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The Schmooze

‘Mad Men’ in Land of the Dead

Images courtesy of AMC

Watching “Mad Men” is like watching shades dance. The undead and the dying slouch at every corner.

This one was born in a concentration camp. Never sane, this season brought a self-immolating insanity. This one stole a dead man’s identity, legally killing his true self in the process. Now he works in a crime scene, an office where dreams of happiness and self-worth end with a rope. Fevered, the man with the stolen life dreams of killing a woman who tempts him. This one is an echo of Sharon Tate. She wears the same clothes and lives in the same, coyote-haunted part of the Hollywood Hills. In real life, Tate was killed by the followers of a mad man. This one is an orphan who has now essentially orphaned his daughter; this one is an old man who staves off aging with cocktails and psychedelic drugs and ever-more-meaningless sex; and this one is Betty, whose blood never ran warmer than ice, now wilting and freezing in her gothic Westchester crypt.

The undead and the dying were everywhere during part one of “Mad Men”’s seventh season, which ended last Sunday. It’s nothing new for a show whose title sequence features a man falling from a building (whether he jumped or was pushed is curiously omitted), and which once foreshadowed the season-long story of protagonist Don Draper’s descent into hell with a shot of a shirtless Don (Jon Hamm) casually reading Dante’s “Inferno” on the beach.

The presence of the undead and the dying is also nothing new for a show whose most indelible moments and episodes involve sudden bloodsport. There’s Miss Blankship face down dead at her desk; there are the characters we find hanging; there’s the Kennedy assassination ruining a wedding, and there’s hot-shot British Ad man Guy MacKendrick getting his foot chopped up by a riding mower. (That last one was savage comedy at its best.)

But death took on a claustrophobic intensity this season. This year everyone was a ghost stuck in limbo, waiting for some kind of rebirth or punishment. As Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) put it: “Sometimes I think I died and I’m in some sort of … I don’t know if it’s heaven or hell or limbo. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t seem to exist. No one feels my existence.”

If this sounds pretentious and tedious, devoid of the dazzling swagger and weightlessness of the early years, it was: stretches passed without any plot development and — worse — without any character development. Don spent an episode debating the meaning of the office’s new computer. “These machines can be a metaphor for whatever is on people’s minds,” the salesman helpfully told him and the audience watching at home. Then Don got too drunk to go to see the Mets. Fin.

Actually, the episode’s ending was even more devastating. The recurring character Freddy Rumsen gives Don a short speech about how Don doesn’t have to drink. Don can focus on basics, focus on the work, rebuild his life. The episode ends with him typing taglines for a Burger chain. Later, Don parrots this advice to another troubled copywriter: ignore everything else and focus on the work. Work — not family or friends or other loved ones or religion — is the path to salvation. The crowning achievement of corporate America.

To its credit, “Mad Men” soaks the idea that work is inherently meaningful in irony. Don believes this because he has nothing else to believe. He’s a failure at marriage and a failure as a father. So, too, are Roger and Pete, and, to differing extents, Ted, Peggy, Cooper, and the other principal characters. They give everything they have to the office because they’ve lost everything else. Crucially, the reverse of that statement isn’t true. They didn’t lose everything because they gave too much to the office. These are broken people who could never find their outlet anywhere else. Marriage, like a tailored suit and a glass of whiskey and a filtered cigarette, is just another way of looking normal.

The irony is Ken Cosgrove, the true horror story and casualty of the show. Ken was never like the other characters. He separated work and life. He found, “work-life balance,” as the lingo goes — though the lingo never says why, exactly, the work scale should be even with the rest of life. Ken wrote novels and published short stories in the Atlantic. He had a secret life as a sci-fi author. He married a woman he actually loved, and he refused to trade her connections for an increased role at the firm. Family and art were his sources of meaning.

Then he cashed in the connections, ascended the ladder, scored the big account, and promptly got into a horrific accident. The ambition he used to channel into writing and family and being a good person was only directed at the office and clients. Now he wanders the halls in eye-patch, stumbling from the lack of depth perception. Is he a walking joke or the walking dead?

The story of “Mad Men” is the story of Ken. It’s the story of a decade that started with Kennedy optimism and ended with riots and explosions and assassinations and war and the Nixonian wish to return to normal. All the undead and the dying we see on the screen stand in for the dead and the dying we don’t see: the soldiers off in Vietnam. The murder of America’s young. I’m still haunted by the image of Roger’s grandson chasing a secretary around the office with a toy gun, her hands in the air, a pantomime of death.

The tragedy of “Mad Men” is that it never had to be this show. At the beginning there were no overarching stories. There was a mystery (Who is Don Draper?) but it was always a ruse, a MacGuffin, a way to bring the audience into the technicolor world of Sterling Cooper. Episodes were meticulous and beautiful, self-contained confections. They were short stories of petty jealousies and suburban disenchantment. Episodes were like recovered artifacts. Matthew Weiner and his writing staff had discovered a magic barrel of unpublished Cheever and Updike stories and set them to visual music. We never once stopped to remind ourselves that what we were watching was art, an image and not reality. That was its genius.

But television changed on “Mad Men.” The prestige series that came after all had multi-season stories. They had twists, turns, game changing moments, dragons and meth. Whether the creators felt direct outside pressure to add longer arcs to the show, or whether that pressure came from within, “Mad Men” suddenly had those game changing moments, too. It developed an unnatural, punctuated equilibrium approach to storytelling. Nothing happens for episodes, and then everything happens all at once. What once felt like character-driven short stories now feel like slow, mood-setting, theme-building chapters. We wait for something to happen. We wait.

Perhaps that’s why “Mad Men” also became an allegory for making television. The advertizing setting always meant that the show featured the conflict between art and commerce, the challenge to create something meaningful and award-winning within the context of industries that only care about sales and billings. We’ve watched Don give pitch after pitch, each a story about why the product matters, why it’s more than just a commodity, why it’s something that belongs in people’s lives. We’ve watched him and Peggy pursue their own awards and creativity.

All of that died this season. Creative was out and accounts were in. Metrics and media placement replaced copywriters as the vision for the company. The creative director was a conservative older man who was always satisfied by good enough. He had no vision. He decided how to pursue an account by coming up with tags and seeing if you could figure out the strategy after. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s how networks decide what shows to create. They commission a bunch of scripts and pilots. They air what they hope is good. Quality as another casualty.

That was the season of “Mad Men.” At the end, the ghosts have nothing to do but dance and break into song. After the hell of Inferno, and self-conscious Limbo, will they really find a divine Paradise? Perhaps. But Paradise, too, is the land of the dead.

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