Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks on the set of Mad Men's 7th season in Los Angeles on Feb. 6. Photograph by Alex Majoli
It made TV history by making history into TV. Now the stylish ’60s saga writes its final chapter
Don Draper is looking at his iPhone. O.K., not exactly: star Jon Hamm is sitting in a hallway, in his trademark slicked hair and wide-striped tie, checking texts. We’re between takes for the fifth episode of the seventh and final season of the iconic AMC series. It’s the modern equivalent of a 1960s cigarette break: women in done-up bouffants and men in chunky glasses perch on modernist furniture and inhale data. If Sterling Cooper and Partners were actually in business, this would make one hell of an ad pitch to Apple.
Then the scene is reset, the iThingies stashed. The cameras roll. The actors fire up their herbal cigarettes. It's 19somethingsomething again. (In order to visit the spoilerphobic set, I agreed not to reveal what exactly Don is up to or what year it is on the show, so let's just call it 19somethingsomething.)
It's jarring to see the 2010s intrude here after six seasons of watching AMC's period drama re-create the years from 1960 to 1968 with OCD-like granularity. But in a way, the on-set mashup of rotary phone and smartphone doesn’t so much spoil the illusion of Mad Men as reveal what the show really is: a period piece, but one where the past haunts the present and the present haunts the past. It resonates with themes as old as the frontier and as current as today's gender politics. Days after I visited the set, President Obama (reportedly a Peggy Olson fan) advocated equal pay for women in his State of the Union address by saying, "It is time to do away with the workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode."
Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm taking a break on the Mad Men set with a very un-Draper-like device
On April 13, the conversation will swing back to Mad Men as it airs the first of its 14 remaining episodes (seven to air this year, seven next). "It's starting to dawn on me, the finality of the experience," the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, tells me later in his office, itself a mini-museum of tchotchkes, from 1960s campaign posters to old Philco TV ads. "I had an idea for a scene for Roger" – Roger Sterling, Don's Scotch-marinated silver-fox colleague, played by John Slattery – "and as I was telling it to the writers' assistant and she was writing it down, I was kind of overwhelmed. I realized I'd just thought of Roger's last scene."
Mad Men’s calendar is just about out of pages. It’s wrapping up its run as the signature show of a period in which the kind of people who used to say “I don’t even own a television” were now arguing whether film and novels could even compete with TV drama. In more ways than one, the end of Mad Men will be the end of an era.
– If The Sopranos aspired to the level of movies, Mad Men aspired to the level of literature. The first season – which premiered just a month after The Sopranos went off the air in 2007 – played like newly unearthed Updike or Cheever stories, little tales of love and despair in the office towers and suburbs of 1960. It defied the usual structure of hour-long TV, making each episode unpredictable, a nighttime drive with the headlights on low. And it was built around a Jay Gatsby false-identity story: suave Don Draper, we learn, was born Dick Whitman, a prostitute's orphaned son who grew up in Depression poverty and stole the identity of a Korean War comrade killed in action.
– What Mad Men doesn't have that The Sopranos did is, well, the Mafia: a big, popcorn-entertainment hook with life-or-death stakes. There are no whacking, though there have been a couple of lonely suicides. There are no guns – O.K. a few, but they're not deployed the way TV usually uses them. Don's frustrated wife Betty (January Jones) skeet-shoots her neighbor's pigeons after an argument; ambitious junior execute Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheisr) shows off a hunting rifle he bought for himself. It has yet to go off.
– Instead, the show trusts in the power of style, subtlety and, above all, secrets, like that fact that Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) had a baby and gave it away just as her copywriting career was launching. The show is enchanted with the enigma of closed doors; several time, Don's daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) opens a room to find adults in compromising positions, as in a disillusioning game of Let's Make a Deal. There are few bombshells and cliffhangers, but in Weiner's style of storytelling, a whisper can speak loudly.
– If eBay married Etsy, their starter home would look a lot like Mad Men's studios.
All that design fussiness ties in to Mad Men's larger mission: to embody history without being a cliche of history – a big challenge when you're dealing with a decade more picked over than a West Hollywood vintage shop. We're used to seeing the 1960s as the story of the baby boom changing the world. Mad Men gave us characters just outside that change. Executives, accountants, housewives – squares.
– The toughest parts of history to write, Weiner admits, are the most obvious: the JFK assassination, the counterculture. Mad Men approaches history best at an oblique angle. it implies the bloodbath of Vietnam at an office party when a drunk staffer on a riding lawn mower runs over a new executive's foot. The Cold War becomes a metaphor when Pete runs into his father-in-law at a midtown brothel and assumes (wrongly) that the older man will never tell because it's "mutually assured destruction." This, Weiner argues, is how people really experience history. "Not everybody's going around talking about the war," he says. "There's a war going on now and you don't hear about it unless you read the New York Times."
– The show echoed that theme in Don, who tries to change his ways only to end up cheating on his new wife Megan (Jessica Pare). Mad Men is often a story of men who repeat the same mistakes. But title notwithstanding, it's equally the story of its complex women: Betty, who bought into a housewife role that doesn't fit her an dis losing its currency; Sally, who sees her mother as an enemy and her father as a stranger; Joan, proudly feminine and iron willed. (The show hasn't depicted African Americans nearly as much, a lacuna Weiner defend because it would be "a lie" to portray SC&P's world as integrated.) Unusually for a TV drama, Mad Men has a majority of female writers, though Weiner has the bulk of the writing credits.
It's Peggy's story that Mad Men's feminism seems most like today's, because she's most like us. She's leaning in not from ideology but instinct; she's not a crusader so much as a working stiff who wants a good job and fair shake and to get laid now and then. "She didn't know the phrase the glass ceiling," Moss says. "Day to day, it's just about trying to get your idea heard and maybe someone's being an asshole to you and you didn't get enough sleep." In Season 4's "The Beautiful Girls," Peggy argues with her leftist-reporter boyfriend about whether black people or women have it harder in America. "Most of the things that Negroes can't do, I can't do either, and nobody seems to care," she says. He teases her: "All right, Peggy, we'll have a civil rights march for women." Change a few details and they could be arguing the Barack Obama-vs.-Hillary Clinton primary.
Peggy and Don are opposites, and they're soul mates; you can't really understand one without the other. The show's opening credits show suss the Saul Bass-like silhouette of a man who looks a lot like Don falling from an office tower. But if his descent is half the story of Mad Men, Peggy's ascent is the other half. Her elevator is going up, his is going down, yet they're more alike than anyone on the show, creatively driven, stubborn, secretive. They're the Janus face of Mad Men, he looking toward his past, she toward our future.
– After his scene finishes shooting, I ask Hamm if he thinks Don is fixable, or if we should even want him fixed. "I would hope that we see the guy find balance, that we see him find peace," Hamm says. But, he adds, "I'm always surprised when people are like, 'I want to be just like Don Draper.' You want to be a miserable drunk? You want to be like the guy on the poster, maybe, but not the actual guy. The outside looks great, the inside is rotten. That's advertising. Put some Vaseline on and that food, make it shine and look good. Can't eat it, but it looks good."
Source: Time Magazine & video with b&w bts/photoshoot