I know the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff might find this baffling, but death has always been an integral part of the Mad Men universe. Spoilers after the jump…
In discussing the untimely end of Lane Pryce of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, the AV Club’s recapper pontificates:
Let me express something that might seem a little baffling to some of you: I’m not sure Mad Men is the kind of show that desperately needs character deaths.
Let’s leave aside the tone of VanDerWerff’s point* and instead focus on its substance.
In one, very narrow, way, I agree with VanDerWerff that killing off characters isn’t necessarily necessary in the Mad Men universe. This isn’t The Sopranos, where one good whacking—and preferably three or four—was needed a season. It’s not even The Shield, where villains tend to get killed and even the good guys suffer some casualties as the years roll along. The world of advertising isn’t one filled with gunplay, and we’re not hanging on the edge of our seats wondering who is going to get his in any given episode.
In a broader sense, however, Mad Men is driven by death. The death of Don Draper—the real Don Draper, the one whose identity Dick Whitman steals—sets the entire show into motion and drives forward that propulsive, brilliant first season. The suicide of Dick/Don’s brother—like Lane, by hanging, and, like Lane, because Don refused to help him—drives home the severity of Dick/Don’s personality, and his almost maniacal urge to keep his secrets to himself.
Then there’s the death of Grandpa Gene, which sends Sally into a mini-tailspin and sends Betty off in search of another father figure—and into the arms of Henry Francis, thus destroying the world that Don had so desperately sought to create. And the death of Don’s first wife, Anna, serves as the emotional linchpin for what might be the show’s greatest episode, “The Suitcase.” It also helps him get his life back in order: He hits bottom in Peggy’s arms, crying about losing the only woman who ever truly loved him. Death tore Don’s family and life apart; death helped him pull his life back together and served as the foundation for his newfound love of life with Megan.
On a broader conceptual level, the entire second season is about the death of Sterling, Cooper, the firm. The way in which it is dismantled and parted out; the way in which its primary figures commit firm suicide rather than meekly accept their fate; the way in which that death leads to a glorious, struggling rebirth as Sterling, Draper, Cooper, Pryce.
Hell, the entire show has been about death: The death of America’s great post-war period in which it emerged as a world power; the death of old, outdated norms and mores that make no sense in the modern world; the death of the squares, the dopes, the losers. It’s a brave new world, man, but a brave new world requires a meek old world’s death.
Given the very real feeling the show has, none of this should be too surprising; death hangs over all of us, influencing everything we do. We’re only human, after all.
*Dude, seriously: You’re not expounding upon the mysteries of the universe. There is literally no argument you could make about Mad Men that would be “baffling” to your readers. This isn’t String Theory. We’re not discussing artificial intelligence or the wonders of evolution. Please don’t talk down to your audience.