Mad Men: The Greatest Show of Our Time

by Kolby Solinsky

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Read the recaps, if you must.

The sites like Vulture and the AV Club, even Grantland, they write them after every episode of every show, and definitely after every 60 minutes of Mad Men. These are useful, but they’re misleading during any final season – those recaps aren’t really devoted to saying sayonara to individual episodes; Instead, they distract themselves by over-tributing an entire series. Reviews of tonight’s season premiere will actually be reviews of Mad Men‘s whole run to-date, a premature goodbye to a show with several weeks to go. It was like that during Breaking Bad‘s wind-down, too – you couldn’t just enjoy an episode, it seemed, without having to consider what it meant in the big scheme of the show’s things.

So instead, I’ll just skip the foreplay. I’ll pass on the unnecessary pretending, that any show is really important in single Sunday-by-Sunday chunks.

I’m not reviewing tonight’s episode. I’m reviewing the whole thing – all 7.5 seasons of Mad Men, which I consider to be the greatest show I’ve ever watched.

Over The Sopranos. Over Bad. The only one close is Seinfeld, and I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison. (Half-hour, laugh-track comedies versus a dramatic, decade-long period piece? Why not debate Carey Price versus Sidney Crosby while we’re at it?)

The greatest show of all-time? What a waste of writing. The greatest show of this time… of our time? No doubt, to me.

Can you think of any other series that spent seven years and never once let up, or even sped up? Is there a more consistently excellent, trend-setting show than Mad Men? I can’t think of one.

In Mad Men, long looks and commercials for the Carousel are the equivalent in excitement to Frank Underwood killing a congressman. The show doesn’t need death or explosions or fist fights to convince you to stay. Instead, seasons end with Don showing his children the home he grew up in. Or with Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ fading in as Don sits on his home’s stairs. Or with buyouts, mergers, and other boring business-y things. (I read a review of The Social Network a few years back, which said that Aaron Sorkin had made typing on a computer look so exciting, it was like watching bullets fly in other films. Mad Men‘s the same way, with steady, subtle drama.)

The series has introduced villains and time stamps and historic events, and it’s turned them all into suitable scenery. Even its dramatic competitors – Breaking Bad, certainly, among others – have started and ended in the time that Mad Men began and still exists and thrives.

It’s hard to imagine that Jon Hamm was once a nobody, or that Don Draper was married and lived in Revolution Road‘s suburbs. But of course, both were.

The show has gone from black-and-white WASP America to the crater left by its anti-war culture, showing us just how quickly times change, but more importantly how quickly the alternative becomes the norm, and then reverts again.

It’s amazing to me, truly, how the show weaves its way through and out of the Sixties and its music, its attitudes, and its crowd-sourced wisdom. The show’s a period piece, I’m sure, but creator Matthew Weiner and his writers have been able to not just place their fingers on the pulse of a fascinating, dead era… they’ve also found parallels in the 21st century, from gay rights to women’s liberation, to the way everyone deals with the insecurities they feel towards their bodies, their coolness, and things on their horizon.

Season 7’s first half openly and obviously bitched about the oncoming computing revolution. 45 years later, and what are we still talking about?

Can’t we see the same entitled Pete Campbells in our offices today? (And don’t we oddly admire them just a little bit?) Don’t we still understand that, even though we maybe can’t drink and smoke in boardrooms anymore, playing the game is more important than winning it?

Men like Don and Roger Sterling and even Harry Crane were never the best at their jobs, but they knew the politics. If everything’s a game of thrones, the winners always seem to remember that ‘game’ comes before ‘thrones’ in that phrase. The others are too focused on the ladder.

Peggy learns to survive. Joan, too. Much of their success is due to the fact that they’re women – that they see through a different lens than the dicks and balls in their company do. But they have had to become the men, in a way, as well.

Peggy’s been copying and pasting Don’s mannerisms for seven seasons. Once he let her hold the mic, she predictably found her voice.

And if you really want to know how the show got from then to here, you only have to consider the box sets. The first season’s DVD was shaped like a cigarette lighter. Season 7’s was coloured in psychedelic twists and twirls. You almost forgot the hippie revolution was happening when you watched the show, despite the small embeds of characters like Abe or the Hare Krishna weirdos. And you realize, when you look back, that Roger’s gone from white collar to white mutton chops.

But they were nuisances, too, the alternative types – all the righteous protest talk sounds like crocodile tears now.

Hardly anybody looks back and thinks the Vietnam War was a noble cause or a necessary fight, or a good waste of thousands of young American lives. But the War ended in 1975 – it’s been over for 40 years. Do you really care, honestly, anymore?

There’s an interesting moment like that, in Season 6, when the show covers Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.

It happens at the end of an episode, with Megan sitting on the bed crying in front of the TV. No words are spoken – you’re just supposed to know what’s happening, because it’s 1968 and the series had already spent years threading famous assassinations (JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Sonny Liston’s boxing career) into its quilt. You knew it was coming, right? Well, here it is.

Don walks in, doesn’t say a word still, and sits on the bed with his head down. It all closes out as ‘Reach Out Of The Darkness’ turns up in the soundtrack.

It’s dark and depressing, with the characters falling exhaustedly toward the end of the generation.

Young people like Megan are already worn out and jaded, used up and wasted, before they even had a chance to start their own thing. Meanwhile, middle-aged traditionalists and by-default Republicans (like Don and Roger used to be) can’t help but hang their heads for the same things as the long-haired, side-burned hippies on Washington’s Mall are. In Season 4, Don was whining about Muhammad Ali like every other over-40-year-old white male – that Clay, as he was known then, was too loud and cocky, and that Sonny Liston just went about his business, the admirable way or something. Three years later and Don’s smoking weed in California, three-waying with his hippie Canadian wife, and wearing the clothes he derided young Beatles fans for buying in 1965. (And he’s crying for Bobby Kennedy, not Nixon and his terrifying, fear-mongering ads.)

But the weirdest part of that scene comes seconds before Don and Megan’s bit. We know RFK’s been killed not because of the TV or a news bulletin, but from Pete’s old and mostly senile mother. She wakes him up and tells him, “Peter, they shot that poor Kennedy boy!”

Pete responds, “That was years ago, mother” and dismisses her and it. We know she’s right, but Pete just tosses the news aside like it was nothing – she’s normally too dementia’d out to know what’s going on, but she notices real nuggets on occasion.

And I sat there watching that scene and I thought, “Wait, years ago?” The way the show covered JFK’s assassination, it was like the world stopped turning for three days in November, 1963. There was nothing before and nothing after, it seemed. Don even got divorced because of it, sort of.

And then five years later, it’s just one little event? Did it ever really matter?

I suppose it’s sort of like how most of us look at our lives though, as if every human development is something major – high school graduations, our first jobs, our first time being fired, our marriage(s), our kids, or something like that. Each one is treated like it’s 1 A.D. – high school grads, especially – but they’re really more like checkpoints.

Each one is a little hurdle you’ll soon forget was ever so important to you. 9/11 was the Kennedy assassination for my generation, and I’m now rolling my eyes whenever I have to sit through CNN’s or NBC’s look-back broadcast every September. So it happens, I think. (And 9/11 was also followed by a period of overcompensating loyalty to the flag and its presidency. They happened to be Republican each time, and during McCarthyism, too – that’s just chance, maybe. The result was this: we’d conform as long as we were fed a few lines about patriotism and security. And in Mad Men, we see the characters watching it happen, helplessly.)

But what’s been most impressive about Mad Men – and this is my final point, I promise – has been how it’s fucked with everyone.

With its viewers, with its competition, with its characters… everyone.

Remember those shows like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, which were obviously made to leech off this whole ‘men with sideparts/women with skirts’ style – the exact aesthetic Mad Men brought back to coolness in 2007. Whoever created those hour-longs thought all you needed to win Emmys were well-dressed dudes who opened the car door for their ladies, short whiskey glasses, and cigarette smoke.

But then as soon as Mad Men got popular, it pulled the rug out from under itself, like a TV version of the Soviets’ Scorched Earth policy. Weiner did away with the clothes and the cheesy early Sixties gumption, and it moved onto more serious business – the War, heroin in the Village, among other things. And Sterling Cooper disappeared too, with the show’s only important characters forming their own agency in the TIME/LIFE building.

Roger traded in oak and ebony for an office in space. Don dumped a Hitchcock blonde and moved onto Bettie Page.

As soon as Hollywood realized there was this Mad Men effect’ taking over today’s hipster style, it was too late. The show was already onto Season 4 and already onto popped collars and the Rolling Stones.

Anyone who subscribes to trends because they’re trendy is ultimately and very harshly left behind.

Rock n’ Roll has never really been about the music anyway. It’s about rocking and rolling.

And Mad Men, I’m sure, will have the van vibrating until its final credits.

VIDEO: Nostalgia – Mad Men’s Season 7