I have always been somewhat of a TV obsessive. As a child, I would always leave my friend’s house before three o’clock to make sure I would be home in time to watch Sailor Moon. In high school, I rooted for Aidan over Big -- I even took a day off to mourn McDreamy’s death. I’ve often half-joked that I did so poorly on the SATs because I spent the majority of my junior year of high school, staying up late watching Breaking Bad. Yet no television show has ever entranced me the way Mad Men has.
As with most loves, it didn’t happen immediately. It was a slow burn — the first season demands patience to move through, it requires forbearance to fall in love with the characters in spite of their most unlovable traits. Don is an adulterer, Betty is petulant, Joan is vain, Roger is entitled. But by the season one finale — the now-iconic episode “The Wheel,” — it is near impossible not to see the magic of show. When pitching his ad campaign for Kodak’s new slide projector, Don says, “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.” In addition to becoming one of the touchstone quotes of the Golden Age of Television, these words sum up the magic of Mad Men itself. Mad Men offers us a window into our shared past, allowing us to take pride in the ways America has progressed and prudently discern the ways it has not since that most turbulent era of our history.
The show folds seminal moments in American history seamlessly into the characters’ lives and their development. The death of Marilyn Monroe particularly strikes Joan, one of the most beautiful women in the office. Joan says of Monroe, “This world destroyed her.” What initially seems like a throwaway nod to the past is actually a catalyst for Joan’s growth as a character. Monroe’s death makes Joan realize that she wants to be more than a sex symbol and emboldens her to use her beauty as a means of gaining true financial security for herself and, eventually, her son. Joan sleeps with an executive at Jaguar to land the account for the advertising agency and, though the decision to do so comes at her personal expense, she leverages her choice into a position as partner at the firm. At one point, she even invokes Betty Friedan when she is being mistreated. By the end of the show, she is running her own company.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy plays out alongside the disintegration of Betty and Don’s marriage, situations which both culminate in Betty shrieking, “What is happening?!” These moments serve to demonstrate the pervasive confusion of the era and the emotional toll these crises took. Mad Men makes historical moments — the Beatles at Shea Stadium, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War — feel intensely personal. These moments belong to everyone and they have become so embedded in our culture that it can be hard to feel the magnitude of their significance. Like magic, Mad Men restores their power.
It may seem obvious to declare that a television show set in the 1960s is about the past, but it is more apt to say that the show is about how the past engages with the present. Don Draper is the personification of this idea. Born Dick Whitman, Don escapes his tragic, impoverished childhood by adopting the identity of a fallen soldier during his service in the Korean war. Don steals the soldier’s tags, symbolically killing himself. There is a memorable shot of Don staring out the window of a train car as he watches the coffin, thought to contain his own body, being carted away. This action haunts Don throughout the show and leaves him constantly struggling with imposter syndrome. No matter how much money he makes or how beautiful his wife is, material success can never be enough for him. At his core, he feels unworthy. A scene in season three demonstrates this best. After discovering Don’s true identity, Betty snarls at him, “What would you do if you were me? Would you love you?” To which Don replies, “I was surprised that you ever loved me.” Because Don never had a home and grew up in utter chaos, he only feels like himself when his life is in disarray — when he is having an illicit affair, when he is falling down drunk, when he is experiencing shame.
Don represents the most American of stories, drawing on the most American of magic — the ability to make yourself new, to escape all past and personal history to become the person you most want to be. This promise — one that the entire advertising industry is built on — proves hollow for Don because it is not rooted in any spiritual fortitude. However, his example allows his progeny, Peggy to courageously forge her own path. Peggy is both ridiculed and objectified in the office, particularly by Pete. Later in season one, Pete and Peggy have sex, which, unbeknownst to Peggy, results in her becoming pregnant. Don visits her in the hospital and encourages her to put the baby up for adoption and move forward with her life as if the whole situation never happened. Which is exactly what Peggy does. And, unlike in other television shows, Peggy is never punished for her rejection of motherhood. Instead, just the opposite happens. Peggy learns to voice her opinion, even when she’s surrounded only by men, and she works her way up from secretary to become one of the top copywriters at Sterling-Cooper. Peggy’s experiences as a woman, as an outsider endow her with a grit and ambition that cannot be rivaled by any of her male coworkers.
Mad Men’s focus on women, particularly the depictions of Peggy and Joan, is the foremost reason I love the show. Handled by less skillful writers, the women characters most certainly would have been confined to the stereotypes they initially seem to embody. In most television shows, Joan would be written off as the Whore who trades sex for personal gain and Peggy would be labeled icy and frigid, ruthlessly obsessed with her work. However, Mad Men plays to the nuances of of each woman — to their intelligence, their pragmatism and warmth. It permits each of its characters to move beyond what is expected of them, as long as the character is bold enough to take the steps necessary for growth. Since women today are still not paid as much as men and continuously have their value based primarily on their sex appeal, there is something so empowering about watching the women of the show endure the cruelties of everyday sexism and prosper in spite of it. These moments make me want to honor all of the women who have made room for me and remind me that I have a responsibility to make room for the generation of women after me.
As Bert Cooper remarks about a secretary who dies at her desk in my favorite episode of Mad Men, “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.” Joan and Peggy, too, are astronauts, surpassing the boundaries of the world they grew up in, in order to create meaningful lives independent of male influence. In this way, Mad Men is also a spaceship, encouraging us to imagine a new world, the one America promises to be, where a person’s value is based solely on their talent and hard work, rather than their appearance or circumstance.
This notion plays out throughout the show. An episode in Season 7 sees Don driving down the road as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” plays. Though Don spends most of the show emotionally divorced from everyone in his life, seemingly living in his own orbit, this choice of song demonstrates that Don is also an astronaut. He’s moving into a greater spiritual understanding of himself.
Don’s relationship with Peggy and his decision to allow her to take the lead on the Burger Chef account is a part of what triggers his spiritual awakening. In an episode set against the backdrop of the 1969 Moon Landing — a moment in history that reminds us both of our human limitations and our ability to surpass them — Peggy delivers a moving pitch for Burger Chef, one that is reminiscent of Don’s for the Kodak slide projector. Speaking of the Moon Landing, Peggy says, “I don’t know if it was the technological achievement or the fact that we were all doing the same thing at the same time. Sitting in this room, we can still feel the pleasure of that connection. We were starved for it. We really were.” She goes on, eerily echoing our own uncertain cultural climate, “The TV’s always on. Vietnam is playing the background, the news wins every night. And you’re starving — and not just for dinner.”
This connection that Peggy speaks of is precisely what Mad Men offers to its viewers, what it reminds us that we need. The magic of Mad Men lies in its ability to make us connect more deeply with ourselves, with each other, with the history that we share and the figures who brought us to where we are now. The show’s magic is in its message that we cannot get where we need to be until we honor who we have been. The show does exactly what television should — it connects us.