Jack silently lights a cigarette. The falling cinders barely missing the edge of his glass of Whisky. Its time to review Mad Men.
Over the last few days I have binge watched the seventh, and final, season of Mad Men. In that time I can only assume I have rewritten my review after every episode, sometimes in-between scenes. I don’t know if that is in some way me trying to pay homage to the sheer brilliance of writing in this show, to have every sentence airtight, compact, but yet extremely personal, or if I’m simply channelling my inner Don Draper, constantly striving for the better idea, the best way to sell you this product.
That is the name of the game in Mad Men. Essentially a long-form character piece following the lives of the workers at Sterling Cooper, a New York advertising firm, through the 1960’s. Taking you behind-the-scenes of not only the famous images of that time period, but the ever changing culture that it both followed and perpetuated. Innumerable small details are added into each episode, signifying progressions in television, film, fashion (very cool), and music (very very cool). History isn’t dealt with through Forrest Gump style encounters and coincidences, but at an individual level, how historical events and movements had an effect on the public, and what they were reflective of at the time. For example, the rise of women in the workplace is focalized through the career of Peggy Olsen. While in 1960 the sexism was abundant and all of the women were secretaries, in 1970… well the sexism is still abundant, but they have begun to earn full time positions, make executive decisions, and run companies of their own.
These details alone would make Mad Men interesting, simply from a cultural stand point, and so it’s amazing to say that what really shines is the writing. Characters are witty, poignant, interesting, sad, while being, above all, realistic. Like all good shows it’s now hard to think of a world where these people don’t exist, or maybe I just don’t want to.
The biggest criticism of the show is its slow nature, the feeling that sometimes scenes don’t seem to mean anything, and that you’re always waiting for a big dramatic moment, which scarcely ever comes. While I would have originally agreed to this idea, looking back, I failed to realise that this is actually its greatest strength. This isn’t a costume drama that merely uses style to cover a lack of substance, but tries to immerse the viewer into the world and its characters. The single, slow moments of Mad Men are built gradually around the themes of the episodes; what is going on in the characters minds, and how that relates to the world at large. In these later seasons I found myself enjoying these moments more and more, as they were simply more time with brilliant, relatable characters. The series uses the tried-and-true technique of ‘the more specific and personal the story, the more universal it is’ to perfection.
This brings us back to the beginning, my inner Don Draper. Don, the centre of Mad Men, has been described as everything a man wants to be: good looking, intelligent, suave, and in control. While I find this to be sometimes true (there are moments where he’s smooth enough to make anyone want to be him), the majority of the show depicts him as a flawed character fighting his inner demons. He struggles with maintaining his façade, and his family life, while constantly striving to find happiness; only to consistently find fault with it and return to sadness. These moments come together in the highlights of the series, Don’s pitches. Sometimes a season’s worth of emotional build up is masterfully applied to a sell a simple product, an idea explaining how this one commodity is somehow linked to the consumer achieving the same happiness that he himself is striving for. These scenes culminate both the style and the substance of the series and are the moments that truly stick with you after watching. While not the most dramatic of television characters, Don is in fact the closest thing to an everyman in the medium.
So how would you conclude a series like this? A show based on the continuation of time and characters, with no explicit plot to speak of? Sitting through the finale I had my doubts that they would manage it, but they did. It was unlike all television finales before, in that it simply felt like just another episode. It was slow, seemingly uneventful at times, and we got the time with the characters we wanted; it was familiar, satisfying, and packed a superb ending. If you were looking for a spoiler-free summary of the finale, it’s the same as the entire series before it: a Great American novel of television, Don trying to achieve happiness and selling it. While we may not see that one last great pitch, the outcome alone is the perfect conclusion to this amazing series.