I’m writing this four days after the mid-season finale of Mad Men, forever in internet years, waiting until the thinkpiece dust has settled and we have all had a moment of reflection. In a this-show-is-almost-over-and-I-still-don’t-understand–what-it-all-means kind of way, Matthew Weiner has left us with a lot to think about. Ginsberg’s nipple, the student surpasses the teacher, we all become our parents, and finally, the best things in life are free. The last one sung in Burt Cooper’s stocking feet.
Here is what I know. A year ago I read a Grantland article written by Chuck Klosterman, entitled Bad Decisions: Why AMC’s Breaking Bad beats Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire. As you can guess, Klosterman name checks the above four shows, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire, as the greatest works of modern television. Klosterman is the writer behind the New York Times column The Ethicist and is an acclaimed author of essays, yet I have some hesitations agreeing with him. Given that this list is predominately white and exclusively features male protagonist (let me just point out that unlike Sex and the City, none of these shows are being shown on rerun six times a day…) to pair down all of the fantastic and wonderful television to just a measly four seems like being choosey. Not to mention it was written before George R. R. Martin threw daggers at morality in Game of Thrones. However, these shows do fit together like a puzzle, as if finding the real Literature amongst the genre-fic that you love, but are slightly embarrassed to admit to reading on Goodreads. Klosterman explains his particular list is based on each show’s widespread acclaim, innovation, and most interestingly their sense of morality (again, a female-driven show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer explores morality pretty much explicitly, but here is not a place where I want to argue with Klosterman’s semantics.) Which is a pretty loaded sentiment to unpack when it comes to Mad Men.
Is this a show about right and wrong? Sort of. I agree with Klosterman when he says, “Characters can do or say whatever they want without remorse, because almost all their decisions can be excused (or at least explained) by the circumstances of the period.” That is arguably true, when we look at the (very few) plot lines of race and homosexuality on Mad Men. This past season did not forget Dawn Chambers, the first Black employee of SC&P, who moved up to replace Joan as Director of Personnel and Bob (Not Great, Bob!) Benson, who asked Joan to be in a marriage of convenience. It is almost redundant to mention the closure we all felt when Don passed the baton to Peggy. Though I will anyway because as hard as it was to watch Peggy be lost in her personal life, it felt so satisfying to see her win professionally.
I would argue that the show only concerns itself with morality because it is deeply character driven (as are the other three shows Klosterman highlights) and the reasons why humans act the way they do fluctuates constantly. One day you proclaim yourself a strict vegan and ten years later you’re part of the steak of the month club. Mad Men just happens to capture the growth between vegan and carnivore in the slow, lingering pace in which it really happens.
Mostly this show is about change, cultural change, and unravels so slowly so that we here in the present can compare our modern culture to the shift in the 1960s. Mad Men is undoubtedly obsessed with history, but not the facts and numbers. The history of human creativity and expression. Tracing our roots not along the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the uprising of the computer, or even the moon landing (though those moments are significant), but instead chooses to focus it’s gaze on the television’s soft glow on the human face. The writer’s don’t hold back from watching the characters watch the world change. And in fact, some of the most significant moments of the show are watching the emotions shift in the characters with whom we feel both love and hate. Don’s glossy eyes as he watches Burt Cooper sing and dance his way to the other side.
It seems that the moment things turn, that churn from one state to the next, is what the show tries to capture. It doesn’t play up the rise and fall of conflict like Game of Thrones. One of my favorite tweets from the season premiere of Mad Men read, “First half of #madmen is just getting everyone’s real estate situation sorted out.” Which was funny given that half the cast was in California and half was in New York and we, the audience, had to wait and see who was where. However, the sentiment behind that joke is indicative of the show at large. It feels like we follow behind Peggy, Pete, Don, or Roger just to understand where everyone is situated, where their head is at in the moment, and then the conflict is revealed slowly and carefully. Mad Men continually finds this crux interesting and plays the nuance of these moments well, like it was inevitable.
What Klosterman gets right is that with the rise of television there will inevitably be hierarchy. The half-hour comedy, the network drama, the weekly procedural…will get relegated to low-tier genre shtick. Reality TV will be like only reading US Weekly. And carefully, we as a culture are weeding out our high lit shows, aware that an HBO or a Showtime can give us a fulfilling hour of entertainment. I worry that the canon of “good” television will be as white and male as any other list of “classic” media. It feels like critics have more terrain than ever to shape will be considered essential in television history. Especially when there is so much writing floating around about strong female protagonists.
But let’s dial it back to Mad Men. Matthew Weiner doesn’t ask use to sit through a documentary style show about the men who invented the McDonald’s, “Have it Your Way!” to see how that historic slogan was born. We are looking through the lens the opposite way, people first. Mad Men is not a good show because it is moral, it’s because it’s a study in human emotion. It posits that creative work can be fulfilling and then shows us how that joy can make Peggy beam. It reminds us that people saw beauty in that work, the stuff that lives on, even when their personal lives were a mess. How Don always makes the wrong call when it comes to women, but you can see the elements of his personality shift into the right place when he makes a pitch. The work is what fuels everyone in the SC&P office, yet Mad Men does not care what the end result is because art is always temporary. Not to get too shmaltzy, but perhaps this is the stuff of Burt Cooper’s dance number. The best thing in life is creativity and that will always be free.