Manhattan gleams gold behind Don Draper’s desk as the lights of the skyline shine against the darkness of the evening.
Roger Sterling enters the office – svelte, silver-haired; clad in a vest and tie – and nonchalantly plops down on Don’s couch. Don, standing in a corner, pours his guest a neat glass of whiskey.
“I bet daily friendship with that bottle attracts more people to advertising than any salary you could dream of,” Roger declares.
“That’s why I got in,” Don replies.
“So enjoy it.”
“I’m doing my best here,” says Don, as he takes a drink.
“No, you’re not,” Roger scoffs. “You don’t know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation — we drink because it’s good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. We drink because it’s what men do.”
And that was only four episodes into the first season.
It would be unnecessary to eulogize Mad Men almost eight years after it first premiered. The critics have done that quite adequately, and, still within recent memory, this series won the Emmy Award for “Outstanding Drama Series” for its first four seasons.
I’d like to know why this series has succeeded at capturing the imaginations of millions of viewers over the course of the past seven seasons. Why has it captured my own?
On the surface, of course, there’s the free-flowing booze and pervasive cigarette smoke that take us back to a time when having happy hour at work was a normal thing. When we watch Mad Men, we watch the U.S. progress from its idyllic setup of suburbs and cities in the days of Kennedy to the drug-fueled unrest of the Nixon years.
We watch an entire decade – the 1960s – of U.S. development.
But what makes the show so compelling is its characters, shrouded in darkness and an inexorable solitude in the midst of the ever-changing world of Madison Ave. during the ‘60s.
Don Draper’s apprentice, Peggy Olson, rises through the ranks at Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency from secretary to copy chief at Sterling Cooper & Partners with brilliance and determination. Along the way, she has an affair with co-worker Pete Campbell, resulting in an unwanted child causing her to undergo a crisis with her Catholic faith.
The stunning Joan Harris likewise goes from office manager to partner during the course of the show.
The leading man, needless to say, is a focal point for all this exquisitely-written human conflict. When we first see Don Draper, he is creative director at Sterling Cooper, spends his lunch hour with his mistress in Greenwich Village and goes home at the end of it all to his charming two-story suburban home, graced by his beautiful wife and lovely children.
But then his affairs are exposed, along with the fact that his name is not really Don Draper. His wife, Betty Draper, demands a divorce. The quaint suburban home in Ossining is traded for an apartment in the city.
Don remarries, but struggles with debilitating problems with drinking, which land him in jail on multiple occasions. Don’s alcohol habits and complicated personal life conspire against him professionally, and at the end of season six, Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper force him to take a leave of absence.
Through it all, there is catharsis.
This is where Mad Men most succeeds. Beyond the allure and the glamour of the advertising world of the ‘60s, there lies its protagonists.
The men: broken, confused and convoluted individuals, who, like many of us, can scarcely begin to navigate the daunting labyrinths of their lives. The women: cunning, fearless and elegant, navigating the world of men from behind-the-scenes.
Despite their affluence, the emptiness and solitude of these characters points a finger through our screens back at us, asking a question even Don’s advertising prowess has failed to resolve: are we happy?
There are moments in this series where the pompous and extravagant setting is pared away, revealing an honest and forthright humanity.
It is flawed in many ways.
It is dark and imperfect but not impossible to admire.
These are the moments where television shines. These are the moments where art, aesthetics and the human condition converge into something awesome and sublime.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at email@example.com.
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