A Retrospective on Mad Men: AMC’s Golden Child

Chad White, Mad, Man

WARNING Spoilers for a lot of the Mad Men series follow.

An explosion in the Korean War changed one man’s life forever. Actually, it changed two men’s lives: the real Don Draper (R.I.P.) and Richard Whitman (the man we know as Don Draper). With the real Draper blown out of existence, Whitman assumed the identity of a man with a better life. He was able to make himself into something he revered, simply because his past left him with no other choice. Look at where he came from; Whitman was born to a prostitute -- Evangeline -- who died in labor subsequently leaving a young Whitman to his alcoholic father, Archibald. Young Dick spent only a few years with his father until Archie died of a kick to the face via horse. Whitman was sent to live with his stepmother, brother, aunt, and uncle in a brothel. It’s in this setting where Dick’s life is ultimately shaped. His uncle is kind while his stepmother is abusive just as the two have taken a relationship with one another. He is often left in the care of a prostitute who eventually takes the child’s virginity in a forceful, unwanted manner. With a life like this and barely a high school education, Whitman’s only alternative was to run away to join the draft.

Upon reading a brief history of Draper, one could feel somewhat sorry for the now successful ad man. However, that shouldn’t deter from the bad things that he’s done. Draper has lied, cheated, stolen and slept his way to the top. He’s traded in one woman for the next on countless occasions. He’s abandoned Sterling Cooper multiple times, including this final season, because he didn’t feel like he owned it anymore. To be fair, Sterling Cooper & Partner’s isn’t his anymore; it’s McCann Erickson’s now.

What I’m getting at here is Draper is not a good or a bad guy. He’s not murdering like Tony Soprano nor is he making a dangerous substance like Walter White. Don is in this to see himself become successful, to transform into a man he’s wanted to be all of his life. There doesn’t need to be high octane action or suspenseful mysteries as in other hour long serials. Does it really matter what those people in The Walking Dead are doing?

There comes a point where the supernatural and out of this world become mundane. Sure, they’re rooted in the real world but only to a tee. There can only be so much of the “antihero.” As Vikram Murthi of the AV Club points out, Draper is “neither a murderer nor a psychopath.” He doesn’t fit in with the other middle aged white men that plague the serialized drama landscape (see Tony, Walt, and Rick). Draper is able to come back from his biggest falls whereas Walt, for instance, went down a dark and depressive hole from which he could never escape. We never saw Don thirst for as much power as Tony -- who ran a mob empire -- did.

Does it really matter what those people in The Walking Dead are doing?

Over the course of eight years, Don evolved from a man who was completely sure of himself whilst looking good in a suit to a man with nothing left to lose – of course, still looking good in that suit. He is scared, Murthi points out, and willing to make a new start at any moment. Just look at the amount of secretaries Don’s been through (a staggering nine!) or the amount of women he’s slept with (eighteen). He’s married two, had lasting relationships with several but now, he’s alone. Without a company or a wife, the only thing Don has left is his money (some odd million) and his name (which isn’t even his). Now, he’s running away for the final time to a place he deems worthy. Before the divorce with Betty, he left for California finding it a type of stagnant sanctuary. Megan became his other fresh start but she too left for the West Coast looking to better her career.

Mad Men institutes realism in a show in order to stand out from others. Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead fall into a trap of disbelief where Mad Men stands tall. Sure, it’s slow and can sometimes be boring. Yes Don Draper is an alcoholic, chain smoking mess. So what women and minorities are underrepresented for a time?  But none of that matters when character connections and story pay off exceed the crutch of death. Only a couple of characters were surprisingly killed on the show: Lane Price after his options were exhausted and Burt Cooper in the saddest episode ever. Mad Men was never reduced to left turns in order to tell its story. Viewers were forced to fall in love with the world that Matthew Weiner and history wrought where Don Draper was the surrogate, our key into an era many of us missed out on.

One of the most interesting shows on television is going off air. Mad Men has taken viewers through every possible emotion from anger at a character’s sexual adultery to happiness for Sterling Cooper & Partner’s continued success. Mad Men is a well-deserved slow burn of a television show. No other channel has anything remotely close to it. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and even my personal favorites Arrow and Flash don’t hold a candle to the sheer sophistication of Mad Men. Weiner didn’t shoehorn symbols for frantic fans to try to find some underlying meaning to; there was no point. Sunday will see the final cigarette reach its end; the last drop of scotch in the glass. Don Draper and his cohorts will move on with their lives and I will too.

Here’s to you, the mad men and women of Sterling Cooper & Partners.