After Mad Men finally ended, my wife said she was sorry our show wouldn’t be on anymore.
While “our show” is a general term meaning “show we both watch”, I usually thought I liked it more than she did, so in a way, I was pleased by her comment. (Similarly, when she joined the audience applause after Mad Max: Fury Road, I was very happy that she had liked it.) I don’t think there’s a pattern to “our shows” ... some I like more than she does, some the opposite. You can usually tell when more than one show is on the DVR ... the person who picks what to watch is demonstrating a taste preference. I probably like Penny Dreadful more than she does, she probably likes Outlander more than I do. She definitely liked Sons of Anarchy more than I did, while Treme was more my favorite. What is most important is that these are shows we both like. Thus, as I began to process the end of Mad Men, I wasn’t alone, which seems to matter.
If I had to name my worst character flaw, the thing that led to actions I wish I could change, near the top, I’d note my willingness to piss on other people’s pleasures. I recall quite clearly when Frank Zappa died, and in the midst of heartfelt expressions of sadness, I said something glib about how Frank Zappa sucked. Time and place, as they say. I did this all the time. Even now, when I try much harder to be more tolerant, it slips out on occasion. Well, I suppose we all do it, but it’s usually the case that one can express their own taste preferences without trashing the differing tastes of others. Especially in something as taste-related as art, where there are no absolutes. Pitch Perfect 2 outdrew Mad Max: Fury Road on their first weekend, and that’s an interesting factoid worthy of a cultural context analysis. But liking one shouldn’t negate the possibility of liking the other, and it’s pretty much irrelevant anyway ... unless you’re looking at that cultural context, you don’t need to mention Pitch Perfect 2 in your review of Fury Road. And if you loved Fury Road, there is no reason to dismiss Pitch Perfect 2, especially if, like me, you haven’t seen it yet.
I mention all of this after reading a large number of pieces on Mad Men since the finale. Mad Men is a smart show, and several critics noted that they raised their own efforts just to keep up. There has been a variety of critical responses to the finale, but the discussion still exists in a zone of respect ... one critic doesn’t hate on another critic because they don’t agree about this or that angle in the finale. My sense, though, is that those of us who are part of the “non-professional” audience don’t feel the same need to respect. We have our take on Mad Men, and those who disagree are idiots. Too often, I’ve acted that way myself. I like to think I’m better now ... blame the meds. But if I can change, or at least improve my behavior, how can I relate that to Mad Men? How can I turn this post into my longtime template, “Mad Men and Me”?
Well ... a major theme of Mad Men throughout its run revolves around the question of whether anyone really changes. As we got our final glimpses of the lives of these characters, I felt, not that the characters had all changed, but more than many of them had finally become comfortable with who they always were. Peggy has changed outwardly, going from secretary to copy chief, but her character arc wasn’t about her evolution as much as it was about how she fought to stay in the game, rising close to her real worth. She already had worth at the start of the series. By the end of the series, that value was more recognized. But it was always there. Similarly, Joan figures out how to get into a position to accomplish things she was capable of from the beginning. She isn’t a different person, just differently placed thanks to her hard work. (Both women have to fight to be recognized by others in this world, of course.) At first, Roger was a boozing, womanizing raconteur. At the end, Roger was a boozing, womanizing raconteur. He found the right woman at last, but he hasn’t changed ... he has just accepted who he is.
But what about Don? Much of the discussion about him is directed at that question, does he change? Some think the way he gradually lost the trappings of Don Draper over the final episodes prepared us for an actual change. Others look at the ending, where it is implied that Don, hanging out at Esalen, will eventually return to advertising and be a massive success, and see a pile of cynicism about how in the end, nothing changes, especially Don.
I think it is very hard for any of us to get outside of ourselves at times like this. I’m not even sure if we should try to be distanced. I know that it has long been accepted that critics should avoid having their opinions tainted by too much personalizing. I also know that I pattern myself after Pauline Kael ... hence, “Mad Men and Me.” Specifically, I think that what we brought to the finale seriously impacted how we interpreted the finale. For the most part, we saw what validated our already-existing impressions. And since Mad Men was a complex series, and because the audience is made up of complex humans (a redundant phrase), a variety of people constructed a variety of impressions, so our takes on the finale are diverse.
I will give you a rather embarrassing example. A popular game as we neared the finale was to guess what the last song would be. My own guess was Rod Stewart singing Dylan’s “Only a Hobo”, which I suppose reflects my notion that Don would never change, that he would never outgrow the hobo mentality. As “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” came on, I was locked into that guessing game. I saw the slight smile on Don’s face as he chanted “Om”, subconsciously thought about how I wanted Don to turn out, and decided that smile meant that he’d finally seen the light ... about his life. I thought the song was appropriate, if ironic, and I took it almost at face value. (Keep in mind, in the fall of 1970, I was acting out my desire to be a hippie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I wanted something similar for Don.)
Imagine my surprise when I find that virtually everyone saw the connection between Don’s smile and the Coke ad as a sign that Don had returned to McCann, pulled off that Coke ad, and once again returned to the top of the ad game. That never occurred to me, although it seems obvious with hindsight.
Again looking at what I was bringing to the table: I don’t like advertising. The fact that Mad Men focused on advertisers worked on me rather like The Sopranos did by focusing on mobsters. In the age of the television anti-hero, I rooted against the characters as much as I rooted for them. Don was a brilliant ad man, but he was an ad man, just the same. Since I ultimately wanted to like Don, I wanted his escape from advertising to be real. So I didn’t even see that he came up with the Coke commercial at Esalen.
I’m not exactly “wrong” ... Matthew Weiner at least left things open-ended enough to leave room for multiple interpretations. But the point remains: my interpretation of the final scene was impacted by what I personally brought to the table. Which is always the case with criticism, in my oft-stated view ... it’s just a matter of whether or not the critic admits it.
And so, the moment that hit hardest for me in the finale was directly related to my personal life. I have said since the first season that Betty Draper reminded me of my mother: talented, good-looking, giving up her talents to be a housewife and mother, submerging her best qualities. When Betty shot those birds with a cigarette hanging from her lip, I saw my mom, even though as far as I know she never shot a firearm in her life. As the end of Mad Men approached, Betty got cancer. It was inevitable that someone on the show would get it ... the incessant cigarette smoking was a running joke throughout the series. Well, my mom died of cancer, too. And when I picture her last days in my mind, I see her sitting at a dining table, cigarette in hand, insisting on enjoying one of her only pleasures until the end. The picture in my mind looks exactly like how Betty Draper looked, the last time we saw her. For the average viewer, that shot fit into their vision of Betty Draper. For me, that vision meant I saw my dying mother, cigarette in hand.
Mad Men was never perfect (except, perhaps, when Don gave us The Carousel). The disappearance of gay art director Sal Romano was sad, and he never returned. At least Sal had his time as a significant character ... it is hard to feel badly about the disappearance of any particular character of color, because there were so few of them, and they were so marginalized. Betty Draper was written so inconsistently that January Jones never got credit for her fine acting.
But the pleasures far outweighed whatever problems existed. If I had to list some of those pleasures, I’d point to the actors. Who knew Jon Hamm before this show? I sure didn’t. Elisabeth Moss was the president’s daughter on The West Wing ... on Mad Men, she was a grownup. Before Mad Men, her great work on Top of the Lake would have been startling. After Mad Men, it was just further proof that she was very, very good. And Christina Hendricks, a fave since Firefly, finally got the break she needed ... now everyone knows who she is.
Best of all was Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper. Only six years old when the series began, Shipka made it possible for Sally to become increasingly important over the years by being that rarest of creatures, a child actor who just keeps getting better. Mad Men could have existed without Shipka ... witness Sally’s brother Bobby, who was played by four different actors over the years. But it would have been a different Mad Men, because Shipka brought it year after year. By the end, Sally Draper was clearly the one character that would have made you watch a spinoff. And a delightful future is in store, as we get to watch Shipka continuing to grow. (It doesn’t hurt that Sally was the one main character who was an actual baby-boomer ... she was born a year after I was. Much of Mad Men consisted of people acting like my parents did. Sally acted like I did.)
Was Mad Men one of the greatest of all TV dramas, or just one of the best? It maintained a high level over its entire run, it gave us a multitude of interesting characters, it showed us a vision of the 1960s, it introduced new-to-us actors ... maybe it was never perfect, but it came closer than most series. When it was on, it was always one of the top shows ... if all of our shows were on the DVR, Mad Men would have been the first choice as often as not. Yes, I’d say it was great. People already miss it so much, they’re filling the Internet with arguments and memories, and the show hasn’t even been gone for 24 hours yet. Grade for series: A+.