It’s a Mad (Men) World

Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen the Season 3 finale and still want to, read no further.

AMC’s Emmy-winning, media darling Mad Men wrapped up its third season last week with a bang and a whimper. In the season finale, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” ad agency Sterling Cooper was dissolved, then happily reinvented as “Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce,” and the curtain finally set on the Drapers’ marriage, once and for all. The entire season deliberately and painstakingly set the state for the explosive ending. This ending, however, highlights just what is wrong with the series.

Mad Men, a show about an early 1960’s ad agency in Manhattan, has won critical acclaim for its writing, directing, acting, and impeccable sixties-era design-and it deserves it. It has an almost literary quality in its use of theme, symbolism, and character development. In an article for The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz praises the show’s particularly American dialogue:

the actors deliver their often fizzy but (because it’s guarded or reflective) never fast-talking dialogue with the clear, relaxed enunciation of casually elegant American speech. Unlike performers in most naturalistic American productions-theatrical, cinematic, or on television-who can only gesture at meaning with the fragmented language with which they’re supplied, the Mad Men actors are given precise words and whole, often clever and grammatically complex sentences to work with.

The show’s one flaw, critics have noted, is its heavy-handed and smug rejection of the sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia credited to the era. The show is not subtle in its-often raw-depiction of the sexual harassment of women in the workplace, the malaise of housewives a la Betty Friedan, the pain of closeted gays, and the marginalization of African Americans. It is an age presented as ripe and ready for revolution-particularly concerning the rise of feminism and the civil rights movement. Harry Stein of City Journal comments that “Mad Men faithfully reflects the dominant liberal view of that era as a time of rampant materialism, spiritless conformity, and reflexive bigotry. The corollary is that we were redeemed-liberated-not just by the civil rights movement but by the antiwar, feminist, and sexual-liberation crusades that followed.” The overall effect is to make the viewer smugly shake her head at the way things were in those days.

We are also meant to look forward to the coming days of liberation-days of free love, bra-burning, marches on Washington, anti-materialism, and-as one episode comically notes- marijuana. The series’ lead character, Donald Draper-excellently portrayed by John Hamm,-echoes this sentiment in his Season 3 character arc; he has been hankering for a liberating change all season. The writers lose all semblance of subtlety here, having the character engage in an extra-marital affair with proto-flower child schoolteacher, Suzanne Farrell. The season’s last episode finally kicks open the door for Don’s own liberation by releasing him from his unhappy marriage.

In discussing the Drapers’ divorce, series creator Matt Weiner says that “the ending of this episode should be an experience of liberation.” John Hamm agrees, saying that “It’s certainly a moment of rebirth.” We aren’t meant to mourn the death of a marriage; we’re meant to see it as a moment of freedom and possibility. Now, the Draper’s marriage was certainly a miserable one, full of lies and adultery. But it was marriage-and a marriage that birthed a family. The show is anticipating the rise in American divorces of that began in the later sixties and continued into the seventies. Yet Mad Men seems to view the coming widespread disintegration of the family as, at worst, a slightly messy but necessary evil. Harry Stein notes that in the early sixties

…under 8 percent of American children were born out of wedlock annually. Today, that figure is close to 40 percent overall and fully 70 percent in the black community-which, for all the other hardships it faced 50 years ago, saw only 20 percent of black kids born to a single mother. Then, too, the divorce rate has more than quadrupled since 1960, today standing in the vicinity of 50 percent.

Back then, he argues, there was honor and value in sticking with one’s marriage, even if it came to doing it for the children. The revolutions of the sixties did not occur without fallout, particularly in the institutions of marriage and the family.

As a series, Mad Men seems to be simply straining at the bit to get to the drama found in cultural upheaval of the late sixties. The writers seem to want to give the oppressing white men their due comeuppance, and it will be interesting to see if they grant any air time to the pang of innocence lost and families torn asunder. ‘

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I really have to wonder if we’re watching the same show. I was a bit baffled by your review! To see Don’s divorce as the show’s way of liberating him and setting him free to pursue a romance with the schoolteacher is misreading the story and characters.

    And to question when the show will give air time to “innocence lost and families torn asunder”… I have to ask again, what show have you been watching? Mad Men is gut-wrenching in its portrayal of the pain Don’s free-wheeling (and now Betty’s rejection) bring to their children, their lovers, and everyone around them.

    Mad Men is excellent because it dares to attempt a cinematic storytelling that is absent from television. It does in a season what most shows would do in a pilot. It gives the viewer time to journey with the characters at a pace much more like real life, breathing life and desperation into situations that most shows would either tritely glorify (a la Gossip Girl) or tritely ‘fix’ (a la Touched by an Angel).

    It demands to be read like a book, not consumed like entertainment. And when you take the time to do so, it opens layers of poignant, painful, honest examinations of human nature in a tumultuous time for American society.

  • Lauren Myracle

    Lindsay, I agree with your last two paragraphs.

    However, to address your earlier bafflement about my assessment of Don’s “liberation”:

    1) Matt Weiner has repeatedly asserted in interviews that Don and Betty’s marriage is unequivocally bad–it was built on a lie and it’s good that it’s over. He has expressed deep frustration toward fans who want to see Don and Betty work things out. He doesn’t think they should have worked it out for the kids, or anything else. He truly sees the divorce as liberating, and thinks the viewer should, too. This is not to say that he treats it glibly.

    (I do grant that his intended “liberation” may be an artistic failure on his part, and what he wants may not come across strongly enough on screen.)

    2) Also, as another Mad Men commentator has suggested, I think Mad Men is an argument for “why the sixties had to happen” (referencing the later sixties). The writers trumpet the characters’ un-PC behavior, and make you root for the end of racial and gender inequality. I think the show makes the viewer cheer for the coming time of “liberation” in that sense (…and I think that Weiner is trying to parallel this with Don’s experiences. Don has been biting at the bit all season for “something new,” and has been talking a lot about looking forward. I think Weiner wants the ending of the Drapers’ marriage to contribute to this. He seems to be saying, “Yes, it’s sad that the children will suffer, but wonderful for Don and Betty to be finally free of each other.” The writers also claim Don’s lover Suzanne is a “proto-flower girl,” and pushing Don in her direction is, I think, significant.).

    When I wonder if the series will give time to “innocence lost,” I wonder if the show will merely revel in the coming upheaval of the later sixties, or if they will nuance this and acknowledge that while we gained much, we also lost much (particularly in the institution of the family).

  • Lindsay Stallones

    Your argument makes sense, but I don’t think the writers are even aware of how true their series is, which is why as talented as he is, I don’t put too much stock in what Weiner says his show’s about. He’s kind of a weird guy, not necessarily a trustworthy narrator, and I think his story’s bigger than he knows. Maybe I’m misreading that, but that’s what I’ve taken away from his interviews and statements.

    Don’s liberated, but I think it happens in California. That scene in the ocean is a baptism of sorts, and everything that’s happened since is fallout from it. Suzanne’s not much different from his other conquests, so I don’t see her as a shining light in his darkness – just another interesting toy that he’ll tire of eventually. Don’s problem isn’t Betty (though Betty’s certainly seems to be Don); his problem is himself. Yes their marriage was toxic, but Don’s plenty toxic on his own. Regardless of what Weiner says, I don’t see the end of the marriage as liberation, just inevitable fallout.

    And I’m afraid I can’t agree with you that the show’s incorrect in its portrayal of the society that led to the cultural revolutions of the sixties. Of course it’s hyperbolic – it’s about ad executives on Madison Avenue for crying out loud! These aren’t “regular” people, and they’re exactly the kind of people who would have lived to the extreme of these stereotypes. We have documentation and anecdotal evidence to prove that these people did, in fact, exist. Heck, the show frighteningly parallels the lives of some of my grandparents.

    And I still can’t agree with you on the show not showing what we’ve lost. Especially in this season with the storyline with Grandpa Gene, the impact of Don and Betty’s selfishness on the children is excruciating (especially Sally). And that’s just on the actual innocents in the show. While Don’s affairs are exciting, they’re not glamorous – they’re depressing and Weiner lets us see that time and time again.

    And I’m also not sure we should expect someone like Weiner to express what we want to see in a historical piece. Maybe your concern is the disintegration of the family, but maybe Weiner’s experience is different, and a broken family is better than a false one. Or maybe, like our society, he just accepts broken families as a fact of modern life that we finally acknowledge rather than hide behind Good Housekeeping’s images. Regardless, it seems strange to expect someone who doesn’t share our worldview to make art that reflects our worldview. And it seems especially strange to dismiss a fabulous work of art as incomplete that does expose truth in a way that hasn’t been done in its medium just for that reason.

  • Lauren Myracle

    It’s perfectly plausible that Weiner is a poor reader of his work, or that he’s an unreliable narrator. I may give him too much credit. Given his artistic control, however, I think it’s reasonable to consider how he reads his own writing.

    I wouldn’t argue that the show’s portrayal of early sixties is inaccurate, but one of the marks of the show (in most other areas) is a sense of restraint and subtlety. I think the show may be guilty of “chronological snobbery” in its loud emphasis on how bad things were in “those” days.

    “Regardless, it seems strange to expect someone who doesn’t share our worldview to make art that reflects our worldview. And it seems especially strange to dismiss a fabulous work of art as incomplete that does expose truth in a way that hasn’t been done in its medium just for that reason.”

    I actually “dismiss” the show on the aforementioned grounds because I like it so much, not out of prudishness. The characters and writing are excellent. I love its “literary” quality. My objections arise from the “it could be be better if” category. Mad Men gets so many things “right,” that areas of artistic weakness are that much more glaring.

    I am curious to see how the show will treat Don’s kids and his relationship to them (especially Sally!–what a great actress!) in Season 4.