My wife and I are rabid fans of Mad Men, AMC’s critically-acclaimed drama about an advertising agency in the 1960s. The show surveys America’s most tumultuous and revolutionary decade, beginning in button-down 1960 and ending in shaggy 1970. It explores American culture, the workplace, sex, masculinity, and (of course) the swift, radical changes that overturned society in that decade.
Mad Men is widely considered one of the best television series ever, and it merits this high praise. The show is beautifully written, with haunting performances by an exceptional cast. The drama is driven by complex and interesting characters who have moments of triumph and periods of despair. How these characters develop over the years, and how their lives are shaped by broad cultural changes and their own individual choices, makes for great drama. (Its portrayal of glamorous 1960s Manhattan, with sharply dressed men swilling rye whiskey at two o’clock at the office is a lot of fun, too.)
Though each character in Mad Men is well-crafted, the driver of the show is the protagonist, Don Draper. For those unfamiliar with the show, Don is epitome of masculinity. He is handsome, and rich, and talented, and cool, and brooding, and mysterious. The creators of Mad Men were intentional in making Don the embodiment of the cliché “women want him and men want to be him.” Don represents white male culture at its apex, and the show is about how Don adjusts to the revolution (and his diminishing influence) throughout the decade.
Paradoxically, Don is presented as an ideal male figure, and a fossil of an age long overdue for oblivion. For those who missed out on the series finale (spoiler alert), Don’s cycles of success and self-destruction culminates in Don finding inner peace by searching out a sincere spiritual experience, which inspires the greatest commercial of all time: the “Buy the World a Coke” commercial for Coca-Cola. The consensus interpretation of the show’s conclusion is that Don finds himself exactly where he should be. He experiences a hard-won spiritual epiphany, and channels this insight towards creative genius. Don takes his rightful place among the ad-man pantheon.
Other characters have similar experiences. Joan bravely rises against the tides of corporate sexism to make it on her own as the founder of her own business. Peggy continues her ascent towards the heights of the advertising industry at McCann. Even Pete Campbell finds happiness by leaving the rat race (and Manhattan) behind. In short, Mad Men’s conclusion affirms the “be-who-you’re-meant-to-be” ethos that emerged in the sixties and dominates modern American society.
Most reviewers see this as a happy, though bittersweet, ending. Mad Men is a complex look at a watershed moment in American history where traditional values were replaced virtually overnight by sexual revolution. Ultimately, the show demonstrates that the turmoil of the sixties (though not without its challenges) leaves the world in a better place.
I’m not so sure. The series finale is a perfectly executed masterpiece. But, for me, the conclusion only confirmed that Mad Men is about the tragedy of desire. Mad Men is perhaps the most focused meditation of the nature of desire in post-modern America. Nearly every significant conflict is about characters wanting something. From the first episode, Don wants to escape the boredom of a humdrum, suburban life. He also wants to escape his meager and abused roots. Betty wants out of her prison of housewivery. Peggy wants to break free from her working class Irish Catholic life, and from the secretary pool. Pete wants to be worthy of his patrician heritage. Joan wants to be taken seriously. Roger wants to be young forever. The men want sex, and money, and distraction. The women want a voice.
It would be nearly impossible to list the desire of every character (as there are so many). Yet nearly every major plot point is about the agony of wanting something; the struggle to get what you want; the gnawing anger of seeing someone else with the thing you want; the consequences of taking what you want; the fear of not getting what you want; the disappointment of getting something that you’ve wanted for so long; or the demoralization of failing to get what you want.
It’s no accident that Mad Men is about an advertising agency, which has as its sole mission the creation of desire. The point of an advertisement is to make you want something. Some of the best scenes in Mad Men occur when Don or Peggy create a pitch that resonate with customers on a deep level, tapping into their need to be loved, to be special, to be mothered, and (yes) to be wanted. The denizens of Sterling Cooper are experts in the art of fomenting desire.
And all of this is amplified by the age, where individual desires began to supplant duty to family and a greater good. As viewers, we see first hand how the decay of the nuclear family and traditional morality is at the center of this revolution. While this “culture war” aspect of Mad Men is muted, it is everywhere. The 1950s ideal of marriage and family as the highest good is replaced by relentless individualism. Happiness is no longer defined by living a good life; rather, happiness is about doing what you want.
This is where I believe most reviewers of Mad Men miss the mark. Most critics believe that Mad Men stands for the proposition that this turn of events is a good thing. I can’t attest to authorial intent, but it’s hard for me to view Mad Men as an endorsement of the sixties revolution.
In a world where duty is replaced by desire, there is no happiness. Happiness is, frankly, beside the point. Yet the show is imbued by such sadness, it can’t be possible that the endless pursuit of desire is viewed a worthy successor to the social mores of the fifties. Peggy’s ambition leaves her constantly battling insecurity. Even her own meteoric success did not seem sufficient for the show’s writers—her “happy ending” involves finding love. Joan is left to her own able devices, and she has won well-deserved respect for making it on her own. But, though she is succeeding, she is still struggling at the show’s conclusion.
Don is presumed to found inner peace and success. But has he? Isn’t he just poised for another cycle of triumph and self-destruction? It’s hard to believe this lifestyle will not get old soon. And considering that we have already seen Don go through this cycle several times, any conclusion that Don has achieved a level of inner peace or spiritual growth is met with incredulity. If anything, Don is presented with an opportunity for conversion or growth, but he decides to pillage this experience in order to make a commercial. I also find Don’s epiphanies as serving to somehow justify his serial infidelity and self-centered behavior. Don may be incapable of happiness. He achieves everything, only to throw it away as meaningless, whether it is his relationships or his business success. Don will no doubt revisit these lows in the future.
Meanwhile, his beloved daughter Sally, always in his corner, finally realizes how terrible a father Don really is. Sally herself shows grace and growth by taking up duties to care for her younger brothers and ailing mother at their time of need.
Ironically, the least likable character, Pete Campbell, is the only one who seems to find real happiness: he reconciles with his estranged wife and gives up his quest to take his place among the cream of Manhattan society. Of all places, Pete finds happiness in Kansas. The only character that seems poised for lasting happiness is the one character that abandons his long-held desires in exchange for the duties of family.
In light of where these characters are at the end of the show, it is difficult to conclude that Mad Men endorses the “follow your own star” values that permeated the sixties counterculture. Judging from these characters, unyielding devotion to one’s own desires is a recipe for unhappiness. While doing what you want and following your own path sound empowering, when these values are not tethered to duty or responsibility, they lead to a life void of real satisfaction. Like all of the advertisements penned by Sterling & Cooper, there will always be another desire to fulfill.
When watching the series finale of Mad Men, Psalm 23 came to mind: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” For millennia this could only be interpreted as confirming that God provides, so have faith. But in our post-1960s, consumerist American culture, where nearly everyone has all of their needs met, this Psalm has taken on a different meaning for me. So many of us in our culture base our entire lives of what we want. I want a bigger house. I want a nicer car. I want to go on vacation. Etc. Social media has taken this incessant covetousness to a new level. Desire, whether spurred by the media or our peers, is ubiquitous. What’s important for us is to remember that God is our shepherd. There is no need to want.
This is Mad Men’s subtle message. Though many reviewers would disagree, Mad Men is a critique of the “me first” ethos that the 1960s produced. I would highly recommend this show to anyone, as it is a beautiful work of art. But it also has value as a quietly strong message against the post-modern self-worshipping culture, which was born in the 1960s.
It should be noted that I am not talking about freedom to choose. One major point I may seem to have overlooked is that women did not have a freedom to choose prior to the sixties. Legally and socially, there were insurmountable barriers to women in the workplace. I wholeheartedly support the extension of equal opportunity to women and am against the rampant sexism of the era. But my point above is about wisdom, not freedom. Of course women should be free to choose a life they wish to pursue. But just because you choose something doesn’t mean it is a choice that will produce happiness. Given the past 50 years, is it wise to believe that working for a corporation is the key to happiness?