On July 19, 2007, American network AMC launched its first original drama, a big gamble for a basic cable channel mostly known for airing old and obscure films. Reportedly costing over $3 million, the pilot episode of Mad Men was a huge risk. What was the pitch? A period drama set during the 1960s and against the backdrop of the New York advertising game, all seen through the eyes of an elusive and mysterious ad man. Doesn’t it feel as if it’s been done before?
“Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent,” says a confident Don Draper as he presents a pitch to executives of Kodak on the episode “The Wheel.” Draper, of course, is the quintessential Mad Man; in this context, Mad Men is what Madison Avenue bigwigs called themselves during that period. Mysterious, sophisticated, and handsome, Don represents the illustrious and glamorous lifestyle of the 1960s.
Except Don Draper isn’t Don Draper, he’s Dick Whitman. Serving as an assistant to a Lieutenant Don Draper during the Korean War, Dick Whitman was the only son of a prostitute and an alcoholic father up until that point. During an attack, Dick accidentally sets a bomb off, killing off the lieutenant. He then assumes Don’s identity from that point on and takes the ad game by storm. This conflict of identity and illusion helps drive Don (played by Jon Hamm) and his struggle forward.
Working as the creative director of Sterling Cooper, Don is accompanied by characters like Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper, partners of the fictional ad agency. Though it was a man’s world back then, women like Joan Holloway, the vivacious office manager, and Peggy Olson, the mousy secretary, filled the office with enough energy and color to make Sterling Cooper a wonderful setting for this ambitious drama.
The New York of the 60s
Underneath all the pizzazz and glamour of the 60s, however, lies the dark shadows and tension America was going through. From the aftermath of the assassination of JFK to the effects of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the country’s emotions and feelings, at least in the show, are projected unto the characters’ impulses, actions, and deeds. What Mad Men gets right, as most fans and critics noted, is its depiction of a country’s history through the lens of its cast of characters.
Accompanied by the supposed glamour of the era, Mad Men also offers a glimpse into the mystery and discretion of people and their actions, as Don, often a recluse and an enigma, keeps his true identity hidden from the world. Indeed, it’s shocking to see how much of the actions done by the characters in the show would be called out today. Over the course of seven years, Don juggled mistresses, one-night stands, and trysts with different women. Often problematic, it shows how unhappy and conflicted the character was. In fact, almost every character goes through changes and transitions that help audiences see the struggle of the era.
The show, however, isn’t all about gloom and doom. Underlined by the drama is the wit, both dry and intelligent. From the young men who served as execs in Sterling Cooper to supporting characters who steal the show, humor helps make Mad Men universal.
Compelling characters and human struggles
Perhaps Mad Men’s strong suit, from the beginning to its end last May 17, is its creation of compelling and truly human characters. Though set in a period bound by so many restrictions, the men and women in Don Draper’s life have resonated with viewers for the wit, wisdom, and moments that have defined the show. Pete Campbell, a cocky account exec at Sterling Cooper, became a fan favorite for the times he gets beaten up due to his somewhat unbearable attitude. Betty Draper, Don’s first wife, became a polarizing character for her iconic side-eyes and witty one-liners. Indeed, Mad Men paints truly human portraits of fictional characters, with real heart, struggle, and motivations.
Chemistry, however, is what Mad Men excels at the most. An example is one of the most enduring relationships of the show, that of Don’s and Peggy Olson’s. Once she becomes Don’s secretary, Peggy, played with finesse by Elisabeth Moss, slowly climbed the ranks of the ad agency. While she went up, Don spiralled, haunted by his childhood, his past, and the loneliness he feels. “The Suitcase,” an excellent Season 4 episode, focused on their dynamic as mentor and protégé, and the friendship that rooted from a deep understanding of one another.
Much can be said of the ensemble of Mad Men; from the dapper Jon Hamm to the excellent Christina Hendricks (Joan), the show’s material was propelled into quality by the actors behind these roles. Elisabeth Moss, January Jones (Betty), John Slattery (Roger), Vincent Kartheiser (Pete) and even child actress Kiernan Shipka, who portrays the young Sally Draper, have made Mad Men into an iconic show because of their acting abilities and chemistry with one other.
Slow burn storytelling
Seven years is a long run for an industry that seemingly thrives on cancellations and uncertainty. Mad Men, for better or worse, opts for the slow burn approach in its storytelling, letting every moment and idea simmer before it all boils to the top. Small moments puncture the big picture; they enhance the scene, the story, and the characters in a relevant way. Most of the show’s iconic moments happen when the camera pans out or fades to black, leaving the viewer with a scene of the characters letting the moment sink in.
Of course, there’s a lot to be said about Mad Men’s ideologies and themes. Sexism and racism are both tackled with finesse; while racism is seen on television news and riots outside offices, sexism is seen through the struggles of Peggy, Joan Holloway, and Betty Draper. Peggy, the most ambitious of the three, goes through so much upheaval while Joan, voluptuous and armed with sex appeal, faces her own kind of struggle with sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, the character of Betty Draper is first seen as the typical 50’s housewife, happy and caring for her family. As the show progresses, however, we see her temperament and the frustrations and unhappiness being stuck in the house all day offers. Her daughter, Sally, is also a significant woman in Don’s life, growing from a cute ballerina to a young lady with pent-up angst against her parents. Actress Kiernan Shipka started portraying Sally at the young age of 6 on set; truly, time has been speeding throughout the chronicles of Don and the people in his life.
A mirror of humanity
“There’s a rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash,” Don tells his clients while pitching an advertisement. This is why Mad Men feels so familiar. It’s a time capsule, a remnant of a period when things appear familiar, but aren’t what they seem. You think you know, but you look back and see that it’s different. It’s home, no matter how fragmented; it’s still yours no matter how universal it is.
Titled “Person To Person,” the finale ended with a shot of Don Draper, meditating in a California retreat center and smiling, then closing out with the iconic Coca-Cola commercial of youths from different races singing together. Mad Men doesn’t have elaborate action shots or hype surrounding its storylines, but it does have heart and a unique grasp of the human emotion rarely seen on television. Maybe this is why it’s called one of TV’s greatest. Maybe it’s also a mirror of humanity from a certain period, timeless as it ages.