A Final Look Back (and Forward) at the History in ‘Mad Men’

By  · Published on April 8th, 2014


Some TV shows adhere to our thoughts, like glue, tape or that brand of putty known for extreme silliness. These are shows where half the cast might be killed off during a formal wedding feast or where the protagonist’s Great Big Secret is discovered by his brother-in-law while on the can. Mad Men is not one of those shows. It’s something slower, more prone to introspection and a slow simmering burn than graphic violence and CGI dragons. It’s no slight against Mad Men. It’s just a way of saying that a series that opened its sixth season with two hours of Dante’s Inferno allegory is not built for the same kind of cliffhanger anticipation that dragon shows are.

Add in the ten(ish)-month gap between the last new episode of Mad Men and today, and you may be a little rusty on the comings and goings of Sterling Cooper & Partners (you may also have forgotten that the series’ ad firm is now called Sterling Cooper & Partners, which has been the case ever since Don Draper and Ted Chaough got drunk and decided to smoosh their two firms together). No worries, that’s why we’re all here: for a quick look back at the old Mad Men and one last look ahead at this year’s shiny new Mad Mens.

First, a little catch-up. Here’s the gist of what everyone was doing when last we saw them.

Don Draper: Relieved from SC&P duty, temporarily. Using his time off to tell the kids how Dad was raised by angry prostitutes.

Peggy Olson: Left in the lurch, romantically, when Ted ships off to L.A. Taking over Don’s position in the meantime.

Pete Campbell: Reeling from the loss of his mother in a potential gay cruise line wedding murder. Headed for a new start in L.A.

Joan Holloway: Allowing Roger into her son’s life and Bob Benson into her own.

Megan Draper (née Calvet): All set to go west when Don abruptly changes plans. May go west anyway.

Sally Draper: Suspended from boarding school for underage drinking. Hates her dad slightly less after the big “angry prostitutes” reveal.

And those would be the basics, everything you need for recapping to begin again. But for the next seven episodes, we’ll be taking a slightly different approach from the usual, traditional recap. This next chunk of Mad Men (a chunk that’s been subtitled Part 1: The Beginning) will be looked at, first and foremost, through the lens of history. Every week, we’ll start off with a something – a song, an event, a particular coif of hair (although it’s worth noting that my level of coif expertise is essentially zero, so don’t expect too much there) – that’s relevant to the time period. We’ll talk about that particular history thing for a little bit, then segue into what it means for the episode and eventually what the episode means in and of itself.

With that in mind, this little “where did we leave off?” piece must also function as a “when did we leave off?” So, let’s get to that.

Our last glimpse at Mad Men, last season’s finale, “In Care Of,” was set on Thanksgiving 1968. A setting that proves, once and for all, that Bob Benson is just as serial killer cheery when carving a turkey as he is when doing anything else. Also a setting that glosses over something pretty major: the election of Richard M. Nixon just a few weeks before. The last time Nixon had a shot at the presidency, Mad Men devoted an entire episode to ad execs drunkenly hooting at vote counts on TV screens. Now, in ’68, we’re given naught but a passing line of dialogue:

“I’m doing just fine. Nixon’s the President; everything’s back where Jesus wants it.”

Something Don says to shoo away a particularly aggressive minister in a particularly dank bar. And given the show’s glossing over of the Nixon victory and Don’s sarcastic insistence that Nixon is Jesus’s #1 pick, it might seem like neither one has the time for Tricky Dick. That the election of our jowliest president has little bearing on the lives of these specific characters. In a sense, that’s true; Nixon’s victory in ’68 will never mean as much as it did when Don and the gang were financially tied to his campaign. But an election means change, and the lame duck period that follows means a whole bunch of power players all scrambling for a spot in the new world order.

Which is exactly what’s happening with SC&P, everyone scrambling for a spot in the tiny California branch that no one’s really supposed to want in the first place. Here, it’s what that (almost certainly cramped) office means that’s more important than what it is: the new. A new start for some lucky ad man (or ad woman) who’s bogged down in the ugliness of right here, right now, right in 1968. And more importantly, it’s a distinct and noticeable new, in a time when new and old had begun to blend into an incomprehensible muck. Nixon was a first-time president, but he was also one of the old guard and had been around for decades. The counter-culture movement was in full swing and was fighting for everyone in need of freedom, but every step forward was met with a violent shove backwards. “Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Vietnam for Christ’s sake,” laments Don, moments before slugging that nosy bar-minister in the face. Because even if Don has no vested interest in Nixon, insult something he does have a vested interest in and he’ll leap backwards in time, beating on a wayward preacher much like his Uncle Mac was prone to do several decades ago.

As the seventh season came to a close, these little tug-of-wars between modern and ancient were everywhere. The finale made use of two songs, notably. One, Lawrence Welk’s “Moon River,” is perhaps our finest musical synonym for old people. The other, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Side, Now” (as performed by Judy Collins) is a razor’s edge of newness, released as a single just one month before the Draper family trip on Thanksgiving of ‘68.

If this is the history we saw last season – teetering on the precipice of old and new – I’m guessing the next block of episodes will contain a lot more new, and in ways that can’t be brushed off so easily. No more snide Nixon remarks or cutting off the Beatles mid-song. If this next season is to be set somewhere in ‘69-’70, as has long been speculated, there’s plenty of Big History Events to stage an episode around. And unlike this past season, where each of the three episode-worthy BHEs were both gruesome and sad (“Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Vietnam for Christ’s sake”), there’s some actual positivity happening in the next year or so. Withdrawals of troops from Vietnam and the Moon Landing are far more chipper and involve far less tear-streamed TV broadcasts. Plus it’s the history’s safest bet that if Season 7 is set in ’69, it will touch on the Moon Landing.

But whichever events play out in the coming months, treat them like the ushers of that new world order. Chances are, we’ll be seeing a bisected Mad Men, given that at least Pete and Ted are on the West Coast and Megan seemed set on going (even Don recommended a “bicoastal” relationship in last year’s finale). Don also has a gap between himself and SC&P, if and when they ever take him back (smart money’s on “when,” but you never know). It’s what happens to these gaps that may push us towards the end of Mad Men.

Time is hurtling towards the modern day, and time is not something the Mad Men crew have a lot of. Just fourteen hours to go between Thanksgiving of ’68 and wherever their stories end. That those fourteen hours would contain some forward momentum seems like a given. But just in case I’m wrong, here’s something to fall back on. If it’s in ’69, we’ll get a Moon Landing. Count on it.