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Of Time & Life: How ‘Mad Men’ Remade Television

Of Time & Life: How 'Mad Men' Remade Television

“There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone.” – Don Draper, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”

Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) shuffles off this mortal coil with a satisfied “Bravo,” and his death is the fulcrum on which the immaculate “Waterloo” turns. Coming soon after the astronauts of Apollo 11 have landed on the moon, Bert’s passing means sure termination for SC&P creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm), and he responds with perhaps his most loyal gesture of all: he hands off the next day’s Burger Chef pitch to copy chief Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss).

The fear of failure she expresses to Don in her hotel room that night—”I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers!”—is clotted with the testy coexistence of capitalism and the creative arts that fueled AMC’s flagship series from Don’s first pitch (“Lucky Strike: It’s Toasted”) to its final frames (“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”). “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner knows of whence he speaks, for television, the hamburger-selling sibling to cinema, is also home to his most formidable work of art, and Peggy’s Burger Chef presentation reduces this ambivalent two-step of the cynical and the sentimental to a near-perfect miniature.

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Describing a television commercial designed to silence the television’s blare, Peggy introduces “Family Supper at Burger Chef” with reference to the previous night’s epochal moment. “All of us were doing the same thing at the same time,” she remarks. “Sitting in this room, we can still feel the pleasure of that connection, because, I realize now, we were starved for it.” Here is the central idea of “Mad Men,” in which advertising pitches aimed at people who buy things, people like you and me, often contained the most emotionally resonant moments as well: that the craven can also be beautiful, that ostensibly “lowbrow” forms are capable of piercing insights and sumptuous images, that there is still some connection to be found in the tale of an ad agency’s longtime employees simply living and dying over the course of a distant decade. As both Don and Peggy note in “Waterloo” to this end, “Every great ad tells a story.”

When I say that “Mad Men” remade television, then, I don’t mean that the series is the standard bearer for a profound shift in where, when, and how we watch the best the medium has to offer, or that its vivid formalism helped push episodic storytelling further toward a style that is often labeled “cinematic,” though both of these statements are true. Rather, across an eight-year period in which audiences fragmented further into “niche markets” and corporations developed “micro-targeted” ads, in which our consumption of cable news broke down by ideological faction and we learned to define our social networks in terms of “followers” and “friends,” “Mad Men” reexamined the meaning of “mass culture,” of which television is, and has long been, the most ubiquitous feature—the way it shapes our desires and disappointments, our memories and histories, our sense, as this season’s fourth episode had it, of “Time & Life.”
“Hold on, this is the beginning of something. Not the end.” – Don Draper, “Time & Life”

The defining image of “Mad Men” is the circle, the bleeding edge between beginning and end. At times, the series closed the circle in the service of nostalgia, with the promise that a slide projector might return us to “a place we know we are loved” (“The Wheel”), while at others it plumbed the depths of regret, with ghostly visitations and the same old mistakes made anew (“The Phantom”). More than the dense, thoughtful period details or the anti-heroic character at its center, “Mad Men” distinguished itself from other dramatic series by hewing to the cyclical rhythms of time’s passage. Without recourse to the narrative fireworks of drug dealers, mob bosses, dead prostitutes, and Soviet spies, “Mad Men” invited rich, multifaceted discussion by portraying, quite simply, the way we lived then—and now.

To wit, “Time & Life” marshals the series’ entire stylistic arsenal to render the everyday as a pitched battle between the urge to “move forward,” as Don often advises, and the inability to relinquish the past. As the news of McCann Erickson’s impending absorption of SC&P arrives, the episode focuses on a handful of aesthetic and thematic connections to the decade since the fateful day the characters entered our lives. As in “Meditations in an Emergency,” Peggy and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) share a wistful moment on his office couch; as in “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” the partners set in motion a plan to elude McCann by securing accounts for a revised version of Sterling Cooper. A child at an audition for Play-Doh leads Peggy to grapple once more with the decision to give up her child: “No one should have to make a mistake, just like a man does, and not be able to move on,” she says to Stan (Jay R. Ferguson). “She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does.”

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The most potent illustration of the tension between stasis and change that always marked “Mad Men” comes as McCann’s Jim Hobart (H. Richard Greene)—who first attempted to poach Don all the way back in season one’s “Shoot”—interrupts the pitch for Sterling Cooper West. Mirroring the most hopeful image in “The Phantom,” of five standing figures peering out on Manhattan from what will become the agency’s second floor, the camera captures the five remaining partners seated at a long table with their backs to the window, the meaning of the composition reversed. Despite Don’s later protestation that “this is the beginning of something,” drowned out by the nervous chatter of the staff, the repurposing of that iconic frame from “The Phantom” suggests that the circle is closing once more.

“Time & Life” remains, for me, this season’s hinge point, the moment at which I began to see “Waterloo” as the series finale, and the last seven episodes as a kind of epilogue—a fitting approach to concluding a series which resisted self-contained narratives in favor of the open-ended and the unfinished. The beauty of “Mad Men” has always been inextricable from the idea that television by its very nature provides an ideal space for consistent engagement with the quotidian details of time and life, the inherent drama of waking up each morning and putting one foot in front of the other. Even as the characters, like the country, evolved before our eyes, their personal histories retained a tenacious hold on their next steps, an honest admission, as this season’s “Lost Horizon” had it, that the future is forever out of reach.

Thus the series finale, “Person to Person,” features both an optimistic montage of the characters entering a new era in their lives—Roger (John Slattery) married to Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond), Stan and Peggy in love, Joan (Christina Hendricks) pursuing a new career, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) caring for Betty (January Jones) in her last days—and a powerful suggestion that there’s no escaping the past, only making amends with it. “Move forward,” Don, still desperate to slough off his former selves, tells Stephanie (Caity Lotz) at one point. “Oh, Dick,” she replies, “I don’t think you’re right about that.”

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“Mad Men” remade television, in part, by returning again and again to this notion that happiness is not a state of being but a moment in time, flooding in and then receding as surely as the waves in the background as we bid farewell to Don. “Advertising is about one thing: happiness,” he says in the series premiere, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” but the structure of “Mad Men,” folding in on itself even as it opened new avenues for the characters, made clear that it’s the impermanence of happiness that makes advertising effective. There’s always another product, another pitch, another flaw to fix or challenge to surmount; the “perfect harmony” of Don’s yogic calm, of the Coca-Cola ad that plays out the series, is necessarily temporary. Don’s blissed-out vision of human connection, like Peggy’s more nostalgic one, is not, or not only, a form of profit-taking, but also, perhaps, a metaphor for the halting, striving, strangely hopeful pursuits of happiness that keep us moving forward despite the knowledge that the horizon we’re chasing will never be caught.

“You are the product. You, feeling something. That’s what sells.” – Don Draper, “For Those Who Think Young”

In “Mad Men,” the kind of connection Don and Peggy continue to seek often travels along the airwaves, in times of trouble and triumph alike. Betty and Carla (Deborah Lacey), often bitter adversaries, share a moment of grief as the death of President Kennedy is announced. Don and Megan (Jessica Paré), even as their marriage begins to unravel, discuss the brutal suppression of protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention over the phone as horrified observers chant, “The whole world is watching!” through the screen. The camera cuts from Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon to Don and Peggy, rapt, watching his “giant leap for mankind” together. In the course of the series, which witnesses commercials and computers supplant magazine pages and drafting tables as the dominant media of the ad campaign, television becomes the conduit through which the characters engage the world beyond their living rooms and corner offices. They see themselves, or maybe fail to do so, through television’s window on the world.

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This is where “Mad Men” as television, with its distinctive rhythms and bold style, meets the “Mad Men” view of television, as a mechanism with the potential to hold a mirror up to society, producing the series’ messy, ambivalent, brilliant microhistory of “the American Century” as a few Americans might have lived it. Though limiting its perspective to the privileged handful may be the series’ most glaring flaw, it also allows for remarkably subtle, complex engagement with the ways in which specific individuals confront, challenge, and sometimes reshape mass culture even as it threatens to consume them. In this sense, “Mad Men” seems to me neither cynical nor sentimental, but realistic—understanding, at the risk of the viewer’s discomfort, that “you, feeling something” is the same point of contact for artists and advertisers alike.

And so, watching the series finale with a few close friends, celebrating the characters’ successes and lamenting their failures one last time, I came to see that “Mad Men” achieved the same feat as its finest pitches, which is simultaneously to get us to buy into a fiction and to feel something real. Despite knowing, intellectually, that “Mad Men” is and depicts a business venture, I found myself transported to the same place of sincere emotion as Don and Peggy watching the moon landing in “Waterloo,” or, at the end of the same episode, Don looking on, tears in his eyes, as Bert Cooper dances off into the sunset to the tune of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” Writing this now, I can still feel the pleasure of that connection, as Peggy once said, and I suspect I always will.

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