When Mad Men first started in 2007, I had been working in the marketing industry for a few months, albeit with an in-house Big Pharma agency. My big task on my first day was to quickly review a prescribing information document for a new drug that had recently been approved for use, a key document required to be delivered with any promotional materials. I remember the hustle and bustle of everyone in my department pitching in to move along dozens of jobs that would become the advertisements and sales materials that would herald the arrival of this new drug. It was exciting.
About three years later, at a bona fide agency, I worked some long nights and weekends to do my part with finalizing sales materials, ads, Web sites, and other kinds of materials for public consumption. I soon became accustomed to the frantic, adrenaline-rush highs of advertising and marketing, but in my personal life I was also experiencing the lows of loneliness, regret, the work-life balance woes of new motherhood, and the awkwardness I felt with making connections with others. I did not always deal with these struggles with grace, but I always hoped for better. It was from this vantage point that I became engrossed in the spectacle of Mad Men.
On the small screen, I saw people in the never dull advertising world of Sterling Cooper, and its later iterations, with similar highs and lows. Like Roger Sterling charming his way through business lunches and dinners, leading coups that lured premium companies onto the client roster, but struggling with mortality after a heart attack. Or Pete, on the fast track to success, yet always feeling like an also-ran in his life. Or Peggy, steadily climbing up the career ladder while reminded of the ghosts of a child sent for adoption and dead-end romantic relationships. Or Joan, similarly staking her own vaunted space in the company, yet reminded of compromises she made to get there, and plagued by all the other ones that men expected her to make to go further.
And then, of course, there’s Don Draper, who confessed in one of the last episodes to being responsible for a man’s death and succeeding to steal that man’s identity, to grab a blank slate life that he filled with equal measures of achievements and deceptions for himself and others, until it burst, revealing to him a yawning chasm of isolation. (Now that elevator shaft moment a few seasons back makes sense to me.)
When the hefty price tag paid for use of “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles at the end of a 2012 episode was revealed, I thought the creative team could’ve just as easily gone with “Eleanor Rigby” instead, with all the truly lonely, sad characters that populated the show. There was always a thread of people wanting more out of life, but not sure how to get there, or not satisfied with the next steps they made. But the last season began to show a way out of that morass of melancholy for many of the main characters.
One of my favorite recent episodes was the one last year in which the core band of marketeers were working to develop an ad for a fast-food burger place. The initial target was moms who wanted to provide for their children but felt guilty about not providing a home-cooked meal. But ultimately the team settled on highlighting the restaurant as a place for disparate people to eat together and share laughs and life. They encouraged a notion of making your family out of whoever was around that you really cared about.
I liked the notion in that episode of Don, Peggy, and Pete breaking through their individual personal hells, breaking through their past and present annoyances with each other, to realize their shared connection, and that what they shared sometimes brought peace of mind to each other. This episode, and its contented last scene, to me foreshadowed the way all three of them lashed out with a mix of desperation, excitement, and/or confusion toward unexpected connections that shook up their bleak worldviews in the very last episode.
Whether getting a second chance with an old connection, embarking on a new and unproven relationship, or shamelessly breaking through a false veneer of self-sufficiency and control in exchange for healing, for me the final trajectories of these three characters (and the similar life-altering decisions made by Joan, Roger, and Betty) exemplified moments of strength and love that we are often too proud, or too afraid, to grab for ourselves.
Jon Hamm and show creator Matthew Weiner both alluded to the fact that the final vignettes for these characters didn’t mean that their lives were smooth sailing after these brave moments, just that they saw beyond their set patterns to make changes that brought them closer to better versions of themselves. Isn’t this also the best we can ask ourselves as we journey through life? I found their actions to be a good reminder for me to seek out the areas in my life that may call for bravery to effect change.
Mad Men made ennui glamorous (like Betty languishing on the psychiatrist’s couch early on), but through the haze of so many cigarettes and glasses of scotch, the emptiness, to me, was stark and oppressive. If the show captured the disillusionment that crept into America’s consciousness going into the 1970s, as Weiner indicated, several of the main characters had been leading the charge on that sentiment for quite some time, yet they also stumbled on ways to possibly escape it. The vulnerability and decisiveness that the characters showed to get to these new chapters in their lives, in my opinion, gives us something more valuable to hold on to than the cumulative knowledge of retro fashion and period music that we gained from watching the show.