Thirteen years ago, the first episode of “Mad Men” aired on AMC. The show’s television success was something of a marvel given its noticeably slow-paced, character-driven story. The legacy of the show’s accurate historical aura has only increased year by year as audiences reflect on Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) existential searching. Re-watching the seven-season long masterpiece in 2020 makes us question the proportions by which 1960s WASP culture dramatically reshaped notions of capital-driven success and the American Dream. Equally, a second look at “Mad Men” during the COVID-19 pandemic gives us pause to reflect on how living through history can often come across as mundane.
“Mad Men” is one of the most delicately thought-out historical dramas to ever grace television. In the twilight years of “Mad Men”’s commercial appeal, numerous copycat productions sought to capitalize on the popularity of the 1960s aesthetic. Shows like “Pan-Am” and “The Playboy Club” attempted to glamorize the Madison Avenue lifestyle by replicating the ever-present misogyny that had been illustrated by “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner. What these shows ultimately got wrong was that “Mad Men”’s entertainment success never rested entirely on its nostalgic portrayals of male-dominated workplaces. While other producers latched onto surface-level images of vintage sexism, “Mad Men” slowly unraveled how the pervasive cultural ideals of the 1960s were anything but fulfilling. What greatly appealed to audiences was the accuracy by which “Mad Men” showed regular Americans living through extraordinary historical moments in ordinary ways.
Throughout “Mad Men” you can often trace singular episodes down to a specific historical date from on-screen news broadcasts or newspaper clippings. The story arc acts like a time machine — but not in the ways you’d expect. The cultural upheaval of the 1960s moves slowly from season to season, just as culture changes in real life. Furniture styles evolve, characters grow long hair and mustaches and end-credit music slowly makes its way from Bobby Helms to The Beatles. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, “The Handmaid’s Tale”) eventually ditches her schoolgirl bangs for a fashionable bob. None of these changes are ever mentioned outright, rather, we see the passage of time and mindsets from a forward lens. Rarely do we stop to consider how consequential the 1960s was for American politics, art, technology and life as a whole.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a rare instance of universal historical recognition. Most of us can safely assume that in the future political dialogues around the pandemic will take the shape of similar, recent historical events of great magnitude such as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11. What we won’t know, just as the characters in “Mad Men” don’t, is how asinine our most level-headed reactions might seem.
In season three’s episode “The Grown Ups,” John F. Kennedy is assassinated on the same day of Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery, “Modern Love”) daughter’s wedding. Instead of calling off the reception, the entire event still occurs in full formality – albeit with many noticeably empty dinner tables. Compare this situation to the present day: There are those of us who are trying to re-establish a sense of normalcy by baking bread from scratch or writing quarantine diaries at home. Others of us choose to go out to bars whilst bearing full knowledge of the current health risks and death tolls. Is it really that hard to believe that not every American was in tears on Nov. 22, 1963? Later in the episode, following the death of Lee Harvey Oswald, Don’s wife, Betty (January Jones, “The Last Man on Earth”), says she wants a divorce.
In the season seven episode “Waterloo”, the nation is gripped in awe by the broadcast of Apollo 11’s moon landing. The next day, Don receives word of his longtime partner and boss’s passing. He has a vision of his boss, Bert Cooper (Robert Morse, Broadway’s “How to Succeed”) singing “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” which leaves Don visibly emotional. After this mid-season shake-up, the conclusion of Don’s story leads him on a rocky journey that ends with him reckoning with his past, finally becoming fulfilled and possibly creating a timeless advertisement for Coca-Cola.
“Mad Men”’s writers suggest that it’s not until times of absolute historical importance and clarity — the “we will be talking about this for decades” moments — that people will decide to make sweeping changes in their lives. The moments where character conflicts, both internal and external, remain constant are where the importance of time is not as recognizable. Throughout the series, the passing of history such as the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War is often unnoticeable.
The show handles prejudice of the time period with a similar degree of historical accuracy. Weiner and his writers purposefully didn’t try to make their characters exude white saviorship, which is the pitfall of so many period pieces. Don Draper and other ad men have open dialogues regarding the escalating conflict in Vietnam, and openly discuss their criticisms of the civil rights movement in the office, although not for very long.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the brilliance of “Mad Men” can have us wondering just how long conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement and our broken healthcare system will need to last in order for them to become unifiably important in the eyes of American history. We can already see the ripples of Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 kneeling protests, once divisive and easily disregardable, but now championed by large corporations such as Nike and Disney. Are these historical developments merely an easy way for companies to cash in on the trendiness of the cultural zeitgeist, the way Don Draper and the rest of Sterling Cooper might think? Let’s hope not – and let’s hope history favors those who wear a mask.