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Vivien Chang Headshot

Of Mad Men and Modernity

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Last time we checked, Don Draper is in Hawaii and Peggy Olson is in Los Angeles (a makeshift Midtown Manhattan, perhaps?)

In typical Mad Men fashion, the show's dedicated fans are subject to a torturous hiatus. As of now, a return date has not been confirmed. For all we know, it may be months before the highly anticipated Season 6 premiere.

As we cope with this vacuum by brainstorming potential plot-openers and lashing out at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association over Mad Men's Golden Globes snub, it is worthwhile to ponder where exactly the show's appeal lies.

For the millions of people who will eagerly tune in to the Season 6 premiere, it is in the character of Don Draper.

But who is Don Draper?

He is the fictional ad exec of Mad Men, the philandering womanizer and creative extraordinaire, the slick yet vulnerable protagonist that we love and hate, and sometimes love to hate. If all the men and women at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are "mad," then Don is certainly the maddest of them all.

From Cary Grant's Jim Blandings to Mel Gibson's Nick Marshall, Jon Hamm's Don Draper is hardly the first ad man we swooned over. But somehow, his appeal is more complicated than simply his charm and good looks.

He is a war deserter, an adulterer, and a hypocrite, yet he harbors mannerisms reminiscent of the Old World. By reprimanding disrespectful younger men -- he removes one such man's hat in an elevator at one point -- and mentoring and promoting Peggy, he falls just short of becoming an antihero.

Much like our fascination with Don, Mad Men's success lies in its very political incorrectness. This is an America before the civil rights and women's movements, before the rise of the counterculture, before Watergate, a time when success and wealth are celebrated and never apologized for, when socialism and homosexuality are taboo, and when smoking and drinking are simply a part of work.

It is not paradise, and we recognize that now, but our beloved fictional characters' trust in their own righteousness is a welcome breath of fresh air from the moral relativism that is our reality.

No episode illustrates the turning point in the series as profoundly as "The Grown Ups", which portrays John F. Kennedy's assassination. Not since Milton's Paradise Lost have we witnessed a fall as literal and emotional-draining. Betty is beside herself with sorrow at first, then she demands a divorce from Don. Roger hosts his daughter's wedding -- a "disaster" -- and calls his former mistress. Pete and Trudy decide to put life before Sterling Cooper when they skip the said wedding.

The violence of the turbulent '60s, previously subdued and distanced from the lives of our characters, becomes inescapable. The facade of Madison Avenue America, with its picturesque wives and homes and endless parties, women, and alcohol is shattered. When Skeeter Davis sings "The End of the World" as the closing credits come up, we believe her.

America lost her innocence on Nov. 22, 1963. But life went on. As Peggy continues to climb the corporate ladder, SCDP hires its first Jewish copywriter and African-American secretary. Megan, the new Mrs. Draper, also represents the New Woman: independent, sophisticated, and worldly, not to mention a good singer.

Camelot may be gone, but as Nietzsche once wrote, "If a temple is to be erected, a temple must be destroyed." The later '60s saw the rise of modernity and change -- positive change. And the bewitching bygone era gave way to our insignificant present. Mad Men lavishes its viewers with the luxury of smug retrospection ("look how far we've come!"), yet it also sears us with a sense of nostalgia.

We don't want to go back, but neither are we ready to let go. And therein lies the fine line that Mad Men treads.