Look, let’s just make this clear from the outset. “Mad Men,” AMC’s fabulously successful series featuring 1960s-era Madison Avenue advertising execs, is now in its fifth season and has bundled more prestigious awards than anything else on TV. But—trust me on this—it’s not for everyone. Spoiler alert: If you are not caught up to date on the show, beware of learning things you don’t want to know.
While “Mad Men” is an ensemble show featuring remarkably complex characters, its star is Don Draper (John Hamm), creative director of the ad men. He’s also a war vet tormented by an identity problem he scrambles to keep covered, but not tormented enough to stay out of the beds of half the women of New York. Draper’s equally lethal doses of masculinity and vulnerability make the show’s women—according to Matthew Weiner, who leads the writers—want to love him or nurture him or do something to make him smile, so much so that he rivals King Solomon in conquests. AMC is not HBO; sexuality is rarely front and center, so to speak. But in “Mad Men,” it’s always a prominent part of the story because sex, as it always is, is a weapon of power among those who wield it.
Part of the show’s appeal is the fact that it is, first and foremost, a period piece. Its story lines are drawn intimately from the 1960s, arguably the most bellicose decade of the 20th century. “Mad Men” is about the way we were—at least the way the scriptwriters claim we were. People smoke cigarettes incessantly, much as old consistories once did. They drive without seat belts and leave trash on the ground in a kind of innocence that seems unthinkable today.
As interesting as anything in this drama is the relationship that exists between the sexes, set as it is at the dawn of the women’s movement. To viewers who don’t remember such things, the gap between men and women seems beyond belief. The women, most of them clerical staff, clearly have their place on the show, which does not mean they wield no power. They have, after all, their sexuality. But “Mad Men” clearly presents a man’s world—though, by this fifth season, it’s clear that the times, they are a’changin’. Draper’s new wife, unlike his first, wants to be her own person, not his. For that matter, even Betty, his first wife, is rethinking her dream of three kids, a dog, and a gabled house in the suburbs.
Some of the major male leads are war heroes, men from what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” and maybe they were, as long as they stayed on Iwo Jima. Once they got home, their heroism got lost, say the writers, at least on Madison Avenue. “Mad Men” (note the title) is a very dark show, and each week while the credits role, someone in a white shirt and tie leaps to his animated death from the office window. Who? “Mad Men” is soapy enough to hold on to that hook. Viewers love to speculate.
“Mad Men” is gritty. Its characters are, to a person, as vain and hedonistic as can be imagined. Adultery comes with the territory at Vanity Fair. People lie and cheat. If there were Christians on Madison Avenue during the early 1960s, we don’t see much of them on “Mad Men.” Draper and his colleagues work intensely, drink like fish, party like vandals, and earn lots and lots of dough. Sin abounds. Watch “Mad Men” at your own risk.
What keeps so many viewers tuned in is the fact that the audience only rarely guesses what will happen next. In season five, Don Draper, who has divorced his wife, marries a secretary who seems a trophy wife. Oddly enough, she seems to have done what no other female could—convince him to put away his Solomon-like, childish ways. Will he? We honestly don’t know. What makes the series so alive is the very real possibility that he will. It’s almost impossible to imagine that kind of transition might occur in television or film these days, but on “Mad Men,” a show that wants to refuse formulas, the audience knows that anything, honestly, can happen—just as it frequently can in real life.
And that’s what makes “Mad Men” ferociously good storytelling.
Is it good for the soul? Not everyone’s—that’s for sure.