It took me until the final disc of the season, but I think I finally get what all of the fuss concerning Mad Men is all about. I watched three episodes of the series yesterday and just now finished the last episode of Season 1 today. While I had certainly always enjoyed the series from the beginning, I had never really understood what the obsession people have with the show was all about. It was good but certainly not that good. Well, judgments like that are what happen when you wait nearly 5 years to start watching a wildly popular TV program. It takes you a little while to realize what everyone else already knew which is that these characters are easily some of the most complex and “whole” TV creations this side of an HBO program like The Wire or Oz. I had seen flashes of what made this series brilliant in the past, but my biggest problem with the show was that I was unsure about what kind of program it was trying to be. Now, having finished season one and watched three of the finest episodes of the series thus far (I wasn’t as crazy about the finale sans the revelations concerning Peggy), I’m willing to give Mad Men its deserved title as one of the best programs on TV.

After Sterling Cooper loses the very profitable Dr. Scholl’s account, Roger attempts to cheer himself and Don up by seducing a pair of twins that were cast for a modeling gig at the agency. While Don is feeling guilty (in his own weird way) about this public display of disloyalty to his wife (which I feel has more to do with his reputation in Roger’s eyes rather than any concerns about Betty as shown by later actions), Roger is partying like a man half his age when Roger suddenly suffers a nearly-fatal heart attack. This brush with mortality sends Don seeking the comfort of Rachel Menken who finally acquiesces to the affair Don has pursued the entire season. Don finally reveals a little of his past to another human being (Rachel) and we discover that Dick’s mother was a prostitute who died giving birth to Don and Don was raised by his biological father (a drunk and abusive man) and his father’s wife who despised him. Eventually Don’s father died after being kicked in the face by a horse and he was raised by his father’s wife and her new husband. After Roger’s heart attack, he attempts to return to work far too early to meet with the head of Lucky Strike cigarettes (to ensure that the company will be okay), and he suffers another heart attack at which point, Bert Cooper makes Don an official partner in the company. Peggy also gets another crack at writing copy when her insights into a weight-loss belt (that provides more sexual pleasure than weight loss) impress the men in advertising yet again.

The disc began on Labor Day but it ends in November with two episodes centered around the election of President John F. Kennedy (Sterling Cooper was in charge of advertising for Nixon) as well as that year’s Thanksgiving. Don’s brother Adam commits suicide but before his death, he mails a box of family pictures and belongings to Don’s office which is accidentally delivered to Pete. Pete tries to lord this over Don’s head to get promoted to head of accounts services since Pete now knows that Don’s real name is Dick Whitman (even though Dick Whitman died in Korea and that Don Draper should be 43). Through flashbacks it is revealed that the real Don Draper died an accidental death in Korea while Dick Whitman was his assistant. Dick (Don) put his dogtags on the real Don Draper and switched identities with the man leading to the Don Draper we know today. Don calls Pete’s blackmail by allowing Pete to tell Cooper about Don’s past rather than give Pete the job. Cooper doesn’t seem to care and miraculously no one fired Pete for being such an asshole here. In the last episode, Betty discovers that her best friend’s husband was cheating on her friend, and she is forced to recognize that Don has likely been having many affairs over the years though she doesn’t seem to do anything about it. After really coming into her own with the weight loss belt copy, Don promotes Peggy to junior copy writer with her own official account. Peggy’s rise in the company though is potentially threatened when she goes to the hospital thinking she has food poisoning and instead, she discovers that she’s pregnant and gives birth to her child. The season ends with Don sitting alone in his house as Peggy and the children went to visit Peggy’s family, and Don may have all of the material success in the world but nothing resembling friends or true human contact.

I could probably write an entire essay about the scenes between Rachel and Don over the course of these episodes and how they equate to what I feel is the crux of the series and the crux of Don’s character. After Roger’s heart attack, Don shows up at Rachel’s apartment. They’ve had an on again/off again flirtation the entire season but because Don was married, Rachel always rebuffed his advances. Having seen his friend Roger, the epitome of power and success, nearly meet his maker during an act that was a proclamation of what his power allowed him to do, Don is feeling his most weakest and vulnerable. His entire Don Draper persona of untouchable and complete power and force of will is being challenged by the simple facts of life and that at any moment, your body can choose to betray you. Don spent his entire childhood in fear of his abusive father, in fear of a world where no one liked him or even noticed him and so he has devoted his entire adult life to being something above mere mortals. He’s a sexual god, dresses like he owns the world, and has more confidence and charisma (even if it’s feigned) than anyone else. Yet, watching his friend almost die strips all of this armor and varnish away from him, and in that moment of vulnerability, Rachel, the ambitious and powerful woman, sees past the carefully constructed version of Don Draper and finds the real artifact. She accuses Don of trying to manipulate the situation of Roger’s death as an excuse to behave poorly, but when he lays out his hedonistic worldview, you truly get the feeling that it is what he believes as a result of the environment that both his personalities were born. When Don initially wants to run away after Pete finds out about his past, Rachel realizes underneath everything Don is just a scared man and she finally leaves him. Words can’t express just how well-written I felt those scenes to be.

Back when I was reviewing the first disc, I complained that I thought the series was trying to have it both ways by being a misogynistic male power fantasy as well as the story of the beginning of feminist awakenings in its female heroes. I take that statement back. While it was certainly consequence free for many of the male characters at the beginning of the show, these last two discs have really started to look at just how hurt and broken these men are and why this environmentally pushed need to succeed drives them to act in such selfish ways. These men are still, without exception, complete pricks, but the series has really started exploring the consequences not only of their sexism and hedonism, but also what is going on in their minds and in their homes that leads them to act like this. Also, there’s only one character that I would call a feminist at all in the series and that’s Peggy (because Betty is just so frustrating and shallow to be anything other than a spoiled child). The series takes a modern perspective and shows the suffering these women go through but I don’t think it’s especially interested in painting a portrait of a beginning of the modern feminist era. Instead, the female characters simply join the men as being exquisitely crafted creations whose journeys through their complicated lives we get to see in all of its intimate and wrenching detail. Mad Men is the rare truly character driven TV show (as opposed to plot) as the stories are never that remarkable. It’s getting to unravel layer after layer of these deeply troubled protagonists that causes me to come back episode after episode for this show.

Having finished the first season of this series, I have reached a bit of a perplexing conundrum. I am thoroughly enjoying this program and over the course of this last disc, it transformed into something really special that was easily some of the best TV I’ve reviewed for this blog. Now, I really want to finish the rest of the series as quickly as possible (especially since season 5 starts in March), but I know that I also want to finish Seasons 5 and 6 of Dexter, and before I began Mad Men, my plan was to make Angel and Twin Peaks the series that I would watch after I finished up Dexter and Doctor Who (which I’m on hiatus from since I’ve finished the David Tennant years). I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do here. Whatever I end up watching tomorrow when I get home from work will likely settle the issue so that’s something I’m not going to put too much thought into til tomorrow. All in all though, if you’re looking for a new great TV fix and somehow read this review despite all of the massive spoilers, you should give Mad Men a shot. I feel like it takes the entire season to really find its distinct voice and what kind of series it’s trying to be, but once it figured it out, Mad Men became TV magic.

Final Score: A