Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Mad About (and sometimes Mad At) “Mad Men”

As a passionate movie fan, I tend to ignore television. Yes, growing up I had my favorites. But in recent decades I’d movie-go for pleasure, and use my TV set only for special events like the Oscars and the Olympics. Which means I missed a lot of the famous series that everyone else was discussing, like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.

 What a difference a year makes! Now, quarantining at home, I look to my nightly TV time as a chance to glance back at shows I’d missed. I can now converse knowledgeably about The Crown, The Good Place, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And it’s been a pleasure to dig into the terrific series that took home all the Emmys a decade ago. While Jimmy Kimmel was distributing Emmys over the weekend via messengers in tuxedo/HAZMAT combos, I was polishing off the adventures of Don Draper and his colleagues in the wonderful world of advertising. Believe me, it was quite a ride.

Movies, of course, must establish and “sell” their characters in about two hours’ time. The leading roles should ideally be complex, but there’s a need for shorthand. We simply don’t have time to explore every facet of a character’s existence. In a long-running series, though, a guy like Don Draper can go in all sorts of directions (as we ourselves tend to do in real life). Don (played by the astonishingly handsome and square-jawed Jon Hamm) is larger than life in his professional world. He’s a brilliant ad man, respected by one and all for his creativity, integrity, and business smarts. But, over seven seasons, he’s also proven himself to be at times petty, cruel, and narcissistic. He’s capable of great love, especially for his children, but he’s also a serial philanderer. He’s also both rock solid and (occasionally) a quivering mass of Jello, someone who’s never gotten over a grotesque childhood and a deception (while serving in the military in Korea) that proves to have long-term consequences for his psyche.

 Don isn’t the only rich character on Mad Men. The lusty “silver fox,” Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is a total heel when it comes to the women in his life, but he can also be loyal and sweet in a surprisingly childlike way. Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell is a genuine snake in the grass, but over time we also see him grow up and, perhaps, become a better man. But of course I’m especially rooting for the female characters, and this series set in the Sixties has a lot to say about women’s slow march toward professional advancement. The bodacious Joan (Christina Hendricks), she of the impossibly voluptuous figure, starts off as a kind of living blow-up doll but turns out to have a head as well as a body. And eager, ambitious Peggy Olson (break-out star Elisabeth Moss) is someone for whom we can root, even when she makes terrible choices.

 I love the way characters evolve, shift in their alliances, and find new paths. Still, seven years is a long time for writers to keep coming up with ideas, and, as the series wears on, some of the incidents on-screen seem too wacky to be believed. Still, I adored the send-off given to the elder statesman of the group, played by the once up-and-coming Robert Morse. This slightly mysterious Zen-like oldster dies in Season 7 while watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. An episode or so later, he reappears to Don in a vaudeville-type routine, crooning “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” It’s a message that perhaps Don finally takes to heart.


Robert Morse's finale: "The Best Things in Life Are Free"  



  1. What a funny moment to showcase! Though I did enjoy the number. This is my favorite moment from the last season: https://slate.com/culture/2015/12/best-tv-of-2015-why-peggy-olsons-strut-down-the-halls-of-mccann-was-the-best-tv-moment-of-the-year.html

  2. Thank you for chiming in, Hilary. I too will find Peggy Olson's arrival at MacCann hard to forget . . . and I suspect I'll mention it later this week. Having been in the grip of Mad Men for so long, I find the series hard to let go -- and there's a lot more to say.

  3. I would love to see you write more about Mad Men. I have been enjoying the recaps over at Tom and Lorenzo.

  4. Thanks for this, Beverly! Maybe I'll just watch it all over again!

  5. A great way to forget about the pandemic, Sklen, if only for an hour at a time.