Unless you’ve been without a television, newspaper or living on another planet you’ll know that Mad Men has been dominating our screens since 2007. Set in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s the hit American television series, Mad Men is the story of a Manhattan based advertising agency. Whilst at first glance it may seem to be just a regular drama with a great wardrobe and a beautiful cast set amidst a romanticised view of a bygone era there is more to Mad Men than what meets the eye – which is probably what keeps viewers coming back. We seem to be as addicted to the show as the characters are to cigarettes, sordid affairs and liquor on the rocks. Series 6 has just kicked off which has left us all pondering – just what is it that keeps us hooked on Mad Men?
Driven by sex, money and power, the series is rumination on what it meant to be a white middle-class man in a period of rapid social change. The fact that the series is set in the early sixties onwards undoubtedly makes the show stylistically and aesthetically pleasing – the show has sparked fashion revivals with almost every series – but the time frame also allows for a rich tapestry of storylines. The writers build each characters strengths, weaknesses, worries and successes based upon their social surroundings. There is great scope to show historical truth as well as how those key events may have affected people’s lives. Rather than focusing on key historical changes and events in a broader sense the show instead alludes to them with subtle changes that impact on the characters’ lives and identities.
Mad Men depicts various parts of American society and culture of the 1960s, highlighting cigarette addiction, drinking, sexism, feminism, adultery, homophobia, and racism. There are hints of the future and the radical changes to come and how these changes affect the character development is a slow burning process throughout all of the six series. The series mostly remains disconnected from the outside world, so the politics and cultural trends of the time are illustrated through people and their identities, not broad, sweeping arguments.
Creator Matthew Weiner called the series “science fiction in the past”, reasoning that “just as science fiction uses a future world to discuss issues that concern us today, Mad Men uses the past to discuss issues that concern us today that we don’t discuss openly”. The anachronistic setting makes it different enough for the viewer to feel separated and intrigued yet the underlying issues that the characters face are just as relevant to us in present day too. Mad Men therefore has the perfect mix of being relatable yet unfamiliar.
One character who we see the most of is the lead protagonist, Don Draper. Don in theory, should be a hateable character. He’s an adulterer with a beautiful wife, an alcoholic, extremely successful but seemingly is never working and his whole life is a lie based on identity theft. Yet Don is the most likeable, most popular and most intriguing character of the show. Whilst being protagonist and featuring in every episode he is still the one we know least about. So, what is it about Don Draper?
Draper battles with identity which is a thematic thread that runs throughout the entire show. Identity is a key theme in Mad Men, and nobody is ever quite who they appear to be. Each one is filled with thwarted ambitions, lies, unrequited desires and frustrated dreams; none more so than Don Draper himself, whose closet, it’s gradually revealed over each season is filled with proverbial skeletons.
Don’s identity crisis links in perfectly with his uncanny knack to create impeccable adverts to sell a dream to the masses. Just like one of the campaigns created by the ad team, Don’s whole identity is a fabrication – a depiction of what is considered ideal and the norm and he sells his dream life to the audience too. Although some of us may not admit it, it’s possible that viewers yearn for Don’s ability to appear to have it all whilst still being entirely selfish. Whilst we may not all live by Don’s ego-centric and extreme ways, viewers may be seduced by his balance of having it all and being free. There is, of course, an allure associated with being able to drink and smoke with abandon, womanize with impunity and rule over everyone while being ruled by no one – which is probably why men often cite Don as their aspirational figure. He is calm, collected, couth and kempt and financially secure. Despite all of his problems: Don has it all and we want it too.
Whilst Don and his public identity seem to be ideal, Mad Men is in fact a cautionary tale of things being too good to be true. Ultimately, the show makes it clear that Don Draper is running for a reason. This reason is fairly straightforward: his life as the so-called perfect man is, despite its sparkling appeal, is not much of a life at all.
Don’s way of life is a sobering tale. Being untrue to yourself and others will ultimately come back to haunt you. Viewers can enjoy the ride and live the care-free life vicariously through Don, however, slowly but surely – as sadistic as it sounds – watchers may be glued to Mad Men as they are hoping for the inevitable demise of the man who has it all.