I started watching Mad Men two months ago, and have caught up: 69 episodes taking us from 1960 to 1968. The writing is excellent, and it’s addictive in the same sense Six Feet Under was, characters developed over long story arcs with the addictiveness of a soap opera but at a very high level.
One of the themes is the key question, “Is that what you want to do, or is that what you think is expected of you?” At the start of the timeline in 1960, women in the office have influence but no authority; they are treated like serfs and expected to marry out of careers as secretaries to become housewives in the suburbs. As the series progresses, the more talented women work their way up to professional status and respect, eventually becoming partners. In 1960, what you had to appear to be to succeed was reliable and conventional, and your life was expected to be “respectable” – lived in one of the few approved social models. Meanwhile, under the surface (and abetted by a lack of communications services like cell phones and email) most of the men are chasing tail, the secretaries are sleeping with bosses to curry favor or bag the right husband, and hypocrisy and alcoholism run rampant. Much of what goes on is hidden, and most people aren’t even close to honest with themselves.
Set against a period of rapid change in mores and shocking events like the assassinations of Kennedy and MLK, the characters get to develop in response. Story time is spent on the role of Jews and blacks, and the character who turns out to be homosexual gets fired because he fails to respond positively when a young tobacco heir (source of the majority of the agency’s billings) comes onto him; a “why couldn’t you take one for the team?” response, not because he is homosexual but because he fluffed the interaction with the client. The counterculture intrudes more and more, with Village bohemians / beatniks replaced by hippies and Hare Krishnas. Pot is smoked at the office, beards grow, skirts get shorter and shorter, the topic of body bags from Vietnam gets mentioned frequently.
Don Draper is not only a character but a symbol – of all those of humble rural background who created new identities for themselves in the big city and strove to enter the middle and upper classes. His facade of respectability is even thinner than most – he’s actually Dick Whitman, son of a prostitute, abused by his stepfather, who joined the Army to escape then took an officer’s identity when the officer is killed next to him. In this era a simple switch of dog tags let him get shipped back home from Korea immediately… to a completely artificial new life, selling products by invoking the dreams of consumers.
As the characters age and mature, they have all gone through successive changes throwing off doing what they thought was expected of them, and getting closer to what they think they really want. And sometimes they’re right!
One of the delightful casting choices is Robert Morse as the elderly, eccentric founder of the agency Bertram Cooper – delightful because he became a star on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as a brilliant young lad who bluffs his way to the top in 1961. He’s fabulous.
As Bert says when Don’s secretary, an elderly former flame of his, dies: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”
For more on pop culture:
The Lessons of Walter White
The Morality of Glamour
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Reading “50 Shades of Grey” Gives You Anorexia and an Abusive Partner!
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
“Raising Arizona” — Dream of a Family