As Mad Men rolls out its final season (or half-season, as is the fashion of the time), the excitement is building about how it might it end. What there does not seem to be much of is sadness that it is ending.
It might seem an odd thing to say about a show set half a century ago that is explicitly about a man of one age making his way in a new one, but Mad Men has started to seem like a show from a different era. And while AMC is making every effort to see that the show gets the send-off it deserves, you can’t help but feel that the network will not miss Mad Men all that much.
That’s especially true from a business perspective. Mad Men was never quite a ratings giant up there with TV’s most-watched shows, but it was exactly what AMC needed when the show rolled out in 2007: a series that so thoroughly permeated the popular culture that cable companies couldn’t even think of dropping the network. Those subscriber fees, after all, are where AMC makes most of it money.
The channel is a different beast today than when Don Draper first hit the screen. AMC had attempted original programming before, but nothing on the scale or with the same pedigree as Mad Men. Now the network boasts one of the most watched shows on television, The Walking Dead, and has just come off of the success of one of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time, Breaking Bad.
The broader television landscape has changed even more dramatically in those eight short years. It wasn’t immediately obvious at the time, but AMC’s show was coming at the tail end of the first great run of cable television dramas. The Sopranos (on which Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner had been a major creative force) had just ended. Deadwood had been canceled (prematurely) the year before and The Wire was about to go into its spotty final season. By all reckoning HBO erred badly by not picking up Mad Men, and of the shows it launched during that period (John From Cincinnati, In Therapy, Luck) only True Blood could claim to be a lasting success.
Mad Men, on the other hand, quickly reached iconic status perfectly in keeping with the moment. Barack Obama was launching a presidential campaign built on the promise of change, and that hopefulness for a better tomorrow is abundantly obvious in the early seasons. The massive changes that we, as a modern audience, knew were coming for these characters felt prophetic. The initial success of the show was largely driven by this swinging, optimistic style. The fedoras, the Lucky Strikes and Old Fashioneds, the sex and the glamour were all selling points and they became the zeitgeist.
But this was never Weiner’s intention with the story he was telling. In interviews, he has stated that so much of the conversation centered on the 1960s is dominated by people who were in their teens and early 20s at the time. Their vision and version of that time is that of a hopeful child, and appropriately rose-colored and over-romanticized. Weiner wanted to tell a story about a man approaching middle age during this time, someone who would be confused, dismayed or simply indifferent to what was going on with the kids. Don Draper was a man who had mastered Rat Pack-style cool just as that style was rapidly going out of fashion. He can follow The Beatles through “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” but “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a step too far.
In the same way the 1960s have left Don stranded, the show itself has become a show out of time. Still very much of the mold of mid-2000s middle-aged-man-is-antihero drama, the show finds itself ending in a drastically different entertainment landscape. Its fundamental question of “how do I reconcile the man I am with the man I have to pretend to be at work” seems quaint when compared to the apocalyptic tone of so many of today’s zeitgeist shows.
The Walking Dead, The Leftovers and The Last Man on Earth are quite literally about the end of the world. Game of Thrones has revealed itself to be about the destruction of a nation where political bickering takes center stage while larger dangers loom. Breaking Bad was about Walter White prepping for his own personal doomsday. In comparison, Don Draper’s (and Peggy Olson’s) existential crisis pales.
But just as the ‘60s curdled from Kennedy optimism to Nixonian gloom, and our own time has lost hope in a similar way, so too has Mad Men changed. The drinking and sex that once seemed so glamorous have become bottomless pits of emptiness. (Has Don ever looked less attractive than while being carried out of the office by Freddy Rumsen, drunkenly singing “Meet the Mets!”?) Don spent most of Season 6 alienating everyone around him, and becoming a monster. The first half of this season (aired last spring) showed him trying for redemption, but will the show give it to him? And how?
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The secret of Don’s false identity was one of the driving forces of the early seasons of the show, but has increasingly been played down. It would be surprising, but not actually disappointing, if the show didn’t revisit this key plot point. Draper Daniels, the historical ad-man that serves as an inspiration for Don, married his Peggy Olson and lived happily ever after, but the show has steered hard away from making the pair a romantic couple. Would Peggy fans really be happy about seeing their heroine become the third (or, technically, the fourth) Mrs. Draper?
Increasingly, the show focused on the way that the employees of the agency (whatever it was called in that particular season) were absolutely terrible at everything except their jobs. Concurrently, the show has always pointed out that advertising is inherently deceptive, temporary and shallow. Will the show end by saying that Don, Peggy and the rest have all wasted their lives by dedicating it to their work? Is that the ending that will satisfy?
Can Weiner deliver the goods and make certain that his show remains timeless? The answer starts on Sunday.
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