It’s the beginning of the end for AMC’s brilliant television series Mad Men. Since Don Draper first wore that dashing 1960s suit and tie and wowed us with his romantic vision of how to sell cigarettes to consumers that knew all about cancer, we’ve been mesmerised by the morally ambiguous drama that’s become a cultural institution.
When the final seven episodes begin airing on 5 April, the inevitable conclusion for each of these fascinatingly complex characters will draw ever closer. But despite its 1960s setting, Mad Men has never been about nostalgia. Its appeal is far more indelible, universal and closer to home.
So why now has Mad Men found itself lauded as the best programme on television? Is it simply lucky to be riding on the coattails of the small screen’s golden age or is there something hidden deeper within our culture’s shifting moral compass?
The concept of a dramatic protagonist with questionable motives is nothing new. The great films noir of the 1940s were filled with shady suits and femmes fatale spiralling to their eventual self-inflicted demises. The insurance men of 1944’s Double Indemnity or 1948’s Pitfall are perhaps an interesting pretext for how Don Draper might have fared against Barbara Stanwyck or Lizabeth Scott.
But while cinemagoers of the 1940s were exploring their darker sides via the safety of the silver screen, even these stories owe much of their complexities to the bleak origins of the fairy tale. Long before Cate Blanchett inhabited the famous role of the wicked stepmother in Cinderella, the original version saw the princess-to-be’s evil stepsisters chopping off parts of their feet in a gruesome effort to fit the glass slipper. Their eventual punishment involves a flock of birds sent by the prince to peck out their eyes.
Settings and context change but darkness is never far from the stories that tap into our inner consciousness. The worlds of Mad Men and House of Cards are cruel places, filled with twists that sometimes feel meaningful but often appear like a series of random events. And while Frank Underwood might be the kind of psychopath we question ourselves for loving, isn’t Don Draper really just another lost soul searching for a home? As were Ariel, Pinocchio and Dorothy, albeit with less cigarettes and Canadian Club. But even Dorothy had to break into a woman’s home, steal her broomstick and throw water in her face – purely for personal gain.
In the context of dark moral themes, The Wizard of Oz is perhaps the most universal exploration of our inner compass, as Dorothy’s final words inside her dream reveal: “The next time I go searching for my heart’s desire I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there then I never really lost it to begin with.”