Mad Men at 15: how the genius advertising drama foresaw the death of the American dream

From the micro-aggressions toward Black, female and LGBTQ characters to its depiction of a worrying narcissist named Donald, this forward-thinking drama was a warning from history

Most period dramas tell us more about the era in which they are made than the era in which they are set. Think of Downton Abbey, which arrived in 2010 at the height of post-financial crisis austerity, touting a gently consolatory, “Keep Calm and Carry On” noblesse oblige that fit David Cameron’s incoming government like a glove. Mad Men aired for the first time on 19 July 2007. Now the show is 15 years old, enough time has elapsed for its prescient shakedown of the passing American century to look more like an elegy.

As Don Draper (Jon Hamm) knew, the US in the 20th century was primarily an exercise in branding. What Mad Men did, quite brilliantly, was explore the gaps between grim reality and that most enduring gambit of conceptual image creation: the American Dream. Since the turn of the century, US branding has become less confident. Most of the best dramas find a way of embedding tiny, personal, emotional nuances within wider, grander stories. Mad Men’s genius was to show that they were one and the same. Pretty much everyone in this show was wealthy and attractive. They were also, overwhelmingly, unhappy. This is the hinterland in which advertising thrives: where material solutions can be offered for existential problems.

In the final series, there is a magnificent fragment of a scene during which the characters are marvelling at the moon landings. As Neil Armstrong says, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, the camera cuts to semi-retired ad-man Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). “Bravo,” he mutters wryly, clearly seeing this moment of universal awe as primarily a brilliant piece of marketing. It is Cooper’s final scene: the following day, he will be dead, but the American Dream will have gained another chapter with its own concise, bespoke tagline.

The US in the 20th century was primarily an exercise in branding … the Madison Avenue team.
The US in the 20th century was primarily an exercise in branding … the Madison Avenue team. Photograph: AMC/ Lionsgate

The world of Mad Men is one in which grand gestures come easily, but introspection does not – which is fitting, given it follows the Madison Avenue gang who were at the heart of building the national narrative. Characters projected outwards, rather than asking questions of themselves; their interior lives stayed largely stuck in 1950s conservatism, even while the decade or so covered by the show sees the emergence of the fashion and habits of the emerging counterculture; hair gets shaggier, skirts shorter, cigarettes more exotically herbal. Don gets less than halfway through the Beatles’ psychedelic landmark Tomorrow Never Knows before taking it off. The show’s final tableau is a moment of almost transcendental cynicism; Don’s post-meltdown meditation session at a retreat translates effortlessly into an iconic Coca-Cola ad. There is very little personal development going on here, and the show is all the more audaciously brilliant for foregrounding that. At the dawn of the consumer age, Americans were trying various personas on for size then moving on. If they didn’t move on, advertising executives would be out of a job.

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy, Jon Hamm as Don, and Christina Hendricks as Joan in Mad Men.
Everyone in this show was wealthy and attractive. They were also, overwhelmingly, unhappy … Elisabeth Moss as Peggy, Jon Hamm as Don, and Christina Hendricks as Joan in Mad Men. Photograph: BBC/Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC/Lionsgate

Mad Men ended in 2015. The show is only a year either side away from overlapping perfectly with the presidency of Barack Obama. These were years in which, for all of the anguish surrounding 9/11, the war in Iraq and the financial crisis, it was still just about possible for Americans to build noble, unifying narratives about their society. It was still possible to believe, as Martin Luther King once said, that “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” And, yet, even as they cast Mad Men in a darker light, the following years have only added to the show’s resonance.

The office landscape depicted in Mad Men is a discordant symphony of microaggressions. The only people of colour are secretaries. LGBTQ people keep their true sexual identities to themselves. The women are routinely belittled, patronised and subjected to what we would now regard as textbook sexual harrassment.

What Mad Men always did – and in this context, the show feels admirably ahead of its time – was offer nuanced female perspectives. It dramatised the emotional effects of this routine abuse but also, characters’ resistance to it. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) struggles to be taken seriously despite her evident talent: her frustration is tangible, but so is her harmful tendency to subconsciously internalise male judgments on her ability. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is repeatedly reduced to the sum total of her physical attributes, her implacable practicality hiding the damage of a lifetime of slurs masquerading as compliments. January Jones’s Betty Draper retains a life in the show despite her separation from Don, and establishes a degree of independence as she pursues a degree in psychology. These women are given internal lives that feel rich and plausible – the implication being that society’s treatment of them has created a level of hard-won toughness and autonomy possessed by none of the male characters. Their achievements eventually feel radical.

Finally, there are the two Donalds – Draper and Trump. When Mad Men ended, the idea of a Trump presidency was still the stuff of a wise-ass comedian’s after-dinner turn. It is tempting to conflate these two narcissistic, weak, manipulative, pathologically selfish, deeply insecure and eventually slightly pitiable men, given how much they seem to have in common.

But the show’s creator Matthew Weiner does identify a fault line that continues to be gallingly exploitable in American public life – there is always room for a talented grifter if he knows which buttons to push. Don Draper would probably have found Donald Trump crass. But he would have found a line, if ever Trump had wanted to open his chequebook. Because business is business. After all, what is advertising if not the ultimate fake news? Mad Men was ahead of the curve all along. But, like the best period dramas, it was a warning from history too.


Phil Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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