When Mad Men premiered eight years ago, it felt at times like the series was all but glorifying alcoholism, with those gin-soaked client meetings in wood-paneled bars and brilliant ideas springing from the splitting head of a hungover creative, supine on his office couch. Indeed, among the items Matthew Weiner & Co. donated to the Smithsonian this week—to be displayed as part of a forthcoming exhibition on American culture—was a vintage bottle of that quintessential American spirit, Canadian Club. But for all the boozing the Sterling Cooper crowd did over the years, the real malady at the heart of Mad Men has always been workaholism. “There’s more to life than work,” Stan told Peggy in the finale, but I don’t think she bought it, and I didn’t either. Has Stan seen Peggy’s apartment?
Even at this late date, with many of the main characters sitting on sizable fortunes, the focus of this half-season was work. It opened with Ken Cosgrove’s (wealthy) wife encouraging him to abandon corporate life and “buy that farm”— Ken, however, opts for a job at Dow. Joan’s real-estate tycoon, Richard, has more than enough cash to keep the two of them happily unemployed in Key West—yet Joan chooses to start her own business. Don walks out of a boardroom to chase the ghost of Dick Whitman from Wisconsin to Oklahoma to Utah to the Pacific Coast—only to ditch life as a dharma bum and (we surmise) return to Madison Avenue. In the finale, we bid farewell to Joan, Pete, and Peggy in a montage: Pete boards his new company jet, Joan fields business calls in her makeshift home office, and Peggy and Stan share a romantic, candlelit dinner. No they don’t—they stare dreamily into her Selectric. Work, work, work.
Mad Men has received due acclaim for its recreation of the Madison Avenue of the 1960s, from the painstaking reproductions of the office furniture to the uncomfortable depiction of retrograde period attitudes toward secretaries, elevator operators, closeted design directors. These accomplishments with regard to specific historical details are impressive, but what I’ll miss most about the series has less to do with nailing some specific aspect of the midcentury advertising industry than with capturing the universal aspects of corporate life. What it’s like to show up to a sprawling, humming office and not know anyone, as Peggy did in the pilot. What it’s like to be moved to tears by a colleague’s talent. What it’s like to feel sickening jealousy at a colleague’s success. What it’s like to forge a special connection to a colleague with whom you work closely. What it’s like to lose that fellowship when a new opportunity—or a round of belt-tightening—parts your company. What it’s like to have a wonderfully eccentric boss. What it’s like to have a criminally bad one. What it’s like when everyone pulls in the same direction and creates something greater than any of the individuals ever could have on their own. What it’s like when even your best efforts fall short. What it’s like to learn at the foot of a master. What it’s like to realize your mentor might need you as much as you need him. What it’s like to get drunk with someone you thought barely knew of your existence, and what that person can teach you over the last round of vermouth. What it’s like to save the business in which you’ve invested your heart and soul. What it’s like to lose it. And what it’s like to start the process over again.
For me, this was always the true joy of the series, and what distinguished it from the other great dramas of the past decades. You’ll have to take my word for this, but I’ve never been a capo, a corner boy, a meth distributor, or a member of any law enforcement body. I have, however, worked in an office my whole adult life, and no series has ever come closer to capturing the exhilarations, and occasional frustrations, of white-collar work, particularly white-collar work in an industry where creativity is the coin of the realm. I was consistently blown away by how Mad Men dramatized the process of coming up with an idea and took the seemingly mundane ups and downs of office life and made it into art. To do that for seven seasons—and only have one guy lose a foot. That’s something.
Julia, Hanna: I am very lucky I can call both of you my colleagues, and luckier still that I got to watch these final episodes in your company and call it “work.”
I’ll talk to you soon,