[Editor's note: This column is dedicated to the memory of House contributor, Time Out New York editor and regular Mad Men recapper Andrew Johnston, who passed away Sunday, Oct. 26 at age 40, following a long battle with cancer. Andrew's burial will take place Saturday, Nov. 1 at 2 p.m. at the Monticello Memory Gardens in Charlottesville, Virginia. There will also be a memorial Wednesday, October 29 at 5:30 p.m.; if you were a friend of Andrew's and would like to attend, email Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.]
During the first season of Mad Men and throughout the second, much critical discussion centered on the the show's depiction of advertising, domestic life and gender relations in the late '50s and early '60s, the immense cultural changes America was about to undergo, and what opinion series creator Matthew Weiner might have on it all. After watching the last three episodes, I believe those aspects are mere means to an end. Like the mob storylines on The Sopranos—a series on which Weiner served as a writer and producer—they exist to inform and amplify Mad Men's real interest: the continual struggle between what Sigmund Freud called the id and the superego, between the deep, authentic self inside us—the sum total of our desires, appetites, urges and fantasies—and what we might call the constructed self, a superstructure of social conditioning that cages the beast within and lashes it with guilt and shame when it gets too rowdy. The third major component of the personality, the ego, referees between the id, the superego and the external world; in a sense, the ego is the locus of drama, because it's the place where decisions happen. The struggle is apparent in any story worth watching, but it's foregrounded in Mad Men, a series in which—like The Sopranos—dramatic decisions often come down to a blunt cost-benefit analysis. A character in moral quandary tries to choose between what he or she wants, and what his or her conditioning—and the expectations of family, friends or society at large—will allow.