'Mad Men,' 3 Years On

The third season of the Emmy award-winning series concludes to applause

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Since its debut in 2007, the AMC TV drama Mad Men has become a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon, inspiring countless articles, essays, books, parodies and marketing tie-ins. True, it is far from television's most watched series (or even cable show, for that matter), yet the 9-time Emmy award winning series is indisputably a critical darling. Even writers who don't ordinarily cover entertainment have been moved to comment on themes from the show, which chronicles a 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency and its creative director, Don Draper. As the third season draws close to a close with its much-hyped season finale airing on Sunday, Nov. 8, The Atlantic Wire reviews the year's best Mad Men coverage from around the web. (Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead.)

The Show's Aesthetic has been ceaselessly deconstructed and celebrated since the award-winning pilot episode "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

  • Steve Sailer, Taki's Magazine: "The cable period drama Mad Men attempts to answer the question: What would have Cary Grant’s stylish advertising executive in Hitchcock’s 1959 barnburner North by Northwest gotten up to if—instead of getting chased by spies all the way to Abraham Lincoln’s nose on Mt. Rushmore—he and his superb suits had simply stayed on Madison Avenue during the advertising industry’s storied golden age?"
  • Benjamin Schwartz, The Atlantic: "To watch this megamovie as it should be watched, as a 26-hour (and counting) cycle, and to read McLean’s dissection of its intricacies, is to grasp Mad Men’s triumph: its emotional intelligence—evident not only in its writing and acting but in its exquisite direction, lighting, and photography—overwhelms its mushy ideology and whatever Important Points it wants to make. At its best—and it usually hits that mark—its characters are true to themselves and therefore to their time and place."
  • Logan Hill, New York Magazine: "[Series creator] Matthew Weiner has never been shy about flaunting proto-literary symbols on Mad Men, but this season, he went symbol-crazy: From the Victorian fainting couch that reflected Betty's throwback romanticism to the dog food that mirrored Don, props (both heavy-handed and subtle) have loomed larger than some characters this season."
  • Brian Holcomb, Slant: "Mad Men's first season saw Weiner doing one type of show and then suddenly finding another more interesting one hidden within it. The series began as something more or less from the files of Paddy Chayefsky, a satirical take on a time, place, and institution filtered through an almost Hitchcockian visual style…What the show turned into during the second season was something infinitely greater than that of the first. It replaced a faux-existentialism with a dramatic search for meaning by Draper himself. Ideas became embedded into character and each member of the ensemble was given complex motivations within situations that challenged their natures. "

Sociopolitical Takes
  Numerous writers have examined the show's ideology with respect to character, writing, and form. The third-season saw a notable rise in conservative readings of the show:

  • Heather Havrilesky, Salon: "It makes perfect sense that, when most Americans are preoccupied with safety nets -- healthcare reform, banking regulation, real estate reform -- "Mad Men" should lay bare an old (but still thriving) American perception that expecting protection from a personal disaster by your employer or your government is flatly wrong, and evil and un-American to boot."
  • Lisa Schiffren, The National Review: "Let us concede that there was enough hollowness to the traditional values in increasingly wealthy postwar America that the culture was sure to change. But that doesn't make it inevitable that the sexual revolution, feminism, and the civil-rights movement would play out precisely as they did, or that everything that followed was an improvement. That might be clearer if there were any characters on the show who were happy, moderately sincere about religion, or at least somewhat contented despite the normal problems we all have with life."
  • Harry Stein, City Journal: "In fact, we kids growing up in the fifties were better off in all sorts of ways. Mad Men has lots of fun showing the Drapers heedlessly clouding their children in secondhand smoke and letting them run around in dry-cleaner cellophane. But in that less fearful and blissfully P.C.-free age, we also learned independence and resilience by roaming the neighborhood unsupervised and playing dodgeball at recess."
  • John Meroney, The Wall Street Journal: "Mad Men" has been praised for its scrupulous attention to period detail—the right cigarettes, the right clothes, the right drinks. In this case, the show has chosen the right man, whose proud, wholesome, pro-American views—lest we forget—were as emblematic of the 1960s as the social turmoil to come."

Don Draper
Critics, like viewers, are simultaneously drawn to and repelled by Mad Men's philandering anti-hero. But love him or hate him, his impact on discussions of modern masculinity is sizable:

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic: "Infidelity is a constant source of conversation among men. The paradox for so many of us is that we want families, we want life-partnership, but the act of never sleeping with another woman tugs at us like a kind of death. It almost feels off to commit, like something deep in your DNA is saying Don't do this. And the voice isn't evil, it's an essential part of you…But one thing I got very clear on, and at a relatively young age honestly, was that women are human in all the evil ways that men are human, and that there is a kind of justice in the world. It's not so bad that we violate--it's that we don't understand the costs of violation, or maybe we're gripped by a kind of fatalism. It never occurred to Don that his wife might leave him, or maybe it occurred to him all the time."
  • Katie Baker, Newsweek: "We're supposed to want men who are sensitive and respectful; men who emote and help around the house, and talk openly about their feelings. And we do want these things. Don't we? So then why are we fantasizing about Draper rather than Jim from The Office?"

Betty Draper
Don's wife has gone from being a sketchy, inconsistent figure in earlier episodes to the pivot around which the drama of the third season has rotated.

  • John Swansburg, Slate: "In the current issue of the Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz condemns January Jones as a casting mistake, but Jones too was impressive this week, demonstrating deep anger toward her husband and then, later, a measure of pity and maybe even acceptance, if not quite forgiveness. Betty the character impressed me, too: She may have applied her training in anthropology to piece together Don's secret, but what struck me most was her sharp lawyering."
  • Christine Wicker, Politics Daily: "Betty is not the most exciting or even the most fully revealed of the drama's characters, but she brings back a type of mother who has completely disappeared from public view. Much as the character delights me, I hope such mothers have disappeared not only from public but entirely -- and that they never come back."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.