Top Image: James Minchin/Trunk Archive
I have a long history with Mad Men. I wrote episode reviews for Vulture and The New Republic. I published longer essays about the series in the print edition of New York Magazine, and stand-alone pieces in other venues. Throughout season seven, I went on radio programs and podcasts to talk about the show. Given all this, when I decided to publish a book about the show, Mad Men Carousel — and then, years later, during the 2020 pandemic, started writing about the series yet again — my friends would ask, “Haven’t you had enough?”
The answer is no. Because Mad Men is built to last.
Every episode is packed with comic and dramatic moments; period-accurate clothes and hairstyles and music; imaginative, hilarious, often deeply moving performances; and screenwriting that depicts the complexities and contradictions of the human personality with more insight and empathy than any American series to date. It’s a drama about how individuals are and are not affected by the local, national, and international history that’s constantly unfolding around them. It’s a psychodrama about how our personalities are shaped by our parents, our lovers, our friends, our bosses, and everyone else we know, as well as by people we’ve never met but feel as if we know: the politicians, civil-rights leaders, athletes, movie stars, musicians, and other icons who inspire, entertain, confound, and sometimes anger us as we muddle through our daily lives. It’s also a series with an unusually strong affinity for mythology, spirituality, religion, psychoanalysis, pop psychology, literature, poetry, cinema, and all the other means by which human experience is transformed into narrative. And at every level — the scene, the episode, the season, and in total — it is a masterpiece of construction, filled with major and minor bits of foreshadowing and recollection, lines and images seeming to answer each other across time.
And even as it manages to do, and be, all of these things and others, it entertains. Really entertains. It’s exciting, sexy, sometimes sad, but above all else, it’s funny: a show that inflicts so much darkness on its characters is obligated to offer a bit of light as compensation, otherwise we wouldn’t go near it.
The fifth anniversary of the series finale this month coincides with a global pandemic, during which many viewers are revisiting the show, or watching it for the first time. For those seeking a critical companion, we’ve gathered the best of our Mad Men coverage in one place. The season-one recaps here are republished from Mad Men Carousel. (Editor’s note: Vulture was slow to catch on to Mad Men and did not recap season one.) Recaps of seasons two through four were written by my former colleague Logan Hill, who preceded me at Vulture on this particular beat. I recapped the series beginning in season five and continued through the finale. Most of them were written in the moment, without the benefit of an advance screener, and often published within hours of an episode’s debut. As a result, they can have a spontaneous quality and occasionally offer speculations about future plot developments that were eventually validated or proven wrong (sometimes wildly so).
What emerges, for me anyway, after reading and writing eight years’ worth of Mad Men recaps, is the astonishing sturdiness of Matthew Weiner’s series. As many times as I’ve watched it — as I write this, I’ve seen every episode at least five times, sometimes more — I always notice new things, be they micro (when these New Yorkers go to California, they always come back a bit sunburned) to the macro (certain behavior patterns in the characters are mirrored by what’s happening in the nation over time). While the series deals with history head-on, it mostly avoids the temptation to explain what it all “meant,” preferring to view the biggest events obliquely, cutting their potency by having characters hear the big news late, or at a moment when their own personal problems seem much larger. This rings true to life. Sometimes, to paraphrase Casablanca, our individual stories amount to hills of beans, and other times they take precedence (unless the news is so shocking and enormous that it brings life to a temporary standstill).
The show likes letting its characters just be. Fascinated as it clearly is by Freud and Jung and the Bible and the tarot deck, it is ultimately anti-theory. It’s about human behavior occurring in the moment. It doesn’t explain. It observes. It’s not about the period; it’s about the question mark.
The preceding piece was adapted from Matt Zoller Seitz’s 2015 criticism anthology Mad Men Carousel.
• The Vulture TV Podcast: On the End of Mad Men