A few days before it reached British audiences, the seventh and final series of Mad Men, debuted on American television to the lowest series premiere ratings since 2008.
Matthew Weiner’s portrait of a 1960s advertising agency is as visually lush and sharply observant as ever, but it seems audiences are losing interest in the mad men and mad women of Sterling Cooper & Partners – a full series ahead of schedule.
The show we saw on Sky Atlantic is, in some ways, very different from the one which first aired on BBC Four in 2007.
Viewers seduced by the confident certainties, elegant manners and neat tailoring of early 1960s America are now confronted with the LSD trips, free love and mustard polyester of 1969.
That change is most apparent in Don Draper (Jon Hamm). His matinee idol looks are unfaded and his suits are still sharp, but the alpha male of American Dreams is no more.
When he first appeared on screen, to the accompaniment of “I’m a Man” by the Spencer Davis Group, the soundtrack choice seemed almost cruelly ironic. As this series opens, Don is on a downward spiral. He’s enduring an enforced leave of absence from the agency and living separately from his wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), who has moved to LA to pursue her acting career.
Even the offer of an extra-marital encounter with a glamorous stranger on an airplane (a guest appearance from Neve Campbell) failed to stir him from his torpor. Who is this impostor and what has he done with the real Don Draper?
Back in New York, there were several other well-loved characters whose storylines must be resolved over the next 13 episodes. That silver fox Roger Sterling was enjoying himself, as always. When we caught up with him he was entangled in limbs left over from what appeared to be the previous night’s orgy. Peggy was still heartbroken after Ted’s move west and feeling increasingly alienated from her mediocre peers, while Joan’s legendary femininity proved no obstacle to reinvention as an agency “account man”.
Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) was one key character who did not appear in this episode, but as a representative of the generation that came next – writer Weiner’s own generation – her relationship with her father is sure to feature prominently. If she can ever come to understand that inscrutable man, maybe we can better understand how the 1960s turned into today.
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It’s like returning character Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) said at the very start of the episode: “Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.” His words were a pitch for a watch commercial but since he spoke directly to camera, it seemed he was also talking to Mad Men’s waning audience.
And he’s right. This final series is the beginning of something, and not just the beginning of the end. This is a show about the past which shaped our present, just as parents like Don shaped children like Sally. That, surely, is worthy of our continued close attention.
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