What Did Mad Men Really Tell Us About American History?

I’m one year older than Sally Draper. In the end, here’s how Matthew Weiner got the ’60s right.

Mad Men
Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper and January Jones as Betty Francis on Mad Men.

Photo courtesy Ron Jaffe/AMC

Mad Men ends its run this Sunday, after seven seasons, spanning the American Century’s most tumultuous decade—but what has it said, what conclusions has it drawn, about the country and the time? Or, as the ghost of Bert Cooper asked our hero Don Draper, as they whooshed through the moonlit highway of the heartland, “Whither goes thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

The line is from On the Road, and we’ll soon find out whether Don (né Dick Whitman), last seen contentedly bereft of possessions at a bus stop headed to Nowheresville, unlocks his inner Kerouac, shedding yet another identity and reinventing himself once more—or whether, as one blogger predicted, he returns to his corporate lair and invents what may be the most successful ad campaign of the era (Coca Cola’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing/ In perfect harmony …”), which would put a cynical spin on that consumerist hymn to global peace, given that his fellow drunken war vets beat him silly the last time he fixed a Coke machine. Or perhaps Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has a more shocking, or shockingly uneventful, denouement awaiting his followers.

Weiner once said that he’s long been fascinated by the America of 1959, on the cusp of its transformation. “Something really did happen in those years,” he told me, when I interviewed him for a New York Times profile, just before the start of Season 3. “I’m interested in how people respond to change. Are they excited by the change, or are they terrified that they’ll lose everything that they know? Do people recognize that change is going on? That’s what the show’s about.”

And indeed it has been. The ’60s were a transitional decade, and, like most transitions, they were more wrenching, less romantic, than portrayed in many pop-culture haze-fests—a point that Mad Men has grasped acutely. The year 1959, Weiner’s obsession (and mine), triggered powerful cataclysms—in sexual politics, civil rights, scientific discovery, art, music, and more—but they didn’t settle into the social fabric, they didn’t fully alter everyday lives and fortunes, for another decade or so to come.

For instance, the birth-control pill hit the market that year (in the show’s first episode, Peggy Olson gets a doctor to write her a prescription), and the impact was enormous. In 1962, Gloria Steinem—who, a decade later, would spearhead the modern feminist movement—wrote an article for Esquire, titled “The Moral Disarmament of Betty Coed,” in which she predicted that the pill would sire a new breed of “autonomous girls” who, just like men, would be “free to take sex, education, work, and even marriage when and how they like.” The very idea set off a wave of panic in some quarters. In 1966, U.S. News & World Report asked, “Is the pill regarded as a license for promiscuity? Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy?”

Well, yes, in the sense that young women no longer had to pay the sole and ultimate price for sexual spontaneity, a release that would free both sexes from the psycho-skirmishes that had long kept young women shackled to a choice of career or motherhood, but rarely both. One of the first medical-journal ads for the pill was headlined: “Andromeda Freed From Her Chains.”

But it took the passing of a generation for those chains to loosen in the realms of political and economic power—and, of course, they’re not yet entirely broken. Some of my Slate colleagues, in their otherwise insightful weekly Mad Men commentaries, rolled their eyes at the corporate chieftains’ piggish treatment of Peggy and especially Joan, finding its villainy “cartoonish.” As someone who was born in 1954 (well before those colleagues), let me tell you, those scenes were dead-on accurate.

Not just in the corporate world, but among hippies, Yippies, and anti-war protesters, too, women were, by and large, not taken seriously. Ms. magazine wasn’t founded until 1971, and most of the cultural gatekeepers chortled at its “stridency” and its claims of a new honorific for women who preferred to separate their identities from their marital status. As late as 1980, when I worked on Capitol Hill, a few powerful senators routinely slid their hands up the skirts of female staffers during elevator rides; a liberal Democratic congressman offered two women I knew free apartments in exchange for sleepover privileges. Everyone knew about their behavior; no one did anything about it.

Had she been born a decade or two later, Peggy could have kept her son and pursued a career in Manhattan; Joan could have reigned as a serious, driven business partner and fired, or sued, those who dared mock her gender. But they had no such option in 1960 or 1970 or, in many places, later still. The foundations for change were laid in the opening year of Mad Men, and the edifices were in construction at its close (Peggy’s bad-ass entrance through the corridors of McCann Erickson could serve as a poster-worthy harbinger), but the skyline was still a work in progress.

Our protagonists, the creative forces at Sterling Cooper & Partners, jigged and jagged through this transitional era with a mix of aplomb and mystification, lapping up its earthly pleasures—easy sex, LSD, and Sgt. Pepper moustaches—but rarely acquiring wisdom, knowing what was happening (Don lifting the needle off the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the classic case in point), or, for that matter, having much fun. Sterling Cooper itself stood as a figment of this transition: an indie ad firm, where clients could be thrown out on principle and the likes of Joan and Peggy could hone and strut their talents, before the juggernaut of corporate mergers came crashing down. Even in SC&P’s heyday (which is to say the best side of the ’60s), there were limits: Salvatore Romano’s homosexuality couldn’t be tolerated, once exposed, and Shirley, a token black secretary, took her stand by quitting the agency for an insurance firm, where her cousin was carving inroads.*

How the characters wind up this Sunday (to the extent they definitively wind up at all) might reveal how Weiner has come to answer the questions that he posed in the show’s early days: How do people—how do these people—react to change? Do they change themselves, or do they figure out ways to accommodate what they’ve been all along? In Don’s case, what has he been, who is the man sitting at that bus stop, and can he—does he want to—shift-shape into something new?

But the show’s center has been grounded in Sally Draper, Don’s daughter. I say this with some satisfaction (and maybe a dash of delusion), because I was her contemporary—just one year older—in the times the show has chronicled. (My wife, who was Sally’s age exactly and, like her, grew up in the New York suburbs, identifies with her more closely still.) And I suspect that, though Matt Weiner (born in 1965) was closer in age to baby Gene, he too has come to view much of the tale through her eyes.

Sally was the one who witnessed the most traumatic moral outrages (her father’s adultery with the neighbor, her step-grandmother’s blow job of Roger in the hotel anteroom). Sally was the one who grasped her father’s intentions when he showed her the decrepit house where he’d grown up, and who responded to the gesture by telling him, a little later, that she loves him. Sally was the one who looked up at the moon, live, outside, through a nerdy boy’s telescope, and kissed him afterwards, while their parents sat inside, staidly watching the landing on television. And, most telling, in the penultimate episode, Sally was the one who received her dying mother’s revelatory letter, which concluded, “I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure.”

Besides vindicating Betty as a woman who finally, tragically, understood her limits (and the limits of her generation), the letter singles out 15-year-old Sally as the trustee of the future—the one whose generation will come of age after the Vietnam War is over, after civil rights and women’s rights are codified in law. Sally will receive the bounty of those socio-cultural breakthroughs that Peggy, Joan, and her own parents struggled with, and strove to exploit, but couldn’t quite make work in a satisfying way. She’ll navigate her own life through its expanded boundaries. Her life will be an adventure, and so will—so have been—ours.

Correction, May 15, 2015: This article originally misidentified the secretary who quit the agency to join an insurance firm. It was Shirley, not Dawn. (Return.)