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. ‘