rachel Kitson
Rachel enjoys blogging about pop-culture through a psychological lens. Topics of interest include celebrity culture, disturbing trends, social media, and other existential predicaments. She has been interviewed by Vice, Refinery 29, Expert Beacon, and contributed to Politini and Entertainment Shrinkly podcasts.
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