Mad Men: It’s All About Family Values

June 13, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 4 10 min read

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The other night, four of us sat around the table in an airy, sparse loft apartment in the Marais: J — my non-marital male partner of 10 years; S — Paris resident and J’s oldest friend, for whom he stood as best man when she married a woman 20 years ago; M — S’s current non-marital partner (male); and me.  M speaks not a word of English, only French and a bit of Arabic, but is gregarious no matter the company; S speaks accented English and French (native language = Taiwanese); J speaks and understands only English; I speak English and decent French, some infantile Korean.  S and J are both significantly older than M and me and are great cooks; S and I earn most of the income these days and both travel regularly for work.  Only J has children.

We dug in to a giant communal bowl filled with three kinds of shellfish, a plate of white asparagus, and a platter of oysters.  The dinner cost 15 euros total, plus a bottle of 5-euro wine.  We talked about S’s recent stomach-removal surgery, after a late cancer diagnosis, and the French healthcare system; J’s daughters and our new puppy; the grapevines growing from a pot on the windowsill, finally bearing raisins after three years; tennis (playing and watching) and taekwondo (M is a brown belt); S’s upcoming sci-fi film project in Berlin and the book that I am researching this summer in France.

It was Sunday evening in Paris: family supper.  In the moment, the rather odd details and dynamics of our group were quietly subsumed and absorbed; we were just being together, enjoying our time, without much thought.

J and I came home to our tiny AirBnB rental in Belleville bearing leftovers and in good spirits — much better spirits than after other dinners we could remember, dinners with the families we refer to as “real.”  It was late, but J pulled up Netflix on the laptop, and we crawled into bed. We’d been churning through old seasons of Mad Men — partly because we can’t get enough, and partly because I was trying to write something about the current season.  The opening sequence came on, that pulsing, percussive theme, and just as it started beating toward its diminuendo, I hit pause. “I’ve got it,” I said, “I know what I’m writing about.”  I’d been brainstorming out loud for a week, since the half-season finale.  I clicked onto our video library, found “The Strategy,” the penultimate episode, and scrolled to the end.

There they were: Don, Peggy, and Pete, supping together at a Burger Chef — “a clean, well-lighted place” — the image saturated in rich turquoise and red.  At this point, Don and Megan have quietly called it quits, Pete just fielded Trudy’s You’re no longer part of this family, and Peggy has lost the only steady in her life, Julio, the neighbor boy who comes by to watch TV.

“What if there was a place where there was no TV and you could break bread and, whoever you were with, that was family?” Peggy had asked, happening upon her brilliant pitch for their newest potential client during a late-night work session with Don.  They both knew her concept was good; they needed Pete to get on board.  And so they gathered.

Two weeks before, I had beheld this image, actually shaking my head in awe. This is it, I thought. The whole series in a nutshell.  This is what it’s about.  The image — the moment — was both surprising and inevitable; in other words perfect.  And after our beautiful makeshift dinner with our motley family-of-choice, the poignancy of that moment crystallized. If Mad Men is itself a kind of advertisement — a reflection and dramatization of our deepest desires, the ones we didn’t know we had — then its message is both timeless and markedly modern: family is everything; we are hungry for family; your “real” family are, simply, the people who actually know you.

We’re in a golden age of TV; we all know this.  There is so much good TV to watch — just look here and here and here.   Today’s best dramas are serials, requiring, thus, commitment. If you are a person with, you know, other obligations — you have a demanding job or small children or like to read books (maybe you’re even writing one) — it’s impossible to keep up.  You must prioritize. Of all the great TV to choose from, what grabs you and won’t let go?  What must you make time for, week after week?

I have watched six-and-a-half seasons of Mad Men, now twice through; that’s nearly 8,000 minutes, or 130 hours.  Evidently, I’ve established my TV priorities.  But next comes the inevitable question:  Isn’t this really a colossal waste of time?  “It’s great entertainment” may cut it for 100 minutes of The Hangover, but the demands of serial TV these days call for deeper justification — a substantive understanding of value.  And if you are a literary person, there is that nagging additional requirement: your TV shows must do all that literature does; must do it even better.

Mad Men is far from perfect; despite the show’s popularity, the case for a favorable value-to-time ratio is not necessarily self-evident. On the interwebs, critical chatter spins endlessly: Don is an asshole, Don is boring, Don is getting old and fat; plot lines are riddled with non-sequiturs and inconsistencies, too frequently straining credibility; back stories are overly foregrounded, or confoundingly obtuse; the scripting of politics and racial dynamics is clunky, smug, and sometimes offensive (not in an ironic way); the hairstyles are over the top!

There is truth in all these criticisms.  Like all ambitious, voluminous work — like an epic novel — there is bagginess, missteps.  But also like a great novel, each viewer is grabbed by something different: a particular through-line keeps her watching, crowds out the shortcomings; a specific narrative or emotional thread compels devotion.

One could argue that an artist aims for this, prefers not to think about “overall audience appeal,” but rather to focus on creating a captivating world, characters, ideas — hoping that a great wide audience is responsive by virtue of depth and universality.  Matthew Weiner confirms this idea:

What I mean and what it means to people are not related to each other and none of my business. All I have to do is get my house in order when expressing it, but when people get it and own it, that’s your dream…Sometimes, you put down a steak and they think it’s pudding, and that’s all you can do.

Roger Sterling could not have said it better.

It’s all about family.  About knowing and being known. Real family.  Once I saw it, I couldn’t un-see it.

J hrrmphed.  The idea wasn’t coursing through him like a current, and I couldn’t imagine why not. It’s true that Matthew Weiner would hate the idea of Mad Men having some overarching “message,” and yet, I am convinced that the creation and dissolution and re-creation of families — literally and conceptually — is Weiner’s steak; no way it’s pudding. In gathering for family dinner, the Don-Peggy-Pete triumvirate enacted a Great Convergence — of three physical bodies, along with a clan of invisible secret selves.  Their so-called “real” families were also present — specters of dysfunction and failure, but muted in the wake of Technicolor clarity.

Has it been a colossal waste of time?  For me, the Burger Chef scene was pay-off, big time.  There is so much that ties these characters, inextricably, to each other, so much that has evolved.  It seems inconceivable that Peggy was once Don’s wide-eyed secretary and that she mooned over Pete, all the while carrying his child; that Don once fired Pete and that Pete threatened to reveal Don’s identity as the army deserter Dick Whitman; that Pete once said to Peggy, “You know me, you know everything about me, and I know you, and I think you’re perfect.”  Among them, they’ve inflicted cruelty and betrayal all around; and they’ve shared just as many profound moments of recognition and mutual respect.  For those of us who’ve lived through the complexity of these intimacies, all of it culminates perfectly at Burger Chef.  It’s true that the show’s infamous opening sequence evokes solitary free-fall, and the characters themselves express feeling alone; but we know different. Don, Peggy, and Pete have each survived much, and they’ve done it, despite themselves, together.  They’ve been there, for and alongside each other — not just like family, but in place of.

(Notably (J reminded me), Peggy has never been explicitly apprised of Don’s alter-life as Dick Whitman; and Don never asked about the father of Peggy’s baby.  Not on screen, anyway.  But such is the nature of the trust and familiarity among them: there is a feeling that all is known, even if not spoken.  Put another way: if it were spoken, each would feel that he/she had already known.)

It seems at times implausible that these characters go about their days in such close proximity, pitching and collaborating and strategizing around conference tables, smirking and drinking scotch with their feet up.  How is it that these subtexts matter so much and at the same time not at all?  Is this how life is really lived?  I would say, No, not really.  In our world, one wouldn’t work side by side, year after year, with so much water under the bridge; the bridge would have flooded and collapsed long ago.  Again, these are the behaviors of family, not co-workers.  But Weiner and company achieve believability, to my mind, by virtue of a quality that these three characters share absolutely: ambition.  The subtexts are functionally subsumed because, for Draper-Olsen-Campbell, more than any of the others, the work matters.  Success matters.  From the beginning, it is for these three that this craven, insipid business has truly meant something.  Advertising — and winning at advertising — is their blood tie.

The extended family equally enthralls.  Roger and Joan are the more jaded and battle-wounded big brother and sister to their entitled younger siblings Don and Peggy; and they share yet another unspoken family secret (baby Kevin). Young Sally comes of age, prevailing over Betty’s attempt to use her as a tool of revenge by acing her family tree project — “Daddy’s first wife” Anna Draper included — and by seeing something authentic in her father’s love for this mystery ex-wife.  On the topic of Anna’s terminal cancer, Anna’s sister tells Don that he has “no say in the affairs of this family,” but the viewer recognizes her villainy: Anna and Don exemplify pure family, agape — unconditional love between the strangest of bedfellows, their kinship born of deceit and a peculiar mutuality. Sally and Glen nurture their close-cousins bond, battling disapproval all the while (Betty, boarding school, adolescent peer pressures), and yet we see in them a version of the same powerful knowingness shared by Peggy and Don.

On the flipside, “real” family falters, again and again:  after announcing over dinner that she and boyfriend Abe are moving in together, Peggy says to her mother, “It’s important to me that you understand what we’re doing…I want you in my life” — to which her mother replies, “I need my cake…because I’m not giving you a cake to celebrate yas livin’ in sin.”  Pete’s old-money/squandered-money parents, while alive, are stingy and cold, through and through, and when his father dies in a plane crash in Season 2, he goes straight to Don: “I don’t know what to do…What does one do?…Am I going to cry?…Everything’s exactly the same.”  And of course we know more than we ever wanted to about Don’s whorehouse boyhood.  We’ve also seen divorce after divorce after divorce: Don (twice), Roger (twice, plus daughter Margaret estranged), Joan, Pete, now Harry Crane (always late to the party, but still finding a way to crash).  Remember when divorcée Helen Bishop was such an anomaly?!

My favorite moment of traditional family gone awry is the closing shot of “At the Codfish Ball” in Season 5, when Megan’s parents join Don and Roger, along with Sally, at an advertising awards ceremony: the Calvet’s are on the outs, and Sally has just walked in on Megan’s mother Marie fellating Roger; Megan is pissed because her father has just accused her of “skipping the struggle” and giving up her dreams; Don, for once, is clueless.  The family members take their seats around the table, awkwardly sipping drinks and staring into the What-the-hell-am-I-doing-here unknown.

The one core relationship that currently puzzles me is that between Joan and Don: Don respects Joan and has been nothing but decent towards her (Season 4: he takes her for a joy-ride and drinks after her loser husband serves her divorce papers; Season 5: he tells her not to sleep with the skeezy Jaguar exec in order to get the business).  In Season 7, she votes him out of the company — twice.  “I’m tired of him costing me money!” she shrieks.  Perhaps Don deserves it, but I find myself wanting him to make Joan feel like shit about her lack of loyalty, to the family. There is something regressive about Joan in the end — she is Colette’s bohemienne dancehall girl, always orderly, her garments pressed and hung, her gold hidden in a secret compartment in her purse.  Some interpret Joan’s Season 7 refusal to be Bob’s sham wife (we all know by now that the handsome upstart is gay) as a show of self-determination; I read it as precious and fundamentally conservative.  Why can’t Joan have both love and a benevolent provider?  Bob sees that these are not mutually exclusive, which is why he offers it, no strings attached.  But Joan hasn’t understood yet about real family; she’s still trying to configure herself into the conventional formula.

And now I can add another 500 minutes to those 8,000 — more time spent thinking and writing about what all this mental investment means.

In an interview with Salon, Matthew Weiner said:

I try to make it so that every season finale could be the end of the series. I plot the story out that way and deliver it that way.

Had the Burger Chef snapshot been the end of the series, I would have been thoroughly satisfied.  This tells me that, given the unsavory horribleness of so much of what happens on Mad Men — the lies, the pettiness, the violence and despair and random acts of betrayal — I need to sense some sort of moral vision when all is said and done.  By “moral” I simply mean endowed with meaning, somehow adding up (even if 2 + 2 = a flying unicorn, or pudding, for that matter).  For there is no value without meaning, and it’s value that I’ve set out to uncover here.

It doesn’t much matter whether Weiner intended this meaning or not: he rendered it so — patiently and in fine detail, I would argue — even as he goes about writing merely “what interests me and what I’m feeling.”  His vision is moral — it invokes questions about what matters in this life, and whether those things are attainable — but certainly not deductive or conclusive. The family supper at Burger Chef is filled with longing, mostly unfulfilled, and fear — “that I haven’t done anything, and I have no one” — as Don put it.  The visual image evokes the haunting solitude of an Edward Hopper painting, the verbal reference is to Hemingway’s story of aging and the great void (nada y nada y nada).  Loneliness and disconnection are diseases of the human condition; the many variations of family that we construct seem to reflect this chronic, sometimes fatal, condition.

And, of course, “The Strategy” was not the final episode; that there are seven episodes to come in 2015 is for me both exciting and worrying.  What will happen to my cherished, epiphanic through-line?  My Technicolor image of convergence and poignancy?  What shenanigans will Don commit, how will the vectors of trust and intimacy shift?

M and S do not have a television in their apartment.  This is Paris, small-dwelling capital of the world, and a TV would dominate the room. They’ve been discussing it, though — how much to spend, how big the screen, where to put it — in preparation for the World Cup. “But don’t you want to watch it down at the café with other people?” I ask, channeling Peggy. “Isn’t it a kind of communal thing that brings Parisians together?”  S nods, M shrugs.  I realize that behind the decision is a desire to spend more time together, at home, given S’s health.  Will they buy this television?  How will it change their life?  Perhaps they will host more Sunday dinners around the table at home.  In a year, we’ll be back in Paris, and Mad Men will have concluded.  As they say, stay tuned.

Image courtesy of the author.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. Thank you for feeding my ruminant stomach for all things Mad Man, and for introducing me to the word – “diminuendo.”

    There is a very “closed off” feeling to the whole series, and the flashes of absurdity, surrealism, ghosts, tap dance acts adds to it. I am half-expecting to see a final scene in which the camera pulls away to show the entire Mad Men universe living within a snow globe that slowly falls off Matt Weiner’s desk!

    Here is something else it reminds me of:

    Moe Murph

  2. Ms. Chung,

    Meant to add more to above comment. Loved your beautiful vignettes and the “family” group in Paris. Best wishes for M and S, who I hope are now watching the World Cup on their new flat screen TV together.

    Your piece reminded me of other tales of Paris, from Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast” to Anais Nin’s diaries. So lovely and atmospheric.

    Best regards,

    M. Murphy (Moe Murph)
    Washington, DC

  3. Thank you, Moe — I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. And if the finale ends as you imagine, I will definitely be writing about it!

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