Arts feature

Will you miss Mad Men? James Delingpole won’t

The cult series may have looked great but, as the final season draws to a close, was there really anything to it?

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

There’s a scene in the finale of season six that embodies everything that’s so right and so wrong with Mad Men. Don Draper, that fathomless enigma of a Madison Avenue copywriting anti-hero, is pitching for the Hershey’s chocolate account. Hershey’s represents that dream combination — an American brand legend that has never really advertised before. So winning this deal really matters.

Draper — as always — is pitch-perfect. Selling products is about telling stories. And the story here is about how good the young Don Draper felt when his Daddy took him into a store and offered to buy him anything he wanted. Naturally he chose a Hershey’s bar. The clients are desperately impressed and on the verge of signing a deal.

Unfortunately, Draper has been drinking heavily before the meeting. Having told the clients what they want to hear, he now tells them the truth: that Hershey’s is a product that doesn’t really need advertising and that his blissful childhood was a lie — he was actually raised a hated child in a whorehouse and whenever he ate Hershey’s it was in misery and alone. The clients make their excuses and leave.

Now it’s a great scene — exquisitely acted, sharply scripted, charged with deep meaning about the nature of advertising — but it’s also a fundamentally dishonest one. Draper is in the throes of an alcohol-enhanced nervous breakdown. In the same episode, we see him lying in the drunk tank, having been picked up by the police for beating up a pastor who tried talking him into temperance. Before the meeting he has a huge slug of whiskey. So what kind of superman is he that he can always look immaculate and glamorous and function perfectly, even while drunk — yet simultaneously blow his career, as required by the exigencies of plot tension, in the next instant?

A typical Mad Men superman is what. For they’re all at it, not just Don: Roger Sterling, the perma-irritating, annoyingly dressed heir to his more talented father’s agency; Pete Campbell, the serially unfaithful upper-class bastard. The womenfolk too, to a degree — goofily bangable Peggy, thick but immaculate Betty, voluptuously formidable Joan. They chain-smoke and booze and fornicate like there are no consequences, for in Mad Men there really aren’t. Sure your career might go up and down and there might be some heartbreak, but you never once lose hold of the really important things — your looks, your style and your cool.

This, I’m sure, is why art directors and stylists (and of course copywriters) are so especially drawn to Mad Men; why for them it’s just the greatest TV series ever which will never be surpassed. What it shows is the Sixties as they’d have liked it to have been had they personally been styling it: with everyone looking fab in op art dresses and oh-my-God haircuts and hilarious sideburns and Eames chairs and Martinis and cigarettes and suits so slick and immaculately cut that basically all men’s fashion since 2007 (when the series was first broadcast) has more or less been dictated by Mad Men retro chic.

Obviously this is its great strength: besides making Mad Men at once achingly nostalgia-inducing (even the washed-out colouring is right, just like an ad from a Sixties magazine) and smoulderingly gorgeous to look at (each episode is the equivalent of an hour with the beautiful people in the latest boutique hotel), it also points up the underlying theme, which is about identity, and the contrast between surface gloss and concealed dross.

But it’s also, I’d argue, its main weakness. Almost never have I been able to watch a Mad Men scene without being acutely conscious of the effort that went into making it: everything from the awkwardness of the actors having to smoke so much in (what now seem) the unlikeliest of situations (on a plane before take-off; preparing food for the kids’ party; in bed) to the sourcing of every last über-recherché bit of collectible furniture to the fabric patterns and cuts so bang on trend for the specific year in which each episode is set that you think less of the period itself than of the style books the researchers must have consulted to get it exactly right.

All this stems, of course, from the series’ brilliant, obsessive creator Matthew Weiner (a protégé of David Chase, the man behind of The Sopranos — on which Weiner spent several seasons as writer/producer) whose anally retentive attention to detail is legendary. On one occasion, he famously dismissed a bowl of plump, shiny apples from the set on the grounds that Sixties fruit was smaller, dumpier than today’s. Quite right, I’m sure. But the odd effect of all this perfectionism, rather than enhance the series’ realism, is to draw attention to its artifice.

This is why, as the second half of Mad Men’s seventh and final season approaches, I find myself unable to get quite so depressed at its imminent demise as I did with, say, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. It’s great to look at; I loved the politically incorrect escapism of all that smoking and misogyny; and its depiction of low, Machiavellian office politics and advertising will surely never be surpassed. But one episode did often seem rather like another, and at the end you felt slightly hollow and cheated and depressed, as unfortunately you do with things where style takes precedence over content. Maybe, though, I’m being unsophisticated. Maybe that was the whole point.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Mad Men season 7 part 2 airs on Sky Atlantic on 9 April.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    I’ve seen the last series, you can get it on iTunes and I’m glad it’s over. You had to watch it but it became a bit of a chore. And in the end Draper is a sleazeball. No spoilers here but the end is good; everyone gets what they want and what they don’t want.

    • Alfa

      You can watch all the episodes for free (plus lots of other series) on shush. se. Let’s say that Don is not the only character who’s less than perfect…

      • davidshort10

        No one is. But he was the central character and his eventual sleazy ordinariness was the killer.

  • Callipygian

    Nothing hilarious about sideburns, mate. Baldness, on the other hand, can be amusing when it isn’t rather sad.

    ‘Washed-out colouring’ is stupid: just look at the almost lurid colours of a Star Trek set: any still, any shot, really. Now there was art direction! OK, a few pre-fab boulders in film-set deserts could occasionally be seen. But otherwise the show was gorgeous. It’s also stupid because the early 20th century, for instance, wasn’t actually lived in black and white.

    This is (part of) what it means to live in decadent times. Few have any taste, never mind perspective.

  • smshd_skttls

    The whole thing with the Hershey’s scene is that he didn’t drink the whiskey. Chaough makes that comment about how you can’t just quit cold turkey (implying that that’s what Don was trying to do), Don follows his recommendation but then doesn’t swallow the swig he takes, and then in the meeting his hands are shaking (a common symptom of withdrawal). And he does not look immaculate at all during this scene. He looks desperate and pitiful. He has injected his raw, dirty, unprocessed personal life, the real one this time, into a setting where it doesn’t belong, and he suffers for it. I don’t disagree with all your points, but it hurts your credibility when you miss important details from such a crucial scene.

    Also, your general criticism of the show seems to be that it’s too good. Which is not really a criticism so much as a good way to make your headline controversial enough to get views. So good job.

    • tjamesjones

      no, the review doesn’t say it’s too good. Unlike breaking bad or sopranos which james appropriately mourns “one episode did often seem rather like another, and at the end you felt slightly hollow and cheated and depressed, as unfortunately you do with things where style takes precedence over content.”
      We enjoyed a few seasons of MM but it was very easy to stop watching, unlike BB & Sopranos.

  • Sean L

    Smoking everywhere *was* normal before the Kings Cross fire in the late 80s, even on planes. But surely it’s still normal in bed – for normal people who smoke. The post-coital f a g is a cliche. I don’t smoke any more myself but still relish the fragrance of tobacco smoke. As did most people until very recently, when there was no getting away from it. . .

  • dan

    ‘So what kind of superman is he that he can always look immaculate and glamorous and function perfectly, even while drunk — yet simultaneously blow his career, as required by the exigencies of plot tension, in the next instant?’
    James Bond for one.

  • willshome

    Yes you are unsophisticated. That was the whole point. (It took you so long?) Mad Men has been a pitch-perfect depiction of how America (and by extension the rest of us) was captured by empty consumerism promoted by and for heartless corporations that destroy their acolytes as much as their victims. “At the end you felt slightly hollow and cheated and depressed.” Uh-huh. Now stop voting Tory.

  • ianess

    Have watched every episode, but am always left with a Peggy Lee style letdown – ‘is that all there is?’ Overblown, overhyped, over praised and overanalysed. Emperor’s new clothes syndrome. It’s just a glossy soap. The smoking scenes are laughable, particularly when the females hold the evil gaspers as far away from themselves as possible.

    • somebodystolemynamefatboy

      Women would do that, so as not to let their hair to get stinky with smoke.

      • HeavitreeMaid

        Exactly. Cigarette holders used to be popular with women for the same reason.

  • artemis in france

    James, I’m 65 and would have been as old as one of Don’s children. Although I was raised in outer London, believe me the atmosphère of Mad Men is spot on. All the commercials we watched were influenced by those made in the US and we did smoke everywhere, even in bed. I always find the brittle women very realistic and the overt sexism of the men wa what I met when I started work at âge 17 in the music and then the film business. I met a lot of American film executives and many of them behaved just like the men in Mad Men.

    • somebodystolemynamefatboy

      Especially in bed.

  • nicedavid

    I thought the Don meltdown was lol funny.. just black, black humor, and Mad Men has always had that, which is why I love it.. the lawnmower scene, the secretary kicking it at her desk.. numerous others.. miss Mad Men.. hell yeah.. but there comes a time to pull the plug and all the best series know when to do it.. and it’s time for Mad Men..

  • LuluB

    Don Draper not falling apart and looking like a mess when he should is, I think, an example of the tragedy of his being totally unsympathetic for nurturing and compassion, even when he needs it most.

    To The World he lives in and the dreams he sells, he has no excuse for needing emotional support. He’s gorgeous, has a gorgeous family, has a gorgeous life and job and yet, he’s falling apart and there is nothing he can do about it but lean on his own, fragile self. He has what others’ want and what he’s so good at selling but he feels empty in this dream, lost, sad and unable to find what it is he’s missing in order to fix himself.

    He wants to stop drinking because he knows that makes him feel even worse than he already does but there are people who like him and make excuses for him, even when he’s drinking. He can’t escape the vapid loneliness of his own success.

    It’s a theme you see, time and again, with every character. They all have their strengths, talent, intelligence, style, beauty, connections and they are selling the chase of these things to others, for a living. But Betty is beautiful and still has a husband who cheats on her. Peggy lives the dream of independent, talented woman in a man’s world and feels unfulfilled, emotionally neglected and morally compromised by it.

    A character takes his life, even as Don worships that man’s wife as his vision of an ideal woman. One woman has the curves women’s undergarment companies are trying to sell to the masses, yet finds it defines her in ways that lead some to objectify her in the most ruthless way, possible and feel justified in doing it.

    One after the other, each character displays one of very ideals and attributes these companies are selling to The World and yet, each is empty and unfulfilled with their “product”. It’s never enough, never the right time or place and never the right match for their longings to be fulfilled and the elusive quality of their dreams, means they’re never fully able to be realized, anyhow.

    All the things they are selling to others — perfect bodies, bank accounts, personalities, style, homes, values, social connections — as magic solutions that fix everything with the un-clicking of a pocketbook are revealed to just be doors that, once unlocked, open into another room of problems. And on the other side of that room is a door, that when unlocked opens into a labyrinth of problems and so on.

    When I first watched “Mad Men”, I thought the same thing you did: Shallow, looks fantastic, has great script rhythm and perfectly captures the general feeling of an era. But as it went on and that nagging emptiness wasn’t occasional but became an overarching theme of the show, I found it to be a really profound meditation on materialism and trying to use things or people as things, to fulfill a spiritual need that can’t be found with material gratification or buying people to perform in roles. And they are all, every character, performing in roles because while everything looks the same as what they remembered or idealized as kids, to be worthy of pursuing, it doesn’t feel the same because the spiritual commitment is lacking in the hearts of these characters.

    For all its style and glamorous permissiveness, “Mad Men” isn’t just a glorification of 1960’s Western culture, it’s very much like “The Great Gatsby” in its statement on the innocence of dreams and how devastating it can be when you get what you wished for, it wasn’t what you expected and there’s nothing to look forward to beyond them. Human nature keeps thriving, trying, aiming for something else, though and that’s when the meaninglessness of material pursuits, truly reveals itself:

    “…Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Advertisers sell that “green light”, that forever unfulfilled promise, to consumers and the characters of “Mad Men” who know how the magic tricks work because they live on the other side of them, must struggle to right their boats, with the awareness that they are adrift at sea, with no destination. They don’t have these dreams to lean on because they are the dream-weavers and they know the truth in what they’re selling.

    It’s actually quite a strong argument for religion and the importance of a spiritual life and examined “soul”. Once you have every material thing your heart desires, that’s all you have waiting for you beyond that. Everything these characters have been blessed with or have achieved in life, is just pretty packaging with nothing of substance inside, a pretty-looking product without truth and without a soul.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    I liked the bit where some bloke got his toes cut off by a lawnmower in the office. It was a nice illustration of how a normal situation can transform instantly into a very unpleasant one without needing to fall under a bus.

  • ohforheavensake

    James leaves Breitbart for a bit. Writes something stupid. Nothing much changes, does it?