First to Last: Watching Only the First and Last Episodes of Mad Men

Comedy Features Mad Men
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I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what Mad Men is. In fact, you probably know more about it than I do—because I’ve never seen a single episode in my life. Yet when the series ended this spring, I was just as eager to see how it all ended as everyone else.

I began in the obvious way: by watching the very first episode of the very first season, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” But then there ended up being 92 episodes and, oh man, I did NOT have time for all that. So, after finishing that first episode, I immediately watched the final episode of the final season: “Person to Person.”

To be able to see where these characters began and where they ended up, without being bogged down by seven years of important plot development, is a truly unique perspective indeed. I do not know the circumstances they faced or the choices they made. All I know is how they changed.

The two main characters, in my limited viewing, were Peggy Olson and Don Draper. They go through the most drastic shifts, and, most interestingly, go in complete opposite directions: Peggy starts at the bottom yet rises through the ranks in a sexist society, while the seemingly successful Mr. Draper willfully surrenders himself of all power.

We meet Peggy during her first day in what is clearly just an awful workplace for a girl of her naivety. The type of job that, in her position, I would turn around and walk out of before exiting the elevator. That, perhaps, is why I am not a fascinating character on a successful television show. The men in the elevator have a brief conversation that would land them dozens of sexual harassment lawsuits in a modern office. Even interactions with female coworkers ends with them telling her to show more skin and generally be sluttier. She has bangs, which says much more about her state than whether or not she was dressed conservatively, which she was. She wore a gross greenish yellow dress, symbolizing her being green, ie new to things, and also that she’s a bit gross (re: bangs). Is she easily influenced? Well, she doesn’t even make it through the whole work day before going to the doctor to get birth control. Her sexual advances toward her boss, Don Draper (should I talk about the main character soon?) are turned down, so she ends up sleeping with one of the jackasses from the elevator when he drunkenly knocks on her door after his bachelor party. So—yikes—a pretty bad first day of work.
She did, however, have one moment where she somewhat successfully stood up for herself to Don. At this moment we are shown that she is not totally helpless, which immediate becomes apparent in the series finale. When we meet her again, she is in a meeting—no longer a secretary! And she stands up for herself, totally successfully! If those two things weren’t enough to prove my point, this third thing will be: she is wearing red, a power color.

Power. Don Draper has power. I know Don as a badass. A smooth talker. A guy who is a master in both advertising and sex, which is a pretty weird sentence I guess. While those aspects aren’t fully explored in the episodes I watched, the man’s reputation in the hive mind is strong enough that I can appreciate his dynamic. When we first meet Don Draper, the camera approaches him from behind, which I think represents an inaccessibility about him. In the premier, he is shown to have a bit of an exterior. Throughout the episode, we are shown several shots of Draper from behind, almost as if we are creeping up on him. Is he running from something? We see him pick up a Purple Heart medal that was laying carelessly on the floor. I’d assumed his military past would be explored in subsequent seasons, but in the final episode he mentioned having stolen a man’s name, so I assume he swindled the award from some mook before deciding to pursue advertising work. Or maybe he won it in an arcade, who knows? In the end, he is a changed man. He’s abandoned his whole life and gone to a hippie retreat, and his state is reflected in the camera work of the episode. He is shown in weird angles; slightly askew, not like the clear shots of the clean cut man from the premier. He is raw as he lets his guard down to his ex-wife on the phone.

His ex-wife. We meet her at the tail-end of the first episode, shoved in as an afterthought to both the show and Don himself, which I suspect is her role throughout the series: important, sure, but rarely seen.

And she is part of the greatest irony across the two episodes. In the premier Don strives to sell cigarettes despite the growing awareness of their harmful effects, and in the finale he learns that his ex-wife is dying of lung cancer. That’s some soul-shattering stuff. That’s the kind of thing that makes someone give up the entire persona they’ve build a successful career around and just spend eternity meditating in Utah, a state you’d forgotten about until I mentioned it just now.

But what I found most relatable about Mr. Draper was his apparent dislike of Pete Campbell.

Pete Campbell. Not only was Pete one of the men in the elevator when we met Peggy, but he was by far the biggest twerp of them all. Pete was the one who drunkenly banged Peggy after his own bachelor party. If I worked with Pete, I would spit in his lunch every day.

I was disappointed that Campbell was around in the final season, but was happy that he was balding. Fuck you, Pete. In the finale there is no mention of his wife-to-be from the first episode. I assume that she left him, and that his hair loss is representative of his dynamic over the series as a whole. I really didn’t like Pete.

The most interesting aspect of the show, by far, is how the two main characters changed so vastly, in almost opposite directions: Peggy rising from nothing to something; Don giving up everything for the freedom of nothingness. I actually found Peggy to be more interesting than Don, because we saw her start from the bottom, whereas Don was established from the get go. I was interested in the insight into the mind and worldview of the advertiser. Regardless of how it deviates from real life, it’s an interesting philosophy, whether they’re the thoughts of an advertiser, or just a screenwriter.

But would I watch 90 more episodes? Perhaps, but only to see more of the three lovely switchboard operators, played by lovely ladies Stephanie Courtney (who you know better as Flo from Progressive), Kristen Schaal (you know, from Bob’s Burgers) and some no-name (who you haven’t heard of). Also, I have to know how the hell Ken Cosgrove got that eyepatch, and I hope it was violent, because he was also one of the elevator twerps.

Matt Pass is a comedian who was written for Cracked. He is on Twitter @mattpasscomedy.