I must admit, I have a rather unpopular opinion.
I didn't like Mad Men.
Can you believe it? I know. Everyone and their mother was obsessed with that show. Well, after seeing that the entire series was available on Netflix, I decided to watch it - beginning to end. I liked the idea of the nostalgia, of seeing the fashions change through the 60s and 70s, of understanding these characters inside and out.
I was highly disappointed.
Here's why. WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!
1. The production value doesn't make up for the characters. Whenever I talk to someone about Mad Men, the first thing they'll comment on is the production value. They love the costumes, the sets, the idea that the story takes place in visually-distinctive eras that we currently have nostalgia for. And they're not wrong! The sets are well-done, the costumes are gorgeous, and it is interesting to observe the characters experience historical events in the past that we already know will happen. But let's be clear. None of this makes up for the show's negative qualities. It's cool to look at, but I'd rather flip through a book of old Sears catalogs than suffer through seven seasons of bad people doing bad things.
2. There are no redeemable characters. I cannot think of one main character on the show who doesn't take an action that is horribly irredeemable. Everyone does something awful. And here's the kicker: no one even feels guilty. Don sleeps with tens of women on the show and really only feels guilt when he's caught. Of course, that doesn't make him change his ways. He tells Stephanie, the niece of his first wife (a marriage of convenience), in the LAST EPISODE of the show that she shouldn't feel guilty for abandoning her child. I mean, if that's the last episode, he really hasn't grown an iota since the beginning of the series, has he? Joan sleeps with her ex-boyfriend while her husband is gone serving in the military and bears his child, never telling her husband the truth. (This isn't to excuse Joan's husband for his behaviors.) Betty sleeps with Don in the sixth season when she's happily married to Henry. Peggy sleeps with Pete, a married man, bears his child and gives it away, then sleeps with ANOTHER married man years later. I could go on and on about the different characters and the actions they take that they feel no guilt for, but that would take up too much space in this review - so I'll stop here. But the characters never grow, change, or repent for their actions.
3. Don Draper is an absolutely TERRIBLE person and the writers are obsessed with him. Don is suave, charming, debonair. And he is a horrible person. He acts terribly, betters himself briefly, and then becomes terrible again. The writers would have you believe that they know this, that they condemn him for it, but in truth - they adore him. The writers fetishize him. They give the audience flashbacks to explain Don's behavior, when, in fact, there is no justification for the way he treats the people around him. They give him moments of humanity to show that he's not a monster, but even the greatest monsters have some moments of sensitivity. Don is an entirely selfish character who doesn't grow or change and takes advantage of the women and people around him. And by season 7 that is a pretty exhausting main character to follow around.
4. Betty Draper is an unfair depiction of a woman in that era. Betty Draper has, in some ways, become the icon for the suffering 1960s housewife. I find this entirely unfair. First, she's married to Don, one of the worst characters on television. No woman, housewife or not, would be happy married to him. Second, I don't think that being a housewife made Betty "crazy" - I think Betty had issues all on her own. Look at her relationship with her children - look at her relationship with Glen. She's a mess. And let's be clear - until the very last episode, when everyone gets their happy ending, the writers generally show women as unhappy. They're at home raising children? Their husbands are cheating on them and they are unfulfilled. They're in the workplace? They can never get to where they want to go. I understand that they're trying to show that women of that era couldn't have it all. But Betty Draper's character is not a good example of a normal woman who is suffering because she's a housewife - she's an example of Dostoevsky-ian heroine with many emotional and mental struggles.
5. Peggy is basically irredeemable. Peggy gives away her child at the end of the first season. We see her at her mother's house with the child twice, I think, and both times she acts disgusted with him. We then don't learn what happens to this child until the fourth episode from the end of the series, in a passing conversation she has with Stan, the man she ends up with, where it becomes clear she gave him up to be raised by another family. And she doesn't express regret, or sadness, or any of those things. She expresses annoyance that men can leave their children with not so much as a thought, and women should have the same opportunity. Here's her response to Stan telling her he didn't have a great mother, and reflecting it back on herself: "Maybe she was very young! And followed her heart and got in trouble. And no one should have to make a mistake, just like a man does, and not be able to move on! She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does." Yeah, that's the major lesson we as a society should learn. Not that men should take responsibility for their actions, but that women shouldn't have to take responsibility for theirs.
6. Sex never brings anyone happiness and is pursued for the worst reasons. Sex is an obsessive part of this show. Who will have sex with whom? Will everything fall apart? It's as much a part of Mad Men as the set-dressing is. But Mad Men is unique in one big way. There is no time where you're rooting for a couple that finally makes it official and consummates their relationship physically. You're not waiting for any two characters to get together, like Ross and Rachel, or Jim and Pam. People just kind of ... have sex. And they are never happy afterward. "I had sex with my secretary in a hotel room." "I slept with my daughter's school teacher." "I cheated on my husband in a bar bathroom." This might all be fine if, at some point, the show portrayed a counterpoint to this behavior - a more meaningful physical relationship that brought depth to a marriage, for example. But nope.
7. The ending wasn't satisfying because no one deserved a happy ending. I watched the entirety of Mad Men in about a month. I don't know about you, but when I've spent a lot of time with a show, getting to know the characters and the story, I usually find myself sad when it ends. I cannot stress enough - I did not feel sad AT ALL when I came to the end of Mad Men. This one fact blows my mind. I got to the last episode, wondering if I would miss watching Peggy, Roger, Betty and Don, and I did not. So why didn't the last episode make me cry? Why wasn't I moved by everyone's endings? Everyone ends up doing what they would have wanted - but no one deserved their happy ending. They lied, cheated, and stole and what do they get? Rewarded.
8. For a show that focuses on character development rather than plot, I didn't understand any of the characters' motivations. This was the biggest issue for me. The show is all about the characters. It's not plot-driven. The story surrounds the characters choices and decisions. So why didn't I understand anyone's motivations for anything? People act badly because they can, not because their characters actually would. And that is a real oversight in my eyes.
So, here's the big takeaway: No one learns. No one grows. No one changes into a better person. They act poorly and then continue to act poorly and then get a happy ending. One season of that? Okay. Seven seasons? Not so much. A progression is what makes a story interesting - and the progression can't simply be moving from era to era, costume to costume.
What do you think? What are your thoughts? Have you seen the show? Let me know in the comments below!
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE...
Hey! I'm Abby, the creator of Classically Abby, a commentary, opera, beauty, and lifestyle brand dedicated to looking at the world from a classic perspective. I'm the first Conservative Influencer and I'm an opera singer with three degrees in performance!