Mad Men Outgrew Its Ads

Friday, May 22nd, 2015 Writing

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has insisted that the show’s ending was planned out years in advance. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m convinced he’s telling the truth—and that he should have come up with something else. It’s not that the Coca-Cola “Hilltop Ad” coda is bad, necessarily—there’s a certain holistic brilliance to it—but the thinking it evinces, and the “point” it’s making, belong to an earlier, simpler conception of the show that Weiner and his cast and crew transcended long ago.

My complaint is not with the way that Don Draper’s (and Mad Men’s) concluding, majestic epiphany was interrupted by the Coke ad—we’ve seen endings be brilliantly interrupted before, sometimes literally (The Sopranos; Gravity’s Rainbow; Monty Python and the Holy Grail)—or the sudden imposition of a discordant stroke that mars the conclusive, elegiac tone (the elevator bell blotting out the final, soaring note of Radiohead’s OK Computer; “Her Majesty” deliberately “ruining” the coda of Abbey Road). Nor is there anything new or bad about an ending that illustrates that the characters haven’t changed or learned anything (Speed the Plow; The Wolf of Wall Street; Cabaret) or that nothing has changed (Waiting for Godot) or that everything we’ve seen is doomed to repeat (The Godfather). The problem is that we’re being asked to understand Don Draper and his world in terms of an advertisement, and it’s simply no longer possible or applicable. Yes, it’s terribly clever and profoundly cynical (in a way that seems to uphold the series’ masterful commitment to cleverness and cynicism), but in its final moments, Mad Men is forced to retreat from its ambitions; to descend from the unprecedented altitudes it had reached to take refuge in the kind of clever games with ads that it had long since outgrown.

“Workplace Dramas” are as old as television, but the post-MTM, Steven Bochco era of serialized “prime-time soaps” brought the jobs themselves into the foreground, turning the characters’ actual work product into a parallel track of narrative that provided symbolic, cultural and sociological bass notes that enriched the drama. The attorneys on LA Law would spend weeks grappling with rape cases, murder trials and complex lawsuits that served as mirrors for their own character arcs: the legal stories illuminated (and commented upon) the personal stories, and vice versa—the keys to each would be found in the other. And, as with the successes and failures of TV cops, you could keep score at home without getting lost in any ambiguities of artistry or nuance: the “skills” of the fictional lawyers were just manifestations of the puppet strings—they won or lost because their victories and defeats served the story. You knew a detective was good because he caught the criminal; you knew a lawyer was good because he won. (St. Elsewhere and ER worked the same way: the patients’ recovery rates were an arbitrary index of the fictional doctors’ competence.)

Mad Men wasn’t the first TV show about advertising, but the unusual historical framework, the use of actual American brands, and, most important, the unprecedented direct focus on the actual ad campaigns allowed for a seismic innovation in the basic fabric of the “workplace drama.” These characters were winning and losing and being hired and fired, but it was happening because of artistic accomplishments that we could actually experience and evaluate—you didn’t need a medical degree to judge what they were doing, because ads, by definition, can be understood by anyone. A Don Draper pitch (such as his Lucky Strike “toasted” concept or his triumphant, season-closing “Carousel” monologue for Kodak) was like an LA Law closing statement, but vastly more interesting: there were complex aesthetic principles involved—it was art, not law or medicine. (The fact that Matt Weiner and his writers were essentially stealing those product identities—bending corporate reality to fit his fictional characters’ needs—somehow made it even better: Mad Men “explained” where the iconic catchphrases came from as freely as Pagan myths explained the weather and the stars.) In those early seasons, 1960s advertising (mostly hand-illustrated magazine, newspaper and billboard graphics), when matched up to the characters’ retrograde, Promethean personal achievements, failures, sacrifices and transgressions, seemed like a bottomless well of delight; a Pandora’s Box of sin and seduction that our parents already opened, decades ago, that we were only now being allowed to see.

And we could read the ads—the campaigns themselves were so good that we could actually tell what made Peggy better or worse than Don: the “dueling banjos” moment in Season 6 when they both independently presented Heinz ads was uniquely enthralling because we could actually perceive the characters’ contrasting personalities and creative vision in the work they put on the easels. (Peggy’s ad was better, in my opinion—it showcased her flair for concision and her mastery of declarative syntax—but Don’s was more innovative in the way it omitted the product from the picture, which was of a piece with his absence-obsessed and even suicidally-fixated work that year.) Season 4’s “The Suitcase”—the exact midpoint of the series, and arguably Mad Men’s finest hour—bonded those same two characters together through an unforgettable sleepless night of delayed bereavement (with Don’s closest soul-mate Anna Draper as the Schrodinger’s cat in the box he wouldn’t open) that was like John Cassavetes fused with Jack London’s fight-night commentary by way of Edward Hopper, concluding with the creation of the Samsonite ad campaign (“The Champ”) that entwined all those threads into an unforgettable tapestry of pain, endurance and loss. The Mad Men ads were so good that we could even make out the seeds of Ginsberg’s madness in his post-McLuhan “cut-up” approach to selling Sno-Balls (he clearly wasn’t aware that he was thinking of pigs because the brand name reminded him of Orwell’s Animal Farm). It was Ginsberg, his creativity already eclipsing Don’s, who contrived the Jaguar tagline about “Something Beautiful You Can Own” while thinking about Megan Draper—one of the last times on Mad Men that the ads themselves were integral to the narrative.

As Mad Men’s flawlessly re-created years progressed, so did the show itself—Hitchcock’s world became Kubrick’s world, C. Wright Mills giving way to Tom Wolfe, and Weiner’s drama, remarkably, expanded to fill all of that space. (A lesser show could have stayed with the original Sterling Cooper firm and its scenarios and timeframe the way M*A*S*H lingered on an unchanging 4077th for eleven near-identical seasons.) The decade played out, move by move, but on the other side of a scrim, like Hamlet occurring offstage during Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, while in the foreground, the half-dozen protagonists grew from cleverly-rendered historical anachronisms into richly detailed, soulful characterizations so indelible that we mourn their departure and imagine their lives in the intervening decades as if they were actual people. In those later seasons, the ads were no longer the focus—Don’s destructive, almost Dadaist “Hershey” pitch (at the end of Season 6), in which, essentially, Dick Whitman destroyed Don Draper from within, was the last time we saw him do any real creative work. Like a statue that no longer needed a scaffolding, Mad Men had progressed beyond the need for the annotation the ads provided.

By the end, Mad Men was no longer “about” advertising in anything but the most nominal sense—since, by the 1970s, the techniques and concepts pioneered by advertising had engulfed all of society, media, politics and culture. (Joe McGuinness’ brilliant The Selling of the President 1968 perhaps best documented that tipping point.) Filmmakers who started out making ads, like Michael Cimino, Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and his brother Tony—whose Top Gun made Pauline Kael wonder, “What is this commercial selling?” (“It’s just selling,” she concluded)—began the domination of Hollywood that continues to this day, despite the subsequent influx of music-video-spawned directors like David Fincher…and the folk-music-filled songbook distributed in “Chapel” at my Episcopal Summer camp in the 1980s included “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing”—with the lyrics about Coca-Cola presented as an “optional” verse below the sheet music.

As Charles Foster Kane’s world of newspaper journalism collapsed around him, replaced by the newsreels that we see chronicling his demise, so Don Draper’s Madison Avenue faded away—an anachronism within a world which we have seen pass him by, witnessing every step, Don reaches the end of his utility as a man and as a protagonist. He may find rebirth, or a Fitzgeraldian “Second Act,” but none of that has anything to do with the masterful 1971 ad that successfully harnessed post-Sixties proto-Globalist youth sentiment as an armature for selling soda. If, after an intricately-rendered, endlessly protracted Existential breakdown so profound, unsparing and merciless—and so painstakingly wrought from the elements of a story so rich that it fully earns the right to its canvas of the entire 1960s—we are meant to think that Don Draper actually does go back to McCann Erickson to create that Coke ad, then, essentially, we’ve been had—then Mad Men’s final brushstroke deliberately erases the overwhelming achievement of the preceding ninety-two hours of film, and we’re back in Season 1, when his vacation slides inspired that “Carousel” ad for Kodak (and we all enjoyed the frisson of the psychological/commercial juxtaposition the way 1987 gallery patrons enjoyed Andy Warhol’s insertion of the Dove Soap logo into Da Vinci’s Last Supper). If this flavor of postmodern auto-destruction appeals to you—if you appreciate the cleverness of the punch line—then you got the ending you wanted. But if, like me, you’re unsatisfied, you can mentally trim away the “Hilltop” ad, and imagine Matt Weiner’s epic tale ending as it should—with Don Draper’s future unwritten and his Mona Lisa smile fading to black.