As the Mad Men series ends, the hype is overblown; sure, it was fun TV, but I’m not placing it in the pantheon of great art. Much of the series was enjoyable diversion, with plenty of routine office politics and a delightful splash of soap opera. I loved all those mid-afternoon Scotches and the constant cigarettes.
The show’s greatest narrative inspiration was Don’s backstory: the poor boy, born to a prostitute, who goes off to war and (accidentally) kills his superior officer – and in that very moment he decides to assumes the dead man’s identity.
We don’t learn this until we’ve seen Don as the consummate ad man, able to conjure suburban mythos around a routine brand of soap. When we learn his self-creation story, we realize that this ultra-handsome demigod of Madison Avenue was just a scared buck private when created his greatest image: himself. This central act echoes all of our lives. We are all, to a certain extent, creating ourselves, spinning ourselves, inventing our personhood out of the materials at hand. We’re all doing some branding, selling something fabricated, woven a bit more from cotton candy than we care to admit.
So we root for Don; hey, you’re inventing a greater self for yourself? We want to see you succeed; maybe that means we can succeed, too. But after a certain point in the series, Don always seemed to be falling, pulling us in with the pathos, his tumble from business grace or his struggle with some kind of hollowness. His bag was existential angst; his efforts at happiness never spun gold for very long. An early season ended brilliantly on this note. He sat alone at a bar, and a shark-like brunette with sex in her eyes approaches. She asks, suggestively, are you alone? Don turns toward her, facing us full in the camera, and we see that his depth of aloneness is so clearly beyond the romantic.
The show’s other fascination was its glimpse of how far we’ve come since the 1960s; in those days, women got coffee, with a few, very notable exceptions – Peggy’s and Joan’s upward trajectory was the show at its most encouraging. As a period piece its glance in a distant mirror flattered us enormously, allowing us to feel thoroughly enlightened. Things are so far from perfect today, but Mad Men let us know they’re a damn lot better than they were. I’ll drink a midafternoon Scotch to that.