Mad Men is a show about wealthy white men in the sixties. They work on Madison Avenue, drink bourbon and sexually harass women all day. It’s a show full of completely unlikeable men, but they’re men we can’t stop watching. We don’t want to be like them. Or, at least, I hope you don’t. But they’re all we can seem to care about.
Don Draper, the main character, is brought to life by Jon Hamm, and this show would be lost without him, I’m convinced. His Don Draper is a silent brooding man, haunted by his past, which he cannot shake or let go of. But what we discover as the show progresses is that it is not only the past that haunts him, but his very present. He drowns himself in alcohol and women because, though he traded a life he didn’t want for one he could make, he finds that the life he has made for himself is extremely empty.
Mad Men is a brilliantly crafted show. Stylistically, it hits every mark. Everything is so elegant and sharp and perfect. The production is in such sharp contrast to its characters that their troubled lives jump through the screen and shock us. This is a show where every moving part is as good as it gets. The writing, the acting, the production: all of it just washes over you until you’re falling into the story, into their world.
It’s a difficult show because of its seductiveness. It’s so easy to only see the aesthetics, to get caught up in the characters’ lives that you forget to see it all objectively, as a viewer. We find ourselves trusting Don, hoping for him, believing in him, wanting him to succeed. What we often forget is that Don is not the good guy here, assuming there’s a good guy somewhere in all of this. He seduces women just as he seduces the audience. His magnetism draws us in and we believe all his lies, want him to be real, want him to just keep looking at us, breathing for us. And it is a bitter pill when we remember that our hero is a misogynist, racist, alcoholic, emotional child.
A lot of this is excused because of the time period. Women and minorities were overlooked, their importance deemed negligent. This is a man’s world and these are powerful, wealthy men. They do not care about women as people or black people as voters and employees. The show, as you’ll notice, has essentially no black actors. While some may see this as an oversight, it is somewhat appropriate. Millionaires like these guys, executives to companies that have their names welded to the side of their building probably didn’t care much for the ribble rabble of the commoner’s politics.
In a show like this where you find yourself rooting for reprehensible assholes, it’s important to understand why that is. For Roger Sterling, who is maybe the most exemplary asshole on the show, the reason we like him is because, well, he’s just so damn likeable. That’s his job. He takes clients out and shows the a good time. He makes the client really like him and then he has their business. That charm and charisma is why we, the viewer, love him, even though, rationally, we know we shouldn’t. We know he’s a womanising, alcoholic asshole.
And then Don. The mysterious man the show’s all about. It’s not that we like him, but he fascinates us. He carries the weight of his life on his shoulders and between his eyes. He is so pained, so hurt, and all of that is kept seven layers deep. What we see is a confident affable man who seduces us the same way he seduces women and his clients. The power of his speech. His unshakable confidence and belief in himself.
The show is a tightrope of emotions. Sometimes the writing is less than stellar in this way. Women come and go quite whimsically through Don’s life. He uses them and tosses them aside. The mystery of his past is a spectre he constantly deals with. Balancing his womanising with being a good dad and husband drives a lot of the early conflict. And while Don is a cheating alcoholic husband, he is a devoted and loving father. It’s this kind of nuance of character that brings Mad Men to life. Even though Don’s life is falling apart inside him, he still manages to be good to his children and do well at his job.
He is a real person.
Betty Draper, however, is sometimes treated less civilly by the writers. She begins very naive and sympathetic but becomes very vindictive and extremely hard to like. This, of course, is symptomatic of her position in life. She never grew up, is still the child of a doting, wealthy father. Her mother was atrocious to her but died young so Betty holds onto her example in order to be closer to the woman who was never pleased with her. So Betty treats her daughter the way she was treated. She lashes out and can’t make sense of her emotions. A lot of this is Don’s fault, and that’s easy to miss. Don was not traditionally abusive, but his abuse was quite a bit deeper. His silence, his secrets, his other women, his disdain, it bottled up in Betty and turned her into the vindictive child she becomes.
Peggy is the real hero of this show. While each character has a pretty thorough and complete and distinct storyline, hers is one of the more interesting. The first postwar woman to rise so high in her company. She fights for everything. She has to. Every moment with her on screen is a fight, whether it be for equality or normalcy, she is fighting. There are troubling aspects of her storyline, such as her pregnancy and child being lost to the show’s past, even though her child is apparently cared for by her sister. It’d be interesting to see interactions between the mother and child, where their relationship is obscured and lied about.
Even the characters we find hard to like have pretty intriguing lives. Joan, who has grown on me a lot, steps out of her downplayed position as office sexpot into a managerial position that really gives her the power she always needed. Even Peter, the wretch that he is, captures us. Our hate and disdain for him seems to grow with each season, but the simultaneity of his downfall and rise is captivating.
The show, which was always moody and brooding, gets extremely dark for season four as we finally get the consequences of these choices made. Season five is sort of a resurrection of sorts. While being very dark at times, there are movements towards light, and it leaves us with more hope than dread.
Mad Men can best be described as seductive. The lifestyle, the men, the women, they’re all seductive. The brilliant aesthetic makes it very easy to miss or ignore the darkness so deeply built into the show. When I hear about Mad Men from a lot of people, the message they take away from it seems to be that they wish life was still that way. They’ve bought into the seduction, and isn’t that what their job is? They sell a product, even a lethal one, in the most seductive way possible. The show is its own product, sold by the same ad men who are its main characters.
To buy into the lifestyle is to put blinders up to the incredibly economic inequality, the racism, the misogyny, the complete conservatism and corporatism of the characters. It’s an easy seduction to fall into, and that’s part of its brilliance, but to be seduced is to miss just how great this show is, to not see just how many things are going on.
It is a very layered show with great depth and darkness sold with a glossy sheen and satisfaction guaranteed. It’s a show I avoided for a long time but ended up consuming completely in about two weeks. It pulls you in and simply does not let go.