After eight years, AMC’s period drama Mad Men will release its final eight episodes starting on April 5th. Initially pitched by its creator Matthew Weiner to HBO, AMC ended up picking up the show and it went on to become the first basic cable show to win the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy. Although the series has won significant critical acclaim and decent ratings, it has never seen the kind of popularity other some of its cable peers such as Breaking Bad receive, despite Mad Men’s sterling quality.
If you’re not familiar with the premise, Mad Men takes place in the 1960’s and focuses on the exploits of the mysterious and perpetually conflicted advertising executive Don Draper. Although the series gives viewers a peek into the office politics and artistic wrangling of a 1960’s advertising firm, the core of the series is the exploration of the struggles and successes of the complex individuals that make up Don’s family and immediate circle of business partners and friends.
In the tradition of quite a few other great television series, its first several episodes are the most difficult to watch. Mad Men’s greatest quality and simultaneously one of its most off-putting aspects is its slow pace. Events that most other television dramas would have covered in fifteen minutes take an entire episode to unfold. Cliffhanger endings are few and far in between. Even the season finales are often reflective and thought-provoking, leaving the viewer food for thought instead of a shocking twist that will get them to tune in next year. Mad Men is always content to take the slow road to its destination and marinate in the interactions between its characters on the way there.
The 1960’s setting might make the series appear unrelatable or dated, but Mad Men proves that quality writing and drama will carry a story no matter where or when it’s set. The characters might dress differently and look at the world from a different angle than we do, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting or understandable. Whether it be the (countless) incidents of infidelity, the drive to distinguish themselves in an increasingly uncertain world, or to escape the deep-rooted unhappiness so many of them feel, Mad Men’s characters are always nuanced and fascinating to watch even if they don’t always make good decisions or learn from their mistakes. Weiner said that the series is “non-judgmental about human behavior” and that “rather than lying to you about human behavior, even though there’s plenty of wish-fulfillment in the show, it acknowledges that it’s hard to be a person,” which is a perfect description of how the show approaches its characters.
The series is particularly interesting for modern viewers in how it explores the treatment of minority and oppressed groups during the 1960’s. The struggle that women faced to be respected in the workplace, the pressure that gays felt to hide their sexuality and fit in, and the divide between blacks and whites are all topics that are covered. Mad Men doesn’t get up on a soap-box about these issues and is more content to depict these issues for what they were, rather than giving into the temptation of creating an alternate version of the 1960’s where these issues could have been overcome faster. For example, there are women on the show who challenge the boundaries of the male-dominated advertising industry, but they can never fully escape the sexism that limits them. Change often comes too slowly, and Mad Men is aware of that fact.
In addition to looking at social issues, the rich history of the 1960’s is woven throughout the series. The assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the moon landing, and more significant events are explored through the eyes of Mad Men’s cast. The endless speculation over who will be the next president or the fear of impending doom by nuclear attack make the characters feel like a part of history and make for many of the series’ most impactful moments.
Mad Men returns for the second half of its seventh and final season on April 5th on AMC. Its first seven seasons are available for streaming on Netflix for those who want to catch up. The possibility exists that it will crash and burn in the final episode—Weiner’s vague statements about the ending haven’t been terribly encouraging—but regardless of how it ends, Mad Men will remain one of the finest cable television series ever to air. It is more than worth catching up on for anyone with the slightest interest in quality television.