Why you should care
Because Matthew Weiner chose to set Mad Men’s final season in 1969 for a reason. We just won’t know why, exactly, until the busty Joan Harris sings. But OZY contributor David Kipen takes a stab.
Forget it, Jake — it’s advertising. For anybody even halfway attentive to popular culture, last year’s hiring of the legendary Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne to help with Mad Men’s final season rivals the show’s own most delicious plot twists. Typical of its unerring feel for the zeitgeist of the 1960s, Mad Men has become ever more Californian lately — much as America’s center of gravity in that decade shifted steadily westward toward Greater Los Angeles, where Towne and series creator Matthew Weiner both grew up.
So it’s irresistible to look back at the summer and fall of 1969 for a couple of suggestions as to how the show’s homestretch, set in that same overstuffed year, might yet play out:
July 20: Apollo 11 lands safely on the Earth’s only satellite. Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s booted left foot makes contact with the lunar surface. The moon’s existence as humanity’s oldest metaphor is suddenly over.
How to integrate this event into a Mad Men story arc? Remember that the moon landing represented, among so much else, the most watched TV show in history. Everybody knew well in advance that its coverage by the almost universally trusted anchorman, Walter Cronkite of CBS News, would dominate the lead-up, the landing, the first step and the hours of analysis afterward.
In the weeks preceding this watershed broadcast, perhaps only one industry nursed a question about an altogether different sort of landing: Who would land the first commercial to interrupt the highest-rated show anybody had ever seen? And what could such a spot conceivably advertise? Most important to us, what wouldn’t Don Draper do to get the account?
More signposts flash by:
August 9–10: Charles Manson and his acolytes murder seven people in the Benedict Canyon and Los Feliz neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
August 15–18: The Woodstock Music & Art Fair takes place in upstate New York, headlined by some of the era’s best musicians.
September 26: The Brady Bunch premieres on ABC.
October 16: The “miracle” New York Mets withstand a shocking lack of ability to win the World Series.
November 8: The pilot for Night Gallery, written by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, airs on NBC.
What? A man on the moon, the Manson murders, the Internet — and the premiere of a television pioneer’s mediocre last series?
Yes. In about half an hour of airtime that night, the history, the hinge and the future of American filmed entertainment all collided in the same NBC time slot. The pivotal segment was directed by a 23-year-old kid named Steven Spielberg. It starred Joan Crawford, a sad relic of the same Hollywood studio system that newly powerful directors like Spielberg were about to demolish. And it was written by one of Matthew Weiner’s heroes, Serling, the turtlenecked genius who all but invented the tradition of ambitious television that Mad Men now upholds. It’s a wonder the very soundstage didn’t combust.
Why set Mad Men’s 1969 finale against this backdrop? Because, from the very first episode, pitching ads at Don Draper’s firm has always felt suspiciously like a metaphor for pitching television. Detractors who argue that it’s just a show about rotters in suits miss the point. Mad Men is about network suits, and how they pinch and bedevil the ungainly creative teams beneath them. If Mad Men could end in 1969 with the satyrs of Sterling Cooper & Partners effectively neutering television itself, then the show’s great decade-long arc — from the quiet paranoia of gray-flannel Manhattan to the vast wasteland of Television City in Hollywood — might finally be complete.
It’d be a comeuppance that Robert Towne, who once wrote for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Outer Limits, might write especially well. The last scene could find our hero finally settling into a well-upholstered armchair in the most soul-killing West Coast office of all: Don Draper, network censor.