Has Mad Men Ever Been About Anything?

There are four episodes of Mad Men left. Then it’s over, for good. No more Don Draper. No more daytime drinking. No guessing which characters are ghosts and which are real or who will die next. Just nothing. And in some ways, those four episodes have a pressure, ten tonne weight attached, because how do you wrap up a sprawling-over-decades show? Maybe Mad Men will end the way its always been: a stylistic set-piece mastery of aesthetic magnificence, but ultimately void of any answers or meaning or learning or character development. Because when you think about it, Mad Men isn’t about anything.

The moments that stick in my mind when I try to recall previous seasons of the show, are the shots which capture emptiness perfectly: Don Draper standing over an empty lift shaft, Betty Draper’s panic attack behind the wheel, Lane’s body hanging in his office. The frame focuses us on these moments, and as the second half of season seven draws to its conclusion, we’re confronted with a nihilistic set-piece at the close of every episode: Don Draper in his apartment after his ex-wife takes everything, then Don Draper outside his empty apartment after the realtor sells it. But what are these shots even telling us? Are we meant to be learning something we didn’t already know? From the outset, Don Draper’s been a man with everything, but also a man that doesn’t give a shit. His perfect life in any of its perfect incarnations (married with children to Betty, living in a penthouse with Megan), has always left him dissatisfied. Sure, he’s a man with a dark past which, when explored, shows us he’s not only come from nothing, he’s escaped bleakness for the American Dream. He’s a self-made man, but it means nothing to him. Perhaps climbing the ladder came too easy. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t appreciate a thing that he has, and I don’t think he ever will.

In this way, Mad Men has a lot in common with the current zeitgeist. Afterall, we’re a generation of unappreciative hipsters too cynical and apathetic to care about anything apart from where our next Starbucks is coming from. But after seven seasons, it’s not only frustrating to watch this man flounder, it’s downright meh. Meh as in, if you kill him off, I’ll care as much as Don ever did about anything: not very. When Don sits alone in a diner after being told to leave by the waitress he just fucked in the alleyway out back, and the camera pans away to show his dislocation or disappointment or boredom or loneliness or whatever the hell emotion it is Don Draper feels at any given moment, I feel nothing. When Don Draper surveys his penthouse apartment, empty after a short-lived life with an ex-wife whose ambitions outgrew him and their life together, I feel nothing. When Don Draper stands outside his own front door, apparently emotional at the idea of leaving that old life behind, I feel nothing. And more importantly, I think, neither does he.

Do I think Don Draper is a sociopath? Probably. Anhedonic? Absolutely. It’s possible he’s a victim of circumstance, but he’s also completely incapable of appreciating anything, and he clearly never will. There are characters other than Don, sure, but they only convince me further that Mad Men isn’t about anything, and never was. Peggy’s spectacular climb to the top is continually overshadowed by Don’s obsessive need to categorise everything as not enough. In her appraisal, when Peggy tells Don her hopes and dreams, he asks her, “But what next?” Nothing anyone does or could ever do is interesting enough, and could never be. And when Peggy sits alone in her apartment watching her TV with a microwave meal, we know Don to be right. Joan is successful and rich, but ultimately it wasn’t her talent that got her there: she whored herself out at the behest of a client. Pete is dissatisfied and destroys every relationship he’s ever almost in, and Roger is a womaniser unable to clutch at love when he has it. Do all these situations mirror life? Sure. But moments of despair far outweigh any celebration or joy in Mad Men. Because despair is what this show deals in. Especially the void left by a lifetime of it, and the inability to hold positivity still. Happiness has no taste here.

I get that it’s meant to reflect the trials and tribulations we all face and have always faced, set against a political backdrop of feminism, racism and war, but if I wanted a history lesson, I’d buy an encyclopaedia in a charity shop or, you know, Google it. And history aside, what’s left? Failure. Misery. Fuckloads of success, and not one person who appreciates a speck of it. And as for Don Draper, does it really matter what happens to a man content to drink beer at ten in the morning while everyone around him works? I care in as much as it matters to him. Which is clearly not at all. At one time I would’ve called it a tragedy, except those historically take place over a shorter space of time, so this must be an epic. But either form would dictate that Don Draper’s fall from grace was accompanied by crippling despair or a sense of loss, of a life worth saving. But Don has always been numb, each loss followed by a shrug. And then a drink. Everyone might soon be dead, but this is no Hamlet, no War & Peace. It’s Lost: we’re waiting for the grand reveal, sure there is some master plan, overarching plot ready to tie up and make sense of it all. But there’s not. There’s nothing.

Mad Men is about nothing and has always been about nothing. Nothing will happen to Don Draper, just as everything that has gone before has meant exactly nothing to him. And all those lingering arty shots? Like staring into the abyss. A total void. More nihilistic than that Nashville show about country singers with huge fucking hair, banging each other. Stop reading so much into it.


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