Mad Men [is] arguably the dominant TV drama of its time.
— Time critic James Poniewozik, 24 June 2015
I had the good fortune last May 17th of first watching Mad Men’s final episode, ‘Person to Person,’ with 1,600 other audience members (including 200 of the series’ cast and crew) at the meticulously restored movie palace called The Theatre, which is part of the Ace Hotel complex in downtown Los Angeles. Unlike his now friend and mentor, David Chase, who flew off to France on vacation right after the June 10, 2007 finale of The Sopranos, ‘Made in America,’ Matthew Weiner was seemingly everywhere and willing to give scores of high-profile interviews in the weeks preceding and immediately following the premiere telecast of Mad Men’s 92nd and last episode.
‘Person to Person’ was shown simultaneously at The Theatre and at 10 p.m. EST (Eastern Standard Time) across the United States. Not surprisingly, Mad Men looked and sounded lush and brilliant coming from the big screen as a result of a state-of-the-art digital projection system with cinema sound. I realize some television scholars chafe at the use of cinematic television as a metaphor—as if it detracts in some way from the value and integrity of TV as a medium—but series such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, and many other contemporary small screen dramas owe a great deal of their technical and production design to the movies. They also hold up admirably well against all but the most extravagantly funded and produced summer blockbusters.
That being said, the tendency towards mixing media metaphors when describing the promiscuousness among and between theatre, literature, painting, comics, film, and later television was something I was encouraged to look for and assess in one of the first graduate seminars I took as a master’s student taught by the late John Fell who was one of the earliest proponents of conducting this kind of analysis, especially as articulated in his best-known book, Film and the Narrative Tradition. Granted, all media metaphors have limits, and their clichéd-natures become increasingly apparent over time, as with the admittedly problematical usage of quality television for example, which has been around since the beginnings of television studies in the mid-1970s.
Even imperfect metaphors such as quality TV tell us something of value and have their places however. Another old saw is that serial television storytelling is novelistic. Truth be told, I find this analogy particularly apt in the case of Mad Men, which is epic in scale and as internal in structure and perspective as anything I’ve ever seen on TV. The seven-season arc of Mad Men is broken into two parts: the charade that is Don Draper is in full bloom during the series first 37 episodes, followed by Draper/Dick Whitman’s existential journey towards some kind of partial reconciliation and self-knowledge over the final 45 installments.
Don Draper became an iconic television character because he reflected something profound about what it means to be a contemporary American. Draper is the idealized version of self that Dick Whitman constructed from all the images he’s internalized from the many books and magazines we see him reading, the movies and television we see him watching, and the advertising he absorbs and creates. Don Draper/Dick Whitman successfully achieved the life that advertising had always promised was available to him. Draper is also no more aware of that fact than all the other people he’s trying to influence through his work.
Betty too, the Bryn Mawr-educated, former fashion model, now suburban princess cannot forgive Don/Dick once she realizes he no longer fits her ideal of Mr. Right. In a stunning about-face, the good looking, successful, upwardly-mobile Don is transformed into her worst nightmare—Dick Whitman, white trash! The pivotal scene and episode in this respect was Jon Hamm’s emotionally naked tour-de-force as Don Draper in ‘The Gypsy and the Hobo’ (3:11) where he literally metamorphosizes into Dick Whitman during his confession to her.
It is not by accident therefore that Betty informs him in the next episode, ‘The Grown-Ups’ (3:12) that ‘I don’t love you anymore. I know that,’ as the funeral cortege bearing the dead body of President Kennedy plays ominously on TV in the background. For much different reasons, the dream is over for the Drapers and the country.
Betty tells Don/Dick, ‘I don’t love you anymore’ in ‘The Grown-Ups’ (2:41):
The premiere episode of season four, ‘Public Relations’ (4:1) then reboots Mad Men, beginning with a scene in which an Advertising Age reporter asks—‘Who is Don Draper? Don has no answer as he characteristically dodges the question, setting him off on his own personal existential journey whereby he seemingly makes the same mistakes over and over again, episode after episode. His inner confusion, dissatisfaction, and unease over what to do next comes to a head nearly six years later when he walks out of his first creative meeting at McCann Erikson after gazing out the window and seeing a plane fly by the Empire State Building in ‘Lost Horizon’ (7:12).
Don walks out of a meeting at McCann Erikson in ‘Lost Horizon’ (2:55):
This telling vignette evokes the post-9/11 sensibility of the entire series as Don begins his own contemporary American walkabout in the last two episodes, culminating in the enigmatic albeit hopeful last scene of ‘Person to Person’ (7:14). As he sits cross-legged, meditating on an ocean-side cliff, bathed in the full glare of the California sunlight, he has come a long way since his breakup with Betty sent him reeling in confusion about who he really is and how he might begin to reconcile those disparate parts of his personality that are Don Draper and Dick Whitman.
Final Scene in ‘Person to Person’ (5:38):
Much was said and written in the immediate wake of Mad Men’s finale, but Matt Zoller Seitz summed it up as well as anybody in his “Vulture” column for New York Magazine when he wrote : ‘That grin plus the Coke commercial added up to the perfect ending for a drama that was consistently hard-edged yet essentially compassionate and more perceptive about the realities of human behavior than almost any show in TV history‘.
Seitz is also the author of the recently published, Mad Men Carousel: The Complete Critical Companion, and a featured keynote speaker at the upcoming Mad Men: The Conference co-convened by David Lavery and Jane Marcellus of Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and Kirsty Fairclough-Issacs and Michael Goddard of the University of Salford, Manchester. Mad Men: The Conference will take place between Thursday, May 26, and Saturday, May 28 (Memorial Day Weekend), 2016 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (the home of MTSU), which is located 35 miles south of Nashville
This international conference will be comprised of approximately 20 sessions populated by nearly 60 scholars and critics representing a half-dozen countries. The topics range from the television industry and economics; aesthetics and style; seriality and narrative genealogy; representations of gender, race, ethnicity, and class; transmedia relationships; as well as specific panels on fandom, key episodes, the finale, teaching Mad Men, and much more. Those interested in additional information on Mad Men: The Conference can visit the website at http://madmentheconference.com.
On the set during season 3 of Mad Men with Jon Hamm, Matthew Weiner, and director Phil Abraham
Mad Men and The Sopranos will be forever linked biographically, chronologically, and institutionally. As is widely known, the first season of The Sopranos inspired Matthew Weiner to start work on Mad Men as a spec script in the spring of 1999. Weiner was eventually hired by Sopranos’ creator and showrunner, David Chase, on the strength of this writing sample. Weiner then worked his way up on The Sopranos’ creative team as a supervising producer (2003-04), co-executive producer (2005-06) and finally executive producer (2006-07).
Over that four-year tenure, Matt Weiner wrote or co-wrote a dozen Soprano scripts and admits in hindsight that ‘everything about [The Sopranos] influenced me’ (KCRW). ‘There is such depth and complexity to the show, and at the same time it was commercially successful . . . Then of course seeing how the sausage was made’ (NPR: Fresh Air). Weiner moreover concedes that ‘Mad Men would have been some sort of crisp, soapy version of The West Wing if not for The Sopranos’ (Chellas).
Instead, Mad Men evolved from being that little program that nobody watched on an also-ran basic cable channel to the most celebrated scripted drama of its era. It debuted less than six weeks after ‘Made for America,’ the controversial final episode of The Sopranos had its last hurrah on HBO. Debuting on July 19, 2007, Mad Men fed off of and continued the momentum begun by The Sopranos in shifting the center of attention for breakout programming in the U.S. television industry away from the broadcast to the cable-and-satellite sector.
AMC executives in turn adopted ‘the HBO formula’ of developing their own edgy, sophisticated, passion project by a proven writer-producer who just happened to have a pedigree that included The Sopranos (Alston). What resulted was the gradual emergence of Mad Men as AMC’s first breakout continuing series, generating unprecedented word of mouth, and rebranding the network as a hipper, more discriminating alternative cable network.
In the process, Mad Men also set the creative standard in scripted drama for its time. It was recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as the Best Television Drama of 2007, 2008, and 2009; the British Academy of Film and Television as Best International Show of 2009 and 2010; and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as the Outstanding Drama Series of 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, being the first basic cable series ever to win this award.
All told, Mad Men won five Golden Globes, sixteen Emmys, and fifty other major awards, including a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting. In addition, it became a phenomenon of contemporary culture; its stylistic imprint was evident in TV commercials and print advertisements, magazine covers and feature articles, designer fashions and all sorts of consumer products. It also captured and expressed the zeitgeist, resonating like no other contemporaneous program between 2008 and 2010.
Even though Mad Men’s impact on AMC was immediate and transformative, the series was at first ‘more a cultural than a commercial hit’ (Keveney). Nevertheless, its first-season audience doubled on average from 900,000 in 2007 to 1.8 million in 2009, eventually topping out circa 2.5 million. Even during those first three seasons, Mad Men’s total viewership relied heavily on multiple platforms, translating into an estimated 30 million unduplicated viewers per episode in North America alone when taking into account the myriad of digital devices and screen sizes on which people watched television programming then as well as today (Chozick). Moreover, Mad Men is currently syndicated in over 50 countries internationally and is available through online streaming globally.
Matt Weiner at the Finale Screening for Mad Men
Let me conclude with a few final thoughts about having initially watched ‘Person to Person’ in a theater. Media scholars have understood for decades that television has altered the way we think about and view movies. Likewise, TV in the 21st century has emerged for many as a more frequently accessed, convenient, and preferred alternative to the theatrical viewing experience. It is generally more personal, intimate, and most importantly, internally focused as a mode of reception.
I don’t mean to imply that television watching isn’t a social experience; it definitely is. Its kind of storytelling, though, is more inner-directed, designed for solitary or smaller group viewing; and to be discussed and debated online. In watching ‘Person to Person’ in a movie palace brimming with people, it disrupted the way I usually homed in on Mad Men’s characters and made sense of its narrative. In contrast, this larger group viewing experience was more outer-directed and collectively judgmental in response, subject to what the audience as a whole was expressing as a crowd in the moment.
For example, cries of surprise and delight greeted Joan’s snorting of cocaine with her sugar daddy; while a palpable sense of disappointment and disapproval permeated Don’s phone calls to Sally, Betty, and Peggy; and utter joy complete with clapping greeted Peggy and Stan’s declarations of love for each other. I had to recalibrate midway through the viewing how I was identifying with the characters and experiencing the narrative. My point is not to suggest that one way of watching is better than the other, just that they are different in autonomy of reaction. I easily shifted into movie mode during that first viewing. I simply was unaware of the subtle differences between the two beforehand, which was reinforced to me when I rewatched ‘Person to Person’ a week later at home.
In any event, I look forward to further commentaries and discussions about the series at Mad Men: The Conference in late May and hope as many of you as possible can attend. My understanding is that David Lavery and his fellow conveners are planning a follow up anthology from the proceedings, which will be a welcome addition to what is already a large and growing online and print, popular and scholarly literature devoted to this singularly distinctive and accomplished program.
Gary R. Edgerton is Professor and Dean of the College of Communication at Butler University. His books include Mad Men: Dream Come True TV (I.B. Tauris, 2011) and The Sopranos (Wayne State University Press, 2013). He also coedits the Journal of Popular Film and Television.