From the first chords of the iconic theme, Mad Men intoxicates the viewer with its lush re-imaginings of 1960s social mores. Having captured the retro-flavoured zeitgeist that has come into mainstream focus these past few years, creator Matthew Weiner’s unique drama set a stylistic benchmark that has influenced all forms of media and a generation of television watchers.
But Weiner had more far-reaching and darker-edged goals in mind when he pitched the pilot to the AMC Network. Though his series would riff on the classic lines and crisp styles of the period, the show would more accurately be about the beginning of the end of America’s innocence. Affluence was afforded by the Ivy League graduates who were reaping the financial rewards of a country enjoying its second decade of post-World War II optimism, but capitalistic growth led to moral decay.
Weiner’s on-screen voice, the squarejawed Captain America of advertising, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), has soared professionally and lives the suburban dream. But from the manipulations he oversees every day to the bohemian mistress he visits for lunchtime trysts, his world is a lie. Mad Men makes for compelling viewing not because it looks great, but because it is set in a world on the precipice of social change; every decision Draper makes reflects an America grappling between what is right and what it wants.
The scenes set within the microcosm of the office environment depict this malaise with precision. The alpha males of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency prowl the halls of their Madison Avenue skyscraper like Brioni-clad black panthers; the female subordinates constantly glance upwards in case one of the predators should pounce. Young execs are taunted and derided; underlings are crushed in the name of corporate reputation. This is a world from which the individual draws self-worth, but which exists to exploit the ambitious and discard the weak.
Though it harks back to a fondly rendered era, Mad Men more closely resembles contemporary works that expose the dark heart that beats within American society. Films like American Beauty and Blue Velvet, and literary works such as American Psycho, share the same dark view of capitalism, the egos that drive it and the cost of dancing with that devil. The characters that populate Matthew Weiner’s world view are beautiful people being corrupted by immoral longings. Done well (and it is), how could Mad Men not make for unmissable modern drama?