How Will Mad Men End? Or Why Don Draper Must Die. Or Fade Away

He is a spent force who can no longer fit into a new world he helped to open up.

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The series finale of Mad Men airs tonight on AMC at 10 P.M. Eastern Time.

Rarely has a television show captured the national imagination as fully as the drama surrounding Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Joan Holloway, Peggy Olson and all the rest. For Reason's various mentions of Mad Men during its run (which began in 2007), go here.

Back in 2010, Jim Epstein and I put together the preview of season four that you can watch above. As I noted after that season ran, our prognostications were somewhere about as on-target as Jimmy the Greek's grasp of physical anthropology:

So how'd we do at predicting the highs and lows of Mad Men's fourth season? As Seinfeld's Bubble Boy might put it, "Not so good."

The spell the series cast on the viewing public was broken at various points due to production delays and pauses that caused many of us to move on (something similar happened to The Sopranos, a show on which Mad Men auteur Matthew Weiner also worked). And, as Peter Suderman could tell you, the show also faced a generally rising tide of excellence that made even great shows seems relatively dispensable. We are lucky sons of bitches, to be living in a world that is overstuffed with great television.

What I've always loved about Mad Men had less to do with its incredible sense of aesthetic and design and more to do with Weiner's willingness to work with a period in recent American history—the pause between the "conformist" 1950s and the start of the countercultural '60s—and explore how a supposed consensus in politics, culture, and business was never as cohesive as commonly supposed. By focusing on an advertising agency of all places (and not in a cheap, cynical way of simply portraying all involved as slimy "hidden persuaders"), Mad Men has allowed us all to consider cultural continuity rather than focus on discontinuous change and ruptures that "change everything" overnight. That remains true even as the series ends its run in the 1970s, a period that I, as late baby boomer can remember with some clarity. Postwar America has never been a placid place but a constantly roiling scene of major, ongoing changes.

The past is always created backwards from the present moment and our senses of identity and possibilities are always enriched by sifting through periods and aspects of our history that are otherwise ignored, forgotten, or impugned as insignificant. Think of the 1970s, for instance, which until recently has always been written off as a time of economic, political, cultural stagnation. That characterization doesn't stand up to even a few minutes of introspection (think deregulation, tax revolts, and punk).

On one level, Mad Men may simply be a brilliant, sophisticated form of nostalgia for the recent past. With the exception of Oedipus, we all want to know everything we can about our parents' lives and where we come from. But to my mind what makes Mad Men one of the best television shows ever is how it helps to explain the effects of postwar abundance and social liberation on today's America of endlessly proliferating cultural types. And how it shines a light on the interest in turning work into something more than just a means to make money with which to buy things. In the early 1960s, the moment that Mad Men begins, the notion that work could express something about you was limited to the few. Now it is taken for granted that you should do something you love (or are lucky to be doing so).

Advertising was widely despised by both the beats of the 1950s and the hippies of the '60s for selling false needs and dreams that could be satisfied through uncritical consumption. Mad Men offers up a different conception of consumer culture and the people who produced it. The economic and cultural changes toward a more broadly defined libertarian world of free minds and free markets that underwrites the folks at Sterling Cooper also underwrote the shift into a world where work and life are not simply endured but become active expressions of who we are and what we care about.

Don's willingness to literally become someone else presages a broader change in which we take for granted the idea that we should live our lives as something like a work of art, or at least one of constant reinvention and search for meaning through an unstable mix of creative expression at work and lifestyle choices at home. If Don's westward car trip (shades of On the Road) this season symbolizes anything, it's that he is a spent force who can no longer fit into a new world he helped to open up. That task is up to the younger generation—Pete Campbell, Peggy, Joan, Don's children—who are not haunted by pre-war America's material deprivation and relatively fixed social hierarchy.

NEXT: Jailed for Rap Lyrics: Is Rapper Tiny Doo a Murderer or a Musician?

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  1. “Rarely has a television show captured the national imagination as fully as….”

    Every other HBO series* I’ve never actually seen but which people gush about as though the medium of Television has been re-infuckingvented yet again.

    (* plus “Lost”. which blew)

    1. Your moniker constantly screams at me like a hermit trapped on an isle surrounded by a sea of threads faced with a single microscopic bow on a shimmering horizon.

      1. TV is also not really my thingamabob

    2. Mad Men peaked at about 3 million viewers with season 3, then quickly crashed. Hardly capturing the nation’s imagination.

      1. the nation’s imagination

        is everybody who writes about TV for a living.

    3. It’s AMC, not HBO.

      TV has been “reinvented” to a certain degree, dude. The difference in the quality in TV programs from even 15 years ago is pretty incredible. The classic TV model of “film this as cheaply as humanly fucking possible” was blown away by cable networks not worrying about advertising and the like and having real budgets (because they can). Go back and watch a “good” show from the 70s or 80s or 90s. Then watch a “good” show from today. The difference is colossal.

      If TV isn’t your thing, you probably won’t have noticed this. But it is very, very real. And I for one am absolutely thrilled about it.

      1. I bet you’ll think different when you see another Trek series done in the modern cable/internet tv style

      2. I’m a game show fan. Most of the game shows of today are terrible compared to the shows of days gone by. Even the better new entries such as The Chase do extremely irritating things like drawn-out answer reveals.

        1. Better production values, serialized story telling and less censorship can’t hide bad writing. And the relentless GRIMDARK and asshole characters are getting tiresome.

        2. I was really only referring to plotted TV shows. Reality TV is an abomination, and I haven’t watched a game show since like 1996. In fact, I should probably have qualified because I actually only watch plotted TV and sports. I don’t watch reality tv, game shows, singing shows, etc. I don’t even watch stuff like Mythbusters or Top Gear any more.

          1. Plotted TV shows are mostly Soap Operas today. Glossier and better written, but soap operas nevertheless. Even Cop Shows and sitcoms try to have storylines today!

      3. Go back just a little further when The X-Files was like the best show in existence. Watching that show today is almost physically painful.

        1. I like the one where the HOA creates a trash-tulpa to punish rulebreakers.

      4. There are a few very good TV shows right now. However, they’re surrounded by an ocean of crap. In the 1990s and early 2000s there were a lot of decent-to-good TV shows on at any given time. So comparing the best of the 1990s to the best of 2015 and forgetting about the rest of the landscape is not really fair.

        Most of the good shows these days also only make 13 or fewer episodes per year, which is less than half the standard season in the 1990s and early 2000s.

      5. Cheers vs Big Bang Theory?

        Yeah, progress!

    4. ^ THIS.

      And I, as somebody born in 1972, frankly can’t wait for the nostalgia for the 1960s to go by the wayside.

  2. “The past is always created backwards from the present moment and our senses of identity and possibilities are always enriched by sifting through periods and aspects of our history that are otherwise ignored, forgotten, or impugned as insignificant.”

    TV culture isn’t my thingamabob, but I could bolt this set of words onto a couple of pieces of metal and travel strange vectors, dude Gillespie. I might even do that when everyone goes to bed and the stars wink at me with their secret vices.

  3. While I enjoyed the episodes I saw, I had to laugh at the stilted language and behavior. Having actually worked in a downtown professional office in the 1960s, I never saw the kind of language, behavior and attitude toward subordinates, superiors and clients that “Mad Men” portrayed.

    1. I always watch the show and think, “Thank God I don’t work in an office”.

    2. I’m a good deal younger than you, but I had the same suspicion: the interaction of these characters and the dialogue between them struck me as extremely contrived and simply unrealistic.

  4. As a fan of the show I can confirm that it is the single most important show in the history of television. Hands down.

    1. meh. I’m still voting for The White Shadow

      1. TransGIL Mullato MORE Heroic dick vagina link with firm tits and a slathering snake tongue. Shit.

      2. I’m quite sorry, but you’re wrong. The most important TV show of all time is one you may remember Troy McClure from named Son of Sanford and Son.

    2. What’s up with the goddamn Juggler bitch? Juggling crusty alien star fishies, love? Goddamn fucking Crusty Juggler.

      1. You must really like Arby’s.

        1. My face eats comet farts, love. All day everyday but only when I can breathe above 40 thousand feet because shit… I was about to finger my board with words that would offend billions but fucking christ i’m not fucked up enough… whew

  5. I never liked Mad Men, I always felt like I was watching something made for my wife, and she didn’t like it either. But I can see the value as very good propaganda, portraying a world dominated culturally and economically by our ethnic enemies where everyone except a few sociopaths was unhappy.

    The economic and cultural changes toward a more broadly defined libertarian world of free minds and free markets that underwrites the folks at Sterling Cooper also underwrote the shift into a world where work and life are not simply endured but become active expressions of who we are and what we care about.

    Wait, America has gotten more libertarian since that time period? Wonder how “bad” we’ll have to make it before you and other libertarian useful idiots realize you’re wrong.

    1. In the early 70’s, a Republican president imposed national wage and price controls. And it was a popular move — 75% of people expressed support:

      http://www.cato.org/publicatio…..e-controls

      Yes, American has gotten more libertarian since then (even if we’re not moving in a more libertarian direction right now).

  6. Tried to watch it. Thought it was very pretentious.

  7. Rarely has a television show captured the national imagination as fully as the drama surrounding Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Joan Holloway, Peggy Olson and all the rest.

    Um no, TV snobs do not equate to “national imagination” and even they dumped it for Breaking Bad.

  8. He is a spent force who can no longer fit into a new world he helped to open up.

    Applies equally to the Show itself. And Gillespie for that matter.

  9. The economic and cultural changes toward a more broadly defined libertarian world of free minds and free markets

    What Free markets? What Free Minds?

    1. From a global perspective free markets have been on the rise. South Korea, Japan, and the PRC are far more free economically than they were in 1960.

      Even in the US, there has been some deregulation (airlines, brewing, interstate trucking, etc) along with massive increases in competition brought about by new technologies.

      As for free minds, are you kidding? Compared with 1960 it’s a slam dunk.

  10. Richard Whitman, aka Donald Draper, is one of the worst people ever portrayed on TV. I don’t know why people like him. He caused the death if his commanding officer, stole his identity, deserted the Army, let his family think he’s dead, constantly cheats on his wives, constantly lies and rejected his brother so harshly the guy hung himself.

    1. I don’t think people like him, I think his character is like a train wreck that people can’t stop watching because it’s so good-looking. Sort of like how certain people are obsessed with certain retarded feminists because they’re cute.

      1. Those people obsessed with those cute feminists disgust me. They should be ashamed of themselves.

        1. Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m disgusted. But they are ridiculous and deserved to be mocked, at least a little.

    2. The lives of the other characters can be interesting. Setting the show in that time period is interesting. The show is not political. The clothes are interesting (and sometimes humorous). The show is generally well-written and well-acted.

      The show does not have high ratings because it has plots that can be slow to develop. It is a problem shared by one of my favorite shows, The Americans.

      Plus, it has some hot chicks.

      1. I like Mad Men for the reasons you mention too. For some reason, even though I hate most dramas, I’m much more likely to enjoy a drama set in a different time period, as long as it seems realistic. It just automatically makes it more interesting.

      2. Pretty sure the low ratings are due to being a cable show.

        1. Most people have cable and most cable packages have AMC.

          1. You do know that Breaking Bad only hit over 2 Million viewers once until the last season? And only the second half was over 3 million?

  11. Who gives a fuck

    1. White people whiting on about their whiteness?

      1. Being white is like being icy peachific glowball. Like sort of transparent human skin with peach jabs. white isn’t really white but peachy translucent. that’s what white is. Peachy translucent with a slight scattering of light through the pigments. Almost piggy white. Like a piggy peach white. A newborn pig is like white skin normalized. Just a smattering of thoughts on white- preachy- er peachiness.

        1. I do not like peaches.

        2. Peaches look ethnic compared to me. I’m pale beige at best, like a clove of garlic.

          1. Apartment-skinned lap83 and Quin the above is not peachific but maybe crime skinned and deep pigged on the mint? Quin the fucking afro street crime pimp and lap the 83rd gun in the ass badge factuals.

            1. This drama unnerves the locals, bitches. tone it down or lives will float freeling in the gutters of paradise, bros.

            2. Quin the fucking afro street crime pimp and lap the 83rd gun in the ass badge factuals

              .

              We have a TV show, lap83, you in?

              1. If AC writes the script sure.

                1. Lap83 smashes into the brick dimension of rotten spaceships filled with dirty whores trapped for centuries without love and Lap83 dick smoothies and his smooth massive cocks janks entire spaceships filled with sweet ladies and his spurt 40’s created new blondes and svelte super girls… Lap83 jizzm is the healing superverse for trapped millions of entrapped cunts and upon release the smoothing rivers of jizz spurting for LAP83 metal robot dick upended the current galactic orbit of hot girls….

                  Fuck,
                  Lap83 ruined the universe with his jizz?

          2. Heh, garlic as a new paper bag test.

            1. Fuck garlic. Always eat tons of pineapples if you want female lips to gnaw at your hardcraft.

  12. Gillespie watches a chick show!

    The 1950s weren’t exactly “conformist”.The Greatest and Silent generations were inventing all that cool cultural shit the baby boomers like to take credit for, but had no part in because they were just spoiled little rugrats at the time. The 1950s (into the 60s) was also a “golden age” for women, despite revisionist feminist propaganda to the contrary.

    1. It’s seriously troubling how much influence Mad Men has had on young men’s fashion. I’m hoping it’s just because they’re trying to get in the pants of women who like the show, but still dread that they are actually fans of it themselves.

    2. “[…]The 1950s (into the 60s) was also a “golden age” for women, despite revisionist feminist propaganda to the contrary.”

      Cite missing.
      I’d say any ‘golden age’ for women started right around 1960 ( http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10342090 )
      All of a sudden, they could screw like guys!

  13. So, Gillespie is adorable man power tendons, SIV. What offer thee to the world of this thread manliness?

  14. OK, so who framed roger rabbit?
    It’s over by now, right?

  15. Isn’t it expected that Don Draper will become DB Cooper? I don’t want to bother with watching but am curious to know if they go there

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  17. I dont think the man is going to like that.

    http://www.Anon-Ways.tk

  18. “In the early 1960s, the moment that Mad Men begins, the notion that work could express something about you was limited to the few. Now it is taken for granted that you should do something you love (or are lucky to be doing so).”

    Now it’s taken for granted that you should do anything, thanks to 0bamaCare and the end of joblock.

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/…..n/5258933/

    Post-WWII land of plenty enabled modern liberal progressives. Only in a land of milk and honey could indiscriminateness become a mantra. Retardation compliments of the public school monopoly. Liberal sharia: convert, pay the jizya if you built things you didn’t build, or surrender your brain (a soft beheading).

    Discrimination has always been a good thing. Discrimination is the inherent consequence of freedom of conscience. If one cannot act according to the dictates of one’s own moral conscience, what is the point of having freedom of conscience?

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