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Why These ‘Mad Men’ Memes Haven’t Stopped Hitting

The show was about the 1960s, but the miseries of American life are timeless

Mad Men, the acclaimed AMC period drama created by Matthew Weiner and featuring Jon Hamm in a star-making turn as advertising executive Don Draper, came to a conclusion in 2015, having followed its storylines through seven seasons that spanned the tumultuous 1960s. As it aired, the series ignited many conversations about that era: how accurately or misleadingly it was portrayed, whether the character of America had truly shifted since and what it means to sentimentalize or critique previous generations. Although not without its jokes, Mad Men could be a heavy lift, weighing subjects of race, gender, sex, class, moral corruption and identity.

These knotty themes catapulted Mad Men to a shelf in the canon of 21st-century prestige television. They have almost nothing to do, however, with its afterlife as a meme source. 

“Not great, Bob!” — a harried reply from the weaselly Pete Campbell to his coworker Bob Benson when asked how he’s doing — entered the cultural vocabulary in the summer of 2013 with the Season Six finale, “In Care Of.” By 2019, it had been declared the best Mad Men meme, in part because of its sheer spontaneity: A writer recalled Weiner pitching the line late into a work night, with the uncertainty that it would still be funny in the morning. But while Campbell had good reason to be testy and frantic (he’d just learned that his mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, had vanished from a cruise that she took with a caretaker Bob had recommended), “Not great, Bob!” now serves to communicate a less specific, more ongoing sort of alarm or crisis. It also reveals our desire to drop the guardrails of small talk and speak honestly.

Another elevator confrontation, this one between Don Draper and copywriter Michael Ginsberg, has become a template for establishing indifference to someone beneath your notice. Again, the sequence in the show has rather more nuance — Draper has been fixated on Ginsberg, and hampering his ambitions, which prompts Ginsberg’s pitying remark. But Draper’s gutting reply, though you’d never take it at face value as a savvy fan of Mad Men, is the ultimate put-down in our attention economy, so it is stripped of context in order to maximize the insult.

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The three other memes that round out Mad Men’s top five are, not surprisingly, more vintage Draper. There was his drunken, disastrous presentation to the makers of Life cereal, which is an easily Photoshopped visual shorthand for throwing out terrible ideas in hopes that one might stick. There was the moment when he chided Peggy Olson, who was grousing at the lack of recognition for her work, “That’s what the money is for!” And, of course, there was Sad Don Draper, from a scene in Season Four’s “The Suitcase” when we first saw the normally composed ad man dissolve into tears that spoke of a deep, hidden pain. Each meme captures Draper at a breaking point — of intoxication, anger or sorrow — when he loses control of his image.

The studied aesthetic and reflective commentary that drove engagement with Mad Men during the Obama years doesn’t survive in this content. Unlike memes spawned by The Sopranos, to which Mad Men is always thought an heir, these don’t convey an enduring interest in the lore and subplots of a richly layered narrative; they belong to the well of “relatable” stuff, microcosms of our pettiest frustrations. That all of them are confined to offices, despite the series often venturing beyond those walls, makes me wonder if younger viewers internalized Mad Men not as a scathing portrait of a time and industry but a bleak, existential comedy about the horror of work itself. Botching your assignment. Bickering with colleagues. Recognizing the futility of everything you do, then losing your grip on the persona you developed specially for this job.

And what is a career if not survival of the fittest? The Mad Men memes with staying power are testaments to our drive to stay on top. To keep winning. To bring our haters and rivals to heel. Such are the miseries of the American machine — that system we oil with our sweat and blood. 

How apropos to have these vestigial jokes affirm, in bold type, Mad Men’s sneakiest motif: The sense that you were watching not just the story of a bygone past, but an explanation of how the present came to be, and an argument that not much had materially changed between then and now. 

Hits you like a ton of bricks, doesn’t it? I think I’ll go and make myself a nice, strong drink.