Elizabeth Moss as Peggy Olsen in 'Mad Men'
Mad Men (2007–15)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 12 Nov 2020

ACMI Recommends: Mad Men

ACMI Recommends Television
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Tiana Stefanic

Festival & Events Coordinator

Now that all seven seasons of this influential period drama series are available to stream, do they still hold up in a month-long binge-watch?

Mad Men first aired on the American cable network AMC in 2007; an early prestige television show that had a massive cultural impact, influencing drinking and sartorial choices and redefining how authentic and entertaining a period piece could be.

When the series first aired, I would religiously read recaps on a fashion and culture blog for deep dives into the genius of the show’s costume design, episode by episode. I don’t know if it’s because I’m beyond ready to go back into a real office or I missed the pitch perfect comedy of Miss Blankenship, but I started to rewatch the show recently and powered through all seven seasons in a month. 

This is a show that rewards careful attention and having to wait mere seconds between seasons rather than months made a big difference to the depth of my viewing experience. I noticed certain plot points or character beats from earlier seasons that are only obliquely referenced later on. And watching the show in my thirties as opposed to my twenties meant that I could bring more of my life experience to the rewatch, particularly around workplace politics and the ridiculous double standards women are still held to. The overall arc of a character like Peggy Olsen is now all the more satisfying. Seeing her start out as a naïve but forthright secretary who navigates personal and professional missteps to grow into a self-assured woman who claims her rightful position of authority amongst the ranks of ad men – and is rewarded with a romantic partnership that doesn’t require her to sacrifice her career ambitions – is aspirational. Even a character like Pete Campbell, dripping with unearned WASP-y privilege and maker of some genuinely questionable decisions, can be appreciated for his complexity and the purpose an unlikeable character like his serves within the show. 

At the end of my rewatch, I definitely felt like I could give copywriting a go (might not quit my day job just yet) and should probably take up smoking and/or day drinking (again, better not). But that glamourous façade draws you in just as the best ad campaigns do, hiding the truth just beneath the surface. The show is ostensibly about advertising in the sixties, but it’s actually about the pitfalls of climbing the corporate ladder and the illusion of the American Dream. It’s about the dynamics of marriage and family, and how men can get away with deplorable behaviour because the system is geared towards them. But I think it’s mostly about how that decade saw the gradual obsolescence of a predictable, conservative way of American life. And how that was resisted by the white men in power who did everything they could to quell the sweeping changes coming their way. It feels like America is still in the process of resolving that tension, so I guess we should just keep watching, maybe with a Manhattan in hand so it goes down easier.

– Tiana Stefanic, Festivals and Events Coordinator

See streaming options for Mad Men.

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