Note: This is light on spoilers for those who are behind on the current (half)season.
Do you remember Season 2 of Mad Men? Sure you do. In the sixth episode (“Maidenform”), Don Draper’s Creative team at Sterling Cooper once vainly hatched a campaign for the Playtex bra. After a night on the town copywriter Paul Kinsey unveiled his idea:
Women right now already have a fantasy, and it’s not going up the Nile. It’s right here in America: Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. Every single woman is one of them.
Sal Romano affirmed, “You’re a Jackie or a Marilyn; a line or a curve; nothing goes better together.” Don, of course, improved this, suggesting that every woman is both: “Two sides of one woman — Jackie by day, Marilyn by night.” As Kinsey concluded, “definitely two flavors, vanilla and cherry.”
Now, the Playtex campaign never got off the ground. Peggy Olson, the sole woman copywriter, saw through it immediately, recognizing it as a male fantasy. Playtex executives, while impressed with the idea and Don’s elegant pitch, opted to stay the course and continue their traditional campaign. Sal’s art and Paul’s idea went into the Sterling Cooper archives. This waste of time, though it mattered little to the agency, frustrated Paul. The missed opportunity anticipated Kinsey’s ultimate failure to live up to his copywriting promise.
However, Kinsey’s core notion of an elemental choice or, as Draper had it, the duality of being, is helpful when applied not to “every woman,” but to the show itself. In the history of this series, there have been two flavors of Mad Men; two different incarnations of one series, each with its own logic. The final season airing this spring is, in essence, mainly an epilogue. Understanding this puts into perspective the recent lackluster episodes, a much-debated topic over the last three weeks.
The First Mad Men:
The Camelot Years
Classic Mad Men, if you will, the era most people think of when the show is mentioned, comprised the first three seasons (set between 1960-1963) channeling a vision of the high Fifties and the transitional moment of JFK’s hopeful age of Camelot. Airing on AMC between 2007-2009, these seasons achieved the height of the show’s popularity, ratings, and influence on popular culture. Arguably, these were, aesthetically, the finest seasons of the show.
What was this original Mad Men based on? Four things, chiefly:
a) Don, working his Creative magic at the office time and again, despite his formidable demons and death wish (and burgeoning closet of skeletons)
b) Drinking and smoking, by Don and all of the men (and Peggy Olsen), in the office and everywhere else, all the time
c) The luscious fashion, design and architecture (mid-century modern) that made many scenes too visually beautiful to bear
d) Family drama at Ossining, New York (a Westchester County suburb) chiefly pitting Don against his beautiful yet troubled wife Betty
This series died, like Jack Kennedy, by the end of Season 3. By the end of that season, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, Don and Betty set in motion an uncontested divorce. Meanwhile, Draper led his colleagues in founding Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP). One era had emphatically ended.
Mad Men 2.0
Sixties Mad Men extended from Seasons 4 through 6 (set between 1964-1968), which politically comprised the LBJ years, an immensely turbulent period shaped by Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the Counterculture. Airing between 2010-13, these seasons proved somewhat less popular, with critical reaction more mixed.
This diminished appeal had less to do with any drop off in the quality of writing, direction or acting (indeed, some of the cast, including Jon Hamm, turned in their best performances during these seasons) than with the changing subject matter of this period drama, and, perhaps, the increasing competition faced by Mad Men at the peak of the new Golden Age of Television. Innovative though it remained, the show sometimes suffered in comparison with newcomers like Breaking Bad.
Necessarily, the messier cultural trends of the mid-to-late Sixties (particularly in fashion) dimmed the earlier nostalgia-based appeal for most viewers, even as the central importance of meticulously researched, lushly-presented clothes, cars, chairs and decoration persisted.
Smoking and drinking continued, now buttressed by drugs. Don’s creative juices continued to flow, albeit more erratically than before (he now had the luxury of delegating to a more mature Peggy and to young talents like Michael Ginsberg). In his family life, Don spent Season 4 a wayward, drunken bachelor, Season 5 a newly married man on “love leave” (an extended honeymoon with his second wife Megan), and Season 6 a self-destructive bore.
Season 6 ended with Don reprimanded at last, placed on an indefinite leave by the other partners of the now-renamed Sterling Cooper & Partners (SC&P). Megan repaired to Hollywood and Don, having vowed to quit drinking, began to open up (disastrously with Hershey’s, touchingly with Sally and Bobby) about his sordid, whorehouse upbringing. No longer in control of his firm or his narrative, Don ended the season apparently poised for redemption. He had, after all, hit bottom. In many ways, this would have been the perfect ending for Mad Men.
Mad Men, Season 7
Season 7, set in 1969-70 (so far), has aired in the springtime of 2014 and 2015. An as-yet unfinished final season, this minor and inevitably disappointing postscript has shown Don attempting to gain greater control over his life.
In some ways, the world in 1970 has come back to Don. The Sixties were bad for him. Even before the tumult of the era consumed him in Season 6, Don had recognized the loss of his ear for the zeitgeist (in Season 4, he was uncertain what to make of a new day whose soundtrack was the Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction,” and was unhappy to see Cassius Clay win a definitive boxing match; in Season 5, he sadly admitted to Megan, “I don’t know what’s going on out there,” and failed to appreciate her Beatles record, asking, “When did music become so important?”).
By contrast, the Age of Nixon – with its lurch towards a kind of “normalcy” and its hard-edge cynicism blended with complacency – seems a natural fit for a man who has conceded nothing to the times in his sartorial or moral habits, not even a whisker of facial hair.
While there is plenty of debate over the direction the series has taken over the last three weeks, there has been more than the usual amount of criticism, even exasperation. It’s hard to disagree with those previously enthusiastic critics who find, like John Swansburg on Slate, “the writers’ approach . . . heavy-handed and lacking in drama.”
Always vulnerable to critiques of its innate tendency toward meandering, Matt Weiner’s team might at last have spent its creative force. The repetitive and self-referential navel-gazing of these most recent episodes reflects little of Mad Men’s former glory.
In many ways, the difficulties of the show we are watching this spring are rooted in the history of Mad Men and of the last fifteen years of American television, the age of Quality TV. As Saul Austerlitz has noted in the New Republic,
Quality TV has gone from being an expression of praise to a defined genre . . . The misfires are still far outweighed by the successes, and our DVRs groan with endless TV bounty. But golden eras have a funny habit of ending just as we begin to get used to them. Television needs room to grow and change and adapt and surprise, not be hemmed in by the well-meaning but suffocating love of a nation of freelance curators assembling their collections on their DVRs and Netflix queues, demanding a new “Mad Men” every month, but getting only pallid imitations.
Each Sunday night, we yearn for what we cannot have: the pleasant surprise of a Classic Mad Men or a Sixties Mad Men episode that shocks or unsettles us and makes us anticipate the next big turn of events, the next major epiphany. If, like LG, you find the second half of Season 7 disappointing, remember, this is not the Mad Men we will remember. Hold on to cherry, or vanilla, or both.