My roommate just started watching Mad Men. He's a little late to the party, but we can forgive him. After two episodes, he wasn't sure if the show was great. But more importantly, he said the period piece aspect didn't do anything for him. It felt like a gimmick: "Ooh, look, they smoke and drink and treat women poorly. How wild!" But this misses the point. Mad Men's period piece shows us that as much as things change, they stay the same.
When we look at the 60s of Mad Men, we see common practices that are inconceivable to us today. Doctors recommending cigarette brands? Women in the workplace being treated explicitly as pieces of meat? How could people possibly live like that? Well, we'd know, since things aren't as different as we might think. Smoking, despite Bloomberg's best efforts, is still prevalent in New York City. Proclaiming the end of gender issues in the workplace is laughable (ask Sheryl Sandberg). Sure, the smoking moved out of the office and the sexism behind closed doors, but that doesn't mean it's changed.
Andy Greenwald wrote a great piece about how the tragedy of Mad Men is that we already know the end of the story. We know that MLK will be assassinated and the drug culture and free love of the '60s will turn ugly in the '70s. We know about the entire Vietnam War and the ravages of AIDS. We know that by 2013, the characters that aren't dead will be old, useless, and nobody will care about their Lucky Strike ad anymore. Or their Glo-Coat ad. As Don says, "No one grows up wanting to be in advertising." The flipside is that when he's out of the business, he won't care about what he did when he was there. Hence the smashed Clio.
The period piece makes Mad Men a tragedy, not a drama. When we watch modern dramas that involve steamy office romance, we get caught up in the affair because we're the ones having 21st century dating issues ourselves. When we watch Don tell Peggy her child never happened, we wince because we're that lovechild. Or that lovechild's children. Our cringes at Don's indiscretions are the same as when our grandparents use the word "Jap" in public and don't even consider its derogatory nature. We feel the aftershock of their carelessness two generations later, hearing these stories about the golden age from a bedside perch in a nursing home.
And then the inevitable question: with 50 years of perspective and progress, what will we look back on as antiquated and regrettable? What will seem inconsequential? And what will not have changed? We certainly don't have the collective intelligence to already know the effects of the internet on the wiring of our brains, or of 9/11 on our national consciousness. When we watch Silicon Valley Men on Netflix in 2063, what's the first thing we'll notice about the office, as we instantly notice the sexism and smoking and drinking? My money's on Facebook.
When we see the smoking and drinking, the costumes and the misogyny, we shouldn't see props. That's like calling The Force a prop in Star Wars. It's the thing that underlies every single moment of every scene, but informs it as much as any individual character or plot point. So smoke on, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Every cloud of smoke adds to the darkness looming over the whole series.