Love it or hate it, or hate the people that love it, one of the biggest shows on television right now is Mad Men, which recently premiered its sixth season on AMC. Mad Men’s premiere brought the series’ core theme — response to change — to the forefront of people’s minds. Perhaps this is why the premiere episode fell flat for many fans: we are shown themes touched on in the past seasons, yet we haven’t really explored them yet.
While the motif linking the main storylines is clearly death, there’s something more than that. The real theme is change — change through death. Roger Sterling has a brief monologue, which acts as a thesis statement for the episode and explains about life experiences being superfluous until death. Don Draper’s story, supplementing Roger’s, follows him as he meets a soldier on leave from Vietnam and parallels Don’s own change through death in the Korean war. But we see many of our characters falling into old traps, suggesting that no one really is able to change except in that last experience of death.
Many of us in university are on the edge of change — we’re leaping off the ivory tower into careers. Even if we are taking the next step higher in the tower into graduate school, we are taking a leap of faith over an abyss of the unknown with fear that threatens to swallow us whole. Change seems nonexistent while completing your undergraduate degree. It’s an endless ebb and flow of assignments and exams. But once you finish, change is waiting there in cloak and cowl to take us on to the next step.
In Mad Men’s season two episode “The Mountain King,” Don admits that people don’t, or can’t, change. But certain characters maintain that as you live, you learn things. Roger denies this in the season six premiere, calling life experiences pennies that you pick up on your way to the grave. And with this pessimistic perspective, the episode ends on a dour and depressing note.
Roger puts death on a pedestal, calling it the ultimate change and perhaps this is true. For me this past semester began and ended in the deaths of close family members. We can lament the loss of life, of someone passing from this world to something else, or we grieve for not taking the time to learn from the experiences that person had in their pocket. But the change from someone being here to not being here offers an opportunity for you to change for the better. To learn from the memories they shared, or from the lack thereof.
Mad Men is praised and hated for putting down the rose-tinted glasses and offering a non-nostalgic view of the ’60s. Throughout the series, attachment to the past or refusal to move on trips up a lot of characters, Don Draper in particular. In season four Don is advised to resolve his past in order to move on. Nostalgia is key to one of Don’s most famous speeches — the Kodak carousel slide projector — which makes a cameo in season six’s premiere episode. We grip onto memories, Don explains in his speech, yet the past always seems to slip through our fingers.
Change is the ending of one thing in exchange for something else. That something else could be better or worse, but it isn’t death, it is a rebirth of ourselves. We can choose to fall into the same traps and pick up the same pennies along the road or we can stop dragging our feet and face change head on despite our uncertainty and fear. Whether we are graduating or continuing on with our studies, it is just as important to collect experiences as it is to keep them or to let them go.