Modern Lit: “Mad Men”

“The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming … and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

Those final lines from John Cheever’s short story “Goodbye, My Brother” are among my favorite closing lines in literature. Cheever, the mid-20th century short story writer and novelist, explores the aspirations, insecurities, and dark underbelly of American suburbia with great depth and insight. He and other writers like John O’Hara,  John Updike, and Richard Yates examine the complexity of “normal” middle class lives in a rapidly evolving society of social pressure and change. They chronicle the American century in a way that will continue to inform future generations of the way we were at one time in history.

The way I feel when I read one of Cheever’s perfect endings is the way I feel at the end of many episodes of Matthew Weiner’s milestone television drama “Mad Men.” Cheever and his masterful way of ending a narrative have been on my mind as I await the airing of the 92nd and final episode of “Mad Men” this weekend. “Mad Men” premiered in 2007 and over seven seasons it has explored the eventful and tumultuous 1960s by focusing on an advertising executive named Don Draper. Don Draper lives in media history annals as one of the great existential antiheroes.

The first season of “Mad Men” is set in 1960 in the months leading up to John Kennedy’s election. It evokes an environment dominated by powerful, reckless, and ambitious New York ad men. Weiner’s obsession with period authenticity is one of the show’s many hallmarks and the period styles, music, and mores are recreated in pristine detail. The current and final season begins in 1969 and moves into 1970 and a new decade.

It has been a brilliant ride and, as a Baby Boomer who was growing up in the 1960s, it gives a sharp perspective from an adult point of view of events that I remember from my developing years. Revisiting the decade in such sharp focus in retrospect just reinforces how essential, frightening, and truly exciting that decade was for those of us who lived it no matter how old we were in the moment.

The narrative does not carry an overt social agenda but it pulls no punches in representing the decade as it was. The environment is dominated by cigarette smoke and liquid lunches. Cocktails and highballs are consumed at the workplace morning, noon, and night. Women are only seen as housewives and secretaries as the series begins and people of color are almost nonexistent in this corporate world. Vietnam is mentioned in passing and then it escalates. These things continue to change as the decade moves forward and the show masterfully explores how the workplace is ultimately unable to avoid and ignore the inevitable seismic changes occurring in the society around it. The media campaigns reflect the changes, uncertainty, and tumult. Like the best modern literature, it does not reveal too much but leaves the audience to find meaning and symbols and to draw its own conclusions.

The series is a gift to the actors involved, giving a skilled ensemble the opportunity to portray rich and vivid characters as they age and grow, evolve, and occasionally disappear or die. Rarely is there a false note and even the more fantastic developments seem inevitable in the world Weiner creates.

Don and Betty Draper’s daughter Sally is almost 6 when the series begins and audiences have the opportunity to watch her grow to a sometimes surly teenager and essential character as the story draws to a close. I have been intrigued by Sally’s story because she is the character who is closest in age to my age at the time of “Mad Men.”

“Mad Men” is always focused on Don Draper, his remarkable and mystery-filled creation story, and his constant search for contentment which never comes. But the Draper story has been constantly juxtaposed with the ascendance of Peggy Olson, the young secretary who becomes an advertising executive, seems to have a preternatural comprehension of Draper, and becomes increasingly hard and ruthless as she maneuvers and schemes her way to the top in a still male-dominated field.

Joan Holloway. Roger and Mona Sterling. Bert Cooper. Sal Romano. Stan Rizzo. And on and on … The memorable characters of “Mad Men” are characters that will stay with me as vividly as my favorite characters of any genre. These are all incredibly flawed and in some cases despicable human beings but I find myself pulling for each to find the path to personal peace and contentment. They feel like friends – annoying at times, but friends nevertheless.

As a lead-up to the final “Mad Men” episode on May 17, AMC has been running a 4-day marathon of every episode ever aired over the show’s seven seasons. I will admit that it has been on my televisions almost nonstop since Wednesday and I have fought the urge to just sit down and wallow in it. Instead, I have been checking in periodically to see where they are in the show’s arc and I will occasionally stop to revisit a favorite scene.

I will be interested to see how Weiner ends it Sunday night. I’m sure the pressure to end it to the devoted and demanding fans’ satisfaction is immense. I’ve heard a number of theories and I have a couple of my own but I feel like it will probably be a surprise and, hopefully, perfect. No pressure, Mr. Weiner.

No matter how “Mad Men’ ends on Sunday, I suddenly have the urge to go back and start rereading Cheever on Monday.


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