Exit Mad Men: The enduring impact of iconic TV drama
As the last-ever seven episodes of the iconic TV drama are about to be screened, Emily Hourican reflects on the enduring impact of Mad Men
And so forever farewell to Mad Men, the most stylish TV show around (yes Gossip Girl and Downton Abbey had their moments, but for the overall effect, not just of clothes and accessories, but sets, lighting, colour palettes and mood, it's got to be Mad Men). The final episodes are about to begin, crescendo of eight years of excellent television.
Man Men was an early outrider in the current revival of quality TV drama. From the iconic graphic title sequence of a man falling from a tall building (reference to Don Draper's emotional emptiness), through to the influence of the clothes worn by Joan, Betty, Megan and Peggy on catwalks, collections and fashion shoots - not to mention the astounding impact of Christina Hendricks' character Joan, on expectations around women's appearance and the whole, boring size zero debate - Mad Men showed again the potential for television in an era that had begun to believe the publicity of its demise. It began so small that Janie Bryant, the costume designer who created the show's look, carefully moving the characters through the 1960s and into the 70s, cleverly hinting at their emotional and psychological state of mind through what they wore, initially found it difficult to get clothes. But as word of mouth gathered pace, designers who were at first reluctant, began to fall all over themselves to lend outfits.
Perhaps the best tactical decision made by the show's creator Matthew Weiner and his team of writers, was not to make Mad Men plot-driven. So instead of falling into the traps that even the best dramas (The Killing, Breaking Bad) find it hard to avoid - creeping absurdity, inconsistency, inevitable shark-jumping, Mad Men moves at its own pace, driven by character development. Rather than the pressure of a who-done-it or what-next type set-up, it works as a series of short stories; a merger here, a new office there, played out against the major episodes of the 1960s, such as the Kennedy/ Nixon election or the first men onto the moon, in subtle reference to some of the most iconic ad campaigns of the time, all of which are folded skilfully into the drama.
Relationships between men and women and the changing social expectations of the time, are the real plot drivers, but these are subtle enough to allow the characters to be, first and foremost, themselves. Joan's progress from receptionist to the boardroom, Peggy's development from secretary to copy-writer, these things are microcosms of an entire nation's shift in attitude, but, more importantly, they are believable expressions of personality. One side-effect is that Don, despite dominating each episode, often gets to do almost nothing at all. Long, silent close-ups - not unlike Mark Rylance's turn in Wolf Hall - are indicative of a complex state of mind and so subtly delivered that, despite his terrible behaviour, he effortlessly retains our sympathy.
That said, every episode has its quotable lines. Many of them belong to Draper - "I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one", "I have a life and it only goes in one direction. Forward" - but the rest get a look-in too. "Why is it that whenever a man takes you to lunch around here, you're the dessert?" asks Peggy Olsen, while Roger Sterling recently pointed out, oh-so presciently, "Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know they're going to die."
Every inch of screen time is perfectly imagined - it's not just the smoking, drinking and flirting, it's also the clack-clack of typewriters, sound of phones ringing in the background and kids eating popsicles. The heat and light of 1960s and 70s Manhattan. And, as much as anything, it's the clothes. Joan's emerald green dress, Peggy's pill-box hats, Megan's print wrap dresses, the beehives, gauntlet gloves and headscarves. We will miss it all.
Mad Men series seven part II begins on Sky Atlantic, April 9th