Mad Men is one of those shows that marketers love to watch, and why not? It’s smart, it’s meticulous, it’s about an era in which marketing boiled down to simply shouting your message for everyone to hear and, of course, it’s loaded with nuance. We marketers love to talk about ourselves, and Mad Men lets us look through a lens to see where we’ve been and why we shouldn’t forget about the simpler days of pitching concepts for print, radio and TV in the midst of today’s talk about SEO, social media, brand engagement and predictive analysis.
But with that said, I should mention that I’ve long been critical of this show for what I’ve seen as failures to really give the audience a means to connect with many of the characters, and the most recent season (the fifth, which concluded last night) really worked hard to drive a wedge between the people onscreen and the people watching the show. My personal feeling is that the concept is running out of steam and the show is languishing – a common problem for any scripted drama once it’s been on the air for a few years. I thought I’d offer a critical perspective not just as a marketer, but also as a writer.
Mad Men‘s brilliant conceit is that it’s about society’s veneer. While Mad Men might seem, on the surface, to be about ad men in the 1960s, that’s just the hook to get you interested. What the show is really about is showing us a group of characters who are rotten to the core, and yet who manage to appear to those around them to be normal, perfect people.
This is exemplified in the first episode of the show, where instead of seeing Don Draper’s perfect life and then gradually understanding that he has a dark secret, we see Don pumping people for ideas, bluffing his way through meetings, sneaking out to have a liaison with an uninhibited woman and napping in his office. We know that he’s the type who messes around with his secretaries, and we know he’s a difficult man to work for. We see him struggling against a sleazy rival, Pete Campbell, and then squashing him during a client meeting as he comes up with a way to help a tobacco company improve its image.
At the end of the episode, we see Don Draper go home to his family in the suburbs, all of whom are blissfully unaware of his sleazy city life.
And that’s really how the show works – we see a thin, fake veneer of Americana covering up rotten wood underneath. Every character – including Peggy Olson, the closest thing the show has to a hero – masquerades as someone appealing and interesting while making slimy, selfish, often self-destructive decisions in his or her private life.
Mad Men is at its best when it’s about opposites. When Mad Men tells a complex story with lots of nuance, it can be enchanting, much like a well-crafted advertisement. The show is trying to sell us the idea that we should care about these despicable characters and empathize with them, despite the fact that none of them have any real insight or answers. Don Draper loves the pitch, but hates the consequences. Roger Sterling is charming, but hollow. Peggy Olson is understated, and yet out for herself. Pete Campbell is refined, but loathsome. Joan Holloway/Harris is sexually liberated, and yet distant.
Some of the best scenes, too, are about going against what’s expected. Early on in the show, when Sally Draper is playing spaceman with her brother by wearing a plastic dry-cleaning bag, she’s chided not for the danger, but for taking her father’s suits out of the bag. When Don and Betty take their children on a picnic during the first season, they leave litter all over the ground. In the fourth season, a plot about getting tickets to see the Beatles in Shea Stadium is dropped and almost forgotten as more personal drama takes center stage. And in the most recent season, when Lane Pryce makes a move on Joan Harris, she gets up, opens the door, and sits back down to resume their conversation.
These unexpected moments reveal the show’s intelligence and its gratitude for a smart audience. The more often it leads the viewer down an expected path and does something delightfully different, the more often it is able to truly entertain.
Mad Men is really at its best when it’s subtle. When Mad Men airs, a number of viewers head to television review sites to see what they’ve missed, because it’s very easy to watch an episode of the show and gloss over some of the subtext that makes the plot so deeply rewarding. Some of the points are details showing the writing staff’s meticulous research – references to ads or popular culture events of the time, the appearance of certain fashions, the relevance of popular music from the era. Mad Men rarely comes out and says exactly what it means – it’s often up to the viewer to try to make sense of the clues left by the writers, perhaps through repeat viewings, period research, or discussions with others.
So, now that I’ve established all of that, let me tell you what drove me crazy about the Season 5 finale.
It wasn’t about that veneer. Season 5 has flitted between focusing on the societal veneer and just peeling it away to remind us how awful everyone really is. As a result, the show has felt different, tonally. The finale itself was particularly bad in this respect, because every character seemed to be laid bare; every scene ignored all of the things we’ve been told have been important during this season; every exchange felt like an exercise in frustration. All of this felt terribly out of place, and it resulted in a finale that felt flat and that didn’t really advance the plot in a meaningful way.
It didn’t have any great moments of juxtaposition. The only real “opposite” in this episode came from a pitch early in where the copywriters argued with the client over the use of the word “cheap.” The idea was that the client didn’t want to be associated with the word “cheap” despite the fact that the copy deliberately said that the product was not cheap. The exchange was interesting, but it lacked context. We haven’t seen the copywriters struggling without Peggy or Megan, nor do we have any investment in their idea. The whole thing felt flat.
It lacked subtlety. One of the central plot points was that Don Draper had a rotten tooth that needed to be extracted. Throughout the episode, he kept hallucinating interactions with his dead half-brother, Adam Whitman, who appeared in one scene to tell him that his tooth wasn’t the only rotten thing about him. That’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and it was as if Matthew Weiner (the creator and director of the show) was shouting at the audience, “don’t you see? Don Draper is rotten to the core!”. Ugh.
And actually, the entire fifth season has been that way. A lot of people praised the episode The Other Woman for showing three ways in which the women of Mad Men climbed the corporate ladder, but the whole idea of Joan Harris prostituting herself to land a car client and a partnership was preposterous. There was no subtlety there; the drama was entirely manufactured and very unlike Mad Men‘s typical manner of layering social commentary underneath realistic plot points.
The scene at the very end of the episode, which suggests that Don Draper is going back to his philandering ways, was anything but subtle. Don was in the same bar he used to go to, using the same moves and attracting the same sorts of attention. I felt myself wondering, “Are we really back to this again?”, hoping for a Mad Men-style surprise, but finding myself annoyed with the predictable ending.
I’m sure a lot of people will sing the praises of this finale, because there are an awful lot of folks who love Mad Men and who rightly point out that it’s one of the smartest and sharpest shows on cable TV. I agree. But the season 5 finale revealed a show that’s running low on fresh ideas, that’s losing a sense of what made it so endearing, and that’s starting to lose its trust that the audience can understand what’s going on without being shouted at.
To put things in advertising terms, Mad Men started out like the Absolut ads – unusual, refined, and artistic, lacking immediate accessibility and requiring thought. But this latest season has shown a tendency to move towards those tacky and overly direct Head On ads – “Mad Men. Apply directly to forehead.”
I’ll certainly watch season 6, but season 5’s closer has certainly left the show at a point where it’s difficult for me to care what happens next.