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Paying Respects to MAD MEN

May 18, 2015

Mad Men was a workplace drama set in an advertising agency. Most of the characters in Mad Men earned their livelihood working at a Madison Avenue advertising firm (the splendidly-named Sterling Cooper), and that workplace provided many of the show’s defining moments. Yet for all the excitement and catharsis of the pitch room, the show excelled in depicting all the mundane twiddlings, the stuff between the client lunches, that came to define the characters as people.

Life rarely works out the way we expect it to. Sometimes you think you are going to take your new company by storm, but your foot gets run over by a lawn mower on your first day. Sometimes you go on a duck hunt with your best client and get your eye shot out. Life is full of failures, but none of them truly herald the end of times. Life is often stranger than fiction, and Mad Men strove to juxtapose the wildly strange with the relatably mundane. Such was its magic.

For all the sudsy appeal of the early seasons, Mad Men never dwelled in its melodrama. In some ways, this has been the most loosely serialized show since the days when the sitcom was king. Each episode a self-contained work of art. The lives of characters unfurled over time, but no individual completely dominated the narrative. Like old friends, and out-of-town family members checking in on one another, taking it one slice of life at a time proved sufficient for maintaining continuity. Real life has no “A” or “B” stories. Time passes, things happen, and people either change or they don’t. Set mostly in the Sixties, you could say Mad Men was all about the nature of change. The show chronicled change by contrasting the social upheaval of the day with the reluctance of those benefiting from the status quo.

Mad Men wasn’t simply a rosy nostalgia trip. It reflected the best and worst of society, on scales both grand and intimate. The 1960s were a simpler time, unless you counted yourself among the tens of millions of people fighting for civil rights, or any of the other turbulent movements of the era. The men in charge of Sterling Cooper may have ruled with impunity, but Mad Men never neglected to appreciate the struggle of those unfortunate enough to not look like Jon Hamm. An ad agency was an apt setting to build the show around for many reasons. I’d venture to say that the show was really about people taking agency in their own lives. Don Draper (Hamm) did this to the point of being insufferable, controlling and masochistic (an odd combination of traits, but hey, he’s artistic).

Throughout its run, Mad Men also gave agency to the historically disenfranchised. The setting may have been the white man’s domain, but don’t rule out for a minute that Peggy Olson and Joan Harris might be remembered more fondly than Don. Peggy and Joan each slogged through ignorance and sexism on a daily basis, but they were tough, they handled themselves better than their libidinous co-workers, and in the end, their competence and perseverance proved, unfair as the circumstances were, that they could hang with the men.

Speaking of toughness, Mad Men also gave agency to black women in the work place. Dawn and Shirley were often called by the wrong names around the office, and their angst-ridden struggle for basic job security compromised and put them at odds with their personal lives. Dawn’s integrity and dedication paid off and she moved up the chain. We know she will continue to live in some degree of fear amongst her more privileged colleagues, but she exited the show with a rather promising and rare opportunity for a black woman in advertising. Shirley took her future into her own hands, deciding that advertising wasn’t for her. Strong and competent, Shirley actually had Roger Sterling eating our of her hands, but had gumption to strike out on her own rather than stay in an industry stacked against her. These may be modest examples of agency, but not many TV shows have cared to go even that far, even many of today’s self-proclaimed progressive shows.

As charmingly anachronistic as Mad Men could be, don’t fool yourself into thinking three-martini lunches have gone the way of the dodo. There are still plenty of Roger Sterlings out there on the liquid lunch diet. There will always be sleazy opportunists like Harry Crane, and old-money elitists like Pete Campbell, whose entitlement knew no bounds. These characters were every bit as entertaining as they were reprehensible. It can be endearing to see someone’s faults laid bare. They each represented essential parts of the unlikely family that often develops in such settings. Respect forged in the fires of the conference room. Along with Don, Peggy, Joan, and Bert, they were the masters of their domain. They knew they weren’t really family, but work was their main constant in life and their work family was always there when things weren’t so great outside the office.

Everyone else, both personal and professional relations, wandered in and out of the show, in and out of our lives. Sometimes there was closure and finality, and often times, there wasn’t. That’s how real life works too – there are no cameos. Sometimes we are haunted by ghosts from the past. Things happen that we initially fail to recognize as life-changing, and they bubble below the surface, sometimes becoming important later. Then, a casual comment tears the scab off an emotional wound you thought had healed, and everything blows up.

The personal spilling over into the professional happened over and over in Mad Men, in both unexpected and completely understandable ways. Plot points came and went, some never to be referenced again, yet the experiences remained. They lingered below the surface and informed the future. Each one a pothole along a bumpy road. Experiences change us and the occasional flat tire enhances our ability to enjoy the rest of the ride.

Meta self-referencing has been hip in television for decades and examples include many of my favorite showsMad Men has been hip in a few circles (does anyone remember Mad Men Yourself?) but it’s never been the kind of show to wink at the audience (I can think of one exception, but it actually helps prove the rule). The show stayed earnest rather than taking a dip in the meta-commentary pool, but that decision didn’t necessarily mean its characters were starry-eyed. The world of Mad Men didn’t perpetuate any facade about how working hard and being good will bring you success. The best of us scrape, struggle, and occasionally prosper, along with the rest of us. Virtue doesn’t always serve as a capitalist aide. Good deeds are sometimes punished. Success is temporal, fleeting, and means different things to different people.

Mad Men was a show that made me feel like I understood life a little bit better, and that’s why it stands as the best piece of art-as-TV experiences I’ve ever had.

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From → Television

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