I didn't watch the first few episodes because I thought it would be glib and uncritical, perhaps nostalgic or a mere costume drama. When I first watched it I thought it threw a spotlight on the present day by presenting characters who were more ignorant and unselfconscious, and yet consequently more free and innocent, than we are today. But later you come to see how each one is trapped in a sticky web of expectation. But finally, what lifts it beyond either of those interpretations is that each character is struggling, with mixed success, to achieve authenticity of self, within the social web. In that respect it is very like Jane Austen. The most like Jane Austen of any show I have seen on telly.
There has been a lively debate about Mad Men in The Guardian, with these excellent readers letters published today. Ilma Cave expresses my own views very succinctly (though I would disagree with her word 'oblivious'):
We see the characters live their lives oblivious to the rigid conventions that rule them, while we in the future look in horror at their chain-smoking, sexist, racist ways. This creates an exquisite tension. At its essence Mad Men is about consciousness; the need to be aware of those conventions that make up our daily lives. It constantly asks us: what conventions are ruling you now, that you are unaware of? It seeks to prise us away from the complacency about our own lives and learn to question.
And even more importantly
The subtext of Mad Men seems to offer an answer: maybe if we were just kind to each other...
Advertising is a particularly poignant illustration of the tension between the authentic creative self and the belittling dehumanising effect of brute capitalism of course. In order to be good at their jobs they must flirt constantly with the subconscious and with true springs of emotion.
In the last episode the protagonist Don Draper and a junior executive discuss the rock paintings at Lascaux, the marks of hands of long-dead artists, and the junior says 'It is as if they are reaching through a veil of rock, towards you' (or words to that effect). Funnily enough I'd been talking about those handprints to H just a few days earlier, and it struck me how we all were trapped in our routine lives, feeling the same things, and having to put them aside to get on with the business of living.
ETA Review of Mad Men final episode at TV Scoop