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Last Call for Don Draper and Mad Men

“What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one.” – Don Draper
Advertising executive Don Draper, as played by Jon Hamm, utters these words late in the pilot episode of AMC’s “Mad Men”, the groundbreaking drama series about the characters surrounding a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s that airs the first of its final seven episodes at 10 p.m. ET Sunday April 5 on AMC. When Draper shares this sentiment, the initial impression for viewers is a cynical businessman with an outwardly bleak view of humanity. Seen through the prism of nearly 90 episodes and 10 years of narrative development, the reality is more complex.

There have been few television characters more complex than Don Draper. He's not a sociopathic murderer, but perhaps the closest forebearer is Tony Soprano, the central figure of HBO’s “The Sopranos”, and that’s fitting since “Mad Men” arrived just a little more than a month after “The Sopranos” aired its series finale in June 2007.

The two shows also shared a connection by the fact that the creator of “Mad Men”, Matthew Weiner, had been one of the key writers on “The Sopranos” over the show’s final three seasons and much of the behind the scenes crew on that program moved over to “Mad Men.”

Just as “The Sopranos” immediately became a pop-culture phenomenon upon its premiere in 1999, “Mad Men” was an equally groundbreaking program. For years original programming was relegated mostly to the broadcast networks and premium services like HBO or Showtime. With the entry into the scripted drama business of AMC, known to that point as a lesser version of Turner Classic Movies, it opened the door for what we see today, where AMC’s lineup has included other hits like “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” and nearly every cable network is creating original scripted programming.

“Mad Men” also ushered in a new era regarding the way people watch TV. It has never been a highly rated program in the traditional sense, usually averaging 1-2 million viewers per episode, but those numbers only account for those that watch each episode’s premiere at 10 p.m. Sunday nights. It doesn’t account for the number of people who DVR episodes, watch through iTunes (the way I viewed it through the first few seasons) or catch up by streaming whole seasons on Netflix.

Post “Sopranos” and “The Wire”, “Mad Men” ushered in another Golden Age of Television, but in theory, the series and its premise should have been old hat. We’ve seen countless depictions of the 1960s on television and film. Arguably the most tumultuous and change-filled period in American history, the decade lends itself perfectly to dramatization.

As much as the 1960s have been put on film though, most of productions are told from the perspective of children, “Baby Boomers” coming of age viewing seismic events through adolescent eyes. For example, on “The Wonder Years”, the main character, Kevin Arnold, is in junior high when the show begins in 1968 and the series is told entirely from his perspective.

"Mad Men" gives attention to young people (teenager Sally Draper, as played by Kiernan Shipka, is one of the most compelling characters on the show), but what makes “Mad Men” unique is it is most interested in how this sea of societal change affects the lives of those who were already adults in 1960, and thus offers a different perspective on this period in time.

In an interview with television critic Alan Sepinwall several years ago, Weiner said, “Let's take away all the Boomer rosy haze. (Don Draper’s) an adult. Pete (Campbell) is in his 20s, Peggy (Olson) is in her 20s. What was it like for them to sit back and watch this happen? And no matter what happens -- Summer of Love, The Beatles, Woodstock, Rolling Stones -- when you get to 1970, "My Way" is still in the top 10 songs. 

Without the “Boomer rosy haze,” the series isn’t a coming of age saga set against an era of chaos. It instead became about how one’s identity is defined in an era where it seemed all the rules for what a person could be – male, female, black, gay   evolved in a 10-year span. But the irony of a series about identity is that the persona of the lead character is built on a lie.

We learn throughout the first season that “Don Draper” is actually Dick Whitman, who grew up the son of a poor farmer and a prostitute, and when he was old enough, ran away to enlist in the army and was sent to fight in the Korean War. While he was there, an accident killed his commanding officer (the real Don Draper) and a desperate Whitman took this as an opportunity to create a new life for himself.

In the role of Don Draper, he has a seemingly perfect life – creative director at a successful advertising agency, living with his beautiful wife, Betty (January Jones) and two young children in a Long Island suburb. Even with seemingly everything, Don is still unhappy - lying, cheating and feeling as though he is living someone else’s life because that's pretty much exactly what he is doing.

Don’s past is rarely directly mentioned, but is something that is always lurking right below the surface and dictating the choices he makes. And he isn’t the only character with secrets.

Secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) gave birth to account executive Pete Campbell’s (Vincent Kartheiser) baby and then chose to give it up for adoption, prioritizing her burgeoning career over motherhood. Art director Sal Romano (Bryan Batt) is married, but is a closeted homosexual. Office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is raped by her fiancee late in the second season but chooses to go through with the marriage anyway. All of these elements hang over scenes and arguably no show is better at creating dramatic subtext than “Mad Men”.

It’s always clear these events take place within the context of the 1960s and it is an incredibly detailed depiction. The series began in March 1960 and the last episode of the final season’s first half took place in July 1969, coinciding with Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

In between, “Mad Men” has tracked most of the key events of the decade: the Cuban Missle Crisis, the Kennedy assassination(s), the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike what we usually see, the characters on “Mad Men” are often on the wrong side of history.  In the first season, Sterling Cooper pitches to run the Nixon advertising campaign during the 1960 Presidential election cycle and the only character to accurately recognize the youthful threat John F. Kennedy poses is Pete, the most unlikeable character on the show.

Nearly every episode is so packed with real-life references that it is often easy to pinpoint not only the month in which it is taking place, but sometimes, the exact day.

This is necessary because time and its passage are crucial to the narrative of “Mad Men.” Peggy goes from a naive, wide-eyed secretary in the pilot to a 30-year old copy chief wondering if she’ll ever marry and have children. Pete was cheerfully arrogant and on the verge of getting married in 1960, but now he’s balding and on the path to divorce. Joan was a glorified secretary at the start of the series but by decade’s end she is a financially-independent agency partner.

Yet even with all the change, Don seems to remain the same. His sideburns are still short, his drink of choice remains an Old-Fashioned and he still isn’t able to get out his own way enough to find happiness. His marriage to Betty ended in divorce and his second to his former secretary Megan (Jessica Pare) appears to have ended as well. At the conclusion of last year’s midseason finale, Draper and the rest of the agency partners are primed to all become extremely wealthy after fellow partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) orchestrated the company’s sale to rival agency McCann Erickson, but as the recently-deceased company founder Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) sings post mortem in the episode’s emotional and delightfully weird final moments, the best things in life are free.

With much of the business end of things at Sterling Cooper & Partners seemingly resolved in last year’s episodes, I’d guess the final seven hours will serve as a sort of epilogue for resolving these characters’ narratives for good. There’s been a lot of speculation about whether the series will return shortly after the events of the midseason finale in 1969 or if we will get flash-forwards to the characters’ futures. It would be nice to see where everyone ends up over the years, but there is also something neat and tidy about the idea of the series simply being a 10-year snapshot of the lives of these characters. I have complete confidence that Weiner and his writers have come up with a satisfying conclusion and not, though I love "The Sopranos" ending, an abrupt fade to black.

Of all the narrative questions to wrap up, obviously the most significant is what becomes of Don Draper? Will he remain the outwardly pessimistic man who says, “Love was created to sell nylons” and is unable to feel comfortable in his own skin, or will he finally find some balance and manage to broker a peace between Don Draper and Dick Whitman?

Pour yourself a drink and stay tuned over the next few months to find out and come back here to Everybody Hates Cleveland, where I’ll unpack each episode after it airs.

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