Roger Sterling (played by John Slattery), left, and Dan Draper (Jon Hamm) in a scene from “Mad Men,” which enters its last phase on Sunday night with the first of seven concluding episodes. FRANK OCKENFELS/AMC
Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott
Elaborate ad campaigns these days are short on inspiration. At least that seems the case viewing the digital-age start-ups that try to get the word out in New York subway cars. I’m pretty sure their concepts wouldn’t pass muster with Don Draper – the creative director in “Mad Men,” which the current TV Guide says is “widely hailed as one of the greatest dramas in television history.”
As it happens, Don is on posters in subway stations that declare “The End of an Era.” That refers to the concluding half of the staggered final season, which begins on Sunday night on AMC. It’s also a reference to the end of the 1960s.
The first episode (broadcast on July 19, 2007) is set in the first weeks of 1960, and soon it emerges that the agency Sterling Cooper might have a shot at doing some work for Vice President Nixon’s bid for the White House.
The agency’s top people throw around some ideas in anticipation of being asked. Draper, who is played by Jon Hamm, suggests emphasizing Nixon’s hardscrabble childhood and his all-American (read: rural Protestant) background in contrast to his likely opponent, a nouveau-riche “recent immigrant.” The guys, though, and they are all male at this point, agree they could not use the rumors that the leading Democrat likes women, a lot, as it would surely help him.
Sexual seductiveness and charm, which the ad men admire and attempt to employ at every given opportunity, are certainly not Nixonian traits. Don Draper, however, has a lot in common with the future 37th president, beyond the fact that his real name is also Dick: he had his own rotten childhood out in the sticks, is a self-made man and is a natural loner who resorts to the bottle when things are going against him. And like the California pol, he’s enigmatic and perhaps even unknowable.
Nixon was finally elected president in 1968, and in the latter half of 1969, when these last episodes are set, he’s at the high point of his career. Of course, he was sidelined for most of the 1960s, the “Mad Men” decade that Matthew Weiner and his fellow producers worked hard to get right. They succeeded brilliantly, although by playing it safe enough, as I argued last year (in a piece about the bar P.J. Clarke’s relationship to the show). Nothing comes from left field; there are few surprises for those who know the history of the decade.
One might add that we’ve never really gotten to hear about how regular people felt about the industry in this era. Quite late in the day, one character jokingly says, if I may paraphrase from memory: “So my daughter is in advertising; that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
It’s a sentiment that recalls the French publicist of genius Jacques Séguéla, who in 1980 approached all the likely major contenders in the presidential election due the following spring. Only Francois Mitterand, the ultimate winner, got back to him with an offer of work. It was an unlikely match: the Socialist candidate was an aloof intellectual, with an austere demeanor befitting his provincial bourgeois Catholic roots, while the flamboyant Séguéla rode around in a pink Rolls-Royce and had recently written a bestselling memoir, “Don’t Tell My Mother I’m in Advertising: She Thinks I’m Working as a Pianist in a Brothel.”
This brings to mind a 2006 interview I did with actor Kevin McCarthy, then 92, who was generally most remembered as the star of the sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” That 1956 film was based on a novel by a conservative, Jack Finney, but the filmmakers, as well as McCarthy himself, were left-liberals. People have since debated what, if any, was the message of the movie? What turned the victims into soulless “pod people”? But McCarthy maintained, like his friend the director Don Siegel, that it was never intended as a political allegory. If it had a target, he told me, it was “Madison Avenue advertising executives.”
Early on in “Mad Men,” Don Draper coolly defends his job in a couple of scenes with Greenwich Village bohemians. The issue comes up again in a later season when his second wife, the aspiring actress Megan, brings him to an off-Broadway production involving friends of hers. This time he must sit in silence as the play takes some apparent swipes at Madison Avenue. Afterwards, Megan tries to calm a furious Don by arguing that the play was a critique of consumerism in general, rather than advertising in particular.
But McCarthy’s recollection and Séguéla’s book title seemed to indicate that there was a period, perhaps beginning with the rise of television in the 1950s through at least the ‘70s, when people felt the advertising industry had a demonic power all its own. It drove consumerism; it wasn’t its mere instrument. It manufactured wants and needs.
In “Mad Men,” that critique comes from artists and counter-cultural types. It might have been interesting to hear it from a religious leader or an educator or even some working folks on the subway. Still, that’s not a big complaint as a magnificent TV series enters the final stretch.