The cultural phenomenon Mad Men ends its seven season run tonight May 17 on AMC.
Last week the creator, Matthew Weiner, talked about the end of the series on the Nerdist podcast. For him, at the crux of Mad Men is the idea that everyone wants the life that was promised in the ads – the idyllic expectation of life that is based on a cultural fiction that we’ve all agreed upon. “In America in particular, the heroic myth is always a myth.”
Over the course of the series, one of the most blatant cultural fictions that the women of Mad Men have confronted is the American dream itself. Hard work both at home and at the office very rarely pays off in the sexist era of the 1960s. My favorite character by far is also the one I find most tragic: Joan, who bought into the ethos that betrayed her. Modeling herself on the Marilyn Monroe archetype and attaining the top position in the secretary pool, Joan thought she had her own trajectory figured out, and for as long as the 50s lasted, she did.
But with rising tide of social change in the 60s, Joan finds herself drowning. She reaches for the best life preserver available to her: a doctor. She marries him and quits her job only to discover that he’s an abusive monster. When the marriage breaks up and Joan finds herself a single mother, she returns to the advertising agency to suffer indignities large and small. Joan finally becomes a partner after a particularly gross transaction in order to secure an account. Yet, eventually the agency is bought by a bigger company where Joan finds herself folded into the machine and diminished yet again.
Surprisingly, for all the misogyny, my sympathies actually grew for the men of this era, the ones who returned from the war shellshocked and without the support or freedom to process its horrors. Like the soldiers they once were, men assumed the expected roles of family man & business man without question, and subsequently they anesthetized themselves with alcohol and other vices. It does not excuse their boorish behavior towards women, but it gives it context. And it underscores the importance of women’s voices (and why it could only be women’s voices) to cut through the chauvinist haze of the power dynamic.
So when Joan threatens to sue the company and contact Betty Friedan, I was cheering for her, even though it made perfect sense that the big boss of the agency would be completely dismissive, because, let’s face it, change is s-l-o-w.
That framework makes the series all the more tragic. I’ll be watching with everyone else tonight to see how Weiner sticks the landing.
For more on Mad Men’s complicated female characters: