Professors talk Mad Men: A post-finale Q&A

    For Mad Men fans, these next few weeks before the school year lets out might seem like an insurrmountable challenge – finals, papers and no promise of another season of the beloved period drama. Thankfully, NBN is stepping in to ease the pain in both ways. We spoke to two professors who have taught classes on the TV show, so study up. 

    Miriam White is a professor in the School of Communication who teaches a class on contextual, critical and cultural perspectives on Mad Men. She has written extensively on pop culture, including an essay in Mad Men (Reading Contemporary Television) by Gary Edgerton on the portrayal of female characters entitled “Mad Women.”

    What did you think of the ending?

    Miriam White: I thought the ending was great. I wasn't expecting anything in particular. It very carefully balanced a little bit of irony a little ambiguity, an uncertainty with a sense of closure for many things. It gave you a little bit of tragedy a little bit of romcom satisfaction, all rolled into one.

    How would you approach the ending critically?

    MW: I think that the show very cannily and persistently always uses consumer culture to both fulfill and challenge notions of experience, identity, authenticity and so forth, and it's done that from the beginning. So I think it's an apt conclusion in that trajectory. The commercial appropriates the counterculture but it also shows that [advertisements] have a kernel or thread of things that people do experience and feel. And that's the irony, and that's the kind of condition where it's not wholly one or the other.

    What are your ideas on where certain characters would go from here?

    MW: I don't think they're real people, so it's hard for me to answer that. I think they serve as narrative functions, and they mobilize certain kinds of trajectories. I've heard rumors, I've heard it, like, third-hand, from people that a spin-off would be Joan and Peggy. So I look forward to that, but I don't know if that's wishful thinking. It is literally wishful thinking because after the first two or three seasons, I actually thought to myself, Joan should stop being a mean girl and she and Peggy should get together with Rachel Menken and start their own agency. So I've had that fantasy for longer than I've heard the rumors, because I've only heard the rumors for the last three weeks. But at the time I dreamed it up, it was kind of a counter narrative.

    Do you have a favorite theme of the show?

    MW: I don't need Mad Men to tell me that fifties and sixties middle and upper-class white corporate culture was racist. There's things about the show that have always troubled me. So it's more like what it does beyond that or how it navigates that that becomes really interesting. I've always had a long, troubled relationship to the show, because I always find it very alluring. An opposite extreme of Mad Men: I've done a modest amount of work on television shows on HGTV. Where they're so redundant, but people watch those shows over and over. And so for me one of the questions those shows pose is what's the allure? When nothing's happening? And Mad Men's a different extreme because it's so compellingly alluring, and it's an artfully crafted show. But it's full of stuff that I don't like, so what's the allure?

    So you don't necessarily have a favorite thing about it?

    MW: Sometimes I do. I like Sally. I think she's really interesting. I have very mixed feelings about Joan. I don't like overvaluing women characters because they have gumption. I think there's a lot of ambivalence, but ambivalence is interesting. Nobody watches all television for the same thing all the time. Sometimes even Mad Men works differently at different times.

    Professor Michael Allen is a history professor who has taught a freshman seminar called "Consumerism and Social Change in Mad Men America, 1960-1965.” The course is no longer offered, but Allen also researches U.S. politics since 1945, and his expertise also lies in the Vietnam War and its effects into the last half of the 20th century.

    What did you think of the ending?

    Michael Allen: I thought it did a very nice job of returning to certain themes that have been there from the beginning. It also found a way to get back into the historical dimensions of the period. At first, I kind of felt a little bit frustrated by Don going off to some kind of new age retreat. I personally just don't identify with it. It seems to me like an indulgence of the Baby Boom generation that really never amounted to much.

    But one of the things that I love about the show in the first few seasons is that it is immersed in a period of history that I also find highly problematic. This very kind of misogynistic and racist and sexist culture that it depicts in the early seasons - it's not as if that appeals to me personally, but I appreciate the show capturing that realistically. So the finale was showing that for contemporaries who lived through these events, that kind of experience was of self-improvement, self-healing, and it was so characteristic of the sixties.

    What did you think of the last scene?

    MA: Advertising is a reflection of the times, but also is subtly shaping the period that it was a part of. What's so interesting about the post-1968 period is that while politics have moved in a conservative direction in the U.S., and so has policy in the same respects, popular culture has often moved in the opposite direction, what we might consider as more "liberal.” Ads have had an effect in getting white, middle-class Americans comfortable with ideas about racial, ethnic, gender and sexual diversity.

    There was a time in the seventies and eighties where conservatives were still making fairly forceful arguments in favor of whiteness. Those kinds of arguments have become completely disreputable in American life. Partly because of advertising, and partly because of not just advertising but the function of the free market. Which found it, frankly, profitable to be inclusive.

    After all, Don is not a man of the left. He works for big business and he seems to have nothing but disdain for most people, regardless of who they are or what they represent. And yet, here he is, promoting an inclusive vision at the end.

    If Mad Men were to continue into the 1970s, how do you see the politics of the time changing the characters?

    MA: When the show started, it felt like it was set in the 1950s. The show depicts that the 1960s doesn't really start until 1965 or 1966. So if the show continued, I think it would show that the 1970s, particularly the period where sort of 72 to 76, 78 is actually the most radical period in 20th century American history.

    And in terms of the feminist movement, its achievements were more pronounced in the mid-1970s, and even into the late 1970s, than any time before that. If the show continued it could show that through the continued progress of Joan, and Peggy and Sally. It might also find ways to depict the diversity of second wave feminism. Hopefully, it could also find ways of depicting more regularly the continued advances of African Americans, particularly African American women, in professional work.

    Is there any theme that you latch on to?

    MA: Don's story is one I find fascinating in part because I assume I relate to it in a way as somebody who grew up in working class rural America, as someone who has moved into an urban professional elite setting. But the central theme of the show that I think is very perceptive and smart and profound is that the idea of finding happiness through consumerism is doomed to fail. That was illustrated i think really profoundly in the carousel pitch when Don returns home to the empty house that's nothing like the ad he just wrote. That dream does not exist.

    In this season, Betty and Sally both in their phone calls say that they don't want him back. One of the reasons that his conversation with Peggy sort of has such an impact on him is because she tells him that she does want him back. In fact, I think it was one of the reasons he was able to pick up the pieces and move forward, it seems, in that final scene.

    These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


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