I can't believe Mad Men is back this weekend. I was not happy at the end of last season, though I loved the season itself. Waiting for the premiere, I found myself thinking about a discussion I seemed to have constantly on message boards about that show during Season 4 that made me really sad, but people felt very strongly about it.

Basically, it dealt, for me, with how you deal with multi-generational characters in fiction, especially in a historical show. No spoilers, I don't think.

There is no right age to act.

What brought it up was that on the board I was reading there was a real trend of reading the show by saying that okay, it's about the 60s. Watershed decade in America. The society's going to change more quickly than ever really happened before. Therefore, the characters that make the leap are right and the characters that don't are wrong. By the time we hit a certain year in the 60s any sign of the 50s will be a symbol of doom. People were already seeing those symbols everywhere, particularly in the characters of Don and Joan. Or even Pete. There's a scene at the end of the ep "The Rejected" where Pete and Peggy share a look in the office. Peggy is going off to lunch with her new bohemian friends; Pete is standing there with the suits. A lot of people saw a value judgment: Peggy, our heroine, is on the right path. She's siding with youth. Pete's with the dinosaurs.

Dinosaur. That was the word that kept getting used. Don was a dinosaur. He still wore a hat. Didn't he know nobody wore a hat after JFK went bareheaded at the inauguration--it's embarrassing! Joan was also a dinosaur. She hasn't bought a new dress in years. It's so sad that she still has that Marilyn Monroe thing going on in the age of Twiggy.

And I found myself constantly jumping on these comments saying things like THAT'S NOT THE WAY LIFE WORKS!

Because for me, one of the things I liked about the show was that it's taking place in the 60s, yes, but it's trying to look at every character as an individual who's going to be influenced by any number of things. Those things include the time they're living in ('65) and the time in which they were born (a range of years). A lot of people at the time might have said not to trust anyone under 30, but that doesn't make it a reasonable attitude for real people. MM is also different than a lot of shows because it's not only focusing on one generation. It's not, for instance, a 90210 where the protagonists are teenagers, older people are parents and teachers and younger people are annoying younger siblings. The generations are more connected: Don was once Peggy, Roger was once Don, Coop was once Roger.

To quickly address the fashion questions that were taken as "signs" that Don and Joan would be extinct soon: Joan has plenty of new dresses, as catalogued on the Mad Fashion blog. She just also knows what looks good on her, and that's the silhouette she's going to keep. Her fashion will probably always retain certain things she came to love in the 50s and that's totally okay! That's part of what makes people interesting. It's what makes fashion interesting too. Roger Sterling retained a taste for suits cut the way he wore them as a young man pre-WWII. It looks pretty good on Roger!

The Don criticisms make me laugh even more because Don's about the same age as my dad was and he's a prime example of what I'm talking about. Okay, I never knew my dad to wear a hat. However, I did see a picture of him wearing one in the 50s. So I can say with confidence that my dad wore a hat and smoked cigarettes once, but had no trouble giving them up later--probably because he didn't care for them that much. However, he was notorious for scheduling important meetings with clients on Fridays from the 80s onwards just so he could avoid Casual Fridays. The guy could never wrap his head around casual anything. He wore suits to work and corduroys and sweaters at home (think of Don's outfit in "Four Sundays" when they have to work on the weekend).

My point is that while he retained certain 50s quirks--and forever regarded the 60s as a crazy time when the world went nuts--he was still very relevant in the world and in his business. One of the things I kept asking people when they said people like Don were on the way out as the hippie kids took over was: Do you not remember the 80s? Because conservatism kind of made a roaring comeback. A lot of those people you’re dismissing went on to run the world.

I didn't say that to imply that the 50s "beat" the 60s either. I was just saying that the world isn't made up of the minority of people who are "on trend" by someone's measure, or who most fit the stereotypes we have of the past. Matt Weiner once referred to that moment at the end of "The Rejected" when Peggy and Pete share the look, and he didn't imply--as many people took it--that there was a right/wrong value judgment in the scene. The idea wasn't that Peggy was evolving while Pete was going to fall off the train and get run over. It was more just that Peggy, as a single woman, was naturally going to lean towards youth and experience all these new things going on, while Pete the husband and soon-to-be-father had just had success in the other direction, winning responsibility at work and respect at home. Neither direction was correct.

I feel like a lot of shows encourage that kind of judgment and intentionally flatter the natural arrogance the present has about the past, so it's not surprising some of the audience feels like they're supposed to be making that judgment. It's so common in shows about the past to give your protagonist progressive--sometimes anachronistically so--ideas that they argue using modern principles that probably wouldn't have meant much to anyone at the time. And it's not like Mad Men is free of its own biases in the way it looks at the time period--it's very much a show written in the 21st century for the 21st century.

But I think it's more interested in change as a concept than how people deal with it than writing a narrative of the 1960s with winners and losers. Because in some ways (though not ALL ways, obviously!) when it comes to history, there are no winners or losers, only people living through different time periods. There was a quote from MW where he said something on a podcast that was taken to mean that the show was going to end with Don in the present day. But actually what he was saying was that a lot of the ages represented on MM were still part of our world today, each one still probably dealing with changes in the world in a unique way. Maybe Don's still wearing a hat (which by now would be a personal, quirky fashion statement, not outdated), maybe Peggy's still wearing bows, Joan's probably wearing hard-working foundational garments. None of them are young, the modern attitudes they allegedly needed to evolve are as outdated as Roger's blackface routine. There are still young single girls going out after work while the married guy the same age is already worrying about his baby's college tuition.

I guess in some ways it's one of the foundational ideas of the show. We can't ever fully shake off the time period in which we were raised, but we just as surely can't hang onto it.
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