Consistently hailed as the best-written shows on television, Mad Men continues to impress even after eight years of drinking and smoking in well-tailored three piece suits. Created by Sopranos alum Matthew Weiner, AMC’s hit series peels back the layers of 1960s New York City in all its glitter and vibrancy — its anxiety and dread — through the eyes of the powerful men and ascending women that formed the sights, sounds and textures present generations associate with the “Swinging Sixties.” The ad men, the taste-makers, in this story encapsulate the greater narrative of that cultural decade through their very personal lenses, all that conservative angst and counterculture burst. The biggest lens belongs to protagonist Don Draper, mysterious, genius and complex, who expressed the creed of his fellow cast of characters with clarity: “There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me.”
Meet Don Draper
Don, played by the incredible Jon Hamm, begins the series as the Creative Director at advertising agency Sterling Cooper. He’s a rising star in the agency with a penchant for coming up with the right words at the right time. But he has a significant skeleton in his closet, a secret past that molded the man that women want and other men want to be. He was born Dick Whitman, his Don Draper namesake taken from a deceased soldier-in-arms during the Korean War whose identity he took to escape the hell that is combat and the hell that was his home. With that mask that makes the model man, Don is confident and cocksure, but beneath that well-dressed exterior still lie the problems of his past, problems that can’t help but manifest themselves in the present. It’s those common vices: infidelity and alcoholism.
Behind Closed Doors
It’s these sins that slowly but surely tear at Don’s perfect facade of the family man and business tycoon. First, it’s the multiple affairs that distance him from his wife, Betty Draper, a homemaker and mother for their three children: Sally, Bobby and Gene. Don’s womanizing becomes more and more blatant, a sure sign of self-destruction, until it finally reaches the eyes and ears of Betty, and their marriage hangs by a thread. When Betty, played by the beautiful January Jones, learns of Don’s past life and his present lie, the bond is too fragile to hold, and they are done. Betty leaves Don for another man, rising politician Henry Francis.
Putnam, Powell and Lowe
At work, Don’s creativity manages to stave off his destructive habits for a prolonged time as he moves up in the agency. That is, until the British invade once more and Sterling Cooper is absorbed by Putnam, Powell and Lowe (PPL) due to the machinations of business rival Duck Phillips. It is when Putnam, Powell and Lowe is sold and thus Sterling Cooper is left in the wind that Don, after separating from Betty, takes matters into his own hands and teams with PPL’s Lane Pryce, founder Bertram Cooper and president Roger Sterling in harrowing fashion to form a new agency of a similar name: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce or SCDP.
SCDP forms a stark shift to the plain, staid veneer and dynamic of the previous agency. The creatives are young and full of fresh ideas. SCDP is hallmarked by Peggy Olsen, played by the soaring Elisabeth Moss, a former secretary of Don who rose up through her own ingenuity, and Don’s guidance, to become the agency’s best copywriter. Peggy and Don’s relationship is one of apprenticeship, of partnership and of genuine love grown by their ability to understand and appreciate one another. This is illustrated first when Don visits Peggy in the hospital after she delivers a baby, the result of an ill-advised affair with co-worker Pete Campbell. She shockingly wasn’t aware of the pregnancy for months and doesn’t want the baby, and so Don gives her the advice that has guided him through dark times. It is illustrated last when Peggy and Don, both down on their luck, dance alone to Sinatra in the office, at peace with each other and cognizant of their own special relationship.
Watch Mad Men Online
Watch Mad Men online and you’ll realize why it’s said to be the best-written show on television; it’s lived-in supporting characters giving that praise credence. Roger Sterling, played by John Slattery, is the wise-cracking class clown who has never grown up since his father handed him the agency. Joan Harris, played by Christina Hendricks, is the buxom head secretary turned junior partner whose strength hides a beautiful vulnerability. The aforementioned Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser, is the ambitious “account man” who can’t look like the handsome Don Draper but can definitely act like him. And Betty Draper, the model turned model housewife who remains frozen in a childlike state of pettiness and frivolity despite her intelligence and education.
This cast of characters has filled the small screen with fits of laughter, pain, love, regret, loyalty, betrayal and the requisite amount of drinking, smoking and screwing for six and half seasons now with just one more slice to go. The actors, producers, writers and designers have won countless awards that do little to represent just how much truly great work they have shared with a ravenous audience who sits down at night to watch Mad Men online or live and wakes up the next morning to discuss the events of the night before. It has been a hell of a ride around the Swinging Sixties, but just like that era, Mad Men must come to an end. Enjoy it because the next decade might not be nearly as entertaining.