I’ll admit it: I didn’t like Mad Men at first. More than that, I felt disappointed by my good friend’s recommendation and love for the show, shocked that she’d invest so much of her time in a show that I felt was slow and insubstantial. I watched 3 seasons of Mad Men, waiting for me to fall in love- I didn’t. And I quit watching. But somehow I came back, and season 4 led me to a path of appreciation for this genius show. Perhaps it wasn’t the season but the timing, the growth I’d experienced in the time between efforts to watch. Either way, I’m so glad I came back to this show. Here are a few reasons why:
-JOAN FUCKING HALLOWAY/HARRIS. Do I need to say more? Hands down the best character on the show. Her growth throughout the seven seasons is not only impressive but triumphant. She’s painted as a slut and a bitch, early feminist stereotypes taking place in the gender roled society of the late 1950’s. But we quickly find out that Joan has a deep-rooted respect for herself that flourishes when she chooses to divorce her husband, demands a partnership at the agency, aggressively becomes a more important business woman, and finds happiness in her solace, her talent, and her identity. She denies a friend’s attempts to convince her that a loveless marriage would be better than single motherhood to which she strongly and bravely responds: no it wouldn’t be. She tells Peggy that an agency sounds better with two names, so she names her new agency Halloway Harris. As it deserves to be named. I’m so thrilled that she did not happily and gracefully drop out of the show in love but rather she pounced all the way through, succeeding and being the hardcore, badass woman she’s always been.
-Betty Draper: At times she pissed me off. She can be a horrible mother (remember when Bobby traded her sandwich and he felt horrible about it for days?) and a snarky woman in general. But wow did she exhibit courage throughout. Her refusal to be Don Draper’s trophy wife and her assertion that she is more than his bride (“I can speak Italian you know!”) leads her to divorcing him. And later she does not hesitate about what she wants, ignoring Don’s lust for nostalgia and recognizing the truth: it hurts and is worthless to try and love Don Draper. Her ambition to go back to school inspires me. And her courage in the face of her death astounds me. She’s created herself. She can die happy.
-Sally Draper: We see Sally grow from a child to a woman, and the transitions are sometimes painful, awkward, and just plain hard to watch. Seeing her pine for her father’s love breaks my heart. She learns at such a young age that her father is not the hero she wants/needs him to be, and despite that, tries to love him anyway only to be rewarded a cold and uninterested half-love. But Sally uses her experiences and her dramatic realizations (she sees SO many people having sex and cheating on one another!) to shape her into an independent and strong-willed female. At times her hatred for Betty makes me want to scream, but that scene of her reading Betty’s letter? We know that Sally’s hatred was feigned, a teenager’s attempt at denying the parts of their own identity that ally so much with their mother’s. What an incredibly powerful scene. Sally Draper could be president one day; or, even better, she could work for Joan.
-Don Draper’s journey: Don Draper infuriates me. He does everything carelessly and selfishly, and we give him the benefit of the doubt every time, as does every single person around him. The show reveals Don’s story superbly, making viewers hate him just enough to wonder what the hell made him this way. And then it tells you, and we give him another shot. We excuse him. We apologize for him. And we root for him, at every wrong turn, every downfall. His coolness is undeniable; we all want to be Don Draper. But at what cost? His unhappiness seeps through the screen in seasons end of 6-7. His loneliness is audible. His fear of not being loved poignant and true. And yet? He’s made all of his fears come true. At the end of the show he’s alone, finally recognizing how miserable his life is, how wrecked he’s made himself. It’s the confession of a stranger, a man named Leonard, that finally melts Don Draper’s mysterious persona. Don can’t admit that he’s felt lonely and unwanted until another man does. But afterwards? One of the most tremendous scenes in the show’s history. The hope of redemption and of healing is strong. It carries. My heart sings for Don at the end, hoping that he finally finds happiness.
There are certain moments of the show that I can point to and think how wonderful/emotional: Peggy’s refusal to look at her child, Ken Cosgrove’s inspiration to write, Roger’s LSD trips, Burt Cooper’s death, Lane Pryce’s suicide, Joan’s unfaltering self respect in the face of a potential love of her life, Don crying and whispering ‘Birdie’ to Betty after he finds out the news of her sickness, Don showing his children the whorehouse he grew up in, Pete Campbell and Trudy stepping onto a plane to happiness, Peggy and Stan finally happening… So lovely.
I also love this show because of the historical feel. It’s rich with costume, culture, and attitudes of the time, bringing us realities we think are too far behind us to think about. I loved getting to watch historical events play out on the scenes of Mad Men (JFK assassination, MLK Jr assassination, the moon landing, the draft, Vietnam, etc.). Watching the gender roles and limitations of women, it’s all so fascinating. It makes me feel connected to older generations in ways I never thought I would.
And what did Mad Men do the most that impressed me? Made me love and hate characters with equal force. I detested Peter Campbell for the entirety of the show, and yet watching him get a happy ending led me to tears, proud and joyful tears. Roger Sterling is deplorable, as is Don, and yet I laugh at them. I love them. I want to be their friends. This show illustrates how deeply flawed human beings can be. But most importantly, it shows the importance of connectedness and of love. It exemplifies how love lasts and how it doesn’t, how things (even history) can fade away while still existing, with force.