If Mad Men wasn’t the greatest show in the history of television (geez I loved The Sopranos and Breaking Bad), it certainly was the greatest “business” show in television history, but really that doesn’t come close to covering it. What Mad Men was can best be called an “era” show – capturing the very worst parts and very best parts of a certain era of American culture-history, and pretty much sparing us from everything in between. The series lasted eight years, made stars of some, resurrected others, and generally captivated its audience with its disturbing but nobly honest portrayal of the most unfortunate reality in our heroes: their virtues and vices are often impossible to separate.
Don Draper was a complex person, which is not to say he was likable or sympathetic. He was as selfish as humans can be, which did not make the scene in a early season where he basically brought Peggy back from the land of the lost any less meaningful. Sociopaths have hearts. And Don Draper was a sociopath, and he certainly had a heart. But Matthew Weiner didn’t tantalize us with Draper’s heart – it was his mind that crested the life he had. He was a genius, a creative genius, but also just a genius. Rarely was he ever not the smartest guy in the room throughout the eight years of Mad Men. And THAT is what tore the audience up – how someone that smart, could be that stupid.
The iconic portrayal of Madison Avenue life in midtown Manhattan was worth the price of admission for the entire show. It was a tapestry like I have never seen in any form of screen art. I am a sucker for 20th century New York aesthetics – an obsessive sucker. I have, on many occasions, taken 30 minutes to walk from the elevator to my hotel room door in the Park Avenue Towers of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel where I have stayed over a hundred times, for the simple reason that photo by photo in the hallway I am distracted into stopping, and if not in a hurry, gazing. Mad Men was sixty minutes a week of beauty – pure, uncompromised fashion, decor, culture, and history. If there had been no narrative, no characters, and no plot, but there had still been that imagery, I would have kept watching.
But narrative and characters there were – in abundance.
The series ended Sunday night and bloggers and critics alike are out in full force with their take on the highly memorable ending. Don Draper did make that Coke commercial, and he didn’t make it as a result of having his soul fixed by two days of yoga. He was a deeply broken man and his smug hillside smile was the personal revelation that he is irreparable, but can hide in materialism and crass shallow marketing – successfully – forever. He was gifted in a sort of irreplaceable way, but his depravity held him down. I’m positive he made the commercial and positive he did it back at McCann-Erickson, still broken – just smarter. Weiner had no reason to make it a redemption story. He threw romantics a bone in the final episode with Pete, with Peggy, and even Roger. But Don was broken, and Don was brilliant. The ending gave us both, fully interwoven, in all their paradoxical luster.
The story of broken, brilliant men intrigues me because I am half of one of them. I am broken but redeemed, and when Hollywood (or real life) gives me a look at a broken man without redemption it gives me a look at the God who makes all things beautiful. From Madison Avenue to the grotesque life Don Draper grew up in (Dick Whitman for you literalists), God makes it all beautiful. Many broken men don’t find that redemption, but for those of us who have, it makes the shows actually capturing the reality of human depravity all the more powerful. And that redemption is a tapestry with which even the New York skyline cannot compete.