The AMC television series “Mad Men” came to a close this past Sunday. After eight years, the critically-acclaimed show culminated in a dreamy reairing of Coca-Cola’s famous “Buy the World a Coke” ad from 1971. Critics panned it, but I saw the scene as a fitting end for a show about America’s cultural declivity into the hell of moral relativism. In its prime, the sentiment of the sing-songy Coke ad was nice, but the idealism of the post-1960s was too infantile to work, as we now know four decades later.
Within the show’s context, the ad didn’t represent world peace. Rather, it was one of the resolutions sought by the show’s main characters. It was the end product of protagonist Don Draper’s journey to the pits of sorrow and back. To use the cliché phrase, it also represented the End of an Era (the show’s timeline spanned from 1960 to 1970). Though the series finale was ambiguous and not entirely conclusive, “Mad Men” as a show contained some of the hardest lessons learned in life. In between the drinking, impropriety, womanizing, scams, backstabbing, and licentiousness, there were acute moments of actual humanity.
Years ago, I wrote a piece on the unbridled capitalist philosophy prevalent in a show about Madison Avenue ad executives. Looking back, I can see how parochial my view really was. “Mad Men” was not a form of capitalist apologism. It was a depiction of a certain time and place, where social mores were formed and reformed into what we might consider the modern way of things. Equal opportunity, feminism, civil rights, and no-fault divorce were all key elements in “Mad Men,” just as they are for 21st century America.
But there was more. Just as the trials of Don Draper were so much a microcosm of changing American culture, there was the ever-present struggle of finding harmony in disorder, happiness in gloom, and contentment in a world that feels like it’s falling apart. I don’t watch much television, let alone own a set, so I don’t see a lot of popular cable. But I watched enough day-time crap as a kid to know that “Mad Men” contained something different in the drama genre.
Thanks to progressivism, the business of advertising has been given a shoddy reputation. John Kenneth Galbraith pioneered the idea that ads are evil by mocking customers as unthinking automatons who lap up whatever is half-price in the Sunday circular. Galbraith called it the Dependence Effect, which he defined as the process by which “wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied.” That is all patent nonsense, of course. Ads only depict items for sale. If people are imprudent enough to buy gimmicky nonessentials, they’re going to do it anyway, with or without flashy portrayals and enticing language.
“Mad Men” did a unique thing in humanizing the ad-creation process. The famous scene where Don pitched the Kodak Carousel slide projector was absolutely mesmerizing. He didn’t sell a product. He sold an ideal: family remembrance made easy. He presented touching moments, gliding past the screen, much like how age creeps up on us without our attention. He gave his audience moments to relive; moments that stick out in life’s dizzying array of unpredictable events. A Robber baron, Don Draper was not.
That’s a lot more than can be said for modern advertisers. As Patrick Deneen recently pointed out, America’s elite businesses are firmly on the progressive side of the culture war. Big corporations firmly support liberal causes like gay marriage. At least in the days of “Mad Men,” traditional Protestant morals were upheld in advertising. That spirit is no more. It’s all happiness, all the time, with no judgment allowed. Big-time ad men may not be peddling unnecessary gizmos anymore, but they are selling poison to the soul. “Mad Men” served as a reminder of just how far American culture has fallen.
The ad business was not the heart of the show, however. “Mad Men” wasn’t about the advertising industry insomuch as it was about the lives of several individuals who built and created things while trying to find some form of fulfillment in their personal lives. In other words, it mimicked the struggles we all face in simultaneously working and seeking a sense of comfort in the world.
On the building part, every character had the desire to create something of their own. Don expressed this need when he breaks off from his old ad firm to create another. Joan Holloway, the redheaded buxom secretary-turned-acount manager, found her absolution in creating her own production company in the last scenes of the finale. The story of Peggy Olson, who went from low secretary to copy manager under the tutelage of Draper, was one of great personal achievement. Each had a desire to make an impact, to own the fruits of their labor. This dedication can be a great thing when it’s applied virtuously. In a recent interview with National Review, author Matthew Crawford explained the calling to build as a necessary part of being human. “We’re the kind of creatures who need to see our own thought manifested concretely in the world, through productive activity,” he told the magazine. The hard-drinking, hard-working fictional marketers in “Mad Men” personified the spirit that wishes to create something out of nothing. They were far from perfect, but they never pretended to be anything else.
When it comes to deep, spiritual issues, “Mad Men” hovered on the cusp of dealing directly with the hardest thing of all: repentance and renewal. The show’s depiction of bacchanalian jaunts and sexual depravity was well-known. Don Draper was often called an “anti-hero.” Viewers rooted for him, despite his many, many failings. His sins are the reason behind why the show was so beloved. We all saw a small part of ourselves in Draper. He appeared strong and confident on the outside while being a complete mess below the skin.
In the final episode, he at last achieved a small bit of peace. After revealing his faults to Olson over the phone, he seemingly comes to term with the demons of his past. Don spent the entirety of the series avoiding history. He did this by encouraging others to move on, past their mistakes, and to keep living life in a normal fashion. But as Horace warned, naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. The past is a necessary part of being human. It provides context and meaning to the present, and serves as a guide to the future. The past is our identity. Avoid it for too long, and it inevitably catches up.
One of the events that pushed Don toward redemption was learning his ex-wife was terminally ill. Played by the beautiful January Jones, Betty Francis (formerly Draper) was diagnosed with lung cancer just episodes before the finale. She fought to stay calm over the news while her second husband and oldest daughter fretted about the future. When Don heard the news, he called her immediately, pleading to have full custody of his children back. He was rebuffed, but not before realizing everything he lost due to his infidelity. Their crying together over the phone was the most poignant moment in the entire series. The “Mad Men” audience spent 8 years watching these two characters fall in and out of love, fight with each other, and somehow raise their children after a divorce. Then it all came apart. What can be more human than that?
It’s those kinds of moments that were the real magic of “Mad Men.” While many critics heralded its portrayal of American culture, or the fine wardrobe of the cast, or even Jon Hamm’s good looks, they missed the point. “Mad Men” was a show about life, in all its complications and small moments of beauty. It told a story of love and lust in a country at war with itself and the world. It was a reminder of how the choices we make can create or undo us. We don’t know if Don Draper truly found harmony with himself and his place in the world. Maybe, like Tomáš in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he really did find inner peace. But I suspect it was left unclear for a reason. And that’s why, along with plenty of other reasons, “Mad Men” was like no other show that came before it.
Bravo, AMC. Bravo.