As the final season of Mad Men draws to a close, Henry Oliver reports back on the faithful sets, drawers of trinkets and tiny 1960s clothes at the Mad Men exhibit at New York’s Museum of Moving Image. Photo credit: Alexis Brooks.
Everything’s an exhibition nowadays. This year in New York, a city seemingly full of museums, there are currently exhibitions on Bjork, submarines, Frank Sinatra, SNL, easily confusable advertising creative Paul Rand (not Paul, Rand), Yves Saint Laurent, Alice in Wonderland and, you guessed it, Mad Men. To celebrate (or commiserate) the second half of the last season of AMC’s Mad Men (as it’s billed all over town), Matthew Weiner has opened up his vaults to the Museum of Moving Image, a shrine to all things film and television in Queens. I visited just before the airing of the last couple of episodes.
The exhibition progresses chronologically, starting with a stack of novels (John Cheever, guys like that) which inspired the show. There are period-relevant photos of Matthew Weiner’s family, and diary entries discussing the meaning of art, and the friction between art and commerce, story and ideas. Weiner is obviously a serious dude, who takes the world, television, and himself, very seriously. And he would very much like you to know how seriously he takes this stuff (as if Don and Peggy weren’t shouting it at you that every week anyway).
The first sign of the show itself is Don, featured in the aborted screenplay for The Horseshoe, which Weiner wrote in 1992. Don, not necessarily in advertising, is the son of a prostitute and an asshole, grew up poor, and stole a dead man’s identity in order to forge a new life for himself.
Then come the notes. Piles of notes, scribbled on paper matter of all descriptions, some with Sopranos branding, back on envelopes, whatever. This glass case is what those people with delusions of grandeur, who keep every scrap of paper they ever scribbled on, dream of. Still, it’s somehow reassuring to know that something as grand as Mad Men is the product of such scraps – small ideas stitched together into one big idea. Idle thoughts, daydreamed ideas had when one was actually being paid to think about someone else’s ideas.
Soon, the show itself starts taking shape. The original script of the opening scene of S01E01, with a television on the wall, playing it as you read. Don asking a black waiter for a light and enquiring about his smoking habits. Don is handsome and cool, obviously, and so down to goddamn earth that he talks to the help. We learn that, when writing the pilot, Don was just a creative genius ad man with no allegorical backstory. He was different, obviously, but no-one knew why. Turns out, it was only when the pilot was picked up that Weiner thought ahead, and stitched the new Don onto the old growing-up-rough hero from The Horseshoe.
These notions about creativity and productivity are hit home, perhaps a little too hard, by a 1:1 scale replication of the Mad Men writing room. It’s interesting, but given that you can only view it from a safe distance, it’s a odd thing to behold in this, or any, context. It looks like any other depiction of a television writers room, or any other vaguely creative board room. Anything that would make it particularly interesting is wiped out to avoid spoilers. Plot points on the whiteboard are broad and bland. Copies of Variety on the desk are unread spread just so. It’s all too neat, too sterile. Perhaps that’s the way it works in real life. I guess I’d just hoped for something more… dramatic. A crumpled up magazine on the floor where Weiner has thrown it at someone and missed. Something.
Next is the ephemera. Don’s business cards look all too contemporary which, I assume, is the fault of our overly nostalgic visual culture rather than a period inaccuracy of the show. We see the newspaper clippings of Don’s cigarette martyrdom, and (best of all) the box of secrets Betty found in his desk drawer – letters, photos, dog-tags, social security card.
Then there are the clothes. They look almost too real, like you’re actually in an exhibition about the 60s rather than an exhibition about a show about the 60s. They look brighter than they do on screen. And smaller. The cast is tiny. Except Jon Hamm, who is huge. His suit looks like it could be worn by the winning quarterback of Super Bowl I in 1967.
We walk past the Draper’s kitchen, which is unremarkable, and then to Don’s office, which is totally remarkable. Everything is pitch perfect. I walk in, housed by a glass walkway, and feel like he’s about to walk out and tell me how terrible my writing is. I ask my friend to take my picture and we get busted before we could get a shot off (we were basically followed for the rest of the exhibition until we reach the audio-visual, touch-screen stuff, which no-one would want a photo of anyway).
The overall impact of the exhibition is more ‘oh cool’ than ‘WOW’. It’s great seeing some of this stuff, especially if, like me, you’re an ephemera type. But the timing seems off. Walking through an exhibition about a show about advertising that hasn’t even ended, feels a little too much like plain old advertising. Anyone who would bother going is definitely watching the last half-season anyway, so why bother? I like geeking out as much as the next guy, but there was a sense that you were attending the funeral of a friend who wasn’t dead yet.
“Remember this?” the exhibition asks, with an all too contemporary tone of instant-nostalgia. “Didn’t we have some good times together?”
I do. And we did. I mean, we still are. At least for one more episode.
The final episode of Mad Men airs tonight at 7pm on Soho
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.