The Meaning Of “Mad Men”

Ahead of its series finale airing this Sunday, Nathan Blake looks back on AMC’s Mad Men, where its characters are at, and the show’s major themes. *This post contains plot and character developments in the series. So consider this a…SPOILER ALERT.*

I sat down to write this article less than twenty four hours after AMC’s Mad Men aired its penultimate episode. The developments in that episode, all intriguing, shocking or sad, have only cemented my love for the show. Yet there is something familiar about the story being told in the final season of Mathew Weiner’s period drama: prices are being paid.

From this season’s fourth episode on, almost every major character’s life has unraveled. For some, such as Joan, it has mainly been a professional crisis, at least so far. Roger, as a result of SC&P being absorbed by McCann Erickson, has lost the last part of his life that had any meaning, and he knows it. One of the most memorable moments of the episode “Lost Horizon” (aside from the heavily memed image of Peggy strutting into McCann with erotic art under her arm) was Roger reflecting on the end of his career and his identity, over the moody hum of an organ. But the series is not merely taking from the characters. For the first time, it is being clear about why.

In the penultimate episode “The Milk & Honey Route”, another price had to be paid, this time by Betty. After the increasingly repulsive ways in which Betty treated Sally and Bobby from season four through the first half of season seven, I never thought I could have any sympathy for that character again. I was proven wrong the second she collapsed on the stairs on the way to her psychology course – mere seconds after the first shot of her in the episode. In those first few frames, she seemed happier than she had even been in the series. Then she fell. Then the diagnosis came from the doctors that she had lung cancer. It should not be shocking. The possibility was always there for any of these characters right from the first episode. For a show that has frequently explored the risks of alcoholism and drunkenness, it has largely neglected to show the negative effects of smoking on the main characters even though they light up even more often than they mix up an old fashioned.

That Weiner chose the second to last episode of the show to allow for this development is a master stroke. Consider the final seasons of the best long-form shows and you’ll discover that in the last couple episodes, they revisit an important point from the first season or two; something that may have been far enough in the past that audiences are not expecting them to come up again.

In Breaking Bad, it was Walt finally revealing to Jesse that he killed Jane. It also accompanied the death of someone Walt had long been scrambling to hide from but also to protect: DEA agent and brother-in law Hank Schrader. Hank’s death and Betty Draper’s death sentence are similar in that they both partly result from the antihero’s hubris. Don’s arrogance in thinking the tobacco products he promotes will not harm his family mirror how Walt believes he can deal meth without consequences to his loved ones.

You may be thinking that there is a key difference in the two scenarios. After all, Walt remained on a course that he knew could cause harm to Hank. On the contrary, Don and Betty have been divorced for nearly a decade. Surely she has heard reports about the hazards of smoking. She continues to do it anyway, driven by addiction, stress and the common denial at the time about how dangerous smoking was. Consequently, it is clear that Betty and Hank possess their own amount of hubris. Betty continues to smoke and Hank, though experiencing several close calls that seem to warn him about the risks of his job, continues to pursue Heisenberg.

Additionally, just because Don is not around very much anymore doesn’t mean he no longer has influence over Betty’s choices. The series has suggested before that Betty acts based on impulses resulting from the ad campaigns Don and his clients create.

In the season two episode “A Night to Remember”, she became upset when she realized her demographic was targeted by a Heineken ad campaign that was Don’s idea. What made her even angrier was that he may have used her behavior to create it. It was one of the early examples in the series of Betty seeing clearly the manipulative nature of Don and his job.

Don may not have been very open to Betty about what he was working on when they were married, but now she has even less of a chance to see through the ads to the man behind them. Watching a soap opera and seeing an ad for cigarettes, possibly one produced by Don’s agency, may continue providing Betty with that reassurance Don spoke about in his pitch to Lucky Strike in the series premiere; “the reassurance that whatever you’re doing…is okay.” That reassurance has proven deadly for Betty.

Showrunner Matthew Weiner has long suggested, in articles this one, that the show is about people who will not change because they think it is a joke. That comment was made three years ago. But with only one episode left to air, Weiner, who seems to enjoy misdirecting the audience with his scripts and even the vague ads for upcoming episodes, is finally revealing what he wanted his series to say about change.

It may very well be the message that resisting change because everything seems to be okay, because everyone is saying it is okay, is a mistake. The idea of okay, like Don Draper himself, is an illusion.

Pete Campbell seemed to realize that this week and took a step towards change.  He decides to move away from the city and appears to have healed his relationship with Trudy. It could be argued that this isn’t change, and Pete is trying to regress back to a former illusion of okay. But the important thing is that he has started to question the idea of not changing. Maybe shedding the illusions sold by McCann Erickson will be enough for him to find real happiness.

While everyone continues to argue about whether or not Don will have a happy ending (or if anyone is going to leap out of an office window), I think any plot points that unfold in the series’ final hour will consist of more characters realizing that the reassurances they have been given have made them anything but okay.


–Nathan Blake


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