What happens when the world changes and you're still the same inside? It's a question that defined 2008, as people lost their jobs and homes and fought to find a new foothold in the rapidly changing economy. And no one answered that question as wrenchingly as Matt Weiner, creator of the Golden Globe-winning 1960s TV drama Mad Men. No writer so intimately rendered the lives of people struggling to keep up with the times—in this case the Cuban Missile Crisis, the sexual revolution, the pace of new technology. And no writer so vividly conveyed how heartbreaking it is to watch progress pass you by. I cried when Joan, the bombshell secretary born too soon for feminism, was raped in the same workplace where her male bosses prevented her from being promoted. And I felt like I knew Freddy, the old-guard advertising executive who lost his job and feared he'd lose his identity along with it. "If I don't go into that office, who am I?" Freddy wondered in one episode. All my friends who were laid off this year asked themselves the same thing.
Yet somehow Weiner also made Mad Men feel strangely hopeful. True, like Mad Men's Brylcreemed alpha males and Stepford secretaries, we're now watching American optimism—the kind that comes with winning a war and ruling the world's economy—start to crumble. But as Mad Men's characters faced their worst-case scenarios, Weiner also showed just how much previous generations have been able to endure and adapt in their own everyday ways. When housewife Betty Draper finally left her husband, that was feminism. When blue-eyed Paul got dumped by his black girlfriend for shrugging off a racial-equality march, that was civil rights. When advertising boss Don Draper shared a cocktail with Peggy, his only female copywriter—well, that was probably just alcoholism. But Weiner's lesson still feels positive: Discontent breeds change. And a dry martini can always help you through the hard times.
Melissa Maerz is a writer based in New York City and a former music editor at City Pages.
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