Six Months, 65 Episodes: What I Learned Catching Up With “Mad Men”

Mad Men finale, Mad Men and womenIt was early August 2008 and I was confused. A fairly well-known magazine journalist had recently published a book about three iconic women whose music in the ’60s and ’70s was the subtle feminist soundtrack for a generation coming of age. I was interviewing her — ostensibly about the book — for a women’s issues website. So why did she keep referencing some TV show that had just launched its second season the week before?

The book received a decent review in the New York Times and I thought it had legs; I reasoned it would stay in print due to its insights into the changing pop culture landscape and the chafing restrictions encountered by independent females who put career first. I expected the interview would generate a few insider stories about the women profiled, provide some good feminist-y quotes, and easily be transcribed into an article I would publish online later that day.

Instead, I got a passionate, prolonged, intense earful on a TV series the journalist seemed obsessed with. She repeatedly drew parallels between her book and this show’s themes, story lines and characters. Since I’d never seen it I hung up feeling frustrated. How could a series with such a male-centric title as Mad Men have anything to say about the female condition?

I’m obstinate, like to form my own opinions, and tend to resist anything that develops an early buzz and a rapid, rabid fan base. So I’d been ignoring Mad Men though friends kept insisting the show had strong feminist themes and I needed to watch. Why bother? What could it reveal that I didn’t already know?

A lot, I realized much later. Since my chitchat with the journalist, the show had gone on to win accolades and awards every year and my contrariness felt more and more like obtuse stupidity. I planned ahead in order to catch up to the next season’s broadcast.

Unlike Rachel Eididin over at Wired, I didn’t presume to be so all-knowing as to plunge into current season thinking I could comprehend this complex tale without watching any earlier episodes.

I started with the pilot in September 2012. Netflix streaming video enabled me to breeze through five seasons — 65 episodes — in six months. It would have been one season per month if not for Season Five, only available by mail on DVD one disc at a time. (Netflix recently added it to instant view, so there’s no longer any excuse to not go back and do your homework, Ms. Eididin.)

Total immersion — with no more than a week between any two episodes — helped me gain a firmer grasp on the themes, story arc, character development, and what the series is trying to accomplish as compared to the slow drip that’s a given for viewers of conventional cable and broadcast television series. (House of Cards style!)

And now I get why that journalist was so obsessed, and why in a discussion of her own book she couldn’t help but compare and contrast.

Mad Men is a highly effective prompt in the ongoing exercise to get men and women to discuss institutionalized sexism. It’s a powerful lens focused on past events that still manages to reflect a number of issues both genders grapple with today. And it’s an addictive tale that makes us realize how bad it once was, how far we’ve come, and where we need to do better.

Mad Men also illustrates how you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Those who didn’t live through the 1960s find it eye-opening to see how the women on Mad Men are treated. Scriptwriters were intentional in establishing a stylish veneer and then pulling it up to expose the splintered ugliness beneath.

Males who would never dream of sitting in on a women’s studies class have found themselves schooled by the steady barrage of unrelenting sexism present in the show. Lessons that would otherwise need to be force-fed through clenched teeth are swallowed whole because this is entertainment after all and not a mandatory college course in ethics and gender.

At the time we spoke, the journalist was quick to inform me over half the writing staff of Mad Men were women, and those who were too young to have lived through this era drew on the experiences of their mothers and older female relatives. These details give the series verisimilitude. We feel the shock and outrage first-hand.

As a child of the sixties, I wasn’t too young to notice all the doctors and dentists I saw were men and all the teachers and nurses were women. Yet I didn’t realize the full implications of the gender divide; I only knew that “good” moms were those waiting at home after school who greeted their children with a hug and a kiss. Milk and cookies were the brainwashing agents used on us, and I don’t think I viscerally felt how enervating the life of a “good mom” could be until I saw the empty lives of Betty Draper’s suburban peer group.

I was equally blind to the struggles of career-oriented young women at that time. I grew up in New York City, ground zero for Mad Men, but the images television fed me — Marlo Thomas in That Girl — painted life in Manhattan as breezy. Although the Space Race and the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City — located just five miles from my childhood home — implied ours was a society attuned to the future, in reality we were slow to pull ourselves free from the nagging insistence that “a woman’s place is in the home.”

Mad Men may have its feet planted in that bygone era, but its heart beats in sync with the new millennium and its head reasons with a modern day logic that still wonders why there’s a cultural divide between men and women. With all its retro glamor, Mad Men is unquestionably progressive. It knows that we are still fighting against gender bias and unequal pay for equal work, still struggling to preserve women’s rights and women’s access to contraception and reproductive choice.

Mad Men follows the old adage every struggling writer contends with — “show, don’t’ tell” when it comes to story. And boy oh boy, don’t we get an eyeful.

We see good Catholic girl Peggy Olson starting out as a lowly secretary at ad agency Sterling Cooper, having sex with rising account executive Pete Campbell and becoming pregnant. She hides it as all women and girls did in those days — under shapeless clothing and baby doll dresses — until she delivers in the hospital and gives the baby up for adoption. She’s able to move forward, albeit with regret, but the memory fuels her ambition rather than stunts her growth. She learns to rely on herself and terminate any relationship that keeps her small…including the one with Don Draper.

We see worldly office manager Joan Holloway who appears to be in control of both her personal and professional life but is secretly hoping to find and marry that one well-situated good guy who can take her away from this life. We watch as the “marry a nice doctor” myth implodes on Joan who — realizing she’s sold herself short — is determined not to make that same mistake twice. When she’s asked to sell herself (quite literally this time) to save the agency,  she chooses power over money and doesn’t settle for anything less than a full partnership.

We see the bosses who marry their secretaries — Roger Sterling and Jane, Don Draper and Megan — men who subconsciously want to maintain the power dynamic of dominant/subordinate with their new wives but who soon become disenchanted when the women cease to worship them and look elsewhere for fulfillment.

We see the housewives who maintain pleasant false fronts no matter what the cost.

We see Betty Draper feed her foundering ego in several ways: flirting with other men and even an underage boy; attempting to resurrect her modeling career; and engaging in a one-night stand with a stranger in a bar. We witness her manipulating her children, her friends, her husbands as she medicates herself with alcohol, sex, food, redecorating, horseback riding and shopping. And in the two-hour premiere of the sixth season, we see her taunt her devoted second husband Henry with a stomach-turning suggestion that he rape an underage girl while Betty holds her down. It’s an ugly and chillingly overt impulse toward retributive violence foreshadowed by Betty’s firing at a neighbor’s pigeons in season one — Beauty as the Beast.

This brief look at some of the major female characters is by no means comprehensive or thorough. And it fails to mention the “non-existent” existence of the majority of women who pass through Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s doors. Many of the nameless minor and single-episode female characters are little more than bodies to ogle, fondle, use and abuse. Yet they have a purpose. They are the ever-changing backdrop behind the male characters who populate this world, and their presence throws these men into sharp and unflattering relief.

Almost all of the men behave reprehensibly without second thoughts. Almost all of the women suffer because of them. And almost every viewer will squirm at one point or another in the series. It’s disturbing, erotic, powerful, unsettling and unpredictable. And that’s what makes Mad Men so superb.

A number of recent TV series have attempted to take us back to the 1960s — a decade in which the tail-end of innocence ran headlong into the vanguard of freedom — but most have failed. Remember The Playboy Club and Pan-Am? Few do, and there’s a reason why. They lacked what Mad Men possesses — a sense of risk, rebellion, and a story arc that never lets us forget that what we’re seeing is an inevitable descent into senseless tragedy. That’s what drama is about.

As that journalist said to me in 2008 during our hour-long interview, “We’re going back to that era because you always look for a subculture that’s interesting. It is history now. They were amazing times to live through. It’s a good period to look at.”

She’s right, and not just because history always has the potential to repeat itself if we’re not careful. As we move further along the timeline of the sixties and compare and contrast it to our own parallel path, we would do well to pay attention to those women who took what little they could wrest for themselves and parlayed it into successes beyond what their male mentors and benefactors would have allowed were they not so sidetracked by wining, dining and womanizing. Compare these women to those whose only asset is beauty and who are subsequently cheated on, discarded, psychoanalyzed and medicated, even electro-shocked into radiant submissiveness and pliant arm candy.

The Peggys and Joans are the ones we root for because they are the stable women in a world of men driven mad by success, failure, sex, drugs, alcohol and insecurity. The Megans and Bettys are the ones we pity because we see where they end up: trying to reclaim (through seductions steeped in desperation) husbands lost to them (e.g., Megan in the Season Five finale begging Don to have sex with her “because that’s all I’m good for”). In the brave new world opening up for women like Peggy and Joan, sex cannot bring about what competence and savvy will earn them — power and respect.

Near the close of our conversation the journalist confessed, “I used my ambition as a substitute for certain feminine wiles.” In revealing details of her own life and upbringing, she sounded like the daughter Peggy might have raised: “I had a mother who was better at sitting at her typewriter than going to the country clubs. Her work and her talent were her sex appeal.” This woman clearly did not see herself or her mother on the side of Team Betty. Thanks to the lessons of the Mad Men era and the intervening decades, fewer and fewer of us do.

Truth is frequently stranger than fiction, and when it all fits together so neatly that it seems patently implausible,  I remind myself, “You can’t make this stuff up.” I didn’t.

The day before I finally caught up to Mad Men in the real world and watched the premiere of Season Six on Sunday night “live,” I stopped by a book sale at my local library. Aside from selling donated items from library patrons, the annual sale is a chance for staff to clear out the stacks and sell hardcovers and paperbacks withdrawn from circulation because they’re rarely borrowed. At the top of the pile in the “Music & Arts” section, I did a double take.

There was that book by that journalist — the one I thought had legs and would still be in print years later. Seeing it reminded me of the interview I’d never turned into a viable article. I went home to my computer, found and reread her words, my notes, an incomplete first draft of the unpublished piece, and finally understood why I’d failed.

The truth of the matter didn’t lie in the book I had championed but in the series I had chosen to ignore for so long. The journalist had been so taken with Mad Men and had referenced it repeatedly during our conversation because in it she’d recognized those hard-won insights and universal messages that resonate with audiences — qualities she’d hoped were present in her own work.

Even though it was fate and not a Hollywood script that placed her book atop the dollar pile at the library sale, as I settled down to watch Mad Men along with 3.4 million other viewers Sunday night, I saw the perfect arc this particular story had taken.

Audiences recognize emotional truth when they see it and reward the truth tellers with attention, dedication, and adulation. This is the basis of buzz, and that’s why Mad Men has it and this unnamed book does not. Some of us recognize truth more readily and some of us have to watch 65 episodes in six months in order to catch up.

If you’re like me, it’s not too late.

Image via Gawker.com

  • This is a truly quality piece of writing. Thank you for this. I also ignored Mad Men for years until finally treating myself to binge-watching it after finishing my undergraduate degree last May (as an adult student with a pile of kids, work, and a home to run.) My husband (a teacher also off for the summer) and I burned through all the seasons in just a matter of a few weeks. We couldn’t stop watching for all the reasons you described.

    It’s the summer again and to celebrate surviving my first year of grad school, I’m currently binge-watching Weeds. It’s a different era but most certainly weaves an interesting feminist, liberal narrative. I’d love your thoughts on that series!

    • Linda

      Gina, thank you for your praise. So glad to hear from the woman behind The Feminist Breeder brand (I first discovered you via Circle of Moms). Congratulations on juggling all those balls and getting that degree. I too was looking for a good binge-watch for the summer, and Weeds keeps cropping up. (Yeah, that’s kind of a stupid joke, but I made it.) Your positive endorsement is the tipping point — I’m dashing over to Netflix now and put it in my Instant View queue. Feminist Breeder recommended!

  • Dianne

    What an excellent piece. Your contribution should be the gold standard to which others are held here on The Broad Side. We love Mad Men! If you’d like to see each episode disected fashion-wise, check out tomandlorenzo.com.

    • Linda

      Dianne, what a great idea and thanks for the advice; I imagine there are many, many references to fashion and design that I’m not getting without proper guidance. (I can comment ’til the cows come home on feminist themes, but fashion and style are not my strong suits.) Thank you for your high praise — I have never considered myself the gold standard, but I’ll take it. (My daughters would tell you I set the crazy standard, however…). Wasn’t this past season wild? And wasn’t that ending powerful? I hope Don and Sally reconnect. There was a moment that passed between them…not what I expected, but what I would have wanted. I almost don’t want the final season to begin…

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