The implicit theme of the show Madmen, lurking and wafting between the lines like cigarette smoke, is how regressive the 50s were, measured by all the liberal progress America has gone through since then. In the context of this theme, dramatic tensions are played out among the various characters showing them struggling with the 50s—as the 50s like a “fabulous invalid” slowly dies and transmutes into the 60s—in their individual conscience and in social and romantic interactions, in a more or less semi-conscious way.
The modern “enlightenment” of the writers and directors is reflected in varying degrees by various characters who, by virtue of the good writing and excellent acting, just barely (usually) skirt the danger of being mere marionettes in the hands of the PC puppet masters who have created them. The bearded office employee “Paul Kinsey” (played by Michael Gladis), for example, who has a black girlfriend, spouts vaguely Trotskyite nonsense, and went on a Martin Luther King bus ride at one point, obviously represents the progressive curve; while the silver-haired unreconstructed, unrepentant womanizing prick “Roger Sterling” (played wickedly by John Slattery) epitomizes the gold standard of the 50s Unevolved Man. Indeed, Roger Sterling is depicted as a worse “lout” than Don Draper (as blogger Debbie Schlussel calls him) whom the writers and directors tend often to endow and imbue with vaguely proto-progressive (i.e., liberalish) qualities of character. One scene vividly showed this, when Roger Sterling, at a garden party among 50s business bigwigs, put on a blackface minstrel act on the stage set up in a gazebo, and was unselfconsciously reveling in it, while Don Draper scowled and sulked in the wings then stalked off in a liberally indignant huff.
Many more scenes of various kinds throughout the seasons could be adduced to illustrate more or less the same point. In this light, I find that the show often dips a little too richly into a kind of arrogantly self-congratulatory/self-flagellating denigration of the era of the late 50s/early 60s in its heavy-handed mocking of their “regressive” ways compared to all the unquestionable “Progress” we enlightened politically correct New Americans have managed to develop since that time. (In this respect the show resembles the CBS television drama Cold Case.)
In doing so, it indulges in the Myth of the Fifties that has been constructed by 60s-era counter-cultural academics and their progeny in the various pop media throughout the 70s and beyond. Like most effective myths, the Myth of the Fifties is not 100% false: it weaves many facts and truths about the era deftly in a tapestry of caricature, satire, exaggeration, and agenda-driven mockery, denigration and hypercriticism. (One of the more trivial examples of this mockery occurs in scenes that show one or more of the characters hacking and coughing because of their habit of smoking cigarettes with abandon: this comes off as a bit ham-handed and rings more of burlesque buffoonery than of realism.)
As each season chronologically corresponds to the closing of the 50s and America’s journey through the 60s, the characters, especially Don Draper, slowly but surely—with plenty of bumps along the way, of course (representing natural, but wrong, resistance to Progress)—transform out of the 50s mold and start to crack in various ways under the pressure of that latter decade’s cultural revolution. (Predictably, there had to be an episode where everyone is stunned by the news of Kennedy's assassination in 1963—rather all too obviously hitting the viewer over the head with the trite cliché about how America Grew Up from their childish 50s fantasy with a rude shock of Reality in that defining moment.)
Aside from Don Draper, there is the unctuously self-righteous secretary Peggy Olson whose character, however, one cannot fairly impugn completely, since the actress, Elisabeth Moss, is so talented, she actually often breathes life into the ideological vehicle the writers and directors intend her to personify. Peggy Olson symbolizes all that’s right and good about the Absolute Truth of liberal progress, vividly contrasted to the morally regressive Era she has to assert herself against, to be true to herself. All that would be fine, and one can almost see the poignancy of it all (particularly, as I say, because of Elisabeth Moss’s acting talent), were it not predominantly propaganda. Meanwhile, of course, John Slattery’s Roger Sterling represents the Dying Breed who will never change with the times, and so in a kind of tragic buffoonery (reminiscent of the clownishly conservative bête noire of the TV show M*A*S*H, “Major Frank Burns”) will die off—or will live on, as a paleo-Conservative whom society has to continue to ostracize and legislate against with Enlightened Ways and Laws.
Logically, this whole dynamic of the show I suppose makes sense, else you would have little dramatic growth going on from season to season. Still, it smells ideologically driven, and so one ends up feeling cheated, or soiled by the compromise of sacrificing honesty for a dramatic tension that by a suspiciously neat coincidence dovetails with the Real Truth about What is Good (i.e., Politically Correct Liberal Progress).
One can almost literally see Don Draper, as the embodiment of the heart and soul of the entire show, molt and fissure as, season to season, he morphs in his Evolution from one species into another: from politically incorrect Lout, to progressive Liberal. That, of course, is the only possible evolution Mankind can undergo, as we all know. And if regressive Neanderthals insist on continuing to exist and trying to influence norms, then society will just have to continue to keep the flame of progress alive, through a combination of “shaming” (as Hillary Clinton, her mask slipping off her fascist face, recently put it) and legally enforced social engineering—not to mention through influential and expensive vehicles of pop culture, such as Madmen, carefully modulated by its creators and purveyors to gently but surely nudge, massage and reinforce PC.
At any rate, I just wish Madmen would more often err on the opposite side—toward celebrating the martini-guzzling cigarette-smoking secretary-chasing-around-the-desk joi de vivre of the 50s, Dean Martin style; rather than indulging in lampooning the dark, sad and regressive side.