The ‘Mad Men’ exit strategy

The final seven episodes of Mad Men have been promoted as the end of the greatest television drama of all time. That’s not an empty boast. If it isn’t the best, it’s very close. Deadwood, The Sopranos, and what else would be the competition? Hard to say. Ray Donovan has time to prove itself. Homeland has been more intriguing since the Brody character has left. Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison is as good as Jon Hamm as Don Draper, and that is a compliment to both of them.

Actors are rarely as impressive as the characters they play. Hamm seems just ordinary as Hamm. But as Draper he is the mid-century (20th) American in grand detail. Broken but unbreakable. Shameless but noble. Thick but brilliant. Confused but clear-headed. Ordinary but enigmatic.

The cast of ad men and women characters who are Mad Men, the ads they create and the products and companies they represent, are the strivers and strivings of a consumer culture that loved its buying and selling. Madison Avenue conducted the orchestra. The ad business itself is vile but illuminating, aggressive but complacent, disturbing but reassuring. Fast and at a stand still.

Draper is perfect for it because he is a man (Dick Whitman) living inside someone else’s identity (the real Draper, killed in Korea). He is detached from who he really is and was and has become a passenger on a dead man’s ghost ship. This vitalizes him and makes him more alive.

In the first half of this final season, which was aired last year, Draper’s agency attempted to dump him. He was sent to the Siberia of paid leave with a hint not to come back. When he showed up at the invitation of Roger Sterling to resume work (Sterling did not clear it first with the other partners) he was treated like a leper. He swallowed his pride — as few could or would in such a situation — and worked his way back to the top.

The drama of the late 1960s and now early 70s was probably the existentialist moment in America. Draper is its Meursault and the consummate mad man because he is so sane, at the center of his mad life.

Yes, so far, I think, it is the greatest television drama of all time.

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