And that’s a wrap people. Mad Men is officially over, and if you had [spoiler] Don Draper ends up in a yoga session at a hippie commune [end spoiler] in your office betting pool then you should be cashing in right about now. What began as a pilot script Matthew Weiner wrote in 2001 but ended up on the back burner while he wrote for The Sopranos has now turned into one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Sure, if Twitter and online reviews are any indication this final 7-episode season was rather vexing, leading to many somewhat unintentionally hilarious debates among TV critics (“These showcase episodes for characters we don’t really care about is a sign of Weiner’s brilliance!” says one. “Give us more of Joan and Peggy!” argues another). However, this is an important moment. As Todd Vanderwerff argued, the end of Mad Men marks a transitional period in TV’s second Golden Age, “What was once seen as one of the last great antihero shows now presages an era of shows with rich, deep ensemble casts that dare to ask audiences to develop empathy and intimacy with every single person in the cast.”
What if you don’t care about that? What if you were simply sick of seeing so many mentions of Mad Men on your Twitter feed last night? What if you didn’t even know the series finale had aired until you saw the internet talking about it this morning? What if you don’t actually like Mad Men nor care about Don Draper upholding and subverting the Horatio Alger myth?
Vulture’s Gazelle Emami recently sought out two prominent TV critics whose anti-Mad Men stance is well-known, Daniel Mendelsohn and Sacha Z. Scoblic.
In 2011, as Mad Men was ending its fourth and arguably best season Mendelsohn published a very measured 4,000-word take down of the show in The New York Review of Books:
The actual stuff of Mad Men‘s action is, essentially, the stuff of soap opera: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets; what is supposed to give it its higher cultural resonance is the historical element. When people talk about the show, they talk (if they’re not talking about the clothes and furniture) about the special perspective its historical setting creates—the graphic picture that it is able to paint of the attitudes of an earlier time, attitudes likely to make us uncomfortable or outraged today.
However, he argued the show lacked anything beneath its surface level appeal:
Most of the show’s flaws can, in fact, be attributed to the way it waves certain flags in your face and leaves things at that, without serious thought about dramatic appropriateness or textured characterization. (The writers don’t really want you to think about what Betty might be thinking; they just want you to know that she’s one of those clueless 1960s mothers who smoked during pregnancy.) The writers like to trigger “issue”-related subplots by parachuting some new character or event into the action, often an element that has no relation to anything that’s come before.
And he really didn’t admire the acting:
With rare exceptions (notably Robert Morse in an amusing cameo as the eccentric Japanophile partner Bert Cooper), the actors in this show are “acting the atmosphere,” as directors like to say: they’re playing “Sixties people,” rather than inhabiting this or that character, making him or her specific. A lot of Mad Men is like that.
Having reached the conclusion that the show was not at all worthy of its considerable critical acclaim, he attempted to pinpoint what exactly was fueling its popularity, reasoning it’s as simple as kids trying to understand their parents:
The greatest part of the audience for Mad Men is made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts—people who were in their twenties and thirties and forties in the 1960s, and are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties—but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today […] Hence both the show’s serious failings and its strong appeal. If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then. As for the appeal: Who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight?
Looking back at his essay today, Mendelsohn told Vulture he received every possible kind of reaction, thankful, “They made comments along the lines of, ‘There was something about this that was bothering me and I was never able to put my finger on it, and I read your piece and I get it,’” or polite disagreement, “Michael Chabon the novelist wrote me and said he loved [the show], but that he really liked my piece also” or hostile yelling. He hasn’t watched Mad Men since the end of its fourth season, but holds no ill will toward the show or its cultural impact, simply regarding it as something which ultimately wasn’t for him.
That’s an opinion shared by Sacha Z. Scoblic, who similarly published a negative review of Mad Men during its glorious early days, writing of the first season in The New Republic, “Despite high praise from the Times, People, and the Los Angeles Times, Mad Men is ultimately as self-indulgent and annoying as its terminally repressed characters.” She has since kept up with the show just so she wouldn’t have to fake her way through conversations in social settings.
When asked to combine their forces and crystallize what they viewed as the show’s ultimate failings, Mendelsohn and Scoblic broke it down into the following categories:
Overdoing the whole ’60s thing.
“There are so many scenes where the punch line is, ‘Ha-ha, they’re clueless people in the ’60s,’” Mendelsohn says. Scoblic adds, “I think because I wrote this [review], I became hyperaware of the ‘It’s the ’60s!’ meme that just would hit you over the head every episode to the point where it was just a distraction. That nod to authenticity made it inauthentic — it made the show so self-conscious and aware of itself.”
“I felt like I was driving past a series of billboards, with several important exceptions [feminism],” says Mendelsohn. “I got the patriarchy, I got the race thing — I didn’t feel that things were integrated in a way that was real and meaningful.”
Mendelsohn dislikes the number of subplots, which, he says, often “fizzled out because something more interesting came along.” Scoblic takes aim at the larger arc: “There are shows like Breaking Bad that take a dramatic arc and thread that arc through every episode and you have a destination,” she explains, “and I don’t feel Mad Men was ever going anywhere in particular, except teasing us about Don Draper’s background.”
Both Mendelsohn and Scoblic feel he was given a heavy-handed backstory and cartoonish portrayal. “He jumped the shark, too, with the glamour, fedora, cigarettes, and the whiskey,” says Scoblic. “I just felt like the character was not as mysterious and interesting as he was supposed to be.” Mendelsohn: “When your main character is opaque on purpose, that’s a very hard thing to bring on because you run the risk of having the viewer just not care, which is what happened to me.”
It’s interesting that they would take issue with Don Draper, but simply on the grounds of him not being mysterious or interesting enough. There is a far more compelling Breaking Bad-esque argument to made against Don Draper. For example, you’ll often get asked, “When did Walter White lose you?” when meeting a fellow Breaking Bad fan for the first time, everyone eager to pinpoint the moment where they personally felt Walter transformed from anti-hero to villain. Well, when did Don Draper’s consistent personal meltdowns transfer from the compelling self-destruction of a man who couldn’t get out of his own way to the continued fucks-ups of a man who no longer deserved your sympathy? For some, that moment never happened. For others, it was at the end of the fourth season when Don capped a season’s worth of self-improvement and legitimate growth by ditching a girl who was his equal and rather suddenly proposing to his sexy secretary.
Some of the people making the show found that storyline hard to take, Lionsgate TV’s COO Sandra Stern telling THR, “I said to Matt, ‘I’m sad — I thought Don had finally pulled it together.’ And Matt said, ‘Yeah, me too. I really thought he could do it this time, but he couldn’t.’” Even Jon Hamm, then fresh out of a quiet stint in rehab, seemed to agree, “It’s no fun to play a person who only makes the right decisions all the time, but it can be difficult to watch somebody, time and time again, who just continually makes [the same] mistakes. I think it got progressively more difficult for me. As Don’s downward spiral continued, it became kind of relentless, and that takes its toll on your psyche.”
To Mad Men‘s many, many defenders, everything bad you could say about Don is simply part of what makes him fascinating, and if not it doesn’t matter because the secret weapon of the show is how much you care about the rest of the cast. Again, deferring to Todd Vanderwerff, “The story of Mad Men isn’t about a man who slowly closes himself off from others. It’s the story of a man who builds a workplace family around himself, even if he’s not consciously aware of it. For as lousy of a husband and father as Don is, he’s often a magnificent coworker. He recognizes in his protege, Peggy Olson, something that nobody else likely would have, and he urges Joan Harris not to do something unthinkable simply to land an account.” As a result, “What Mad Men has done, slowly but surely, is transition from the antihero mode — where the thing of first and foremost importance is whatever Don is up to that week — to a series where every single member of the ensemble is an object of both the audience’s empathy and often Don’s.”
It was thus perplexing the way the final season seemed to overly adhere to the Joss Whedon model of dramatic storytelling, which is not to give the audience what they think they want but instead give them what they need. It was time to say goodbye to the characters, yet we didn’t realize we’d spend entire episodes saying goodbye to Don’s ex-wife Megan and her family or revisit a now fully grown version of odd neighborhood kid Glen Bishop. However, Mad Men has always been a story told on Matthew Weiner’s terms, who valued control of information so much that he used to send out letters to TV critics ordering them to refrain from even discussing the color of the furniture in episodes on top of any actual plot spoilers. Certain recent shows feel as if they eventually allow themselves to be dictated by social media feedback, particularly if there’s a romantic couple everyone wants to see paired off. That was never a level of engagement Mad Men concerned itself with nor should it have, really.
Scoblic attempted to soften her criticisms, adding, “I said there was no character development, and certainly there was loads of it. The show also moves through time by jumping through the years — that was something interesting that I didn’t expect.”
Mendelsohn recognized the cultural need the show has served, “It doesn’t have to do with the quality. What makes something a phenomenon is that it has satisfied some kind of emotional need in the audience.”