Mad Men is the smoke-filled lounge, a glass of whisky – neat, with tailored suit-fitted men cooly schmoozing to the backdrop of the softly lullaby of Davis’s trumpet. Seldom has a programme so smoothly transported you to another era, filling you with the uncomfortable notion that – perhaps – life was better with the misogynistic, race-tensioned and chronically suicidal lifestyles of 1960s Madison Avenue marketing moguls.
Don Draper, the series’ protagonist, has been the primary salesman of this for the past ten years introducing himself in the very first episode with his trademark, gravel-voiced dissection of why we smoke.
“My wife hates it. Readers Digest says it will kill you,” says the busboy, who Don is analysing, wry smile fixed to his face.
“Yeah, I heard about that,” Don replies.
It is a series of perception and facades. The sexism, racism and snobbery are almost comic to viewers not because we are comfortable with the ideas, but because we perceive it to be acceptable in this period. We knowingly understand the excessive drinking and smoking were a result of ignorance, but we still watch with a strange feeling of unfounded nostalgia for the slickness of the period. Don’s debauchery isn’t seedy; it’s Frank Sinatra singing ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ at the Copacabana-sexy.
Yet, Mad Men is changing. The latest series opens in 1969. Man has just landed on the moon, the Vietnam War has seen thousands of American troops sent to their deaths and society – for black people and women – is becoming ever more inclusive albeit slowly. The perceptions are starting to fade; after seven series reality is catching up with the cool.
When Joan, the office secretary turned partner, is faced with blatant sexism it no longer seems justifiable. The once sultry figure who deflected comments with a promiscuous quip and a sultry smile simply looks violated: “I will burn this place to the ground”, she later says in a moment of weakness. When, in the last series, Don Draper’s liqueur habit – which has always been perceived as controllable – results in a three day blackout, we realise that the cigarette-hazed bars and day-time drinking is not a choice, it is alcoholism brought on by a traumatic childhood.
And this is the underlining message of Mad Men. Every character is hiding something, be it Peggy, Don’s protégé and rising advertising star, and the horrific childbirth in the first series or Betty Draper’s burgeoning depression. They are in themselves advertisements: Don, the New York-chic, gentleman. Betty, the working woman. Joan, the sultry secretary. Betty, the suburban housewife.
After years of building up the products, of solidifying the mask, Mad Men has been slowly unravelling the characters. The end of the 1960s is not so much a chronological landmark, but a breaking point in American society; the perceptions are no longer the right ones, and how the characters will adapt to this is yet to be seen. The realisation that an industry, so willing to package and sell the ‘American Dream’, is dominated by figures who live their own lives in parallel to it.