I'll admit that I've come to Mad Men a little late; we are currently half way through Season Two. And I have to say it is one of the best TV dramas that I've seen. Truly; beyond the slick production, attention to period detail and beautiful costumes (not to mention the actors who wear them), there is something at the heart of the drama that is Shakespearean. This sounds hyperbolic, and it is.
The Mad Man is Don Draper (or not as we discover in Season One) and his alcohol-fuelled, sex-obsessed office of Sterling Cooper Advertising. The opening credits see an animated Draper-esque shadow falling from a NY sky scraper (9/11 imagery) and his sophisticated life of cocktails, shows, dinner parties and fancy cars are very evidently a thin facade. So the audience is immediately informed that He Will Fall. The question is: is he Othello or Macbeth? (Draper is not introverted enough for Hamlet); there was a suggestion that the narrative would take the former path when the slimy Campbell discovers Don’s secret. When this doesn’t pan out and with the increasing focus on the narrative on the breakdown of the Draper’s marriage, perhaps Macbeth would be a more suitable comparison.
I am rambling a bit here, I realise - possibly I should keep quiet until I’ve seen all of the series. However, I do like the emptiness of the lives of the characters; that they are all ‘profoundly sad’ (as one of Betty Draper’s would-be suitors so melodramatically terms it), reflecting the emptiness of the advertising business. I like the conspiratorial references made between the writers and the audience with how terrible things were in the 60s (the smoking, the sexism, the racism, the littering – somehow the most shocking) and how much better things are now. A more critical perspective would point out how heavy handed all this is. But I think that this is one of the show’s strengths. This is a drama about emptiness, lack of meaning. The audience gets very little in the way of intimate knowledge of the characters’ inner lives – it is all exterior. Even Betty’s foray into psychoanalysis is superficial (partly because of her reticence and partly as it is Draper’s way of monitoring and controlling her).
For a thoroughly modern C21st audience we are allowed the space to read the characters as we please. And this is Mad Men’s genius.