Welcome to Seen Anything Good? A monthly series where I tell you which shows to binge-watch when you need help coping with the state of the world.
(Mild spoilers for a show that ended six years ago.)
The legacy of Mad Men can sometimes overshadow the elements of the show that actually made it great. It’s not all day drinking and sexually harassing secretaries (although yes, that does factor in pretty heavily). The series is a beautifully detailed portrait of life at a 1960s advertising agency, and in my opinion, it’s also the best workplace comedy of all time. Similar to more current series like Succession, it serves as a character study of deeply flawed people ruining things for themselves and each other.
Mad Men is one of those pieces of media that feels perpetually relevant, and despite the series ending in 2015 it still has a huge impact on pop culture. The show’s witty one-liners and gif-worthy reactions are all over Twitter. I recently saw a fancam for one of the show’s middle-aged advertising executive leads set to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal” ---- which is both insane and somehow also makes perfect sense for him. Plus, Lorde stans it. There’s literally no higher praise than that.
I end up watching the series all the way through at least once a year because I’m semi-obsessive, but also because the performances and stories in Mad Men are so rich and complex that you can genuinely notice something new with each rewatch. And despite all of the heartbreak (and the surprising amount of bloodshed) throughout the show, I find it strangely comforting. Especially these days.
There’s an episode where a wedding is derailed by the news of JFK’s assassination, and I’ve watched it three or four times this year alone. It’s weirdly reassuring to see these characters live through these great historical tragedies, and still have to carry on with their everyday lives. It’s a reminder that nothing is ever as devastating as it may feel. The world keeps turning. We still have family drama or work obligations to deal with. Our lives continue, and there’s some solace in that.
And despite how powerless we may feel in the face of these events, we do still have some control over our lives, or at least the way that others view us. The plot of Mad Men hinges on characters who are constantly changing themselves to fit other people’s expectations. It’s a reminder that our identity, for better or worse, is a story that we can write for ourselves.
At the beginning of season two, after an unexpected and traumatic event, Don Draper gives his protégé Peggy Olson one piece of advice: “This never happened.” That line becomes emblematic of Mad Men’s view on identity as a whole. We’re constantly seeing characters pick and choose which parts of their identity to acknowledge and which parts to keep hidden in order to live the life that they want. Peggy chooses to ignore this part of her history in order to continue her career. Other characters hide their passions, their needs, and even their sexuality in order to fit what society expects of them. And then there’s Don himself.
Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is a character that has been somewhat bastardized in pop culture. He’s seen as a cool, womanizing genius who doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, but honestly, that’s an almost comical misreading of the character. It’s right up there with guys who like Bojack Horseman because he’s funny, or want to be like Walter White because they think he’s a badass. Despite being rich and successful (and borrowing Jon Hamm’s good looks), Don is pathetic, and the show makes that very clear, especially as the seasons go on. The scene where he gets drunk during a meeting and starts telling the client about his traumatic childhood is one of the most uncomfortable scenes I’ve ever watched, and I’ve seen every episode of I Think You Should Leave. Despite this outward veneer of control, Don is a mess. He’s a depressed alcoholic who sabotages any chance of happiness he has and can only find fulfillment through his work. He has no sense of self ---- because Don Draper isn’t a real person.
Like, in the world of the show, he doesn’t exist.
“Don Draper” died during the Korean war, and the character that we know as Don took his identity in order to run away and start a new life. This works outwardly, and he ends up with all the trappings of the American Dream, but that doesn’t erase any of the problems that he was running from. He erased his own identity and spends the rest of the series trying to find it.
I honestly don’t want to give too much credit to Matthew Weiner because fuck him, but the layers of symbolism in Mad Men are legitimately brilliant. It can’t be overlooked that Don, who has spent years fabricating a perfect façade for himself, is also the one responsible for ad campaigns that dictate what that perfect façade should look like in the first place. It’s the equivalent of the Kardashians struggling with unfair beauty standards after giving an entire generation of girls body dysmorphia ---- just set in the 60s and repackaged for toxic masculinity. Don and the rest of the characters in Mad Men spend the series struggling to fit an idealized version of themselves in a world that is constantly changing and raising the standards for what one person is expected to do.
The show, which spans from 1960 to 1970, is essentially giving you a glimpse into the most significant years of these characters' lives. It’s fascinating to watch how they grow and change ---- or how they refuse to. Peggy’s development from timid secretary to confident career woman is honestly one of my favorite character arcs in all of television ---- but it’s just as thrilling to watch Pete, who starts off as an ambitious young account executive, settle further into his own mediocrity and bitterness, or to hope that housewife Betty, for all her flaws, might finally find happiness.
Mad Men gives such care and detail to all of its characters, to the point where they really do feel like actual people. It’s easy to pick out the characters you identify most with (personally I’m a Peggy sun, Don moon, Pete rising) and to see their mistakes and triumphs reflected in your own life. Watching the pivotal moments of their lives, knowing how their backstory affects each of their choices, makes me more aware of the motivation behind my own. The show is a testament to how complicated life can be and a reminder that we have the ability to control our own identity ---- even if it comes at a price.
I usually suggest a few particular episodes to check out before jumping into the show, but this is really a series that you need to watch in order. That being said, here are a few of my favorite episodes to give you an idea of what you’re in for:
Season 1, Episode 9: Shoot
A lesser show might not have taken the time to develop the character of Betty beyond the trope of “bored housewife,” but Mad Men really delves into her sense of alienation, and the resentment that she feels because of it. She sacrificed her own identity in order to fill the roles of wife and mother, and over the course of this episode, she begins to realize that the life she imagined for herself before she got married may be gone forever. It’s heartbreaking to watch that disillusionment, but her small act of defiance in the episode’s final moments is one of my favorite scenes in the entire series.
Season 3, Episode 13: Shut the Door. Have a Seat.
This episode slaps. It manages to show business deals with all the excitement of a heist film while delivering some truly great payoffs for the characters involved. Still, the episode makes it clear that even Don’s most triumphant moment is just his way of scrambling for control as everything in his life falls apart, and links that need for control to Don’s past through a few revealing flashbacks.
Season 4, Episode 7: The Suitcase
At least for me, this is THE quintessential episode of Mad Men. It’s essentially a bottle episode, with Don and Peggy stuck in the office, fighting over the latest campaign for a brand of suitcases because they’re both trying to avoid their own personal problems. The relationship between Peggy and Don is really the heart of the show, and this episode proves that even after screaming matches and some deeply personal insults, they still understand each other better than anyone else.