The final episode of the third series of Mad Men came to our screens on Wednesday night, and then finished, leaving me hungry for more.
I’ve watched since the first episode. Initally I was happy to ride the wave of nostalgia and relived my secretarial days (a good few years after the period setting of Mad Men). In the 1970s I worked in open plan offices, where the secretary’s desk was positioned outside the door to her boss’s office. I used an IBM Golfball typewriter and used to enjoy the sound of the ‘golfball’ as it spun its way across a page of type: the reverberation was very different from that of a conventional electric typewriter. I’m not so sure that I remember the miasma of smoke hanging around the workplace, as it does over the offices of Sterling Cooper, nor was I aware of a heavy drinking culture. But I do remember the extended business lunches, all enjoyed and paid for by lavish expense accounts – probably because I booked the restaurants and handled the receipts afterwards.
I’ve wallowed in the detail paid to the fashions and make up of the Mad Men years. I’ve since learned that the actresses all wear genuine 1960s underwear so that the clothes on top hang correctly and achieve the proper shapes. They are also not allowed to work out, as that would have been unheard of during that period. Watching BBC Victorian costume dramas is part escapism, part recreation of classic novels, but, for me, watching Mad Men is like Proust’s memories. I’m reminded of my early years and recall them with a mixture of nostalgia and longing.
The three series so far are not just an aesthetic reminder of an era that has now passed, but they are also a small snippet of the Western World’s social history from the end of the 1950s until, at this point, the end of 1963. We can view the wider picture and gain a gradual awareness of the germinating seeds of the women’s liberation movement, but the stories are personal, as well as political. We watch Peggy develop from secretary to advertising copy writer, from pregnant single mother (who gives up her child) to a woman who wants to join the advertising world on a man’s terms. On the other hand Betty, the stay-at-home ice blond wife and mother to Don Draper and his children, tires of his philandering and his constant affairs and seeks a divorce. These two woman, from different sides of the social spectrum, and living different lives, both exist as metaphors for the advancing women’s lib movement. Likewise does Joan, the sexy office redhead, who is re-employed and recognised for her business assets, not just for her feminine curves.
Balanced against these females is the enigmatic, maverick Don. Throughout the three series we have had the dramatic irony over Betty, and have known that he is living a false life. The flashbacks we’ve been afforded have shown us his poverty stricken boyhood during the Great Depression, the theft of a dead comrade’s identity during the Korean war and his reincarnation as Don Draper. He is a fragmented, schizophrenic (not in the mentally unstable sense) man, who cannot keep a hold on his excesses. His flashbacks have all but ceased, but during the last episode they have begun to return as his marriage and his working life have started to break down.
During the final episode Sterling Cooper is threatened with a take over, but the senior players in the company pre-empt the company that will buy them out, resign and set up their own new advertising agency, taking with them the cream of their co-employees. Don agrees to grant Betty a peaceful divorce so that she can marry the new man in her life and Peggy negotiates a working contract, on her own terms. She makes it clear that she may be a woman, but she is no longer Don’s puppy. We leave the new advertising agency working out of a single hotel room and now eagerly await the developments of series 4.