Now that Mad Men has concluded and is television history, what did it all mean? What was it about this series that went deep to the bone, and the brain? Several TV series have storylines that got us hooked, but Mad Men entered our psyche. The reason may be a simple one – it was a story whose characters we could relate to, or even see ourselves in.

Matt Weiner may have indeed begun the story of Mad Men as a sort of Great American novel, a story of how a man of humble origins makes it in the material world, a Jay Gatsby of the mid-century, yet despite all his success he is unsatisfied with his life. And like Jay Gatsby, he has to pass as someone who “belongs” among the class of people he frequents and does business with. Mad Men is the journey of this outsider into the heart of American capitalism, where women too, outsiders or not, find obstacles and worse at every turn. Along the way the gloss, spectacle, and magnetism of American life as portrayed in advertising attracts all. Here are the keys to understanding the show, as one writer sees them (there are spoilers):


1) DON DRAPER  – Don Draper was born Dick Whitman and took Don Draper’s name and identity, so he’s always aware that he is posing as someone that he is not. On top of that he was born in deep poverty, born to a prostitute mother who died giving him birth, and  to a father that died when Don was young, then he was raised in a whorehouse. He was neither loved nor wanted and this lack in his developmental stage was always a hole that could never be filled as he moved from one woman in his life to another, never believing he’s really loved. His outsider status has made him an obserer of human nature. In business his intelligence, creativity, understanding of others, and his forceful personality have made him a winner at sales and on Madison Avenue, but he’s in a world of rich men, old WASP families, and corporate connections that he’s a stranger to. He’s always on a tightrope, where a false move of letting his rural-poor background or false identity show could take down his house of cards. Pete Campbell comes from an old money New York family – he always had it easy, and thus tends to be “entitled,” in his attitude. His confrontations with Don are perfect symbols of talent vs. title. Yet with all that Don’s skills and talents bring him, the hole remains. As he jettisons one relationship after another, the hole only swallows more of him. As he writes in his own diary, “We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things, and wish for what we had.” Naturally, his marriages are rocky, and he has never learned to trust love, and he doesn’t know which is the real person to present himself as. For all of his strength as personifying the modern ad man, he is haunted by his past. Flashbacks occur throughout the series, as a device to explain his character, but to leave mysterious gaps. Who was that woman in “The Crash” episode, a typist/assistant to Ted Chough, that Don saw after his “pick me up” shot, then walking down the stairs. “Do I know you?” “I mean have we met before now?” he says to her. She looks much like Diane of the Diner from a much later episode, but here she serves to bring a flashback to an earlier ad for soup with a similar looking woman in illustration, “You know what he wants,” the ad says, as a mother overlooks a boy. This ad and the image no doubt designed to come from Don’s head. It sends him on a mad rush to find the old ad.  And since a flashback occurs of his first sexual experience in the whorehouse where he grew up, following the only female tenderness he’d ever had, Don conflates imaginary motherly love , tenderness, and sex, followed by some traumatic event.

mad men don draper



2) PEGGY OLSON – Matt Weiner has said that of all the characters, Peggy is his favorite. Don is her mentor, but she has the earnest and steady perseverance to learn from each mistake, disappointment, and negative encounter, and to grow stronger. She shares with Don a family life where love was lacking, and her relationships with men have been rough. She is always undervalued and has to work harder to compensate – this the very story of women in the white collar workplace. Like Don she too must know and do all that is required of her, while “passing” as one of the boys. She must do all that Don has done but with the disadvantage of being a woman, and for part of the show, she still dresses like a girl, making it even harder to be taken seriously.  In the still-sexist 60s office-place, this is constantly degrading. Like Don, she is intelligent and understands people and their motivation and can put together the best ads. Her ad campaign for Burger Chef was brilliant. Her success takes longer to achieve, and she doesn’t have Don’s confidence, despite his background, but when she arrives she will never doubt herself again.

Mad Men Burger Chef

3) JOAN HOLLOWAY HARRIS – Joan is the opposite of Peggy in the Sterling Cooper & Partners enterprise. She is tough and has been around the block. But in contrast to Peggy, Joan is sassy and sexy -obviously so. She is thus the butt of every look and sexist joke and overture that today fills up sexual harassment training manuals. But her years of experience and level of skill only makes her fit to boss the other “girls” in the office.  In Series 3 The English assistant John Hooker calls the office a “Joanocracy.” But when she later makes partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it is only because she  agreed to go to bed with the owner of the Jaguar dealers, this to win the account for the partners (which Don objected to). Joan does not get along with her mother, a characteristic shared by Pete Campbell and  Roger Sterling. She has had a close relationship with Roger Sterling, and has had his child. She never lacked confidence or doubt, and knew what she wanted to do when faced with decisions about maternity with another man’s child, had compromised sex in exchange for comfort for life, rejected a binding relationship, and finally started her own business. As an influence, Joan as played by Christina Hendricks brought back the sexy hourglass figure of the 1950s as a  popular image and style.

mad-men Joan-christina-hendricks


4) ADVERTISING – This was the period in American history where the circular symbol: Mass Advertising – Mass Consumption – Mass Production  was itself a bus ad. New products came to consciousness through glossy ads that were hypnotic in their appeal. The ads symbolized the good life – the American life that was the envy of the world. The center of the advertising business was on Madison Avenue in New York, hence the term Mad Men. The advertising agencies worked for the corporations that fed a steady stream of products into the American home. In the show, these corporations and their products are named: Kodak; Lucky Strike; Hershey Chocolate; Heinz; Dow Chemical; Chevrolet; and Coca-Cola, among others. Everyday household feminine products from Topaz hosiery to Playtex brassieres are subject to ad campaigns, and the cause for sniggering from some of the male ad men. The advertising agencies themselves form their own phalanx into the business world: McCann-Erickson;  Putnam, Powell & Lowe, Ogilvy & Mather, and Sterling , Cooper, Draper, Pryce. The David Ogilvy  of the above firm wrote, Confessions of an Advertising Man, a manual for the type.

5) 1960s – 1960 is where Matt Weiner wanted to begin his saga of  Don Draper and the Mad Men. It was a decade  that started with social stability but ended with social upheaval. The beginning of the decade looked much like the 1950s, a period still trying to forget World War II and trying to ignore the Korean “conflict” from which Don Draper sprang. The sanitized versions of home life and sex as seen on the censored TV-shows and movies, especially the popular Lucille Ball shows and Doris Day films of the period gave misleading views about sex, (or the lack thereof). The late 1960s didn’t invent screwing, or screwing around. The tug of war of the social forces is evident in the deep white male dominance of the work place, unabashedly enforced over  women, regardless of their title.  As these forces are more fought over as the decade progresses in the show, the women become more assertive, yet there are still miles to go for anything resembling equality of the sexes (still elusive today). If anything the 1960s was grabbed by youth for changing their own paths to freedom. And the 1960s provided a lot more color in the advertising graphics to come, led by the revival of poster art for concerts and hippie be-ins. Much later still, that most subversive 60s convulsion , rock-and-roll music, would be a constant sound track feeding television commercials. As the 1960s progress in the show, the major events are reflected in the plots and reactions of the characters: the assasinations; the civil rights movement; Viet-Nam; the moon-landing; the youth-movement. The dynamics of office politics and agency take-overs continues, along with drinking, smoking, and sex.

mad men Milton Glaser
Poster by Milton Glaser

6) FASHION & DECOR – The look of Mad Men made waves from its very beginning. The early 60s women’s fashions resembled the late 50s women’s fashions, with the New Look silhouette still in vogue. The silhouette was enhanced by girdles and cone-shaped bras, and nylons and garters were de rigeur. Although vintage garments are available and used as costumes, vintage undergarments are not so available, so the silhouette is not strictly correct, but nonetheless costume designer Janie Bryant made a a big hit with her retro fashions for the show. The total look included accessories, which were almost mandatory in the early 60s, with hats, gloves, shoes matching handbags. necklaces, and earings.

Left to right January Jones, as Betty Draper, Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, and Elizabeth Moss as Peggy Olson


Mad Men fashion
At left is Maggie Siff as Rachel Mencken

Rachel Mencken as a Department store owner knows how to dress with taste. She’s also beautiful and attracts Don’s attention immediately, beyond being a client. Don’s wardrobe is straightforward but he wears clothes well. He adds class by wearing French cuffs on crisp white shirts and his ties are always impecable. His pocket square adds a nice note. He and the other Mad Men in suits strictly follow the code of unbuttoning their jacket when they sit and buttoning it when they stand – always.


mad-men Betty & Don

A form-fitting floral print dress worn by January Jones looks smashing – its colors especially flattering to her.

Mad Men fashion group

The late 1960s bring the Mod years and contrasting looks to the office. Jessica Pare as Megan Draper, who plays an aspiring actress is alwayss the most fashion forward. Her mini-dresses and bright-colored paisley-print outfits are very hip and sexy. The men are dressed either in suits or sport jackets, and the “creatives” take on the look of college students and bohemians.


The set designs for Mad Men were as influential as the costume design. The sleek mid-century look in offices and homes, influenced by modern architecture and Danish-design inspired furniture, became a popular trend in decorating and interior design. The original offices of Sterling- Cooper are also noteworthy for the framed art, so typical of the late 1950s and very early 1960s – all very linear and abstract


Don and Megan’s new condo is also very modern and attractice, with a sunken living room and large terrace.


7) MUSIC – Soundtracks are ever-present in TV shows and movies, where they set the mood and help pace the story or even foretell the action to come. An extra dynamic plays out in Mad Men’s music however, more exactly in its songs. Its in the lyrics and especially  the titles and refrains that reinforces the point of the story.  In Season 1 Episode 2 Peggy is the new girl, typing while  looking around at the men’s offices while the Andrew Sisters’ song I Can Dream Can’t I, plays. In Season 6 Megan and Don watch TV as the news covers the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the song Reach Out of the Darkness , by Friend and Lover blares out. Season 7 started out with Don put on leave, but a classic shot opens of him arriving to the still small LA airport, dapper in hat and suit, shot in slow motion as Megan meets hint in a wind-blown mini-skirt, with I’m a Man by the Spencer Davis Group pumps the California sunshine through the scene. This music is contrasted with a later scene of Don breaking down, alone in his condo to You Keep Me Hanging On by Vanilla Fudge. Or can one ever forget the number and the sentiment of Bert Cooper’s farewell, ghostly, song and soft shoe message to Don with The Best Things In Life Are Free, in Season 7 Episode 7?

mad-men bert cooper

The songs of sadness and looking back are present as well. When Don sells his condo, the soulful and heart-wrenching, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack plays as he stands alone. Other songs showing direction are used are used. When Peggy and Don are in the office late at night in Season 7 Episode 6, with Peggy doubting her steps in an ad campaign, Don points out the song that keeps playing on the radio, an omen he thinks, its Frank Sinatra’s I Did It My Way, and he invites her to dance. Later in the series Don fixates on a restaurant waitress named Diana. When he goes to see her there alone, the song Louie, Louie by the Kingsmen plays. The almost undecipherable lyrics are about a man saying he has to sail back to see his girl, seen in a dream.  And of course there’s the greatest “directional” song of the whole show, the Mad Men finale where Don dreams up the Coca-Cola ad while meditating cliff-side at Big-Sur, the I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, song adapted into the I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke ad.

Mad Men screen-shot

Don Draper’s final On the Road trip took him from New York through the Mid-West, at first searching for the elusive Diana of the Diner, the mystical mistress of his subconscious. And from there he ended up in California in a sort of self-realization center at Big Sur, in as low a mood as we’ve ever seen him. But out of the depths there is only one direction left to go, just as he started his career, and as an Ad Man, Don has found here the perfect pitch and commercial song in his mind.

So long Mad Men and Women, it was a wonderful ride.




4 thoughts on “MAD MEN: A LOOK BACK”

  1. Wonderful post, Christian. I am bereft! I can’t believe how much I keep thinking about these characters. I love your comparison of Don to Jay Gatsby – both believing they can be anything they want but unable to leave the past behind.

      1. I can’t believe – or maybe it’s that I can’t accept – Mad Men is gone forever. For me, the final episode was brilliant and perfect. But still, I want more! Great exploration of key aspects of the series, Christian.

        1. I know how you feel Lady Eve. I’m still watching DVR’d segments from the marathon, and sometime soon I’m going to start all over with a set of DVDs or downloads, from the very beginning episode. Maybe that will cure me – but I doubt it.

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