Attention: Spoilers are rampant!!!! Having just seen the last three episodes this week, I now can read reviews and posts on the show. But I was broadsided the morning after the finale aired with a spoiler about January Jones’ character, Betty Draper-Francis, and I don’t want to be the cause of spoiling this delicious series for you.
The sixties went by in beautiful style, color, passion, turmoil and with rich, perfectly flawed characters through seven seasons of Mad Men, one of my favorite shows of all time. First, I owe props to my friend, Terry, for first introducing me to the show. AMC had a marathon one Sunday and the first episode I saw was “Marriage of Figaro,” Season I Episode 3, one of its episodes with more suburban scenes than Madison Avenue. I was designing an addition to my mid-century rambler at the time and became inspired by their family room. That first hook of its beauty and authentic attention to every detail became my constant focus, but the story and character development made it true love. Besides the absolute beauty of the series, I am left with two lasting impressions; the significance today of the social changes of that era and how a decade of life can transform a person and lead to personal truth.
Certainly, Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, or Dick Whitman, is the most iconic Mad Men character. He is brilliant, skilled, self-made, complex, well-rounded, generous, resilient, rooted and a true friend. I’d say he’s even honest, but for the identity theft and infidelity because those choices were about survival, social expectations and a drive to “find himself,” as they said back then. Don Draper represents the culture at large and everyone who learned the new, post-WWII world, conquered it and adapted to the future. Don emerged from a lavish, boundless, bourbon-soaked decade with a truer sense of self or the new self he will define. His lesson is that modeling society’s measure of the pinnacle of success only matters to those who don’t matter, and does not measure self-awareness or contentment. And that lesson is not unique to the 1960s.
It is fitting to the era that the characters who evolved the most were the women, collectively and individually. We saw the 1960 suburban neighbors ostracize Helen Bishop, the “gay divorcee,” and by gay I mean carefree, tempting and promiscuous. But by 1970, divorced Joan Holloway-Harris is free to plot her own path, unconcerned about judgment or scorn. Of course, Sterling’s trust fund for the kid and a nice $250K nest egg helps. But Joan is smart and business savvy, having kept Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price intact several times. Trudy Campbell isn’t treated like Helen Bishop, either, as a suburban divorcee. The Betty Draper of 1960 who appeared to struggle with how to handle a door-to-door salesman is not the same Betty Draper-Frances enrolled in college in 1970, Megan Draper is independently pursuing her acting career and even waitress Diana Baur doesn’t need Don, or any man.
We watched the birth of feminism and the sexual revolution, the latter of which Don Draper may have ushered in, single-handedly. But Don never used a woman, in my opinion. He met each of his encounters on equal footing. Putting aside his secretly advising his wife’s psychiatrist, he was a feminist by 1960s’ standards, and even the Don Draper of 1970 wouldn’t think of interjecting himself into his wife’s therapy. He projected his own independence upon the women in his life. And nowhere is this more evident than in his relationship with Peggy Olson.
Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy Olson is our heroine. Peggy went from an innocent, naive girl from the steno pool who had no clue she was pregnant, to a fearless, self-aware and successful woman, loved by those who know her best. It is nothing short of a metamorphosis to evolve from the quiet, obedient girl trying to figure out how to market the Relax-A-Cizor to the sunglasses-wearing, cigarette dangling, strutting broad carrying Bert Cooper’s painting of inter-species coitus between octopus and female under her arm. How symbolic can you get? She adapted, she was diligent and she represents our gender’s trail blazers.
Peggy is brilliant, but limited gender opportunities and family resources provide few paths, contrasted with Pete Campbell who comes from “old money,” attended Dartmouth and achieved his job through social connections. Peggy starts out as a secretary, one of a handful of options for women, but through ambition, keen observations and raw talent, Peggy rises professionally. Pete and Peggy’s early interaction provides the perfect backdrop for the story’s realistic conclusions. Real life. (Although I found the Stan and Peggy phone call in the final episode a bit forced and only tolerable because two skilled actors were reading the lines.)
There were so many cringe-worthy, relatable scenes for me watching men make women feel awkward. Indeed, being a straight, white, male WASP had its strong advantages then – and now. Most of the non-conforming characters were faded from view by the end of the series, although the portrayals of those struggling to fit in a button-down world linger. Remember Sal Romano (Italian-American and gay), Michael Ginsberg (Jewish and an immigrant), Guy MacKendrick (who became disabled) or Dawn Chambers (their token African-American secretary)? All had to find their own way without the help of the white man’s world, that’s for sure.
It makes sense these characters faded from view because in the 1960s, society didn’t want to consider diversity or deal with any social or personal introspection. Mad Men gave us a glimpse into that world. It made me wonder if that’s how they managed the memories of World War II, The Depression and personal matters that then held personal shame. “This never happened,” wasn’t just a halting remark by Peggy to Pete or Don to Peggy, it was a way of life. Foolish by today’s society. But a strength we have lost.
I often imagined how these cultural archetypes would be in the 1980s, 1990s or even today. Who would have been that Joan Holloway, Peggy Olson, Don Draper, Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling, Sally or Betty Draper of their future? I hope they do a “Return to Mad Men” in ten years to show the future for these people. I imagine Don in California’s technology funding PC or Apple, or the DeLorean’s greatest competitor, the Draper. Or he’s living and loving in Paris, where he wanted to go with Rachael.