It was as if the world itself had been turned upside down and shaken.
So were the 1960s, at least in the world of Mad Men. Set sprawling in the tumultuous decade, AMC's show has chronicled a decade of transformative, cataclysmic change through the eyes of a handful of lecherous, hard-living ad execs working on New York City's Madison Avenue—they themselves tasked with expressing and harnessing the desires of a culture on the move. Gray flannel suits make wary room for love beads. The three-martini lunch is shoved aside for a toke or two of pot. Career-minded women find room for themselves outside the secretaries' pool—and newfound freedom and power in their relationships.
Working at fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper (now Sterling Cooper & Partners), Don Draper certainly knows a thing or two about shaking things up. When his picture-perfect suburban life—complete with beautiful homemaker Betty and two adorable kids—fails to satisfy, he scraps it for a glamorous new wife, this one an up-and-coming actress. And when even that amped-up brand of domestic bliss doesn't hold his attention, he'll step out—be it on a one-night stand or a drawn-out affair.
The fact that Don Draper isn't even Don Draper (the former Richard Whitman swapped out his identity during the Korean War) seems fitting. This man lives dreams just as he sells them—as insubstantial as the threads of the night's visions, as vacuous as a commercial for cologne. And it would seem as though Don somehow believes the lies he sells: Happiness lives just around the corner. For him it's not the right brand of aftershave or the perfect vacation spot, but rather hooking up with the right woman or making the perfect ad pitch. He longs to check off happiness with the tick of a pen—and yet his own life always seems to fall short.
Indeed, it seems Don has now shaken his existence to its foundations. He's been on paid leave for much of 1969—the result of his drinking and erratic behavior at work. And his marriage, of course, is on the skids again. At the end of the decade, Don's talent for spinning his own life has spun out of control. His lies are exposed. We're left to ask whether this flawed protagonist can change more than his tie.
"I'm always surprised when people are like, 'I want to be just like Don Draper,'" says the actor who plays him, Jon Hamm. "You want to be a miserable drunk? You want to be like the guy on the poster, maybe, but not the actual guy. The outside looks great, the inside is rotten. That's advertising. Put some Vaseline on that food, make it shine and look good. Can't eat it, but it looks good."
Naturally, as the show has trundled on through the decade, vices have taken up residence like so many Woodstock revelers. Drug use is a common theme—occupying the story's counterculture environs. Men drink constantly, smoke incessantly and sometimes treat women like cheap, pretty baubles (even as the ladies learn to push back). Drunken trysts, homosexual experimentations, even bedding a secretary right before and after your wedding day are all kept hidden under the table—though not hidden from the camera. Sexuality is raw, with glimpses of breasts and backsides during intercourse, along with pasty-wearing strippers. And as those thin ties have given way to tie-dyes, foul language has morphed and mutated too.
As it muddles through this moral morass, the series offers a kind of social commentary. Ostensibly, none of the atrocious behavior we witness is meant to be excused. And yet Mad Men sometimes makes bad behavior look oh so glamorous—just as all "good" advertising does.
Legendary ad man William Bernbach once said, "All of us who professionally use mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it to a higher level." Mad Men does both. Its creators use 50 years of hindsight to subtly satirize America's love affair with consumerism and excess, claiming to be "big on [showing] consequences." But the price is awfully high. So heed the time-honored warning of caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware.
Roger unexpectedly asks Don to come back to work. But when Don arrives the next morning, Roger's not there and his co-workers seem at best confused and at worst horrified by his presence. Meanwhile, Betty chaperones a field trip for her son. He's initially thrilled to have her there: "We were having a conversation!" he excitedly tells his teacher. But things soon go awry and Betty begins pouting.
Megan greets her husband (Don's visiting from the East Coast) with sex. (We see them relaxing afterward.) But she accuses him of having an affair as she's buttoning up her shirt. Don denies it, telling her he's been good. "I haven't even been drinking that much," he says. But when he admits that he sort of lost his job, Megan wonders why he didn't then join her in Los Angeles. "This is the way it ends," she says, and throws him out.
Don might have cut back on his drinking, but we still see him (and others) guzzling whiskey, among other things. (A stipulation for Don coming back to work is that he can't drink in the office, nor is he allowed to be alone with clients.) People smoke cigarettes. A teacher wears a revealing blouse and no bra—obvious to both viewers and chaperoning mothers (who make rude comments). Flirting leads to a sexual proposition. Don meets a young hippie who is apparently Roger's new paramour. We hear the s-word (once), "h‑‑‑" (four or five times) and "d‑‑n" (once).
The two-hour, Season 6 premiere opens with Don reading the first lines of Dante's Inferno—how Dante "went astray from the straight road" and found himself lost in a forest with no clear way ahead. And so we see that many of the characters are themselves lost.
It's revealed that Don's having an affair, and we see him with his mistress in bed (apparently naked), early New Year's Day, 1968. "What do you want for this year?" she asks him. "I want to stop doing this," he tells her. Megan and Don have sex. Megan's in her underwear when they kiss. Later, she gets up from bed naked, and we see the side of her breast. Megan and other women cavort in bikinis and other skin-baring outfits. Betty jokes with her husband about raping a 15-year-old girl who is having a sleepover with their daughter. We hear the story of a homosexual tryst.
Megan and Don smoke pot, as do their peers. Several people talk about the drug's scent and influence. Characters drink loads of whiskey, wine and vodka; some are obviously inebriated, and Don throws up. Cigarettes get screen time. A proposed advertisement triggers a conversation about suicide. A man "dies," but is revived. We hear about what a big machine gun can do to a water buffalo. Someone makes a reference to a séance. A girl runs away from home.
Insensitive racial remarks are made. The f-word is twice censored on an iTunes download. The s-word is not bleeped, and it pops up four or five times, along with "h‑‑‑" (more than a half-dozen times, "d‑‑n" and "a‑‑" (once or twice each), and "t-t" (once). Jesus' and God's names are abused two or three times each.
Peter Campbell takes a driver's ed course (he never learned how to drive) and ogles a high school girl, eventually inviting her to the botanical gardens. But when a handsome boy shows up, it's clear she has no real interest in Peter. He watches as the boy moves his hands to the girl's crotch during a safety video. He also has sex with a prostitute during a "business" outing (other ad execs and a potential customer do the same), much to Don's chagrin. Then Peter gets his clock cleaned by a fellow advertising partner. Afterward, he sneaks out of the office, his face covered with bruises, and runs into Don in the elevator. "I have nothing, Don," he says as his eyes well up with tears—an uncomfortable display of honesty in this fabricated ad world.
A potential customer is taken to a brothel by the execs—then lose the contract after the client's wife finds gum on his genitals. Don pitches a client on making his product seem "pornographic." Characters drink and smoke frequently, and Don sets out to get drunk at a party. He succeeds, telling Megan to pull over. "I'm too drunk for you to drive," he says. "We should pull over until we both sober up. Make a baby." (They start making out.) A girl talks about being hung over from drinking vanilla extract.
We hear two s-words. God's and Jesus' names are used inappropriately. Add in "h‑‑‑" and "bloody."
Season 3's finale left Don and his fellow execs huddled in a small hotel room as they formed the new Sterling Cooper Draper Price agency on a shoestring. Season 4 picks things up a year later and the crew has moved to a floor in the Times building. But while one of Don's commercial ideas recently generated a lot of industry buzz, the new agency is still struggling—hurt all the more after a scathing Advertising Age story featuring Don hits the streets.
So advertising gambits get ever more desperate, and Don's personal life isn't doing much better. He's rattling around in a tiny apartment while his ex, Betty, has taken up with a new hubby at home. Friend and partner Roger tries to boost Don's romantic life with an introduction to a shapely 25-year-old. The date goes well, but Don opts to spend Thanksgiving Day with a local prostitute instead of this potential love interest, and the two engage in rough sex. (She straddles him and slaps his face, barely covered by sheets and a brassiere.)
Profanities include uses of "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n" and "a‑‑."