Sign of the Times: The Final Strokes of Mad Men’s American Portrait

Graphic by Rae Shuman

Graphic by Rae Shuman

by Michael Conroy

I re-watch seasons of Mad Men like I re-read a good, classic piece of literature such as The Great Gatsby. I’ve seen the first four seasons about three times each and I’ll start watching the fifth and sixth seasons again now that the seventh (and final) season started on April 13. These days, where binging is the popular mode of consumption for TV, I may appear gauche for indulging. But I can’t help but feel sophisticated the more I sip the decadent, rich layers of Mad Men’s Old Fashioned.

Six seasons in, I keep watching because I’m fascinated and invested in the characters and storytelling. I also can’t help but feel that I’m witnessing something very important. I was not a part of the past that the show so nostalgically conjures, but I am a part of the future that perforates Mad Men like a foggy haze of smoke.

TIME magazine featured the countdown of “The Last Days of Mad Men” on the cover of its April 6 issue.  James Poniewozik, TIME TV critic, proclaimed, “The end of Mad Men will be the end of an era.” Every end is also a beginning, and the closing of the 1960s is the opening of the 1970s. A reflection on this transition reveals the process of the passing off of the world from one generation to its descendants. My proxy for the 1960s is Peggy Olsen. When we left Peggy last year, she gazed out the window of her new office—Don’s old office—taking the place of her defeated mentor.

I relate to Peggy because I, as well as the rest of my generation, am also inheriting a strange new world. Peggy’s world was wrought with some radical social and political shifts. Despite these shifts and the four decades between Mad Men and now, sometimes it seems that the similarities between the times outnumber the differences. This begs the central question of the series: Can people really change?

The 1960s are typically romanticized as the decade that brought some of the most changes to this country.  I am now entering a world still moving to the new tune that Peggy’s generation started playing. Sometimes I watch Mad Men and feel haunted by the similarities between then and now. Part of Mad Men’s appeal has always been the glamour of the unfamiliar past. Six seasons later, I am beginning more and more to recognize this world I thought so different from my own. Thus, Mad Men opens up its daunting question to a greater wonder: Can America change?

“What has happened to one human being can happen to all because every individual is both himself and the race.” This quote from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard could very well be a part of one of Don’s famous sales pitches. In this case, applying this quote to Mr. Draper exposes him as the vehicle for a story greater than just one man. The story of Don Draper is the story of the American nation.

Don Draper is a portrait of the all-American man. He is handsome, rich, and white, making his portrait a poster that sells an American life many would envy. Embodying the American bailiwick of self-reinvention, Don is a truly self-made man.

Mad Men’s penultimate chapter begins with Don contemplating on Dante’s words: “Midway on our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight path and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”

The chapter ends with the fulfillment of The Inferno as Don’s cyclical descent takes him to his own personal hell—a hell with which he is very familiar.

The sixth season shows Don binging on a deadly cocktail of sins putting his job, second marriage, and relationship with his children at risk. Don is coming to the end of a decade but appears to be just where he was at the beginning of it. Don is making the exact same mistakes he made season one. While some critics rolled their eyes at the sixth season for treading old territory, I believe this repetition in story is the revelation of some of the series’ most cosmic questions.

Since Mad Men’s final chapter opened on AMC, Don’s story has started down the path to reveal if his heart pumps with the mythic, metamorphic blood that has supposedly coursed through America throughout its history of progress. Don’s story is the manifestation of the narrative of change in America. It is a story that asks if change moves America forward or, as it appears for Don, does it just achieve a new status quo of toxic stasis? Foraging on to the finale, Mad Men’s narrative echoes Don’s famous philosophy: “Change isn’t good or bad. It just is.”

If Mad Men has already exposed one truth about America, it’s that we will buy anything with the right tagline. Everything is on the market. In the first episode, Don admits almost any ideal we believe can come with a price tag: “What you call love was invented by guys like me … to sell nylons.”

“America”—the free, the beautiful, the red-white-and-blue—is itself a propagandistic idea. The Unites States of America has had some of the greatest taglines in history—“land of the free and the home of the brave” … “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” … “Out of many, one.” The history of the glory of this country has been recorded and told by the ad men who designed it. Some of the men are even immortalized on the very currency for the wealth their words amassed for this land.

America’s ad campaign has proven wildly successful—in fact, now America really sells itself. The patriotic masses proclaim USA the land of dreams, reinvention, and progress. America is a place where ideas, people, and time changes for the better. Mad Men’s peak behind the curtain of the advertising agency begs it viewers to see beyond the glittering generalities used to market America and witness the full spectrum of this country’s true machinations. Is “America” just another false promise to get the consumer to buy a faulty product?

The final season of Mad Men will be an important voice in this dialogue. When we last left Don, he breaks his boozy cycle of mistakes by recklessly reconciling some of the wounds from his past and finally inviting his children into this past. His pure honesty is a jolt after an entire season of the same mistakes. When the story picks up with the final season, we will see if Don’s change of direction will carry him forward onto a new salvation or if it is just a small diversion on his journey towards his inevitable fall.

When Don begins his new tomorrow, it will either be a brand new day or just another day. In the case of the latter, Mad Men is a narrative of existential submission. It tells the story of the lie of change and the foolishness of a nation that is relentlessly trying to push the Sisyphean boulder. If it is in fact true that Don is capable of being an agent of his own change, then Mad Men is a call to action. It is the greatest sales pitch to take stock in a country that promises everything, as long as we all take responsibility for the capacity to change that which we are all capable.

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