Everything Happened: On "Mad Men"

By Phillip MaciakMarch 25, 2012

Everything Happened:  On "Mad Men"

TOWARD THE END OF “Tomorrowland,” the final episode of the fourth season of AMC’s Mad Men, Don Draper (the girl-, booze-, and epiphany-hound played to the nines by Jon Hamm) gazes with rapt wonder into the eyes of his newest lover. Something of a cut-to-the-chase lothario until this point, Draper’s googly candor is a bit surprising as he lays his heart on the bedsheet. “Did you ever think,” he says, “of the number of things that had to happen for me to get to know you? But everything happened, and it got me here. What does that mean?” Hamm utters these lines in the kind of tremulous whisper-shout normally reserved for stoners commenting on double rainbows. But it’s not just love that has Draper so high, or at least not only love. Don Draper, in this scene, is amazed by the sheer happenstance complexity of the events leading up to this new relationship. In the context of Draper’s life, it’s a romantic speech about the magical workings of fate. In the context of Mad Men, however, it’s a romantic speech about the magical workings, and plottings, of serial television.

Mad Men, in addition to being an abundantly detailed, almost classically composed piece of historical fiction and a genuinely ambivalent critique of consumer culture, is also an intriguing meditation on narrative itself. This is not to say that Mad Men is the best show on the air, or that this self-consciousness somehow allows it to transcend its peers. The self-consciousness of a show like FX’s Louie, for instance, is far more daring and revelatory, and Mad Men is by no means a consensus pick for the Great American Television Series. Indeed, over the past few years, Mad Men has been bloodied by a number of high-profile hatchet jobs — notably at the hands of Daniel Mendelssohn in the New York Review of Books and Mark Greif in the London Review of Books, both of whom raise fair points concerning the show’s often uncritical exuberance about its own aesthetic. Not to mention the fact that Mad Men suffers from the unfortunately common ailment that its protagonist can only ever claim to be the fourth or fifth most interesting character on his own show. Don Draper can run off to California to join a proto-hippie sex commune all he wants, but I cannot conceive of a viewer who would not rather spend the time of these elaborate set-pieces with the sultry and sad accordion-playing Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) or even Draper’s own deeply troubled daughter, Sally (played by the mesmerizing child actress Kiernan Shipka).

It is not necessarily a value judgment, then, to say that narrative is, very simply, what Mad Men is about. From the nostalgic yarns Draper and his fellow ad men (and token lady) spin in order to sell cigarettes to the elaborate lies they concoct to maintain their lifestyles, the characters on Mad Men devote more attention to the stories they tell about their lives than they do to the lives they actually lead. On the surface, this makes Mad Men an examination of a group of people whose collective narcissism has transformed them into a kind of self-sustaining utopian community of cheating spouses and the secretaries with whom they cheat. It also makes it a show with a lot to say about the difference between content and form: the actual events of our lives and the shape or meaning we choose to give to those events. But, more importantly, and often imperceptibly, it makes Mad Men a self-reflexive show about how stories, televisual or otherwise, are constructed.


Everything happened, and it got me here. What does that mean?

Over the past fifteen years, the television landscape in the U.S. has undergone a massive tectonic shift. This shift has been variously described as a movement away from the episodic and toward the serial; away from generic predictability and toward cinematic experimentation and ambition; and, most misleadingly, from a pre-Sopranos Stone Age to the current television-as-art Age of Enlightenment. In a seminal article in Velvet Light Trap entitled, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” media scholar Jason Mittell calls this a shift from “conventional” to “complex” narrative modes (a designation meant to imply a difference in structure rather than quality). Single episodes of I Love Lucy, for instance, adhere to a particular set of formal constraints, narrative assumptions, and generic markers. Lucy hatches a scheme, gets into a fix, and learns her lesson. There are, of course, variations on this structure, and Lucy’s physicality and comic timing add another layer of address, but viewers did not watch I Love Lucy because they were eager to find out if and when Ricky would let Lucy be in his show, nor did they ever imagine that Ethel might shockingly and suddenly be killed at the chocolate factory. At the end of every episode, everything resets, and Lucy and Ethel live to scheme and fumble in precisely the same way the following week.

Complex television series do not reset themselves in this way. Beyond simply eschewing the self-contained episode format, these shows often introduce a self-consciousness about their own formula (à la Seinfeld or Arrested Development), ask for careful attention to complicated and often confusing character networks (The Wire, Lost), and indulge the perverse or sadistic impulse to withhold climactic resolution or closure (famously, The Sopranos). According to Mittell, however, the major difference between these shows and their conventional forebears is the emphasis on plot over relationships. If the give and take between Ricky and Lucy is the stabilizing force of I Love Lucy, plot is the volatile center of all contemporary complex television shows.

Despite Mittell’s own vocal dislike of the show, Mad Men is nothing if not a narratively complex series in this mode. What differentiates Mad Men from I Love Lucy or an ordinary soap opera is, in large part, the self-conscious management of its own plot. Of course, this does not always manifest itself in meta-commentary as cutely on-the-nose as Don Draper’s sappy outburst, and I’m loath to suggest that the series is anything like a one-to-one allegory for the creative process. But Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, is very cognizant of its place in the history of television, popular culture, and even literary narrative. Like all good historical fiction, it is as indicative of the present from which it emerges as the past it depicts, and like a lot of post-modern art, it is invested in finding new formal tactics to tell, and disrupt, a familiar story. For every meta-televisual incident — the fake filming of a scooter commercial or closeted art director Salvatore’s auteurist remake of Bye, Bye Birdie — there are elements of the series that fracture, upend, or otherwise call attention to the show’s form. Mad Men, in other words, does not simply mimic the creative process or archly wink about the vicissitudes of serial narrative. It makes the rather crazy-eyed, but not unconventional, argument that the act of narrating is the same as the act of living.


In order to draw the viewer into this argument, Mad Men foregrounds the mechanism of its narrative, the arbitrariness of its temporality and chronology, even the position of its audience. The show maintains this focus, in part, through its strategic use of off-screen space. There are temporal gaps of varying length, for instance, between when each season’s narrative ends and the next begins. Fourteen months between seasons one and two, about five months between seasons two and three, a little under a year between seasons three and four, and an amount of time that must remain hidden between seasons four and five. Many television shows do this, of course, but few currently on the air take such rascally glee in exploiting it, unsettling the audience, forcing us to do awkward detective work merely to catch up. Perhaps the most glaring use of this technique is in Weiner’s treatment of Peggy Olsen’s (Elizabeth Moss) pregnancy. Peggy — who begins the series as a secretary only to climb the ranks and become the firm’s only female copywriter — unknowingly conceives a child around the time of the show’s pilot, and in the final episode of the first season, much to her surprise, she goes into labor. Peggy’s pregnancy thus becomes one of the show’s most shocking reveals, and, in the space of one episode, her status and the baby’s immediately become the series’s first cliffhanger. The first episode of season two picks up over a year later without a mention of the child. Peggy is at work, she does not seem to be romantically linked with the child’s father, and people around the office make reference to her disappearance to a “fat farm.” Viewers expecting resolution about Peggy’s pregnancy find themselves at the end of the season opener with only a faint notion of what happened. In fact, the show waits five whole episodes before explaining, via flashback, what exactly went on in the space between seasons.

Why do this to the audience? Why take such evident pleasure in torturing a devoted fanbase? In the flashback, we see that it was Don Draper who is Peggy’s sole confidante and who ultimately advises Peggy to hide the event. Clearly thinking of the unbelievable ease with which he constructed his own life story by writing over a traumatic past, he tells her, “This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened.” Perhaps, then, we are meant to feel the impact of a lie like this, the aftershocks that occur when a person drastically rewrites their own narrative. In other words, rather than picking up where season one left off, shocking us with the trauma of the birth and the complicated moral lesson of Draper’s advice right away, we feel, instead, the shock of empty space. How does it feel to have the rug pulled out from under our feet? What does emptiness feel like? Weiner recently said, of this trick, “I want people to feel like they’re going to visit their best friend and they open the door and everything’s been going on without them.” In this case, the rupturing of television narrative is meant to give the viewer a taste of what it is like for one’s own life to rupture. To paraphrase AMC’s own advertising copy, it puts into relief how much and to what a large extent story matters.

But Mad Men doesn’t just tie us vicariously into the narrative. The business it dramatizes, the business of advertising at midcentury, is constructed as an industry of storytellers. When Mad Men premiered, many viewers and critics wrote the show off as a chintzy, winking satire of commercialism. This misconception has persisted all the way through the show’s run. And, of course, it does draw a lot of guffaws, especially in the first season, from the stagey flaunting of its time period. Everybody drinks prodigiously during the day; everybody in the Lucky Strike pitch meeting has a coughing fit; Peggy is told to take off her clothes, put a bag over her head, look in a mirror and “evaluate.” Many viewers and critics have been happy to revel in such snarky hindsight, but it’s also true that the cartoonishly misogynist, racist, sexist ad men of the sixties were both easy targets for the show and targets too infrequently fired upon. This fetishizing of period-specific prejudice becomes more and more subtle as the show wears on, but it still serves as a reliable crutch — so much so that Mad Men often seems to be as in love with sixties racism and sexism as it is preoccupied with critiquing those things. Still, within the context of the show itself, every time a character refers to the surgeon general as a nuisance or calls a secretary “sweetheart” the cumulative understanding that ad men were willfully blind scam artists persists.

Mad Men, from its very first episodes, however, is committed to emphasizing that these people may be scam artists, but they are artists nonetheless. In particular, they are writers, and what they write, when they are being good at their jobs, are convincing stories. A lot of the campaigns on Mad Men — “It’s toasted!” — are patently awful and play into the portrait of the industry as actively hostile to the intelligence of its customers, but the holy grail is always figured as a campaign that creates a compelling narrative of and for the consumer: a narrative that tells people something about their lives. In the final episode of the first season, for instance, Draper pitches a campaign for the Kodak slide projector, a shiny new piece of technology that Kodak had tinnily named “The Wheel.” In a scene that serves as a multifaceted climax to the season, Draper rebrands the projector as “The Carousel,” delivering a tear-jerking monologue while clicking through a series of projected photographs of his family. “It’s not a spaceship,” he says, staring longingly into the photographs, “It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place we ache to go again.”

This is the kind of personal appeal and epiphanic delivery that makes Draper such a successful ad man on Madison Avenue, but it’s also a signature moment of Mad Men’s self-consciousness. Draper is pitching nostalgia, he’s pitching family, but he’s also pitching control. There are no photographs in Draper’s slideshow of his numerous extra-marital affairs, nor are there any photographs of his abandoned brother or the dead soldier whose identity he stole. The carousel pitch seems to work because it’s about accessing and memorializing the past, but it’s equally effective as a lesson in and validation of the selective narration of the past. Draper understands what this gadget does because it is what he does every day. Mad Men, at almost every level, is a show about how dangerous and necessary it is for people to arrange their own carousels.

But we are moved by this scene both because of what we know is excluded and because of the fantasy of a sentimental masculinity that it presents to the Kodak clients. We, too, end up wishing Don were the man in the pictures. Weiner at once criticizes the Kodak people for falling for this pitch and makes sure we fall for it, too. The upside of these techniques is that they cleverly tether the rapt viewer to the action of the series, creating a shared experience of time, however trickily it might be achieved. The downside is that, in insisting on a continuum between the viewer and the show, the viewer becomes implicated in that show’s own practices of representation. There’s no such thing as disinterested form, and there’s always a certain degree to which the viewer is meant to be sold on both Weiner’s and Draper’s narratives. In the name of historically accurate storytelling, things that happen outside the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce only ever dribble in peripherally: African-American stories are marginalized, and a show that seems to want to ironize and critique the objectification of women often finds itself, of necessity, objectifying women. The result is a show with a fascinatingly hermetic community at its core, but one that absolves itself from having to delve too deeply into a broader swath of experience. The writers of Mad Men never seem to work too hard to address the subjects their characters exclude from their own carousels.

Again, this would not be as big of a problem if the show didn’t implicitly value some narrative illusions over others. Don Draper, for instance, one of the least enigmatic enigmas on television, is cut down for his deceit, his unfaithfulness, and his compulsive, almost vulgar, self-making. But, at the same time, the prevailing story of the fourth season, and Don’s bid for redemption — the building of a new agency — is portrayed with deep approval. The same thing happened with the dramatization of the founding of Facebook in David Fincher’s The Social Network. It’s awfully hard to keep up a steady critique when there’s an infectious men-on-a-mission, getting-the-band-back-together narrative building steam around you. It isn’t hard, however, to villainize the illusions of a housewife. Over the course of the series, Betty Draper (played by the explosive January Jones) has seen her own carousel narrative — the picture of herself as a devoted mother and housewife and trophy for her successful husband — collapse. Instead of sympathizing with Betty, the show has turned her into something like a storybook monster. She lashes out in awkward rage, she pouts like a spoiled toddler, she threatens to cut her daughter’s fingers off. Fee fi fo fum. Don Draper is judged, certainly, but he comes out looking like the foolish but ultimately redeemable Oz in contrast to Betty’s wicked witch.


Despite the show’s successes and follies, what’s at stake in suggesting that Mad Men’s narrative contrivances and experiments are actually the substance of what the show does from week to week?

When Mad Men premiered in summer 2007, it was an anointed project stepping into what was very possibly the first great crisis moment of twenty-first century television drama: the loss of HBO’s The Sopranos. Created by former Sopranos scribe Matthew Weiner, Mad Men was promoted as a messianic immaculate conception, the show with the pristine white title card, the spectacular production design, and the royal lineage that would usher in a new age of post-Sopranos programming to rival the shows produced by the newly-fallible HBO. This is not, however, an argument about the lineage from The Sopranos to Mad Men, nor am I suggesting a qualitative comparison between the two shows. The inheritor of The Sopranos’s central position in the prestige television landscape and its better in terms of laurels — Weiner’s show has notably won the Emmy for “Outstanding Drama Series” every year it has been on the air — Mad Men is still limited to a fairly small audience: The Sopranos hovered around 6 in the Nielsen ratings for most of its run; Mad Men, amazingly, has yet to crack 3. And the show is also far more critically divisive than its New Jerseyan predecessor ever was. To say that Mad Men has “replaced” The Sopranos is very simply to say that it has filled in, fairly or unfairly, as the representative of the post-HBO, post-Sopranos, expanding world of complex serial television.

The reason, then, that Mad Men’s self-consciousness is worth remarking is that, just as it debuted at a moment of crisis in the institutional make-up of serial television, it is now returning with its fifth season at a moment of controversy about the aesthetic of serial television. Prompted by a polemical essay by Ryan McGee of The A.V. Club entitled, “Did The Sopranos Do More Harm Than Good?: HBO and the Decline of the Episode,” complex television itself has recently been confronted with critical skepticism. In his essay, McGee calls The Sopranos to task for inaugurating an aesthetic model in which the season-long arc is privileged over the form of the episode. In other words, the slow pacing and big picture architecture of The Sopranos essentially made it okay for nothing to happen in the space of an episode as long as that episode contributed to the greater articulation of the season’s narrative or thematic concern. If the plot doesn’t thicken, it at least simmers for a while. This was considered revolutionary when The Sopranos debuted, but McGee argues that this philosophy has now become so ingrained that creators of serial television feel no obligation at all to entertain or engage viewers from week to week. What Mittell calls complex television, McGee calls, disparagingly, the era of the “televised novel.”

It has long been a commonplace to say that great television shows are “novelistic.” Sometimes, it’s an apt analogy: The Wire creator David Simon, for one, has said that his show is structured on the model of a realist novel. Other times, it is a reductively effective way of conveying the aesthetic value of television as an art form to otherwise unconvinced readers. The New York Review of Books, for instance, is very fond of comparing television series to genres of literature, suggesting that The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica are worth our time as adaptations of Aeschylus and Virgil, respectively. At its best, comparing television series to novels can signal the same consciousness about form that Sergei Eisenstein signaled in 1945 when he articulated the structural similarities between the novels of Charles Dickens and the films of D.W. Griffith.

For McGee, however, the television series should not function in the manner of the novel. To imagine that television series can do what novels do is to overlook unbridgeable issues of medium specificity — i.e., the demands that are made upon TV shows that are not made upon novels. A number of critics responded to this claim by saying that the relative value of an episode of television has as much to do with the quality of the characters and strength of the writing as it does with the pace of the show’s plotting. McGee, in other words, has a problem with bad television shows, not necessarily with complex ones or with the current state of the television serial in general. Moreover, if the case can be made that series television has learned bad lessons from the twentieth-century novel, it has certainly gleaned extremely valuable ones from the formal structure of the Victorian serial novels that appeared in popular magazines over about the same span as a television season. The novel, we should remember, is not a stranger to suspense, and chapters are generally not meaningless divisions. Dallas did not invent the cliffhanger. (Nor, for that matter, did Dickens.)

What this debate over McGee’s article valuably points to, however, is the importance of viewer experience and the effect that over a decade of complex television has had on the industry. One effect has been that the way we write about TV has changed. At the same time that the rise of DVR and online streaming has enabled us to watch series at a breathless pace, with episodic divisions becoming nearly meaningless in retrospect, the genre of the episode recap has arisen online. Beginning with critic Alan Sepinwall and the website Television Without Pity in the early 2000s, the genre of the critical recap that serves both to recount and analyze the events of a single episode has lately become the primary mode of online television criticism. From sites like Salon or Grantland that recap select popular series à la carte to The AV Club itself, which recaps the full scope of contemporary TV while simultaneously attempting to retroactively recap the archive of television from before the turn of the century, the recap form — which can limit itself to pro forma bullet points or stretch to lengthy, essayistic meditations — is inescapable. But as shows become more and more interested in slowing down the pace of their seasons, luxuriating in the time and creative freedom premium cable and its aspirants can afford, the more difficult it becomes for recappers to have anything much to recap week by week. Indeed, this is the population for whom McGee sees the most glaring problems:

How about those who sit at home on the night of initial airing and obsessively analyze that week’s episode in order to discuss it at length online or at the water cooler? Such a viewing model should put an emphasis on the episode as a discrete piece of the overall pie. And yet the critical praise heaped upon HBO has infected the way we look at that discrete piece.

What this most pointedly describes is the viewing model of the recapper or, more broadly, the television critic, for whom an episode is not just entertainment but also grist for the professional mill. Still, if criticism is doing its job, it should be adaptive to new circumstances. As much good criticism has been written about the relatively uneventful pilot episode of HBO’s richly striated (and recently cancelled) Luck as has been written about the extremely eventful final episode of HBO’s dully brooding Boardwalk Empire. If a thrilling recap can’t be written about a single episode, surely something else can be written about it. (Matt Zoller Seitz, on this score, has done a really admirable job recapping Luck for IndieWire, excavating it for detail and meaning this season.) The flipside of this, however, is that even if critics can figure out how to ruminate on shows like Luck or the similarly slow-paced Enlightened, it’s not a guarantee that anybody will watch them. Series can aspire to highbrow artistry, to moving conversations away from the water cooler and into academic journals, but, if they want to survive, they need to operate in both these spheres. Even for the most progressive series, something has to manufacture that weekly magnetism. Mad Men features comparatively few weekly thrill-rides of the kind that make recappers swoon, but it makes its way to the coolers and the chat rooms through the manipulation of time and narrative. It fiddles with the carousel, so to speak.


What McGee’s piece most valuably brings to the fore is our contemporary obsession with how television shows end. If series prioritize long arcs and slow builds, then an undue amount of pressure is put on endings — of seasons, and of series — to either pay off or at least help make sense of all that had come before. While I think McGee is wrong to say that the quasi-apocalyptic orientation of contemporary television creates an atmosphere in which “the best element of the show has yet to actually air,” he’s right to point to the very particular anxiety that comes with serial television in this mode. The approach of the end of a television series is a thing of deep ambivalence. No matter how blasé the viewer, the expectation of a series’ end takes form as what Frank Kermode famously called “the sense of an ending,” or the constant nagging feeling that every element of life can only be explained, made logical or coherent, retroactively by an apocalyptic end. We emplot our lives so we can make sense of them.

Television series bear this weight doubly because they not only have to end, but they are saddled with the curse of foreknowledge. If the creators of a television series do not know how their show will end — how it will all make retrospective sense — then who does? Recent television history is full of scuffles of disappointment surrounding the end of beloved series. The aforementioned Deadwood was cut dead in its prime; The Sopranos built to a thrilling conclusion only to brilliantly short-circuit expectation by simply stopping mid-scene; Friday Night Lights recently pulled off the improbable feat of supplying an emotionally satisfying finale to a series in which viewers had an uncommon psychic investment; and, most notoriously, Lost ended with what many viewers, this one included, saw as a kind of cheat, a final episode that was suffused with affective closure but paid little attention to the majestic and confounding plot that had made the show so compulsively watchable for all those seasons. What made Lost’s finale especially infuriating was the degree to which Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the show’s creators, had promised — publicly and profusely — that they knew precisely where their show was going. In 2007, midway through Lost’s run, Damon Lindelof made the much-obsessed-over pronouncement that the creators had known the end of the show all the way back in the first season. He went on, “Independent of ever knowing when the end was going to be, we knew what it was going to be, and we wanted to start setting it up as early as season 1, or else people would think that we were making it up as we were going along.” Despite Cuse and Lindelof’s best efforts, it became patently obvious that they were not in complete control of the unfurling of their show, and many viewers finished the series feeling they’d been given a BLT and told it was wild boar. (You know, from the island.) The lesson was that, the more you say you’re not making it up as you go along, the more it’s going to look like you were making it up as you went along, and the more it’s going to seem like a bad idea to have ever said anything about what you were doing in the first place.

If he hasn’t completely learned this lesson, Matthew Weiner is at least aware of it. Weiner is one of the most articulate and infuriating showrunners now living. He is, of course, a scion of The Sopranos, a show he speaks about in near religious terms, and he is always the first person to bring up the old alma mater. More than that, however, Weiner has a lot to say about his series and its reception. He is eager to shut down overly theorized readings of the show: “Go fuck yourself. Go get your own fucking show. Don’t write on the Internet what I’m allowed to fucking do.” He is also perfectly willing to over-theorize the show himself: “The show is mortal, and so are we all. We get up every morning and we don’t think about that. Its finiteness will hopefully be the thing that preserves its quality.” Regardless of whether he’s railing against people who take his show too seriously or off-handedly putting forward extremely serious interpretations of that same show, Matthew Weiner, in his very carefully calibrated public statements, only adds to the impression of Mad Men’s self-consciousness.

And boy does he love to talk about his vision for the show’s ending. In the unusually long year and a half hiatus since Mad Men’s last episode — a period drawn out by fraught contract extensions — he has avowed himself of many opportunities to sound off teasingly on the fates of the show’s characters. Yet he largely avoids the trap of Cuse and Lindelof, judiciously withholding any notion that he knows exactly what will happen at the end of his series, or even that viewers will be able to look back on the series and see the author’s intentionality in every moment leading to the finale. In a recent interview, he said, “I hope in hindsight it will look like it was all planned out.” But this is, notably, a very different statement than if he had said, “There’s an ashtray in the third episode that will prove I’ve known the ending all along.” To hope that a work has a sense of narrative cohesion and consistency is again different from promising a magic box or key to all mythologies that, when opened, retroactively validates the whole. Mad Men is not a detective mystery or a fantastical creation, and Weiner’s statements don’t promote the constant deferral of satisfaction that McGee complains of in the post-Sopranos age. Indeed, in this regard, the ambitions of Mad Men are much like the ambitions of a novel. Not every story has to end with a gasp. Oftentimes novels simply end where they end.

So while Weiner does not seem to be spoiling for a riot by promising a big earth-shaking finale, he is setting some expectations. As he put it to The New York Times last summer:

There’s no gigantic question that remains to be answered. I don’t think that the show is structured in that way. I know it’s mysterious, and it depends on the audience not knowing what’s going to happen, but I don’t feel that. I have a thing, emotionally, where I want it to end, and I have an image of how I want to leave the characters in people’s minds. And I’ve had that for about a year and a half, two years.

This comment, while it acknowledges the reality of the apocalyptically-minded contemporary viewer, takes a rather humane stance toward the end of the series. What’s more, it’s a stance that does not foreground a propulsive narrative. Mad Men may be about narrative, but, from watching the show closely and reading Weiner’s comments, we can tell that this is not a narrative with a clear or unavoidable endpoint. There’s no gun on the mantelpiece, there’s no island to get off of, there’s no nagging problem for the fifth act.

Indeed, Weiner’s biggest clue as to the ending of the series has to do with this lack of an end structure:

I always felt like it would be the experience of human life. And human life has a destination. It doesn’t mean Don’s gonna die. What I’m looking for, and how I hope to end the show, is like … It’s 2011. Don Draper would be 84 right now. I want to leave the show in a place where you have an idea of what it meant and how it’s related to you.

The narrative of the show, then, does not have to end. A lot of commentators have suggested that this means Mad Men ends with Don Draper’s old age and eventual death. This is possible, of course, but it seems unlikely to me that Weiner actually means that the action of Mad Men will end in the year 2011. The idea here is that the end of the series should produce an image of the world recognizable enough that it dovetails with the experience of the viewer. In other words, if Mad Men began as historical fiction, the end makes it our history. The narrative structure of the series that makes co-conspirators of viewers in its act of storytelling is the point. Mad Men catches up to our own narrative, we become its subjects, and Don Draper looks us in the eye to say, “Viewer, I am your father.”

This leaves us with two very different kinds of questions: Do we want television to be universalized in this way? And, do we want to be Don Draper’s kids? The difference between these questions is the difference between content and narrative form. What the show says and what the show does are complementary but differentiated acts. The shock of being told that we are the offspring of Don Draper distracts us from the fundamental fact that what this television show is doing is telling us who we are.

LARB Contributor

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


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