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Mad Men: The end of an era

Thursday 24th April 2014
Opening in 2007 as the daring debut foray into original programming from what is now one of cable television’s most prominent networks (since responsible for such giants as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead), AMC’s Mad Men has become a series already ranked alongside the all-time greats before even having the chance to wrap up.

While Matthew Weiner’s amber-tinted portrait of the shattered American dream of the 1960s certainly lacks the mounted momentum of those aforementioned drawcards, the investment of its comparatively modest fanbase seems to only deepen with each passing season. At first I admired the show more than I loved it; a few seasons later, I see it as one of the most complex, endlessly fascinating character studies of any medium.

But even with such measured pace and characterisation, its being rooted in the socio-cultural ennui of a very particular historical chapter means the show has always been conceived with an end-date in mind (also, there’s probably only so many times you can watch a man cheat on his wife or get drunk at work). Thus Mad Men is cornered into its home stretch, aiming to conclude just as its characters stumble into the following decade, presumably still soaked in cigarette smoke and general malaise. (Technically this “final season” is actually split into two: the first batch of seven episodes aired last week, and the second set will premiere in early 2015.)

It seems we’ll have to traverse plenty of bleak, somber disaffection before things resolve themselves in any way, but how they will do so still remains a tantalizing mystery.

The premiere ‘Time Zones’ doesn’t deviate far from the formula established by past seasons, essentially conjuring a spritely, spirited bubble of Sixties spirit to be gradually punctured. Much like season four’s jaunty opener, which excitedly toured the groovy new SCDP offices only to reveal them as the site of an even deeper emotional desolation, ‘Time Zones’ spends much of its duration jet-setting between sun-kissed Los Angeles and chilly Madison Avenue, only allowing us brief pleasure before the fresh locations become underscored by a familiar pensiveness.

Probably most emblematic of this bubble is a certain sequence occurring outside LAX in the opening minutes: Jessica Paré exiting a sleek convertible, draped in floating baby-blue while the Spencer Davis Group score a dreamy half-speed strut toward her husband. I initially dismissed it as swing-and-miss iconicism – the show’s sense of capital-S style thrust into overkill  whereas a friend of mine read it as a brilliant, knowingly ironic riff on the kind of ad Don Draper might devise, to which I think both angles are pretty correct in their own ways. The series has always been about the deceptive illusion of these kinds of images and ideologies, and this particular moment sure assumes the dreamlike weightlessness for a blissful state of being, bought and sold but never attained.

But at this point of the game, I’m not sure we needed it. Weiner and co. have always been effortlessly adept at selling us this dream via immaculate costuming, design and atmosphere  the suits, the shades, the sets, the cigarettes – so to see it foregrounded, almost in overt goofily-winking parody, was somewhat jarring. Contrasted against the superlative, infinitely subtler opening sequence in which Freddie Rumsen pitches the dream directly to the camera, it seems even more misplaced.

But it seems I’m only one of few with any genuine quibbles with what was otherwise a solid first chapter, even if much of the episode was just devoted to place setting. Everyone (except Pete, oddly enough) seems deeply disorientated, much as where we left off. Roger casually participating in orgies and laughing off his daughter’s forgiveness for his lifetime of indiscretions; Peggy frustrated, and then just deeply saddened, by both romantic and professional inertia; jobless, rudderless Don unable to bridge the generational (and now geographical) bridge between himself and his wife, unable to follow through on sexual advances with strangers, unable to stop selling a utopia he’ll never quite inhabit.

As characteristic of the tone to date, it seems we’ll have to traverse plenty of bleak, somber disaffection before things resolve themselves in any way, but how they will do so still remains a tantalizing mystery: is fulfillment a realistic goal for someone paid to peddle illusions, or is the show’s intro of a man plummeting from his Madison Avenue window past towering billboards of bullshit as much a literal premonition as it is a thematic metaphor?

Whichever the case may be, I’ll be devastated either way to see it all go.

Cover image: AMC.

This content is brought to you with funding support from New Zealand On Air.

When he isn't writing about film or television, Judah avidly watches it, discusses it and attempts to pen his own for the screen. He graduated from Victoria University with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Media Studies, and has yet to adjust his lifestyle.