“People Want to Be Whisked Away”: ‘Mad Men’ Exhibit Illuminates the Ideas Behind the Iconic Show

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Early on in the Museum of the Moving Image‘s Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men exhibit, there’s a framed display of three pieces of notebook paper. It’s from 1993, dated “1 a.m.” in the corner, and it’s a bunch of chicken scratch from Weiner’s journal that, taken together, forms the very beginning of Mad Men. “Got an idea the other day,” he writes, “my horoscope said I’d have a great one and although it had been a passing thought a few days before now, it is suddenly real.”

Then he philosophizes, a bit, on the meaning of story: “People, I feel, want to be whisked away, but where? They want to feel, is the key.” He then has a vision of a man: “My character has reached the end of a long circle which has been filled with spirals.” He then goes on to sketch the life of a man whose tendency for reinvention stands in for America: a man with the American dream — the wife and family and white picket fence — but behind it, secrets. He mentions a brother, Adam, a second wife “already with children,” a trip to Rome, and California looming in the future like another chance.

Courtesy of Thanassi Karageorgiou/Museum of the Moving Image.

There’s an outline of the character’s life, and six main themes, including “1) Death that follows all men 2) Man’s insatiable sexual proliclivities” up to “6) time passes.” What makes these three pages fascinating of what is, essentially, “Matty Weiner’s Journal: keep out!!!!!” is that you can see how complete his vision was for the world and themes within Mad Men, even when the show was decades away from its debut.

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men is a victory lap for AMC’s flagship show, due to air its final seven episodes in April, and a very real argument for the artistry behind one of television’s greatest shows of all time. Small, intimate, and impeccably curated, the exhibition is a peek behind the curtain into the mountains of research and soul that went into Weiner’s creation.

In a lot of ways, it’s what you’d expect from a Mad Men-themed exhibit: full scale replicas of Don Draper’s office (circa Sterling Cooper & Partners) and the Drapers’ Ossining kitchen. The depth of detail and attention to placement in each room is like a work of art. (And for fun during the exhibit, try to figure out which Bobby Draper is in which background photograph.)

Mad Men‘s impeccable costuming gets its own room, with mannequins wearing dresses from the likes of Peggy, Betty, Megan, and Joan. The men’s suits and tailoring are also included. But where it gets interesting is in the details: There are mood boards done by costume designer Janie Bryant, and clear shadow boxes set up to display curios like the lipsticks and makeup for each character. The most interesting one of the bunch, naturally, is Don Draper’s box of secrets, with a Purple Heart medal and vintage-looking photos of Jon Hamm.

Seen in person, the costumes have a palpable energy, Joan’s dresses in particular — her green dress from season three is intact, covered in blood. It’s also interesting (and, perhaps, a commentary on the whims of the camera, what’s expected for actresses’ weight, and the weird media fetishization of Christina Hendricks) to see that Joan’s dresses look remarkably average, about a size 10 in person.

Yet for all the ephemera in the exhibit, the most compelling feature is its emphasis on the process of the show. It feels voyeuristic to see the notes and drafts from Weiner, forever vigilant of spoilers and forever the keeper of Mad Men‘s vision, known throughout the land as a control freak with a talent for talking about the show yet revealing nothing. His very first visitation from Don Draper — the excerpt from his journal — is a rare moment of vulnerability, and it’s supported by a litany of snippets from scripts and research, showing all the work that’s gone into creating his singular vision.

Courtesy of Thanassi Karageorgiou/Museum of the Moving Image.

There’s even a section of the exhibit devoted to the writers’ room, and the whiteboards, Post-It notes, and charts that have led to the creation of each episode. If you have any interest in scriptwriting or storytelling, this part of the show is revealing, showing how the average Mad Men plot — which, some weeks, is literally “a guy opens a door in an office” — can become loaded with meaning and symbolism.

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men is a small exhibit, but if you like the show, it’s fascinating, and worth seeing. As befitting anything with Weiner’s name on it, it’s a very particular degree of information, just enough of a glimpse behind the curtain. Yet Mad Men is an elliptical enough show that scads of meaning can be figured out from the placement of a “We Are Happy To Serve You” New York coffee cup on Don Draper’s desk, and the opportunity to ruminate on the details is a strong argument for the good work, and moments of magic, behind Mad Men‘s incredible run.

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men runs from March 14 – June 14 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, along with a ten-film series curated by Weiner: “Required Viewing: Mad Men‘s Movie Influences.”