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'Mad Men': Draped secrets behind the success

Friday - 4/11/2014, 9:07am  ET

Tragic Television

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley looks at the legacy of AMC's "Mad Men."

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WASHINGTON -- This weekend marks the beginning of the end for "Mad Men," which will roll out its final season in two parts, starting with the Season 7 premiere at 10 p.m. Sunday night on AMC.

The Writers Guild of America recently voted it the No. 7 best written television show of all time, behind only "The Sopranos," "Seinfeld," "The Twilight Zone," "All in the Family," "M*A*S*H" and "Mary Tyler Moore." Perhaps more telling are the next six shows it beat out: "Cheers," "The Wire," "The West Wing," "The Simpsons," "I Love Lucy" and "Breaking Bad." All this comes before the show has even concluded, so it has time to make one last sales pitch for historic greatness.

But aside from the atmospheric suits, smokes and drinks, what exactly makes this show so special?

It's the same thing that makes "Citizen Kane" and "The Godfather" iconic American tragedies. The show's wounded, womanizing anti-hero Don Draper suffers from the same tragic impulses as Charles Foster Kane and Michael Corleone, longing for the lost innocence of a stolen youth.

As Don says in "The Summer Man" (Season 4, Episode 8), "We're flawed because we want so much more. We're ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had." The same quote could just as easily come from Kane's "rosebud" lips with Corleone's haunting Lake Tahoe stare.

Don overcompensates for his scarred past with an insatiable pursuit of the American Dream, chasing it with such blind ambition that he loses everything in the process. This fatal flaw is best articulated in "Commission and Fees" (Season 5, Episode 11).

"Even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you've just eaten. … You're on top and you don't have enough. You're happy because you're successful -- for now. But what is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness," Don says.

In many ways, Don's story is America's story, a series of reinvention through self-deception.

On the most basic level, characters reinvent themselves to deceive their families and co-workers. Just as Oz reinvented himself saying, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," the protagonist of "Mad Men" wants us to pay no attention to the Don behind the Draper.

Starting over with a clean slate is simple in this world. Just decide it, and it is so. As Don tells Peggy Olson in the "The New Girl" (Season 2), "Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened."

On a deeper level, companies reinvent their brands by reinventing products, from Kodak to Lucky Strike, Heinz to Hershey. Behind each sales pitch is a deception of the firm you're trying to persuade, and a larger deception of the public that everything old is new again.

On the deepest level, the show chronicles how the 1960s reinvented America, from a historic election in "Nixon vs. Kennedy" (Season 1) to the Cuban Missile Crisis (Season 2), from the assassination of JFK in "The Grown-Ups" (Season 4) to the assassination of MLK in "The Flood" (Season 6).

The lattermost tragedy sparks an argument between Pete Campbell and Harry Crane that sounds as if it could still be made today. "Did you know we were in the presence of a bonafide racist?" Pete says, to which Harry replies, "That's the latest thing, isn't it! Everybody's a racist!"

In "The Beautiful Girls" (Season 4), Peggy argues that women suffer similar oppression.

"Most of the things Negroes can't do, I can't do either," Peggy says, to which her boyfriend jokes, "Alright, Peggy, we'll have a civil rights march for women."

Have we really moved past these issues? Or are we fighting these same battles under new names? "Mad Men" suggests that America -- like Don -- is deceiving itself on its ability to change.

And thus, our present-day fate lies in Don's hands this final season.

Are we all doomed to a tragic "Vertigo" plunge like the falling paper cutout in the opening credits? The fact that creator Matthew Weiner brought on "Chinatown" writer Robert Towne as a consultant for the final season could be a sign of tragic things to come.

Or can we as a people find redemption? There were hints last season that Don is capable of change, like in this conversation after witnessing his son's compassion.

"I don't think I ever wanted to be the man who loves children. But from the moment you're born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars. But you don't feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don't. And the fact that you're faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. Then one day they get older and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode."

The season finale offered another glimmer of hope as Don sabotaged his Hershey pitch by confessing his own scarred childhood, having lost his virginity to a prostitute while growing up in a whorehouse. As Don takes his children to see this house, is it a sign of a changed man to come?

No matter which way the final season goes, it's bound to be one for the history books.

Weiner recently told The Daily Beast that he wants a finale similar to "The Sopranos," one that may be controversial upon release, but which is revealed as genius in hindsight.

"There's an immediate reaction to it and there's a long-term reaction to it," Weiner said. "If people behaved about 'The Sopranos' the way they do now -- with the reverence and understanding about what it was -- it would have been a lot more pleasant for everybody involved. But there was such an uproar. Now we know that was the perfect ending for that show, and now we know that show is in the pantheon of the greatest shows ever. Did the ending affect that? Yeah. There are good ones and bad ones. As a writer, I want to end the story [of 'Mad Men'] the way I think the story was told."

In an era of Hollywood special effects spectacles, "Mad Men" repeatedly fulfills a promise Don made in the first season finale: "There's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged beyond flash."

Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.

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