MAD MEN: AN APPRECIATION
In honor of, nay, in grieving for, the final episode of MAD MEN, I wanted to post about what the show has meant to me. As luck would have it (for this blog post, at least), watching the show from beginning to end in preparation to watch the last season, part deux, I came upon a shot that I think sums up my feelings beautifully. Like many people, I’ve had a deep connection to the show. Sometimes it’s hard to put my finger on just why. Often I tell people that the show allows me to both be furious with and forgive the generation that came before me.
The beginning of my life and the end of the show’s era had some real overlap. So many of the archetypes and mores we see in the show were still very much in play when I landed upon this mortal coil and were still there even by the time I started recording long-term memories. Indeed, it’s emotionally fitting, and the poetry of it is not lost on me, that the show might end just as I began – in 1971. In a way, this era and my proclivity toward feeling something for Mad Men was “incepted” into me and many of us (much like the love of Disneyland, if you caught that bug), because it was there in my life at a very young age. The air thick with dysfunctional tension and cigarette smoke? Check. The cardigans worn past their day by the older men whom I grew up around – check. The pipe smoke and its sweet cherry scent hanging in the house. The drinking. The bench seats with no seatbelts. The metal flake car paints. All there, lingering in the death throes of the era, before the 80’s finally wiped it away with its own brand of vulgarity.
A few years ago, I remember I surprised myself, sadly so, when I came across a kodakrome slide photo of my being held as a one week-old by my mother. A sweet photo. But the first thought that popped to mind was a lament to my mom, “Oh, why’d you do it?” That gut level reaction speaks volumes, I’m sure, of my early existence, shaped in no small way by That Era. I believe I’ve gotten past that sad reaction that weighed me down thanks in a small but significant degree to Mad Men. Again, it allowed me to both forgive and be furious with those elders who raised or plagued me (sometimes they were the same), shaping the world of my early life. It helped me love them for who they were, in the world in which THEY were born. Steeping weekly in the dysfunctions and culture of the time period, so viscerally & accurately, forced me to examine and face my baggage, to emotionally relive it, but this time, thankfully, from an adult’s perspective, helping me put it to rest. That’s how I feel at least.
Which leads us to a shot from the season two episode titled “Three Sundays.” Watching it, an image came on which made me feel that I’d found the exact epicenter of Matthew Weiner’s motivation and inspiration for the entire show. Whether or not that’s true I have no idea, but I can say that it’s without a doubt the epicenter of MY appreciation and experience of the show — the lens through which I took the show in, processed it, and benefitted. In the episode, Don and Betty are fighting, no surprise there, about Don’s absence, and Don for the first time, I think, is physically abusive to his wife, pushing her, even suggestively threatening to “throw her through the window” if he were to share with her what had happened at the office that day. The weight of the argument, the threat of violence, all rings tragically true and parallels so many of my own memories. With the 60’s set decoration and wardrobe, it’s a veritable flash back. I’m there. And where are Don and Betty’s kids? Heartbreakingly, they are tiny, little, vulnerable humans, seen way down at the bottom of the stairs, in oppressive, dark shadow, looking up, lost. Helpless, confused, and indelibly recording it in their minds.
I see that image of the kids, as their parents come off the rails and threaten violence to each other (have they no damn consideration that the little one’s ears are nearby?), and I see a little Matthew Weiner down at the bottom of the stairs, hurting, and becoming obessed with an era, with a dysfunctional family dynamic, and with parents that never seemed within reach. Admittedly, that’s projection. What I really see is myself. Reflected spot on in a show about advertising in the 60’s. Of course, the show is about much more than just advertising in the 60’s. And I’m sure it’s much more than what I’ve interpreted and confessed here. But to me, for all the cigarettes, mid-century chairs, whiskeys, and extramarital affairs, it all boils down to that feeling of being lost, at the bottom of the steps, while the ones you love the most stand just out of sight at the top of the towering staircase, threatening each other with violence. Powerless, all you can ask is “Why?” To me, every week Mad Men asked “Why?” and every week we came up with, or attempted to come up with, our own answers. And that’s what I will miss, and am incredibly grateful & all the better for.