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Why Mad Men is a post-apocalyptic story

Glen (Marten Weiner) and Betty (January Jones) have one last meeting.
Glen (Marten Weiner) and Betty (January Jones) have one last meeting.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and foreign policy reporter Amanda Taub. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Libby Nelson: Todd, I think we're both right. I've focused on Peggy and Joan's promising dates not because I'm ignoring the growing sense of disconnection, but because I'm clinging to a rare exception.

Mad Men's characters aren't struggling to connect anymore. They've mostly stopped trying — and it's not just Don. The tally of lost relationships, not just with spouses but with family, friends, and society, over the past seven seasons is staggering. The original characters from Sterling Cooper started the 1960s together; they're ending them alone.

This is part of the big social narrative Mad Men is telling, and it's not without its upside. The general sense of isolation makes the moments when characters do connect — from the long night on "The Suitcase" to the beautiful shot of Don, Peggy, and Pete at Burger Chef — all the more luminous.

But the growing disconnect is one of the reasons we're having trouble imagining an ending. Characters who used to struggle with each other are now mostly struggling with themselves. That's not a fight that ends with a knockout punch. It's not a fight that ends at all. It's one that goes on and on, with at best minor victories, and eventually ends in an eternal draw.

The first three seasons of Mad Men were about people with troubled, unhappy relationships in a flawed society. But still: they had relationships. They were part of society. Roger went to Don's house for dinner; Sal went to Ken's. The men struggled with their wives and their in-laws. Joan had her husband. Even Peggy had her mother, her sister, and her priest. And the women in Don's life, outside the Sterling Cooper circle, were given connections of their own to family and friends.

Those bonds — marriage, family, religion, workplace — were Mad Men's major source of conflict. Then the bonds snap: not just Roger, Joan's, and Don's divorces and Pete's separation, but the rift between Roger and Joan created by Joan's ascension to partner, the death of Lane Pryce, Peggy's alienation from her family. As the series continues, the breakdown of the bonds gets more and more chaotic: Paul Kinsey disappears into the Hare Krishnas. Peggy stabs her boyfriend. Ginsberg becomes mentally ill.

In the background, the old social mores and safety nets have disappeared. (Amanda, I loved your concise explanation of the sliding scale of what wives are willing to put up with.) This change is for the better, but for the characters it must feel almost post-apocalyptic. Their lives fell out from under them, and the world they were born into is no longer recognizable.

It's wonderfully symbolic, but to a fan, it's frustrating. Severing the connections between characters means we also lose the conflict and interplay between them. There's nothing inherently less worthy about internal conflict, but it's harder to dramatize — let alone resolve. And as characters are increasingly disconnected from one another, we end up with more storylines featuring new or minor characters. Instead of seeing Megan, Don, and Peggy interact, we see Megan and her family, Don and the waitress, and Peggy and Pima. Everyone starts to feel shortchanged.

So, no, Todd, I don't think you're being too gloomy. Maybe Don is building toward a revelation. Maybe the glimmers of new connections we've seen for Joan and Peggy will brighten. But the profound alienation most characters seem to be experiencing might not be able to be easily resolved in only a few remaining episodes.

Read the recap, and come back next week for thoughts on the next episode.

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