is a show about the odd relationship that human beings have with the past—our desire to escape coupled with our desire to hang on. On Mad Men
nostalgia is dangerous, deceptive, illusory.
When Mad Men first came out eight years ago, friends hosted theme parties with tailored clothes and twist and shout dances, bars had Mad Men themed events, with cocktails named after the characters, clothing stores like Banana Republic opened up their own Mad Men themed clothing lines.
Over the course of the last eight years we’ve acknowledged the casual sexism and racism of the 60s, while also distancing ourselves from it. I ran into people at parties who swooned over Don’s primal masculinity, who laughed at sexist and racist moments, as if they were an inside joke.
Mad Men’s construction has always been seductive, all the beauty and sex and money and cars. We keep coming back even after we see that its an illusion, when Don’s house is emptied, when Betty is diagnosed with cancer from those same cigarettes we couldn’t help thinking were beautiful and sexy and dangerous in all the best ways.
Mad Men has always also been a mirror, forcing us to look at our own choices and see how deeply they are marred in the culture we live in. I was first introduced to the series by an ex who smoked cigarettes and loved whisky and cinema and sad films as much as I did. When we fought I often felt like one of the women of Mad Men, desperate to keep up appearances, to hide tears with makeup, to throw used liquor bottles in the trash. I’ve seen myself in every female character on Mad Men: when Betty shot those birds, when Joan knocked her fiancé out with her flowers, when Sally got those go-go boots.
But I didn’t think of these women when I left that relationship and started my life ostensibly over; I thought of Don, those empty shots of office rooms and open highways, of New York skylines and the California sun.
Despite strange protests that Mad Men is really all about the women, the truth is Mad Men has always been about Don. No character on Mad Men is capable of evolution the way that Don is, if not for himself than for the advertising culture he lives for. The ending of the series is ambiguous—does Don find peace? Does he use his experience in California as the foundation for a beloved and manipulative Coca Cola ad that defined the 70s?
The final episode of Mad Men reinforces the show’s allure for me, as well as its fundamental tensions. I’m still half in love with and half terrified of what I’m being sold. In the beginning Don tells us that, “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” By the end, Don is moved to tears by the unmemorable man named Leonard who explains how deeply unloved he feels even though he knows the people in his life who he cares about are trying. Don’s response to Leonard’s opening up is the exact opposite response he received when he opened up about his own past at the Hershey pitch the previous season, when he was basically fired from his position for opening up about a past he is deeply private and emotional about.
Don has tried to fill a void in his heart with any number of vices. It’s telling that when Don calls Peggy, he doesn’t lead with his secret past, but the myriad ways he has been disloyal to the people he truly loved the most. “I broke all my vows.”
We can’t help being who we are, even when who we are is so deeply shaped by the culture we live in. In some ways, the hippie retreat is a relief and respite from the stiff, unfeeling world of advertising that Don comes from. But, at the end of the day, it’s just peddling another set of wares. Does Don’s meditation forgive him of his sins? “You always run away,” Peggy tells him over the phone and it’s true. If anything, the hero of this series is Sally, dutifully cancelling her trip to Madrid, so that she can help her mother and brothers at home.
But that’s not who we are poised to identify with at the end.
Though Mad Men has always fiercely critiqued the patriarchy, it is also very much the product of the time in which it was created. For the past eight years we have seen many series featuring a white, male antihero who finds some kind of redemption—steely, hard eyed, with an emotionally soft core. The women in these series have been given a far greater capacity for rich interior lives, but we also are still poised to see other women in the series as mere objects. We view these women through the eyes of the ad men themselves, the camera panning up and down legs, breasts and other disembodied body parts, whether in pencil dress or mini skirt.
To be a woman on Mad Men is to endure hurt after hurt, and brief moments of sisterhood and solidarity. At the very end, Peggy is afforded a possibility for romance that is still predicated on a man wanting her, rather than someone she has been overtly longing for. At the very end, Joan makes a decision, but finds she can’t have it all either.
At the start of Mad Men, I hated Don—I couldn’t stand his smugness, his womanizing, his lies, his cruelty in the workplace and at home. But after watching this show for eight years I began to see myself in him in small ways, especially in moments where the façade of ease would break.
Many of the reasons I will mourn the end of Mad Men do feel intensely personal. If you watch something for eight years, even something you felt profoundly ambivalent about, you’ll eventually start to have feelings for it, or at least for the YOU that was watching it. A lot has happened over the last eight years. I lost friendships, gained them and lost and gained them again. I started and left different jobs. I lost my grandparents. I mended my relationship with my parents. I learned to love in new ways, to love more deeply, and more carefully. I felt my soul crack open and felt parts of me sewn shut, and then I let parts of myself be open all over again. At the end of Mad Men, Don is the same person he was at the start, older, wiser, slightly changed, but still with that same wonderful, terrible core. Our identity is as malleable as we let it be, except when it’s not. By the end of the series we still want more, but at least we’ve learned to listen.
Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book.
Serena Bramble is a film editor whose montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.