What’s been interesting to me this season about AMC’s hit series Mad Men is how dead in a classically dramatic sense it seems, how spent its narrative arc. Yet it remains addictive for those who got hooked on its characters. So I watch, but I wonder about the show with morbid professional curiosity. How long and how far can a Pan American jetliner that’s lost its engines glide?
Maybe this is just me. Maybe Mad Men is doing something risky, not milking the franchise. But I affirm my sense at the end of season three: the story ended then, when the principal characters broke away from the Madison Avenue advertising agency where they toiled, loved, and fought, and formed their own firm. Any novel or regular movie with decent self-respect would have ended there, freeing our imaginations to ponder their fates. As it is, two seasons later, they now weather minor turbulence as they walk the earth like the rest of us. I dread the likelihood that the show’s writers will make lead character Don Draper unhappy again, despite his ridiculously adorable second wife and his material success. Meanwhile, viewers this season have mostly followed the supporting actors. They do supply narrative threads, but are peripheral characters, at least in terms of the initial core drama about Draper and his baggage.
The same issue faces AMC’s exciting sister series Breaking Bad. Last year, at the end of its fourth season, protagonist Walter White had finally vanquished his evil rival and won all the chips. What’s left, in next year’s final season, except to wrap up threads that don’t truly need wrapping? But Breaking Bad has at least has kept its focus on Walter, just as The Sopranos kept Tony Soprano dead center. Mad Men has drifted from Draper, maybe because it goofed and made him happy too soon.
And yet, as I say, I flail along with Mad Men, feeling my love cool and my eye grow more critical. This year the writers are emphasizing the sea-change the late 1960s wrought, as well as cultural reference points like the Speck murders. This infusion cannot staunch the leakage of the show’s drama, and fails, for me, to offset it by dishing up inescapably sentimental period allure. I grew up in the crazed, profound, damaging ‘60s and came of age in the ghastly 1970s. I was raised by a father from Draper’s martini-drinking, Camel-smoking, workaholic, womanizing milieu; my mother, like Draper’s desperate ex-wife Betty, knew a doctor the ladies could go to for “diet pills” so they could stay sexy and keep their husbands domesticated.
And so I look back when I look at the aging Mad Men, as some other boomers surely must, with curious affection and distaste. We know the period, like none since, and can inflict it upon ourselves and the credulous young: look how charmingly naïve they were, dosing themselves with nicotine and alcohol and having a promiscuous good (or bad-but-at-least-entertaining) time. We now know not only what the characters still don’t, but what we—and our parents—didn’t. We were all busy, so busy, trying to get through those years, just like everyone is now.