Art & Culture

Why watching Mad Men is like reading great literature

Jairaj Singh
Jairaj SinghMay 19, 2015 | 19:37

Why watching Mad Men is like reading great literature

There's a sadness you feel the moment you finish reading a work of literature. A tinge of regret, yet to crystallise into nostalgia. It's neither like you're left broken when you end a relationship, nor hollow when someone close to you dies. You can hold on to this feeling for some time, pressing fragile memories within its pages. Or let go, knowing you'll never be the same again.


I couldn't help but feel this profound sense of loss as I watched the finale of Mad Men this morning. For me the American TV show, based on a fictional Madison Avenue advertising firm set in the 1960s, has been no less than an exalting literary experience. Up until I started watching the show, that America for me was tenaciously preserved in the works of F Scott Fitzgerald, JD Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S Thompson.

Don Draper played by Jon Hamm.

I don't quite remember the year I started watching Mad Men - was it 2009? My then girlfriend, a gifted writer, had a role to play. She was taken in, as I would be, by the protagonist Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. In those days, I didn't have a television in my room. I would either stream episodes online or copy them from someone's drive.

For me, it wasn't so much about the relevance of the time and age that the show was set in, or the gender and race politics it was trying to disinter, as much as it was about Don Draper. This Jay Gatsby-like character who came from the expansive darkness of the Midwest. A war veteran, a ladies' man, a chain smoking alcoholic - yet suave, polished, literary, incredibly dark and morally complex figure that would have you cling to every irreverent line he uttered. His every arched-eyebrow or grimace, soulful and poignant.


Apart from the melancholic and existential undertone of the show, what particularly resonated with me was how futility can trap the success and creative genius of an individual, the "self-made man", who has everything and yet nothing, like smoke in a glass. This grotesque reflection at a time when we are constantly expected "to make it big" - not knowing how and then what.

The falling silhouette in the opening sequence of the show, which led many to believe and wonder out loud if this is how the show would end, also has significance. This was no metaphor to measure mere moral corruption or professional failure. It was always my suspicion that the show's creator was trying to tell you that you have to hit rock bottom to know that no such place exists.

I remember it was only at the end of the first season that the show completely drew me in. Don returns to an empty home, his wife and children have left for a Thanksgiving holiday without him. He sits on the staircase - guilt and sadness washing over him. The camera slowly pulls back and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" begins to play...


Back then in India, there were few people following the show. Discussions on social media over scenes, characters, plot devices, subtexts, vignettes, tropes, pop cultural references and where the narrative was veering toward were scant or non-existent. People had not yet started throwing Mad Men-themed parties.

A friend in Bombay, who would take the show as seriously as I, would avidly exchange notes on messenger during vacuous moments at work. Be it the witticism of Roger Sterling, the sagely Yodaesque demeanour of Bert Cooper, the divergent jostling for rights and future in a misogynistic professional space by Peggy Olson and Joan Harris, insecurity, ambition and manipulation of Pete Campbell, or the many subtle situations the show provoked, everything was discussed, or nothing was spared.

In recent years, what I have enjoyed, sometimes more than watching Mad Men, has been the cutting edge culture of episode reviewing that the show inspired. The sharp criticism would not only dissect every fine detail and digression, but also be beautifully written. It would have you delve deeper into the subtext through different lenses.

Since the morning however, I have not brought myself to reading a review of the finale. Not yet. I think the beauty of the show that Matthew Weiner has created is that it can be interpreted in myriad ways. Like any great work of literature, it'll tear you up or piece you together, depending on what you're in the mood for ordering at the bar and who leans forward to ask for a light.

It also brings to mind a conversation I had with Salman Rushdie at the Hindustan Times office, when the writer was in town to promote Mira Nair's Midnight's Children. Earlier that year, one interviewer had quoted him as saying that TV dramas will replace literature. He looked quite piqued when I asked him if that was the case. He said the point he was trying to make was grossly inflated by the journalist. He did, however, say that the writing that goes into a TV show today has become literary.

I couldn't agree more.

As for us Mad Men fans left in the doldrums. Don Draper did once a long time ago say: "Mourning is just extended self pity".

Last updated: May 19, 2015 | 19:37
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