Every so often a show comes along that attempts to take stock of and reflect upon the moral predicaments of the last half century—serving as a reminder for how far we’ve come, or how far we have yet to go.
The strength of Mad Men—one of many strengths—comes from the show’s use of history not for plot, but for setting. In this way, the show is able to move its characters in and (mostly) out of the line of fire, the larger-than-life events the period is known for, allowing for distance and disengagement even as the characters are tied intricately to this history. Don Draper is a product of his time, but the time period is also a product of people like Don Draper. They inform and create one another. History is the people who make it—the same people who are also subject to its incredible inertia.
Mad Men has much in common with the predecessor of the deservedly maligned Downton Abbey.
Upstairs Downstairs aired on the BBC from 1971-1975. Like its lesser copycat, it is about a wealthy family and their servants in a big old house (in London, not the country), and all the changes that occur inside those walls due to events outside them. Lifting scene-by-scene, Downton Abbey is a caricature of Upstairs Downstairs, fueled by cliché, with moments mined from history merely used as plot devices; change comes down from above in Downton Abbey (from external events like war to a lead actor quitting), rather than rising up from within the characters.
Mad Men and Upstairs Downstairs both depict the time period half a century or so prior to their creation. Upstairs Downstairs takes place between the turn of the century and the stock market crash. As audiences watched the award-winning program, they lived through the height and end of the Vietnam War, and the show’s portrayal of WWI was no doubt informed by these events. Mad Men premiered in 2007, at the climax of the Iraq War; during its six seasons, that conflict has come to a nominal end, while the show’s content draws from the Vietnam War era. Both shows reflect the ends of eras of “wholesomeness” and restraint: the shackles of propriety give way to the counter culture movement portrayed in Mad Men and the freedoms of the roaring twenties in Upstairs Downstairs.
For both series, this subject matter forced/forces viewers to recall a time not so far removed that we don’t still burn shame-faced when confronted with its moral faults. Yet political and social change is not their subject matter—the focus is on the characters whose lives are affected by those changes. Mad Men is not a commentary on gender and race issues, just as Upstairs Downstairs is not a commentary on gender and class; rather, they are examinations of characters who must live with inequalities that we, as viewers, may take for granted and naively believe we have overcome. When juxtaposed with the news of the week (the George Zimmerman verdict, Wendy Davis or the dismantling of the Voters Rights Act, for instance), it’s clear how far we have to go.
We are often asked to excuse the men in both shows as artifacts of their era—in fact, there has been some criticism  that Mad Men encourages this kind of reception for males, whereas the female characters’ flaws are written as innate, not cultural. There is a lot to unpack there, and perhaps someone will. In either case, moral progress does not necessarily define the arc of any character. Take Hudson, the uptight butler in Upstairs Downstairs, who we come to both begrudge and love as dearly as his employers do him. Hudson turns out to be a xenophobe to the worst degree; as immigration increases, he holds tight to the past, fearful for the survival of his way of life, his identity. There is no clear arc in which he overcomes his prejudices. In fact, his intolerances are not revealed to us explicitly until they are directly challenged by the War; before this, his biases are simply quaint period background noise. Though he does soften in his old age, he does not “learn a lesson” by the end of the series to come out on our “enlightened” end of things.
Other critics  have noted that Mad Men has not tackled race as elegantly or thoroughly as it has tackled the issue of gender. The Civil Rights movement, ever-present in 1968, doesn’t even feel peripheral in Mad Men’s most recent season (even granting that the show’s lens is intentionally narrow). The portrayal of MLK’s assassination raised eyebrows, and was not approached with the same craft level as the memorable handling of JFK’s assassination in Season Three. The most charitable reading I can give of this failure to address race is that the show is tracking a generation’s moral disengagement when faced with ever-increasing atrocities. Really, another war? Another assassination? Compare this to the episode dedicated to Marilyn Monroe’s death (Season 2, episode 9). In 1962, the characters were perhaps as innocent as Marilyn, and easily affected by this tragedy. But secretaries don’t seem to be weeping over Martin Luther King Jr. in the same way. By 1968, it is easy to imagine that these characters have become inured to the growing frequency of violence, the beginning of a decades’ long process of moral detachment leading to a place where many of us simply ignore horrific world events. (Syria? Where’s that?)
There may not be such a thing as moral progress. But there is the expansion of access to information, which in turn expands our imaginations. As ad-men in the sixties, Don, Roger, and Pete have little access to the lives of marginalized people, or they choose not to seek out those stories; and yet they are the storytellers, the ones creating a narrative for our desires. Compare this to The Hour, the BBC’s response to Mad Men, about a post-war news program.
The Hour diverges greatly in that the characters are directly affected by history (the Red Scare, the Suez crisis): the protagonists (a love triangle made up of a reporter, an anchor, and a shockingly female producer) present edgy news stories and are essentially responsible for the wording of history, the very information we can access today about that period.
Today a greater number and wider variety of narratives are available and given voice. The more information we have, the less suffering we can ignore. We have no choice but to relate. (Though there will always be those who choose not to seek out those stories. See Fox News above.) If our Mad Men characters are to progress in their moral stances, it will be because they come face-to-face with unfamiliar people and narratives.
Of course, there is always a new spin to put on a story we don’t want to believe or relate to. See Rick Perry’s interpretation  of Wendy Davis’s past as a teenage mother who eventually graduated from Harvard:
“It is just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example,” he says. She did great! Teenage pregnancies for everyone!
While history unfolds in the streets below, Don stands above the chaos and watches from his penthouse, disengaged, taking no responsibility—and we get the view over his shoulder, not looking down at the streets, but out at the skyscrapers, an obscured horizon. Over the past six seasons, a few critics  have equated Don to the devil—a suited, solid-jawed Satan walking the streets of Manhattan. This theory has been validated in more recent episodes, most notably “The Quality of Mercy” in which Don is likened, by some writers , to Rosemary’s devil-baby all grown up, curled in a fetal position before and after tarnishing his friends’ lives and undermining Ted and Peggy’s romance. Then, at the end of this season, Don is cast from the gleaming white cubicles of heaven. But if Don is the devil, he’s the type that doesn’t do anything particularly evil, and, in the wake of his detachment and disengagement, he allows conflict to brew. Though the beauty of Mad Men is that no allegory is a perfect fit, and the devil reading may be too reductive, perhaps this is to say that most of us are Don’s type of devil—while invested in watching and thinking about television, immersed in fictional worlds, we take little responsibility, often allowing history to remain on the periphery of our lives.
Though the characters in Upstairs Downstairs are more active and engaged in historic happenings, they are also removed from the action. The show addresses war and tragedy through a domestic lens, examining what “home” means to both the affluent family whose house has belonged to them for generations, and to the servants who have only ever lived under someone else’s roof. When the domestic space is disrupted and violated by hardheaded daughters, or strikes, or the Great War, the show still refuses to leave the home, even if, by the end of the series, 165 Eaton Place is no longer recognizable. Upstairs Downstairs provides an in-depth portrayal of the war experience, and yet we never see a trench. The home front alters everyone’s lives: women are driving buses, wives must confront their husbands’ undiagnosed / unrecognized PTSD written off as shell-shock; the men of the house return injured, if they return at all.
Mad Men, too, is domestic, but its home is an office. We aren’t shown the Civil Rights Movement with images of Freedom Riders or racial violence. It’s shown instead through the hiring of a black secretary, and all the uncomfortable bumbling that follows. The Vietnam War is portrayed sans trench or protest; the only barrel of a gun we see is on a doomed hunting trip with Chevy executives (a symbolic war). The assassinations of MLK and RFK can be tuned out or turned off. These events happen off camera and warrant only a brief blip in the lives of the characters. Don and company maintain the privilege of being removed from the action. In the offices high above Madison Avenue, everyone is safe from the repercussions of the war, so far: Stan’s cousin is killed in action (a fact he uses to try to get up Peggy’s skirt), while Don’s ex-mistress’s kid is almost drafted (by helping her, Don does in fact get up her skirt again). Despite war and riots, the ad-mens’ shirts stay starchy white, and tragedy remains domestic—Pete’s mother’s odd death/murder, Don’s affair and Sally’s witnessing of it, Peggy accidentally stabbing her boyfriend Abe. These characters are indeed influenced by the history they are living through (or, more accurately, near) but, as the city throbs below with injustice and anger, their storylines are no more informed and defined by external events than by who they are.
Though I feel I have gotten to know the characters in both series well over the years, every time I’ve tried to guess what would happen, I’ve been wrong! I don’t mean to imply that either Mad Men or Upstairs Downstairs relies on twist endings. Rather, they subvert the familiar, twisting the lens through which we view the expected.
Both shows gain a lot of mileage from dramatic irony, which you’d expect from historical fiction. There’s that fusion of pleasure and dread the viewer feels when she knows what Betty Draper will see when she turns on the news in November 1973. Or when Hazel Bellamy fans herself in the great heat leading up to the beginning of World War I.
But the greatest pleasure of all comes from still being surprised despite knowing the course of history. One way this is achieved is by playing off of the viewer’s stereotypes and assumptions of the past, finding the specific within a generally known event. Upstairs Downstairs revolves around the issue of class, and since we all know the Titanic is a symbol of class inequality, I could only assume that, early on in the show when the lady of the house boards the ship with her lady’s maid, this meant the end for the poor old servant. Instead, Lady Marjorie died helping a child, while her servant lived to tell the tale.
Mad Men gracefully defies guesswork in a similar way, and pushes this method deeper, undoing tropes of the era at the same time as tropes of television in general. One TV trope the writers continuously rework is the fallout of extramarital affairs. In Season Two, when Betty Draper finally glances at the upsetting fact of Don’s betrayals, we might expect the usual revenge affair or similarly dramatic outcome. But Betty is a woman who does not know herself, too afraid to acknowledge and do what she wants. She hates herself too much to allow room for her own desires, her own self, which is also, in an infinite loop, the reason she hates herself. Powerless to confront or hurt Don, the nihilist, Betty instead manipulates her married friend into an affair. Afterwards, Betty judges her friend rather than providing support, further inflicting pain that she cannot direct at Don. This is her only avenue of control.
Like Hudson from Upstairs Downstairs, I don’t imagine Betty is on some trajectory of morality. But she is on a trajectory of self-awareness, self-knowledge and confidence. This last season seemed like a coming of age story as much for Betty as for her daughter Sally. In some respects, she is taking responsibility—where others won’t—for the choices she has made, noting that Sally’s drinking and suspension from school (very Don-like behavior), is the result of a broken home. In other ways, she is herself beginning to act (certainly sexually) more like Don.
Meanwhile, Don is out to sabotage the life he doesn’t believe he deserves but has taken nonetheless. We’ve come to expect his self-destructive behavior but it is impossible to predict what his antics might entail. In the Season Six finale, Don finally tells the truth about his past—as a consequence, everything he has worked for, lied for, is taken away. This season focused on Don’s disruptive presence in the office, and ended with his ousting. This suggests that the arc for Season Seven can no longer be Dick Whitman’s upkeep of Don Draper’s appearance. This familiar storyline, which is the show’s foundation of tension, its own formula, has now been upended.
The scope of the series indicates that the final season of Mad Men will encompass 1969, and draw the show to a close with the end of the decade. But if I were writing Mad Men, I would follow the structure of Upstairs Downstairs, speeding up time as the series closes, spending only an episode or two per year, slowing as the show nears the Charybdises of history—until we come to the end of the era rather than the decade. Just as the “sixties” as we know it lasted until 1974, I can imagine Mad Men spanning at least that far, or bumping into today driving home the issue of moral progress and demonstrating how little has changed.
One reason Downton Abbey fails so hard is that it falsely assumes we are beyond the inequalities it depicts. While sentimentalizing class disparity, it at once entices the viewer to root for the persistence of the aristocracy. The popularity of Downton Abbey reveals an eagerness to disown any lingering prejudices from a century ago. If the Mad Men era is revisited fifty years from now, perhaps it won’t amount to much more than Downton Abbey-fluff. It is easier to romanticize what can no longer be remembered first-hand.
And, in the year 2061, on that future show’s rival network (which we’ll watch through Google glasses?), I imagine a series that takes the aughts as its setting. Just as Upstairs Downstairs zeroed in on the prejudices of the turn of the century, and Mad Men on the 1960’s, the show will investigate us. What transgressions, what great changes will the viewer in half a century have trouble reconciling with their current viewpoint? Will our irony be treated with irony? Will the last election cycle take up a season or an episode? Which of our frivolous concerns will be romanticized, which of our serious ones condescended to? Will we want to watch the show—or will we think: they’ve got it all wrong.
Carmiel Banasky is a writer and teacher from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Guernica, NPR, The Rumpus, Anderbo, TheThe Poetry, and Tottenville Review, among other journals. She earned her BA from the University of Arizona, and her MFA from Hunter College, where she taught Undergraduate Creative Writing. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Bread Loaf, Ucross, Spiro Arts, Santa Fe Art Institute, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and other foundations. She’s tried her hand at grassroots organizing while living in Mississippi, and studied for a year in London. She now divides her time between Port Townsend, WA (working for Goddard College) and writing residencies across the country.