This week, Mad Men found itself at the beginning of the end. Six episodes remain in the show after last night’s season seven part two premiere, in which we watched Joan and Peggy face another barrage of sexual harassment in what’s supposed to be professional setting. Sitting across from three men at ad agency McCann-Erickson, we saw them subjected to an onslaught of verbal abuse and an imbalance of power that was, in a word, terrible.
“You should really be in the brazier business,” one man says to Joan, eyeing her like a piece of meat. The others chuckle. Another makes a reference to pear-shapes, and the laughter starts again. It seems endless, which is a feat for a scene that lasts less than a handful of minutes. But that’s the thing about Mad Men: it may be currently set in the 1970s (and formerly the 1960s), but its truths are still frequent, painful, and relevant.
On paper, Mad Men is a series about a guy, Don Draper, his identity, and the people who surround him. But since the series’ pilot, we’ve seen the realities of our current culture reflected in its supporting characters’ stories. We’ve recognised that Don’s sexism is a trait that runs deep in our culture, or that Betty’s quiet desperation reflects the stigma around treating one’s mental health. We’ve seen the way Peggy is ostracised for being a single, working woman, and we’ve wanted to scream every time those who surround Joan feel entitled to comment on the way she looks because of the way she’s built.
We talk about these issues in regards to how they pertain to a TV show more than when they occur in real life. Because real life is messy. To step in and to put a stop to a misogynistic rant can seem overwhelming or downright scary. To disrupt the flow and to accuse something or somebody of being problematic may not seem “chill.” So instead, we watch fictional characters brave the storm countless women and men face currently – and then we condemn that sexist, racist, classist, and abusive behaviour because it feels far away. “It’s not like that anymore,” we tell ourselves. “We’ve come so far.”
Which, to an extent, we have. Today, the season one gynecologist who made gross judgemental remarks about Peggy’s sex life would be escorted from his practice and served promptly with a harassment suit (he told her not to become “the town pump”). Roger Sterling’s overt racism throughout the show would be checked by his coworkers and his wife/wives. The men at McCann-Erickson would be reported and fired. Betty would be much more socially aware, checking her entitlement when commenting on single parents like Helen Bishop.
Or so we tell ourselves, while selectively reading our news feeds, social media, and watching the news and trying not to acknowledge that those themes we see in Mad Men still happen now. Some things have changed obviously, but 20 seconds in front of the evening news is all you need to note the amount of sexism, classism, racism, and elitism still prominent in society today. From Gamergate to Ferguson, it’s clear the sort of bigotry we’ve gasped at on the show has yet to totally disappear. In this sense, Mad Men is not a period piece, as it’s often described.
Of course, Mad Men is hardly the first show to reflect painful realities. But what separates the series from the rest of the pack is its focus on reinvention. “My life moves in one direction,” Don tells his brother in season one. “Forward.”
Ironically, Don’s life this season is at a standstill, and his behaviour and mindset are evolving at the pace of molasses in January. Because of that, he’s lonely, he’s drinking, and he’s profoundly sad. But on the flip side, Peggy’s chosen to run with her glass ceiling-shattering executive title. Joan’s become a millionaire who followed up her McCann-Erickson visit by ignoring their calls (because fuck them, that’s why). Ken, who got unceremoniously fired from the company in the middle of this episode, comes back as their client to make their lives a living hell.
And then there’s Roger, who’s grown only so far as his moustache.
So what Mad Men shows us is that those who hold the upper hand may have it for a while, but without evolving – without checking their behaviours, privileges, entitlements, or their surroundings – they will stagnate. They will be dated, they will be obsolete. They will not grow, and their success will be tainted. They will be drinking in diners, alone, with nowhere to go. Or they will be Ted Chaough, who’s morphed into a Don Draper clone.
Ultimately, Mad Men is a mirror, a life guide. Not in terms of “act like Don Draper and win the world,” but via its overarching message: sit back and ignore the too-painful realities, and you’ll find yourself stuck and sad, on the wrong side of history.