Beyond retro: why do so many love Mad Men?

We see in its alienated characters, adrift in an age of insecurity, a mirror of our own troubled tim

Laura Miller on Mad Men
Sterling performance: the cast of Mad Men, with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) fifth from left. Credit: AMC

"Enjoy the world as it is," an old woman tells a young one during the third season of Mad Men. They'll change it and never give you a reason." Unlike the series' characters, marooned in the early 1960s, we, the audience, can see the changes coming. We've either lived through them ourselves or grown up in a world shaped by them. Furthermore, Mad Men offers a litany of reasons why those changes had to be made; the series catalogues the many failings of pre-counterculture America for our amusement and head-shaking dismay. It specialises in a particular flavour of voyeuristic nostalgia: the chance to live vicariously through a period of acute uncertainty while nestled in the comforting knowledge of how it will all turn out.

About to embark on its fifth season, Mad Men has followed the fortunes of the advertising agency Sterling Cooper (now Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) from 1960 to 1965. The series is famous for its meticulous art direction, an assemblage of appliances and furniture and desktop paraphernalia of exactly the right vintage to be owned by an enterprise like Sterling Cooper - mid-sized, smug, slightly behind the times. Nothing is too old or too new. The completeness of this illusion, especially when abetted by the current enthusiasm for mid-century modern design, is notoriously seductive. So, too, is the confidence of the characters, particularly (but not exclusively) the men. "We're the best ad men on Madison Avenue," a junior account executive boasts to a couple of pretty girls in a bar in the first episode. They know, or think they know, just what they want and just how to behave. Above all, they seem to know what a man (or woman) ought to be.

Of course, they are wrong, which brings a deliciously ironic frisson to proceedings. None is more silkily sure of himself, and therefore more alluring, than Don Draper, the series' central character. He moves through his polished environs as if he were custom-made to set them off to their best advantage. He was. Don's identity is a facade, devised to conceal a miserable past, and to reflect the ambient dreams he taps into so adeptly as he concocts campaigns to sell deodorant or slide projectors or cigarettes. His wife, Betty, looks as perfect as he does - early on, someone compares the couple to the figures on top of a wedding cake - and she has manifestly been chosen for just that reason.

From its first episode, Mad Men has presented us with the spectacular illusion that is Don Draper; invited us to admire, envy and desire it, and then proceeded to dismantle it. At this point, on the brink of season five, Don is lying in pieces before us, his marriage demolished, his drinking intermittently out of control, his agency scrambling for accounts and his big secret perpetually threatening to get out. By proposing to his sweet young secretary, Megan, Don has become a cliché, an echo of his former mentor, Roger Sterling, an ageing executive trying vainly and pitiably to recapture his youth.

We knew something like this would happen; Mad Men would not work if it didn't happen. Don's seamless mastery of himself and his world, however intoxicating to behold, was also intolerable, as he (if no one else), seemed to sense from the start. Don has always yearned for bohemianism, from his affair with the beatnik painter Midge, to his fondness for foreign films and the poetry of Frank O'Hara. If season five, as anticipated, takes place in 1966, will he finally see the film that often seems to haunt Mad Men, Ingmar Bergman's Persona? With its enigmatic silences, its fluid identities, its tortured parent-child relationships, its self-lacerating depiction of the way "creative" people cannibalise the lives of those around them, Persona is like the whispering bad conscience of Don Draper's brightly artificial life.

(Sometimes, there's even an overt hat-tip to Bergman, as when Sally, exiled to the TV room for inappropriately sincere grief over her grandfather's death, sits transfixed by the image a Vietnamese monk burning himself to death to protest against the Vietnam war, just as Liv Ullmann did in Persona. In extremis, Don often speaks exactly like one of Bergman's alienation-maddened characters: "I have been watching my life. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't." And the domestic meltdown of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage is echoed in the disintegration of Don and Betty's marriage.)

Don's counterpart, and his only real friend, is his talented protégé, Peggy Olsen. What we know and they don't is that the world that once belonged to Don will someday be inherited by Peggy. This makes the indignities Peggy suffers in pursuing her career both more irksome and more tantalising: just wait until she comes into her own, you jerks! Don's fall - the eerie, vertiginous plunge a generically male figure takes through the skyscrapers in the title sequence - is the price paid for Peggy's rise. And that's OK. Really. Don, that mirage, may be untenable but Peggy, despite having a secret or two of her own, is a real person, not just a persona.

Through Mad Men, a modern audience grapples with its ambivalence about our recent past and its majestic, doomed complacency. Children played unreprimanded in dry-cleaners' bags, families blithely shake the litter from their picnic blanket on to a public park, men instruct their secretaries to show more leg. There's an illicit thrill in seeing these now-forbidden things done without any consideration - without any awareness - of the consequences, but it's not as if we can ever forget those consequences ourselves. These people are so innocent in their guilt. But guilty they are and so eventually they must pay. Viewers have revelled in the unthinking bravado of all that drinking, smoking and screwing around and then avidly speculated about how the characters will cope with impending traumas and upheavals - the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, The Feminine Mystique.

The show's creator, Matthew Weiner, has chosen to keep most of those historical tentpoles peripheral to the series' narrative. Mad Men is not a guided tour through the headline-making events of the early 1960s. The characters remain preoccupied with the small-scale landmarks of their personal lives: marriages and divorces, the births of babies and the deaths of parents, mergers and acquisitions, accounts landed and lost. Mad Men has been labelled a soap opera, and the label sticks. But while most prime-time American soaps take place in exotic or exciting milieus that viewers can simultaneously envy and judge - the rich (Dynasty), say, or the criminal (The Sopranos) - Mad Men is about office workers. The advertising industry, an occasional setting for television series, has always beguiled Americans with the dream of combining commerce with art, but it's difficult to imagine a series set in a present-day ad agency exerting the same fascination as Mad Men. No, the ambiguous, inaccessible fantasyland its characters inhabit is the past.

On the other hand, the future, in Mad Men, is like the monster in a horror film; the characters may be oblivious, but the audience expects it to spring out every time they round a corner. We know they're in for some trouble, but we also know that the best of them will survive. Managed fear is what makes monster movies so much fun. Actually battling a monster, or living through a time of profound cultural change, is another matter. Your profession might be transformed by technological innovation, the way advertising was by television in the early 1960s. Your nation might become mired in complex and seemingly unwinnable foreign wars. Your way of life might come under attack by an implacable ideological opponent. The everyday items you once thought of as comforting might turn out to harbour hidden threats. Will you survive? Who knows?

Some critics have accused Mad Men of resorting to facile social commentary, of using superficial, mildly shocking depictions of the prejudices of the past to feed today's viewers a cheap shot of superiority. We can congratulate ourselves on being so much more enlightened than our parents (or grandparents). But if this were the source of the series' appeal, audiences would not take Don and co so seriously, would not get so caught up in their relationships and careers, their secrets and lies. Even Roger, the silver fox driven to ground by the hounds of Lucky Strike, evokes more compassion than contempt.

Ultimately, we're in the same boat. We know that we, like Don and Betty, place too much faith in the shiny surfaces of things, that we think the past can be outrun or forgotten. We wonder if the attitudes we take for granted today may become a source of shame tomorrow. We know that we, too, are staggering through a world that keeps shifting under our feet.

When we go home at night, kick off our shoes and switch on the TV, we watch these people make their wobbly way into a future that is ours now and we tell ourselves that for us, as for them, it will surely, somehow, turn out all right.

Laura Miller is a co-founder of Salon.com

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