My Back Pages: Mad Men

Author: Liam Farrell '04

Liam Farrell, alumni editor

A simple brilliance lies at the heart of the AMC show Mad Men, which premiered for what will likely be its sixth and penultimate season this week. For a show that is fundamentally about identity and the process of creating, destroying or denying who we are, is there a better setting than an advertising agency?

For nearly 62 hours, Mad Men’s audience has followed the journey of ad man Don Draper, secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson, and various other colorful antiheroes, as they grapple with the problem they also encounter every day in their professional lives: No matter how beautiful the pictures or how profound the speech, the flaws in the foundation of a product — and a person — will become exposed. We are, for better and definitely for worse, who we are. To what extent are we able to change that? How much strength and perseverance will such change, if possible, take?

A lot has gone in to the success of Mad Men, which carries cultural cache for a cable drama whose audience pales against many network equivalents. There was the initial allure of revisiting the Camelot 1960s, the stylish clothes that dovetailed neatly with a wider fashion renaissance, and the broader trend of television continuing to move toward more novelistic, narrative-driven prestige series. Of course, the writing and characters have also been very good.

Its strength is also due to embracing the fundamental subject of American life that has stayed constant from the beginning of the republic through Horatio Alger, Jr. stories and modern-day fairy tales of self-made success: namely, what does it take to reach the “American Dream” and who will we become if we realize it? Mad Men is basically an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel set 40 years later.

The series began its first season in 1960, with a coterie of advertising executives either trying to solidify their success or clawing their way up the ladder. They lost clients, had affairs, fought each other mercilessly, and struggled to make sense of things when society’s promises were darkened by missiles in Cuba and an assassin’s bullets. When faced with a hostile business takeover, our protagonists cut bait to try and go it on their own, to see if the fat and happy could once again be the hungry and wild.

In the season that just opened, the characters are now on the brink of 1968, arguably the most turbulent year of a turbulent era. We are also starting to see how the rebellions of that decade and the responses to them are souring. In earlier seasons, our brushes with the counterculture took place in relatively run-of-the-mill bars, coffeehouses and apartments, where the most objectionable stuff going on was naïve rhetoric or a fez.

Now, we are taken into dank, filthy and abandoned buildings with hard drugs and no water or electricity. When children headed to the big city for excitement in past seasons, a brush with adulthood would send them back to the arms of their parents; now, they disappear like ghosts.

The show also emphasizes how much we can be prisoners of our own time. Period dramas have a certain rubbernecking quality, where we see how the societal norms of the day stack up to our own time. Mad Men, depending on what you see as historical accuracy versus dramatic hyperbole, is certainly an enlightening tour to the sexism and lack of sobriety that were once more publicly woven into daily life.

Mad Men, however, is also somewhat of a mirror, and it’s worth remembering there are modern corollaries to a secretary dealing with nonstop sexual harassment or a recovering alcoholic watching the whiskey river flow after a successful presentation (if those things have, in fact, disappeared).

And perhaps most effectively, the show acts as a reminder that for all of our own personal decisions and aspirations, we can be quashed at any moment by much larger forces. In the third season, Mad Men had one of the most visceral metaphors for Vietnam ever created, as a young prodigy’s accounts career was destroyed when a secretary accidentally drove a lawnmower over his foot.

The war is now becoming much more concrete. In this season’s premiere, Don stands in at a somewhat spontaneous wedding for a G.I. on rest and relaxation in Hawaii. The soldier has a few months left in his tour, months that we know will encapsulate the Tet Offensive and other bloody battles. When Don mistakenly returns to New York City with the soldier’s cigarette lighter, a tangible reminder of this soldier’s perilous mortality, he enters a depressive tailspin. Time, he feels, is running out all over.

By the end of the premiere, that is the feeling we are left with, too. The characters we met eight years ago are older, but they are not necessarily satisfied; after becoming more successful, they now have to watch their backs for everyone who is trying to follow the same path; ambition knows no bounds and is not limited to any age group.

The chase, then, appears to be neverending. And, perhaps, finally getting everything you want — realizing a perfect American Dream — is as impossible as ever realizing a perfect version of yourself.

Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of this magazine. Email him at