Nostalgia — it’s delicate, but potent. In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means, ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It let’s us travel the way a child travels — around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.” — Don Draper, Season 1, “The Wheel”
This Sunday marks the beginning of the end for the most beloved and at times most frustrating drama in the modern “golden age” of television. The carousel of nostalgia for AMC’s Mad Men comes to an end this year with seven final episodes. This series is quite possibly one of the most important and most unique series on television today. This piece looks to examine the show’s importance, its triumphs, its failures, and the hopes we have for it in this these final seven weeks.
The first time Mad Men came into my consciousness was seeing a small photo of relative unknown Jon Hamm, decked in full Don Draper regalia, in the bullseye section of Entertainment Weekly. The publication, to paraphrase, hailed the series as must-watch and the best show on TV. Hyperbole, I thought — something all us writers are guilty of at one time or another. However, I soon discovered they weren’t wrong. I became hooked in 2008, one year after the series premiere, when my future mother-in-law, based on a friend’s recommendation, started binging the entire first season. In one week, she, my girlfriend (now wife) and I binged the entire first season and what we had missed of the second.
Mad Men, for me, was unlike anything I had ever seen on cable television. It was straight drama, pure and simple. I had seen shows on cable that had this type of dramatic heft before, but they were all crime series like The Shield or sci-fi series like Battlestar Galactica. This was a period drama on cable television that dealt with moral, social, and sexual issues of the ‘golden age’ of American life. There was no big bad, there was no mortal enemy, no war … this was just about one man, Don Draper, and the world around him … and I couldn’t stop watching.
It wasn’t just the subject matter of the series that made it so special, it’s where it was airing. Let me sound old for a minute, but how many of you know what AMC stands for? I’m sure plenty of you do, but there’s probably a sizable portion of the world that has no clue, they’re just letters to you. AMC stands for American Movie Classics. For years, this network thrived and survived re-running John Wayne flicks, war movies, and pretty much anything before 1980. There were no shows on this network at all. It was mostly black-and-whites featuring actors long since past. In the 2000s, the channel decided to modernize a bit, bringing in “new classics” the first of which I remember being the Keanu Reeves thriller Chain Reaction. Yeah, not exactly a classic. The channel tried hard to make themselves more and more relevant with newer films, but it wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire.
Then they made Mad Men.
I think it’s lost on most people just how much of a landmark series Mad Men truly is. It literally helped put AMC on the map as a destination for original programming, a network people flock to in the millions for their entertainment. Had Mad Men failed, it’s doubtful Breaking Bad (AMC’s second series) would’ve have made it, and without that, the juggernaut that is Better Call Saul wouldn’t have even been a thought in the mind of Vince Gilligan. And had Mad Men tanked, like other early AMC series like Rubicon did or struggled like the underrated crime series, The Killing, then there’s no chance in hell the network would’ve green lighted The Walking Dead. Yes, the most popular series in the world would never have existed. And that all hinges on a period drama revolving around a philanderous, alcohol-addled New York ad man from the ’60s.
The success of this series is frankly mind-boggling. As stated previous Mad Men is a straight-up drama — outside of attractive actors and a cool nostalgia factor, there’s nothing sexy about this series. It tackles the issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, the sanctity (or lack thereof) of marriage, identity, loss, death, trauma and family. None of this screams, “Oooh, lemme watch!” There’s no never-done-before attraction like a zombie apocalypse on television or the sexy appeal of slick, Prohibition-era gangster drama produced by Scorsese. This is a theme and character-driven series.
So what sold it?
The acting and writing made this series. Jon Hamm, is the heart-and-soul of the series. He’s given one of the truly great television performances of all time as the enigmatic, lovable bastard Don Draper. The show has given Jon Hamm some of the best lines to deliver, ever. It’s also given him some of the most vague as well, but let’s get into that later. Hamm was born to play this role. His cold eyes, his rogue smile, his exceedingly handsome face, the cut of his jib, the swagger in his step — everything is Don Draper. Of course, the rest of the cast is just as brilliant — Elisabeth Olsen, Vincent Kartheiser, Kieran Shipka, Christina Hendricks, and of course, John Slattery. The supporting cast, which has expanded and contracted numerous times is equally as impressive, although sometimes they get shoved to the side for large chunks of the season. Bigger named supporting players like Jared Harris and Alexis Bleidel, added amazing performances to this series. Harris’ multi-season run was at times charming and at times utterly heartbreaking. His fight scene with Pete still remains one of the best scenes in series history. That and the John Deere tractor scene, which remains both hilarious and brutal.
The writing and direction of the show has been brave and daring — not shying away from tackling issues of adultery, racism, gender roles, homosexuality (Sal and Bob’s final scenes were both soul crushing) and counter culture. They also did a brilliant job melding the events of the show’s era and making them relevant in today’s scheme of things. The first seasons of the show was just home run after home run with the show flowing perfectly — advancing both Don’s personal and professional worlds in a ballet of booze, ad copy and interpersonal politics. The series had the right amount of laughs, tears, heartbreak and hope. In short, it was almost perfect.
However, the past few season have found the ship rudderless. Once Don and Megan got together, we saw a recycling of stories, a same old same old feeling. Multi-episode storylines would lead us nowhere. Shocking sexual acts like Roger receiving oral sex from Megan’s mom were done almost to shock audiences. Characters, particularly the women, felt as if they were in neutral. Peggy Olsen soon became a whiny, broken record while Joan would be a distant memory by season’s end. The roller coaster of Don’s life, particularly his self-sabotage and self-destruction became a bit tired and predictable. Last “half season” we were literally standing around waiting for something, anything to happen. We got Cooper’s death and another internal battle with Don and the agency — but where was the light at the end of the tunnel.
And that’s what makes this final run of episodes so damn intriguing — how does it end? Theories suggest Don Draper will take his own life, that the man falling from the building in the famed opening credits sequence is actually a foreshadowing of his demise. Some want to see Don pay for his transgressions, that he doesn’t deserve a happy ending. Others hope for the best, maybe Don has seen the err of his ways finally and he’ll change for the best, making a better life for his children.
However, what happens to Don is only part the curiosity. How will it end is the biggest question. Like I said earlier, this series is a character study. Unlike Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, or even American Horror Story, there is no villain, no big bad, no big evil, no paying of the piper. There is no war, no caper, no killer, nothing. There’s no one for Don to battle nor a deal that will make or break lives. Life is the end game for Mad Men. The people in the series will go on living their normal lives. There’s no treasure or revenge or justice or even a ‘win’ for them — it’s just life. And that is the most interesting part about it. How will the writers make a fulfilling end for this series? Will we get one of those classic Don says something vague that sounds deep, stares off into the middle distance and we fade to black? We’ve done that and it works … sometimes. Will the writers rely on this or will they go for something more powerful? Will we get epilogues for our characters? It’d almost be a shame if we didn’t know what happened to these characters we’ve invested eight years in. On the other side of the coin, wouldn’t it also be cheesy if we did? I mean, they did that at the end of Animal House, so will it almost come off weird and comical?
Tonight we begin the end of Mad Men. We opened our last pack of smokes, we order one of our final rounds of old fashioneds. While the show has been maddeningly frustrating in recent years, we have to appreciate the cultural and artistic impact this series has had on the world. It has allowed for creatives, artists, audiences, and executives to take bold, risky ventures in the realm of television. Not just settling for the easy lay-up, we’re all looking for something bold, unique and special. And that’s important. This series, which revolves around one man’s struggle with himself and the world around him, has fundamentally changed the game for what we, the audience want from our television dramas, and what the creatives and powers that be are open to try.
Mad Men, no matter how this ends, we raise our glass to you.
Mad Men airs its final seven episodes starting tonight on AMC.
Bill Bodkin is the Owner, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beauty daughter, Sophie. He is beyond excited that Pop-Break will be six years old in 2015 as this site has come a long, long way from the day he launched in it in his bachelor pad at the Jersey Shore. He can be read every Monday for the Happy Mondays Interview Series as well as his weekly reviews on Law & Order: SVU, Mad Men and Hannibal. His goal, once again, is to write 500 stories this year (a goal he accomplished in 2014). He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom