Mad Men is one of the most acclaimed American dramas series of the 21st Century. It is also secretly a Science Fiction series and the longest unofficial The Twilight Zone story ever made. It ended its 7-season run back in 2015 but is still talked about with reverence. It deserves all the critical acclaim, deserving its place next to The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood and Breaking Bad. It meticulously recreated 1960 America and charted the social changes that go all the way to its finale in 1970. It's an utterly unique series that slyly examined and deconstructed masculine identity, gender relations, race, and the eternal theme of Art vs. Commerce as a workplace drama and character study of its antihero Don Draper (Jon Hamm).
The Past as Science Fiction
Mad Men is really a Science Fiction show in disguise. You could also say it's the longest episode of The Twilight Zone ever made – 7 years and 92 episodes that told the story of a single alien as he tries to find his place in post-War America. The show recreates a hyperreal version of 1960s America. It's not the actual Sixties America, that would be impossible. It's a simulacrum of Sixties America. It looks back through today's lenses with the sense of irony and hindsight no one at the time could possibly have had. It's often surreal and slyly satirical about America in the Sixties as it pokes at the sexism and racism and toxic masculinity that dominated society. It was even ahead of its time in telling stories of sexual coercion and assault that were commonplace in society, years before #MeToo became official. And it tells all these stories using an alien outsider as its center and prism.
Don Draper: Stranger in a Strange Land
That's right- Don Draper is an outsider and an alien. He's not from this world that he desperately wants to fit in. He's a veteran from the Korean War who comes back to America by assuming the identity of a fellow soldier who died in battle. His identity is a construct, a façade that he works hard to maintain so he can fit seamlessly in society and live the American Dream: a successful job, a beautiful wife and kids, and a house. Unfortunately, none of it makes him happy. He lives in fear of being found out. He can't stay sober or faithful to his wife because he's always looking for an ideal that doesn't exist. He leaves a lot of emotional wreckage in his wake though he doesn't mean to, he never achieves the self-awareness needed to stop. He actually has a huge effect on the people around him – his ex-wife Betty (January Jones), his daughter Sally (Shipka Kirnan), his junior colleague Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), his partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), his protégé Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) and more. Some of them know his secret.
Don Draper isn't out to destroy the world or hurt anybody. He just wants a life he doesn't think he could have as a nobody born in a brothel. Yet his uneasiness as a perpetual outsider gives him a detached perspective on life and the American Dream. He's also a stand-in for the artist trying to create meaningful work that clients would be willing to pay for. His advertising campaigns – which ironically aim to sell a version of the American Dream to consumers – are his bid for immortality. His innovative, sometimes avant-garde ideas are sometimes deemed too radical for clients and he's forced to make more generic campaigns. The show is also about this alien doing his bit to subtly change American culture.
The Power of The Twilight Zone
Science Fiction is a genre that looks at the world from the outside to deconstruct and gain a new understanding of it. Usually it's set in a future world or uses aliens to highlight those details. The Twilight Zone's impact was in the way it used genre to expose the existential anxieties of Cold War America.
It wasn't just about paranoia about the Other and Racism, but also the unstable sense of identity Americans had following the Second World War. The Twilight Zone dealt with issues like gender, race, alcoholism, fear of change, loss of self, the dangers of ambition, the perils of ego and over-reliance on technology, on greed, and the fear of loneliness, on being abandoned, on whether life is worth living. These are all the same themes that Mad Men dealt with in its seven seasons. There were often flashes of Magical Realism, the supernatural, and even Science Fiction in moments of Mad Men throughout its run that took it out of just being a straight, "realistic" drama.
Don Draper embodied and often lived through those themes with the air of an alien outsider through the show. Show creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner is said to be a fan of Science Fiction and there are loads of Sci-Fi easter eggs sprinkled throughout Mad Men, like ad exec Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) quietly selling Science Fiction stories to pulp magazines on the side and contemplating giving up his job as an ad man to become a full-time writer, only to be talked out of it by his wife and living out the rest of his career feeling unfulfilled as a corporate wage slave, another example of the show's recurring theme of Artistic Expression vs. Commerce.
This is why you can re-watch Mad Men as the longest, most prestigious, and subtle episode of Twilight Zone ever made. It might offer a totally new perspective on the show.