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So this week AMC’s Mad Men, the 60s drama revolving around the lives and loves of Madison Avenue advertising executives, aired its final episode. And then we all mourned (or will do on Thursday when it legally airs on Sky in the UK).
Written by Matthew Weiner, writer and producer of The Sopranos, and starring a stellar cast including Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elizabeth Olsen, January Jones and John Slattery, Mad Men ran for 8 years and 92 episodes. Strangely enough, it never mustered a huge audience despite receiving rave reviews from critics since its inception.
So what does a period drama about rich 60s executives have to offer to millennials? Well, a lot.
How often have we had to justify our lifestyle to our parents or grandparents? How often have we had to admit that we probably never will afford a house or car? How often have we read articles about how lazy, self-absorbed and cynical we are?
Watching Mad Men is like seeing how Gordon Gecko’s father was. Don Draper, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking protagonist, misses his children growing up because he’s busy acquiring the latest Cadillac or buying a penthouse in uptown Manhattan. In the wake of the post-war boom, consumerism is everything and the Draper house gleefully accepts a shiny new car or refrigerator if only to temporarily fill the void in their family life.
Even the hippie characters of the series are forced to participate in the capitalist culture of 60s America: Midge the bohemian painter spirals into heroin addiction and is forced to find her ex-lover Don again to pester him for money. Anna Draper brings Don to a hippie commune but only after he presents her with money.
It’s not just in monetary terms that these people are corrupt; their love lives are a shambles too. Divorce was becoming easier in the 60s, largely thanks to the women’s lib movement. A side effect is that many of the men of Madison Avenue have a string of ex-wives, all requiring alimony.
Don, Roger and Joan are all on their second divorce, Pete and Trudy divorced after his infidelity, as did Harry and his wife Jennifer. Is it any wonder that young Sally Draper is so disillusioned with romance? Is it any wonder that people our age are so reluctant to fork out for an expensive wedding?
As we’ve seen throughout the series, the 60s was not a great time for women. Joan is routinely humiliated by the piggish men who leer at her, despite running the whole steno pool and facilitating a huge merger basically on her own.
Peggy is promoted to a copywriter to the shock and horror of her male colleagues and was once described as a lobster tail because ‘all her meat was in the back’.
Betty, a Seven Sister alumni and bi-linguist, is only expected to be a Stepford Wife for Don and second husband Henry.
It’s even worse for the black women of the series. Dawn, who is hired only because a joke backfired, is presented as being more capable than the majority of secretaries at Sterling Cooper, but is only promoted because the company found a black woman working at the front door to be ‘too much’.
Women still face huge challenges in the fight for equality but Mad Men shows us just how far we’ve come and how many sacrifices the women before us made.
In the world of Mad Men, nothing is sacred. Every emotion, every mood, every personal problem is another way of packaging and selling a product. In Mad Men’s best episode ‘The Wheel’, Don pitches an ad campaign for the Kodak projector by showing slideshows of the family that has just abandoned him.
Mad Men highlights everything that went wrong during the baby boomer generation: war, divorce, the threat of nuclear obliteration, rampant consumerism, racism, sexism. On the surface it may look glitzy and glamorous but most of the characters are floundering, mired in a pit of their own making.
Millennials may not want the fanciest car but that doesn’t mean we don’t have ambition. We may not want to get married (like workaholic Peggy Olsen) but that still doesn’t mean we can’t find love.
Millennials are rejecting the idea that happiness lies in a picture-perfect family life and a house in the suburbs, as does Mad Men. The show teaches us that real happiness comes from acceptance and from a fulfilling combination of work and the family we choose for ourselves. And if that isn’t a millennial idea then I don’t know what is.