High school AP classes may be churning out theories about the green light at the end of Daisy's pier or Andy Warhol's tomato soup cans, but the most popularly deconstructed symbol in and of American culture these days is "Mad Men's" falling guy.
As AMC's first scripted drama heads toward its Sunday finale, critics, bloggers and fans have been hotly debating the meaning and relevance of its opening credits, in which a black silhouette of a man slowly falls through an ad-laden cityscape. When the series premiered in 2007, some expressed concern over the possible evocation of 9/11; now many wonder if it foreshadows Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) suicide by defenestration. Or is it evocative of a more spiritual/emotional descent, a suggestion of despair, enlightened surrender or the inability to control one's own life?
For millions of television viewers, God is in the deconstruction, and "Mad Men" helped put him there.
Hailed first for its sleek look and stories both streamlined and dream-like, "Mad Men" changed the world in many ways. It made AMC a purveyor of Emmy Award-winning drama and, revealed that the line between premium and non-premium cable was a thin one.
"Mad Men" also broadened the definition of "period," proving that shows did not need powdered wigs or covered wagons to be considered historical.
"Mad Men" even, one could argue, catalyzed the return of strong female leads to TV; title aside, the show's women, including Joan (Christina Hendricks), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Betty (January Jones), were as key to the story as the men.
Even more significant, "Mad Men" turned television into an honors English class.
Four years ago, a story about the show appeared in the New York Review of Books. Written by regular contributor Daniel Mendelsohn, the piece was not a rave.
Critics from platforms as diverse as the New Yorker and Nerve quickly dissected the dissection, but the point was not so much the details of the conversation as the fact of the conversation.
There it was: a piece of 29 long and loaded paragraphs and all but footnoted, explaining the nonmerits of a television series. In the New York Review of Books. "Mad Men" was being treated to the sort of smart and passionate debate previously reserved for, say, the works of Norman Mailer or Robert Altman.
Highly stylized, "Mad Men" always courted its own annotation, with many episodes seeming more like a series of carefully curated still lives than traditional story lines. What seemed at first a drama about the advertising agency soon became a self-conscious primer on mid-20th century America, replete with references that increasingly seemed less about time and place and more vehicles of social commentary.
And as the show winds down, the traditional concepts of plot have been all but overwhelmed by the attractions of subtext.
What happens has become less important than what it all means. The slow and often preening pace, more marked in these final episodes than ever before, has worn on some, but many others watch, dutifully logging various literary elements and internal references, breathlessly anticipating a Steinbeckian final image that, one hopes, will answer the Big Questions: What is the meaning of the show that so clearly wants television to mean something?
What is the final message of "Mad Men"?