|Original caricature by Jeff York of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in MAD MEN (copyright 2013)|
MAD MEN was a show that was truly one of the smartest, nuanced and most accomplished programs ever to make its way onto our television sets. Arguably, no other TV show assessed the decay of the American Dream like it. It will be a fascinating treasure to return to again and again and discover more and more each time. There is just so much to revel in there. The great acting across the board, the clever dialogue, the sumptuous production values...they were all extraordinary.
|Original caricature by Jeff York of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in MAD MEN (copyright 2013)|
The show was darkly comic as it showed just how these outdated men went a little crazy as the world shifted under their feet. Sure the title of the show refers to the nicknames given to Madison Avenue types, but it carries more important meanings. These men went mad in the world as they realized it no longer was going to be theirs exclusively. And boy, did they flail going down.
And Sterling Cooper's power elite displayed other botches too. One of their more famous mistakes was when they worked on the big presidential campaign in 1960. They didn't work for Kennedy, the voice of a new generation; they worked for Tricky Dick. The world was evolving and these guys were still driving their fathers' Oldsmobiles. Even when the British were coming to swallow up the agency, Sterling Cooper's leaders thought it would make things better. Don and his cronies missed a lot of the important road signs along the highway, rendered all the more ironic as ad agency folks are supposed to have their fingers on the pulse of the nation and its trends.
|Original caricature by Jeff York of Roger Sterling (John Slattery) of MAD MEN (copyright 2015)|
And who would have ever guessed that a show about people making advertising would become such a phenomenon that enthralled even those who've never set foot in an agency? I suspect Weiner knew that this strange world would resonate with an audience that grew up surrounded by marketing, inundated with commercials and media, and slaves to the urge to consume. Everyone is a potential buyer after all, and MAD MEN was all about showing how everyone then and now is selling something.
Weiner always talked up to his audience, and I think viewers appreciated having to think a bit more during the show. There was always a lot of water cooler debate on Monday, after the Sunday airing, about the characters and what they really felt, particularly Don. It was fascinating to dissect. Weiner's characters defied convention, so did his storytelling, and we seldom found easy answers. The mystery of it all drew us in even further.
Weiner truly changed the template for episodic drama even more than his mentor David Chase did during the run of HBO's THE SOPRANOS. It too was amazing TV, of course, but it was about a subject that is always inherently dramatic - the Mob. Then along comes Weiner's show about people who make 30 second commercials and it proved to be just as dramatic and tense as all that gangland warfare was. That was a truly remarkable achievement.
|Original caricature by Jeff York of Betty and Sally (January Jones and Kiernan Shipka) of MAD MEN|
And regarding Don, has TV ever seen such an irredeemable lead, a main character so unwilling or unable to change? A man who so often back-pedaled? Don Draper was a cheat, a liar, and a con man so many times that he actually was quite sociopathic in his way. There was a heart somewhere underneath all that, or we'd like to think there was, but Don sure could be the biggest shit nonetheless. At least he was called out on it continually, at work, at home and at play. So why couldn’t Don change?
Well, as Weiner has pointed out in many interviews, people don’t really change all that much in life. Sure, Don tried here and there, but like most people, he could only venture so far outside his comfort zone. He attempted on occasion to be less selfish and more empathetic, yet for every noble step he took forward, he would seemingly end up taking the proverbial two steps back. It's a credit to Hamm that we always saw the lost soul inside, even when he was wreaking so much havoc.
In an early season, Don bared his soul to his colleague and love interest Faye, and in that moment, he clearly felt like he'd removed a huge albatross from around his neck. But alas, it was too good to last. Don backslid once again, dumping his intellectual equal and moral superior because his ego just couldn't take it. Instead, he ended up quickly courting and marrying his young secretary Megan. She was in awe of him for a while, but she saw his warts soon enough too. Weiner was always on the side of the women Don hurt. And he ensured that they always called him out on his bullshit.
|Original caricature by Jeff York of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) of MAD MEN (copyright 2015)|
|Original caricature by Jeff York of Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) of MAD MEN (copyright 2013)|
IT PERFECTLY MATCHED TODAY'S TIMES
|Original caricature by Jeff York of Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) of MAD MEN (copyright 2013)|
Are we falling like Don in the opening credits, with everything we once believed in falling away too? Weiner's answer was, "Yes, indeed." MAD MEN held up a mirror to all of us and said, "Look America, you're a nation of Don Drapers." Stop flailing, stop falling, and change. Do more than just obsess over the next iteration of the iPhone. Stop being a self-absorbed consumer and think outside your selfies and personal lattes. The world is going mad, after all. So what are you going to do about it?