As the last half of the seventh and final season of Mad Men starts, it’s already easy to get nostalgic about the end of one of the greatest shows in television history.
It’s been a long, slow ride — as everything is on Mad Men. But pacing is a very interesting and confusing thing about the now legendary AMC program. On one hand it’s probably the slowest, least cliffhanger-driven of all the great shows in this golden age of TV. While other giants like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad accompanied their tortured-psyche anti-heroes with an imminent sense that death or prison was just around the corner, Mad Men has always stayed relatively still. The feds are not surrounding the Draper house looking to put Don away. No one is after the man’s life; maybe just his job, or his accounts, or his attention, but never a life-threatening thing. The changes in Mad Men are internal; they’re about a man who’s constantly struggling to find his place in the world, or happiness, or love, or peace of mind. It’s why we can connect with Don’s issues; they’re common struggles that a lot of us deal with on a daily basis. Don’s dilemmas may not have the urgency of Tony Soprano’s or Walter White’s, but they’re every bit as valid and in a lot of ways they’re a lot more relatable to the average public.
You see, Don Draper’s got 99 problems; unlike Jay-Z, though, bitches are most of them.
Mad Men is a show about a man’s journey and struggles, but it’s the women around him that shape him. They drive him, disturb him, tempt him, excite him, confuse him, frustrate him and make him do things he wouldn’t otherwise do. Just like they do for the rest of us.
But if the pace of the show is comparatively slow to most series that have come before and after, it’s the women of the show that have made the biggest shifts. The 60s are arguably the most rapidly changing decade in history. Everything from civil rights, to sexual liberation, to open drug use, to a mind-boggling cultural adaptation, happened faster than ever. Put it this way: Between the release of The Beatles’ ‘Help’ album and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’, there were less than two years. And no one thought that was weird, it was just the times, you know… a-changin’.
Yet nothing is a clearer example of that as the women on the show. Think of how most women on Mad Men were during its first season. Don was married to Betty, his perfect All-American wife, former model and now dedicated housewife and mother of his children. He didn’t really hang out with her or have anything in common with her; you could argue that he probably didn’t even like her, but he’d be devastated without her, because dudes in 1960 weren’t supposed to go through life without the safety net of a loving housewife waiting at home. As that became normal and boring for him, though, he looked for refuge in the thing most of us would: New pussy.
But let’s be honest, “new pussy” is hardly just about sex, guys. It’s about an experience; about feeling understood by someone that excites us, that motivates us to be a better or cooler version of ourselves. Betty didn’t get Don, she was just who he thought he was supposed to marry. But the promise of a different, challenging woman who was interested in who Don really was, and not in the image of Don Draper was the driving force of everything.
Look at Midge, from season one; a very sexually liberated artist, with a cool designer job and a Village apartment who didn’t require anything from him. There was no nagging or demanding, just an honest, friendly yet sexual relationship that was completely commitment-free, which ironically made Don want to be with her even more.
Then there was Rachel, a beautiful and smart woman who also happened to be the head of a big department store. They had a working relationship at a time when Don hardly ever dealt with women on the job. More than just sexual attraction, Don felt an enormous amount of admiration for her (which of course then turns into a huge sexual attraction.)
Don’s extra-marital affairs are well known. These were prude times, though, so things moved a little slower for most married guys looking for a steady mistress. Perhaps not so much for him because, you know… he’s motherfucking Don Draper, but the societal shift can be seen more and more clearly as Don’s love interests start getting consistently more independent, sex-driven and developing a sense of uniqueness.
Betty was perfect for the more traditional Don of the 50s. These were not the 50s anymore. When he started openly dating after his divorce, a Betty-like girl was crushing hard on him, yet Don realized his own revamped interests, later claiming, “She’s a sweet girl, and she wants me to know her, but I already do.”
Don’s looks are the same by the end of the decade; so are his drinking, and his very disturbed relationship with his job and identity. Don pretty much only changes emotionally, and he does so because of the women in his life. While he has a type, that type also adapts just as fast as the culture around him did.
When he meets and marries Megan, that old Betty archetype couldn’t have been farther from his ideal. Here was a brand new kind of woman, a 60s woman. She dressed provocatively, and acted differently. She’d partake in weed smoking, and host cool parties. She was a movie star. She brought her BFF for a freakin’ threesome, for Draper’s sake!
Even the girls who Don had no sexual relationship with endured some of the most drastic changes. Peggy is the clearest example. She came in as a temporary secretary, and ended up being one of the top creative directors in a high-end advertisement company. But the job was almost a minor thing; Peggy was unapologetic about her preferences. She’ll casually date dudes, drink and smoke and work. She became “one of the guys”, except she was still very feminine, and it’s that empowering characteristic that made Peggy so much more appealing.
The almost-too-voluptuous-to-be-real Joan is another great example. No heterosexual man has ever failed to perk up when Christina Hendricks shows up on screen. I know I slightly sit up whenever it happens, without exception. But as flirtatious as she’s always been, and while we’ve always been hypnotized by the way those curves move when she strolls down the Sterling-Cooper hallways, Joan’s character symbolized better than any other how a very self-aware woman used her sexuality to get ahead in life. Not that she wasn’t smart… quite the opposite; it’s the use of that intelligence that made it very clear to her that her body was a strength she could play on. The result was the hands-down hottest partner in Madison Avenue’s history.
So while the show’s slow pace has always been signaled out by its critics, it’s interesting that the whole story happened during the time in history when the cultural metamorphosis was as frenetic as it’s ever been. We don’t see shifts like that without major incidents that provoke them (deaths, life-threatening diseases, major jail time, etc.). And it’s the women of Mad Men that see the biggest transformations. Guys — like we always have — tend to just change around them, wishing for that new, shiny, real quality that we’ve never had before.
Don’s struggles are every man’s, in a way. We all go through dark shit; we question ourselves, our identities, our choices, our fears and our limitations. Then again, many of us still deal with those problems without the endless assortment of beautiful girls throwing themselves at us, but it’s also why a lot of us are fascinated with Don Draper. Here’s this guy with the looks, confidence and charm to get any girl he wants, but what he wants — just like his women — is always shifting; they’re restless desires that rattle with equal urgency and valid passion. They don’t need to deal with assassinations, or terrorism, or drug trafficking, or cancer, or police chase downs; but they’re every bit as real as what movies and television have repeatedly told us is supposed to be exciting.
Mad Men is a show about a man’s journey, yes. But it’s the women around him that define that journey, and the ones that make it so damn relatable, exciting, appealing and intoxicating; not just for Don Draper, but for the rest of us.