Seemingly, the main character of the TV series "Mad Men" is Don Draper. But in fact, viewers understand that America, the one that no longer exists, is the hero.
I know that I am putting myself in jeopardy to millions of my countrymen, especially in my age group, but I finally have to write this: "More Than Life at Stake" (Polish TV series popular in the 1960s) is not the best TV series in the history of mankind. In my own private ranking, it long remains in the first position, which was to some extent unavoidable, because I haven’t watched any other TV series for decades. I succumbed to temptation only after I arrived in America. And it is a shame to admit, three times.
In the first case, the sin was severely punished – after a rather promising start of “House of Cards,” there were many hours of boredom, rarely interspersed by amusement in situations, that the authors of this series about mean politicians in Washington have served seriously, but which were unintentionally funny. It’s a comic book, not a TV series for adults.
Oblivious of the lesson, I sinned for a second time, but this time – as it happens in our imperfect world – I experienced delight with impunity and undeservedly. “Breaking Bad” is the answer for those who claim that even the best movie, in cinema or on television, will never be as good as an outstanding novel. It’s a story about a milksop and likable chemistry teacher, who, the day after his 50th birthday, finds out that he has lung cancer, so – in order to ensure the financial stability of his family - he starts to produce methamphetamine in his camping car. The shorthand description does not reflect the essence of the matter – it would be better for me to say that I personally associate "Breaking Bad" with Dostoyevsky. Similarly exaggerated and crazy, but at the same time in their own strange way, true characters. The same maniacal attention to detail and precision of the plot. Except that the action takes place not in Russia, nor Europe, but in the picturesque, red deserts of New Mexico.
For about a year, I clung to the fatalistic belief that anything that I would watch after “Breaking Bad” would turn out to be a disappointment. That’s why I took a break from TV series. However, the devil, disguised as Netflix, turned out stronger. I started watching “Mad Men.” I started without conviction, because the topic, as it seemed to me, doesn’t interest me at all. The title literally means crazy people, but it is about advertising agencies, which were situated on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
If “Breaking Bad” is the contemporary of Dostoyevsky, “Mad Men” is the TV series version of Marcel Proust (I will allow myself this risky comparison, even though I read only the first volume of "In Search of Lost Time"). It is not the storyline that is the most important here, but the slight details, impressions, memories, yearnings, dreams, etc. Don Draper is seemingly the main character: the deadly handsome and persuasive — but hiding a variety of dark secrets — head of the creative department at an advertising agency. Other characters include his three wives and several dozen mistresses, who appear at the average rate of one every couple of episodes. But this is only a smokescreen. In fact, viewers realize that – some after a few episodes, some after several and still others after only several dozens — the hero is America, the one that no longer exists.
America of the turbulent 60s, when it underwent rapid transformation, from which it emerged as we know it today. Or even more precisely: the main character is the melancholy nostalgia for that old America and any other form of human melancholy.
The second impression after melancholy — I repeat this word over and over again, not randomly, but because it is the key to "Mad Men" — that the viewers of "Mad Men" experience is amazement. The world they are showing us is so different from the contemporary, and yet true. This is America where blacks are called “negroes,” even on television. Where gays have to hide to keep their job. Where all the men patronizingly call women in the office “sweetie” and they are treated like “sweeties.” And women agree with their subordinate roles. Well, even housewives of rich mansions in the suburbs of New York despise their friends who “have to work.”
But this is also America of beautiful cars, elegant women, tastefully furnished offices and apartments. The need for aesthetics and beauty has not yet been supplanted by practicality and mass production. This whole world seems so abstract and distant, but is unprecedentedly close. We are only 50 years apart!
If you want to know and understand America, you must watch "Mad Men." Why am I writing about all this? Because on Sunday night, AMC showed the last episode – after eight years the show has come to an end.
The main character is seemingly cynical – when one of his mistresses confides in him that she has never experienced love, he responds to her: “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons. You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one.”
In line with this motto, Don consumes countless amounts of alcohol, cigarettes and women. He’s a scoundrel and a compulsive liar, but he has something that saves him, something real, which makes us root for him. He was a prostitute’s child, an orphan, but thanks to his skills and work he made it to the very top, quite literally — he has an office in a skyscraper in Manhattan. To people who experience life and work defeats, whose world has just collapsed, he often repeats: “This is not the end, but the beginning of something new, something better.”
He repeats the same to himself and really believes it. He’s the embodiment of the American dream, its seller and its most faithful follower.