Originally published at Blogcritics
For seven seasons, I resisted AMC’s iconic series Mad Men. Sure I caught an episode here and there, deciding that Don Draper was too much of a jerk. Hell, everyone was too much of a jerk, for me to appreciate anything about the show.
But Mad Men tells the story of my childhood–in a pop-cultural sense, at least. I’m about a year younger than Don’s eldest child Sally, so curiosity finally got to me, and I sat down about a week before the series finale to watch the pilot episode. Now, many hours later, I’ve caught up to the finish. And yes, I got hooked.
As I observed history, culture and the characters change before my eyes with the lightening swiftness of days and not years, I wondered what drew me in and how. Like one of Don Draper’s client presentations, Mad Men told me a story; something that resonated deep inside: a memoir of a generation that had me sold.
Not one generation, actually, but several: “The Greatest Generation” of my parents, which suffered through the Great Depression, World War II, and Korea, the “younger generation” that came of age as adults during the ’60s, and my generation. Those of us too young to have been Hippies or draft resisters, or to have grown up without television, but old enough to remember the assassination of JFK, the moon landing, and Saturday morning TV.
In a way, Mad Men is like one of those epic novels of that time: big sprawling multi-generational family tales now more likely (and often better) told via “limited” television series or Masterpiece Theater. Or in “chapters” on cable over seasons, as Mad Men‘s tale has been told. Or better yet, an entire generation of Broadway musical theater.
Mad Men‘s ending was bittersweet, and like so much of the series’ seven season, brought to mind an entire Broadway score of tunes (maybe it’s that the Tony’s are on tonight). After all, the series’ godfather is the 1960s Broadway show How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which of course starred the amazing Robert Morse (Burt Cooper in Mad Men). And the 1960s Broadway musical was in so many ways a chronicle of the era.
Peggy and Stan declaring their love for each other was lovely, reminding me of the great “Two Lost Souls on the Highway of Life” song from Damn Yankees. It is Peggy’s reprise (or reprieve) from Cabaret’s “Maybe this Time.”
Joan striking out on her own, irrepressible, overcoming her lack of confidence after a lifetime of being objectified. Her journey took her from the How to Succeed in Business hit “A Secretary Is not a Toy” to “I Believe in You.”
Roger Sterling finally settles down with an age-appropriate woman, his journey reminding me of Harold Hill’s in The Music Man. Harold Hill, after a lifetime of glad-handing and scamming, leaving a girl in every city, finally wants to stop running, finding happiness with his “Sadder but Wiser Girl for Me” in Marian the librarian.
Betty Draper Francis is the one to pay the price for a generation’s love affair with cigarettes. I thought of A Little Night Music’s “Send in the Clowns” for her: the sardonic, bitter realization of bad timing. Just as she is about to “find herself,” go back to university, and have a life outside of housewifery, she learns she has terminal cancer. But within the tragedy of her final months, Sally grows up into a new generation that will never look back, and Don realizes just what he has lost, and can never be retrieved.
Don Draper, the master of re-invention and rebirth, finds himself running away again, only to realize that he’s tired of running, tired of living a lie, tired of life. But he is reborn into the ’70s in a way that Roger, for all his living the Summer of Love of a few years before, could never achieve. Perhaps McCann-Erickson was the best thing for him, forcing him out, forcing him to flee before the behemoth swallows him up and spits him out as a cog in a gargantuan machine. Forcing him to confront himself, the damage wrought, the baggage dragged along for nearly 20 years.
There is no more perfect song for Don Draper’s bow than “The Best Things in Life are Free” from Good News. It is, of course, the song Burt Cooper’s ghost sings to Don at the end of “Waterloo,” the season 7A finale. But before he gets there he must grieve for the losses in his life. And for that I go back to Damn Yankees for “A Man Doesn’t Know What He Has…Until He Loses It.” (Actually, that song is pretty fitting for all the men in the show, perhaps even more for Pete Campbell, whose ending is truer to the end of Damn Yankees, since he is able to go back and retrieve the lost first love of his life, as did the hero of the iconic musical.)
Is “Best Things in Life” the trigger for Don’s decision to flee McCann, as he takes off looking for “something” as he travels the roads not yet taken, eschewing the tie, the shave, and the establishment of his successful but unsatisfying life? Ironically, in the end, Don’s search leads him back to what he does best: using his imagination to tell a story and sell a product. Could have have envisioned “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” without the purgatory of that road trip?
Of course, each of the main characters of Mad Men are deeper and far more complex than the lyrics of a Broadway show can express, and over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring each of the characters, their journeys, and so much more about the show. Like a great novel, it’s hard to put down, hard to stop pulling apart and parsing. And I’m just getting started, so stay tuned!