How Don Draper and company faked their way to the truth
by G.M. Palmer
MAD MEN ENDED with a chime, not a window. The Yogi’s meditation bell registered another Don Draper idea to keep cash registers singing: the famous Coca-Cola Hilltop commercial, one of the greatest commercials ever. It’s implied (and outright stated by John Hamm) that Don, hair perfect and costumed like an ad man among so many hippies, yet again exploits a personal crisis to sell something, this time Coke, a campaign Jim Hobart has been pursuing Don for since the series began. Several episodes this season hinted at Don’s inevitable work on Coke. Allusions included his red and black suit at the disastrous “we’re working for McCann” announcement and the image of Don giving an old Coke machine the once over. Even in the final episode, Peggy asks Don: “don’t you want to work on Coke?” Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, and his team have trained us over the past seven seasons to see the implied series of fortunate events from Don’s breakdown at the ocean’s edge to his triumph at the hilltop.
In Mad Men, nothing bad happens offscreen (with the obvious new exception of Betty’s death; those scenes with Gene and Bobby trying to make grilled cheese and Sally stoically washing dishes were harrowing). Just like Joan “obviously” landed Avon when we weren’t looking, Don “obviously” comes back to McCann and (probably with the help of Peggy) creates the Hilltop Commercial. In atypical fashion, we are shown the successes of several of our main characters. Pete and Trudy looked like absolute royalty boarding that Learjet. Joan was resplendent as a true queen bee building Harris-Holloway Productions. Roger and Marie were, as Joan said, “spectacular” in Paris. Peggy and Stan, while a bit of fanservice shipping (don’t Google that if you don’t know what it is), felt right in the end (especially on subsequent viewings).
While we see some real growth and change for Pete, Joan, Roger, and Peggy, we see Don in slacks and a dress shirt, smiling like the Sphinx. He may have buried his demons but he won’t change who he is. From the name of the original Donald Francis Draper to the ribboned pigtails and blouse of the retreat staff, Don steals things and turns them into gold. In the end, as in the beginning, Don is nothing but the world’s greatest ad man.
MAD MEN IS roughly 72 hours long. It takes as much time to watch the series as it does to read Proust. Asking “what Mad Men means” is as pointless as asking about the plot of that or any great novel. Art is not about the message. It’s about the experience.
What we should ask is: “what is Mad Men?”
It can’t have escaped Mad Men’s fans and critics that television has always been a medium for advertisements. Unlike theatre or film, television was never free from commercial concerns. Television is inescapably a tool of capitalism and advertising is capitalism’s religion. It’s impossible to produce something for television untouched by the filthy lucre delivered on the back of advertising.
So Matt Weiner created a show about the people who make the advertisements that make it possible for Matt Weiner to make a show about the people who make the advertisements—and so on, into infinite recursion. It’s not a new concept (**cough cough** Bewitched **cough cough**) but what Weiner & Co did was make art, not merely entertainment. The difference is relatively simple: Art doesn’t just hold your interest. It holds you.
Fans and critics obsess over The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Adventure Time and others. Each of these shows is well made—and rather much better than their predecessors, if for no other reason than the creators are free to create a world that fuels itself; a world that demands not serial repetition but growth and movement and a scope normally reserved for novels and epic poems. Shows like Friends and M*A*S*H and Cheers and many other serials had moments of greatness. Shows like The Wire and Mad Men are simply always great—it’s a matter of vision. Babylon 5 was the show that made television like this possible—but Mad Men is the first television serial to stand as an equal with the world’s greatest literature.
But again, exactly what is Mad Men?
The short answer is in the opening credits. The long version is going to be a few hundred pages and perfect bound.
A good friend and fellow Mad Men obsessive (Thaddeus Gunn, ad man and author. Check out his stories on Brevity. Start with “Slapstick”) said, after watching the final episode, that when Don didn’t waste himself by jumping out a window it was a waste of a great opening sequence. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard repeated since at least Season Four. Don simply must jump out of a window or at least kill himself. Weiner frequently mentioned how folks’ assurance that Don would commit suicide annoyed him (as Weiner enjoys playing with the audience—see how the show hinted that Megan was going to go the way of Sharon Tate).
Now that it’s obvious that Don survives, let’s consider the opening credits.
A man stands in his office.
He puts down his briefcase.
Starting with what’s on his walls, everything falls around him.
He falls through a world full of ads; a glass of whisky ripples as he falls through it.
But in the end, he isn’t a sidewalk Jackson Pollack.
He’s sitting on a sofa, smoking.
Watching the title card of Mad Men.
The fall didn’t kill him.
He’s the one in control.
The Falling Man is us.
That is to say, Mad Men, like all literature, is a mirror. It always has been. The show isn’t cold, it’s polished. It is artificial—as is all art (hence the shared etymologies: something artificial is a thing made with skill)—and its artifice has been constructed with an exacting detail unparalleled in television. From Matt Weiner’s vision of co-opting both the 1960s and advertising itself to acting of the ensemble to Janie Bryant’s flawless costume design, Mad Men is the height of artifice.
Watch the show’s final pitch: Stan and Peggy pitching love. They mix cliché and sincerity in their conversation. Stan calls Don “a survivor” and tells Peggy “you’re gonna do great.” Peggy “feels like she can’t breathe” and touches her heart when she says “and you’re here.” Their language comes from the world they’ve created, admen living the ads they themselves wrote “to sell nylons.”
But what isn’t artificial? To be aware of our own inventions is to be truly human. It’s the real thing. Mad Men is art built on a veneer of period perfect sets and costumes and beneath the veneer of period perfect sets and costumes are reflected our decisions, our relationships, ourselves. We want to believe “there’s more to life than work,” but we get up every morning at six and try to prove ourselves wrong. We hope “it will get easier as we move forward” but we know what Stephanie said was true. Life doesn’t get easier. We are Roger and Joan and Betty and Sally and Pete and Peggy and Don. And they’re us: who we want to be and who we’re terrified we are.
G.M. PALMER lives with his wife and daughters on a poodle farm in North Florida. He is the author of With Rough Gods (2012).