Story-Telling and Mad Men

Like a lot of people, I’m a little sad about the final season of Mad Men winding down – Is tonight really the third to last episode? – though it feels a bit like a terminal patient is dying a slow death, or maybe the NBA playoffs: You’ve got anticipation fatigue, and now you want it to be over.

Don Draper and Peggy Olson.

Don Draper and Peggy Olson.

I’ve never had this kind of relationship with a TV show before. Sure, I’ve binge-watched True Detective and a few others, but I’ve never tuned into Season 1 and stuck around and watched the final episodes the nights they air.

Don Draper’s a textbook example of a character being likeable because he’s good at something. Every time Sterling Cooper faces an impossible task with its clients, Don comes up with the plan. On the final episode of Season 1, “The Wheel,” Don re-christens the Kodak slide projection apparatus a carousel instead of a wheel. Just when his family’s falling apart, he uses his own family photos to tell a revolving story of family life. This may have been the exact moment I was hooked.

Mad Men always benefitted from the symbiosis of some of our contemporary fads. Artisanal cocktails is an obvious one. Also, the omnipresence of marketing-think in the age of social media means everyone thinks of him- or herself as an ad agency of one, so what a treat to watch the alpha advertisers. In the early seasons, there was the Obama-JFK connection: the brash (and not universally loved) Harvard-educated presidents as symbols of their generations.

In recent episodes, Mad Men has tuned into story-telling as a means of achieving a deep connection across media. In the episode before last, “The Forecast,” Don’s apartment is for sale, and his ex-mother-in-law has plundered his furniture, so he’s using the patio furniture in his empty pad. His realtor complains that the place reeks of a sad, failed life, and Don immediately does two things:

1. Asks who the potential buyers are. (An upwardly mobile  family from New Jersey.)

2. Composes an off-the-cuff story that would appeal to those people: Someone lived there and made a fortune, and moved to Texas, or to a castle.

He identifies the audience, and then tells a story that would dazzle them in particular. A castle! Never mind the wine stain on the bedroom carpet.

Meanwhile, Don gets asked to compose a speech that highlights the achievements of the agency, even as it struggles to keep its identity after being bought by a bigger firm. So he starts asking everyone around him what they hope for in the future. The present moment, as he’s getting poised to describe it, is the climax of a long ascent for Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

Don’s good at this Gettysburg address stuff, Roger tells him, and he is. But when he approaches his dufus of a rival, Ted, for his input, Ted says, “You’re so much better at painting a picture [than I am].” That’s why Ted will never be Don Draper. Don doesn’t paint pictures, he tells stories.

Story-telling has become such a buzzword that the 2016 Hillary Clinton juggernaut is on board. John Stewart even complained that during her last appearance on his show he felt like she was trying out a campaign theme by talking about America needing to be better at telling its story. No surprise that her anything-but-surprising announcement positioned her running for president among all kinds of more workaday aspirations that average people have. Like her or not, it’s nice work.

At the end of Season 1 – of Mad Men, not The Clintons: the Miniseries – I predicted that Mad Men would be about Madison Avenue’s co-optation of the counterculture. I guess that’s just my axe to grind, but I imagined a finale with prim, Catholic outer borough Peggy Olson having full-on mudbath sex at Woodstock, or Don and Roger laughing to the bank after yoking the “Let’s Boogie” image to the service of a soft drink. Don always had the double life, with one foot in the door of the counterculture.

Mad Men is folding up shop just when advertising is getting good, the co-optation of the counterculture complete.

Mad Men is folding up shop just when advertising is getting good, the co-optation of the counterculture complete.

Attention to that co-optation has been present, but I guess the show was always after bigger fish than that. To its credit, I don’t know what’s going to happen. One writer at Vox recently complained that the show has lost its focus on the ad business, which was always one of the fun things about it, and I have to agree.

“You have a foul mouth,” Don recently told a junior executive, and last week’s episode, “Time and Life,” ends with the partners making a major announcement, and the staff’s chaotic response ranges from indifference to hostility. One theme the show is sewing up in its final episodes is the coarsening of culture as it underwent its democratic spasm in the 60s. It’s a BFD announcement, and the Sterling Cooper employees of 1961 would have at least listened attentively.

The Guardian‘s Mad Men blog pointed out after the last episode that, in light of Don’s most recent mega-pitch, California has always been the land of promise for him, and we may see a move out there. If the show goes for this, I just hope it doesn’t try sewing up the story of Don’s secret identity. I always found this the least satisfying element in the series, a square Dickensian peg in the round hole of the American 20th century.

We’ve also lost the focus on what I felt was the most dynamic and subtle relationship, Don and Peggy. They’re both working class people who are in the biz much higher than they ever imagined, and they know each other’s secrets. And the fact that Peggy’s a bit of a plain Jane and “one of the boys” means Don has never sexualized her, so there’s a sweetness between them that was a constant in the early seasons, but nearly gone now. Much as I love Roger, and of course, Joan, I can think of no better ending than Don and Peggy flying West together.