Why I Think Mad Men Was The Greatest Period Fiction On Television
I LOVE period fiction! When it comes to the Victorian era, there’s something about the refined sensibilities, sexual restraint, opulent balls and soirées, and the elaborate courtship that both fascinates and eludes me. Not to mention the fashion was to die for! (Wonder if anyone actually died from wearing a Victorian corset though.) On the other extreme is the frivolous and exciting Jazz Age of America that carried me away , also thanks to my maniacal love for the Fitzgeralds. Money in the 20s America never seemed to be in question and young couples couldn't help themselves but break free — they caroused drunkenly in smokey nightclubs and swayed outrageously in dance forms that, they say, “could not be described without a deep blush.”
And then I stumbled upon the American 60s, quite by accident. As I was scanning channels, I was intrigued by a dialogue between this demigod-like, potently charming man and a somewhat mismatched woman.
“What do women want? You know better that to ask. Give me a pen.”
“What do women want? Any excuse to get closer.”
The delicious gentleman is, of course, the legendary anti-hero of “Mad Men”, Don Draper. And the woman is, no offence, inconsequential (Most “Mad Men” viewers would agree) as every one of Don Draper’s flighty love interests. That line was to be used as a slogan for Right Guard, a deodorant. I was appalled at the sexism at first. Then again, it belonged to the 60s. But in truth, in the department of deodorant advertising, I can’t say we've come a long way from retrograde, in-your-face sexism. (Psst, Axe Effect copy people: Your deodorant may smell good but it doesn't make me lurk around the street in a fit to devour men turning from white to “chocolate”.)
Anyway, I've winced every now at the in-your-face sexism on the show that kinda felt like peeling layers and layers of a strong onion. Even so, I got totally jazzed about seeing every episode of this poignant projection of the 60s through the glossy and volatile Madison Avenue mise-en-scene of the era — from the piling ashes of cigarettes, the unflinching binge-drinking to flared dresses, heels and razor-sharp suits. Mad Men didn't just offer its viewers the glamorous, high-luxe and sexy visual landscape of Manhattan’s sharpest ad executives but it also served to capture flawlessly the accelerated cultural and historical transition of the pre-feminist era and all the highs, not to mention anxieties, that came with it.
With each season, I found myself intoxicated by the characters’ moral complexities and dwelling on the key themes of the show such as feminism, existentialism, drugs, happiness, and freedom. It’s a cult show in many ways for its sensibilities are far beyond the mediocre middlebrow drama that plagues television these days. Not that I'm complaining. (Television’s a big chunk of my life right now.) The only criticism that I've heard about the show is from my dedicated “Mad Men” companion — that all they do on the show is drink, smoke and cheat. (And there was another contemplative observation about the unrealistic proportions of Joan’s anatomy.) But in their defence, they read too. You’d witness the women employees of Sterling Cooper furtively circulating an unabridged copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover while also forbidding one another to carry it on the subway, or Don Draper reciting the final verses of Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, or even Bert Cooper’s adulation for Atlas Shrugged. And let’s face it; it was a free-wheeling industry and, as someone said, sexism (and sex) was rampant at that time so what else will we have?
There’s been a lot said about “Mad Men” and, undoubtedly, it has sparked off a lot of literary discussions and diversions, especially on the subject of existentialism. We all know now the man who craftily creates an alluring perception of brands in the minds of mass consumers has, in fact, fabricated a web of illusions around his identity as well. With each season, we ask ourselves, “Who is Don Draper?” Yes, now we know he’s Dick Whitman, born out of an illicit relationship of a modest Illinois farmer and a prostitute. But whatever be his questionable background, it is Draper’s lab experiments with his soul and his complex inner world that make him a remarkable feat of fiction. In Don Draper, we see a commitment phobe perfectly disembodied from his domestic reality, an escapist who flees miles away from any shot at happiness and yet, also a traditionalist yearning for the stability of a perfect suburban home with doting kids and an eager-to-please wife. So you see him screwing around with his best friend’s wife and reflecting in the form of a New Year wish, “I want to stop doing this.” Somehow, it is this distance from reality and his perennial struggle to reconcile morals with desires that makes his character familiar and mysteriously affable. (Let’s admit it girls. We all swoon over him.)
However, over the seasons, I have to say, Don’s characteristic jitteriness had become a little predictable. I mean, it became easy to see that whenever his gal starts having a mind of her own, which obviously does nothing for his inflated sense of self, she starts losing him. (Case in point: Megan, the boho girl from Season 1).
The more consistently powerful arc to the show for me is Peggy and her struggle to break through in a blatant man’s world where her first meek attempt at copywriting is observed by Freddy Rumsey as “ It’s like watching a dog play the piano.” And through the end of the show, we see her as a powerhouse copy chief giving the patriarchs of the ad world a run for their money. You go girl!
And with the fated transition of Peggy taking over Don’s chair in the final season, with that lasting image of Peggy Olson sitting behind Don’s desk, we see her emerge as the boss lady who will finally “have decisions to make”, even though her personal life had been an out-of-control wreck. Truly, Weiner has a way of giving us hope. Hope for all the women of Mad Men to be liberated from the clutches of suppression, despite the fact that it made the men of that time very uncomfortable. Hope for atonement for Don who, after an emotionally derailed self-revelation at the Hershey pitch ( which in effect destroys the pitch), continues to unravel to his estranged daughter, his true, broken-down, whore-house childhood. As far as Don Draper is concerned, the final season marks the end of his frenzied escapist sport stemming from boredom and restlessness that the show played on so well . Mad Men’s finale revealed to its viewers that as much as the show took us on a wild ride of a man’s misadventures, it also served as a cautionary fable elucidating the gradual downward spiral of a narcissistic phony from his joy ride of excessive wealth and egotism.
And as all cautionary fables go, for me the biggest charm of the show is that it reveals to each one of us as its viewers, our follies, our bad decisions, through a smoke-tinted glass, as a time and place that we’re glad to have let go but looms over us with a haunting familiarity.