The connections between ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Sopranos’ are pretty mind-blowing
Normal spoiler disclaimers apply.
The second half of the final season of “Mad Men” premieres Sunday April 5. Though the show’s viewership has never been blockbuster like its lesser AMC cousin “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” is the greatest television show in the history of the medium. Yeah, I said it. And it didn’t need a Red Wedding, blue meth, ultra-violence, unbelievable coincidences, or a crime gimmick to get its point across. It gave us a story in its purest, most modern form, one that all of us can relate to, in that it found its hook in the drama associated with the intersection of our personal and professional lives. It towers above all others as the biggest juggernaut of dramatic television programming ever. Period. No contest. Give up. It’s the greatest. Deal with it.
Weekly recaps and think-pieces may have poured over everything that is “Mad Men” but its close relationship with another television phenomenon is the one I want to examine. And no, contrary to the many cameos and references, it’s not “30 Rock.”
The final episode of “The Sopranos” aired in June 2007. “Mad Men” premiered a month later. It’s now part of Hollywood legend that HBO passed on Matthew Weiner’s original “Mad Men” pitch. But during his tenure as a staff writer on “The Sopranos,” working under David Chase, Weiner honed his skills and nursed his passion project. You could really say that “Mad Men” was incubated inside of “The Sopranos,” which was, until the latter’s premiere, the undisputed greatest television show of all time. Weiner helped to shape the final seasons of “The Sopranos,” and upon re-watching both shows back-to-back, it’s clear he had a palpable influence on the overall arch of the show.
Both shows have sentiment without being overly sentimental. Whether it was Tony warming something up in the microwave or Don taking a nap, the shows were still character-driven and operatic and focused more than any other, on the quiet moments of their characters lives. While Tony Soprano and Don Draper are iconic generational protagonists, they were both “difficult men” who were sometimes more possessed by their characters, rather than possessing character.
Both men are initially hesitant to any form of introspection or psychology but later find some operational value in its practice, in however peripheral a way. Both men suffer from White Man Syndrome, which is to say they have an inherent ethnic superiority complex. Both men start their series as more attentive husbands and fathers than they end them. Both share a dim view of a dark and uncertain future. They are both casual Republicans, yet more pragmatic and progressive culturally, more so than they might know or care to admit. Neither Tony or Don seems to care about the personal lives of their gay lieutenants, Vito and Sal; they do only insomuch as it starts to affect their business interests. Both men frequently have flashbacks to their childhoods that illuminate the morally questionable actions of their parents.
Tony blames his parents for his psychological problems, while Don thinks that’s a “bullshit” excuse. Both are victims of abuse while at the same time being perpetrators of new offenses, all while struggling with the realization that they are not unique, but part of a continuum. Both men share more than a few brooding stares into mirrors. Tony suffers from panic attacks through the first few seasons of “The Sopranos,” while Don has one panic attack in season four of “Mad Men.” Both Don and Tony fail to truly enjoy their successes for various internal reasons, merely seeing their victories as a means to accumulate greater success that they will still not enjoy.
There are other more direct comparisons between the series’ leading men. Both men visit their childhood neighborhoods as adults that have by that time turned into ghettos. Both have dreams and hallucinations about dead relatives or victims. In Tony’s case, it’s old associates who picked the short straw in the mob game; in Don’s, it’s the brother he rejected who later turned to suicide. Both men’s (multiple) mistresses resemble their mothers. Both men are compulsively flirty, especially when alone in cars with ladies, assuming that being alone with women immediately offers an opportunity. Tony and Don both crash their Cadillacs while stealing time with ladies they shouldn’t be with. Both men tear things outs of magazines; Don for the advertisements, Tony for the steak recipes. Overhead shots of Don and Tony sleeping frequently pop up, and especially toward the end of both series, as if they’re preparing to lie in repose. Tony overeats, while Don routinely skips meals. Both seasons 4 of each series, start to turn their protagonists into the villain of the show.
When a final marital indiscretion forces both Don and Tony into mid-life bachelorhood, they burn the candle at both ends by getting wasted and patronizing prostitutes and handing off their kids to their exes. Both men physically push their wives in their more heated arguments. Both enjoy random hookups with their wives during their separation/divorce. Carmela rebuffs Tony but eventually takes him back; Betty treats the encounter as a final goodbye. During the separation, AJ tries to move in with Tony, as does Sally with Don. Don and Tony also have meddling Hispanic cleaning ladies while they’re living alone.
Both men take stock of their surroundings by sometimes watching their subordinates in slow-motion scenes. These scenes play out again in both shows with their proteges, Christopher and Peggy, watching rooms filled with people in slow-motion. Their relationships with the proteges are similar as well, propelling their careers forward while at the same time pushing them away personally. “The Suitcase” and “Whoever Did This” are two episodes where Don and Peggy and Tony and Christopher spent nearly the entire time together. In season five of both shows, both men almost go after women who were, until that time, off-limits; Don with Joan and Tony with Adriana. Tony and Don are given paintings, one from a FBI snitch and another from a former lover turned heroin addict. Both AJ, Meadow Soprano and Sally Draper end up in child therapy. Both men get into fistfights in later seasons that they might have won earlier, meaning that losing the fights are a harbinger of their impending decline (Don with Duck and Tony with Bobby).
Don and Tony both also represent the country’s presidents during their time on air. Tony is a Bush character; family-obsessed and an impulsive bully, the last in a long line of diminishing prestigiousness. Don is more of an Obama; a self-styled blank slate who came from nothing and has a hazy past. Tony and Bush are a what-you-see-is-what-you-get package, while Don and Obama are detached, mysterious, and guarded. Tony’s and Bush’s internal struggles with how they wrongly view the world rule their lives and everything around them, while Don and Obama, though philosophical, couldn’t care less. Don and Obama speak with an almost studied manner and measured baritones, while Tony and Bush regularly mangle their words.
More behind-the-scenes similarities on the shows are rampant. Small recurring roles or cameos from “Sopranos” actors occur in “Mad Men.” Smaller throwaway lines similar to “The Sopranos” occur throughout “Mad Men,” with both Carmine Sr. and Freddy mentioning their wife Violet; Carmine Sr. and Grandpa Gene both mention phantom smells before their fatal strokes. Both the gang at Satriales and Peggy adopt a cat to catch mice. Figures of speech like “stranger in a strange land,” “his master’s voice,” “tall and tan and lovely” all pop up in each show.
Foreigners offer their thoughts on the American dollar. In “Mad Men” they commend it’s strength, in “The Sopranos” they mention it’s weakness. Death hangs pretty heavy over the later seasons of each show, almost to the point of lingering morbidity. Both shows feature pullouts on happy families toward each series’ run. Both shows final seasons’ are broken into two parts, aired one year apart. “The Sopranos” was actually the first of the recent dramatic TV heavyweights to do this, years before “Breaking Bad.” Music is a huge part of both shows. Both start with doo-wop music and feature the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” and the Vanilla Fudge version of “Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Weiner always made sure to direct every season finale of “Mad Men” just in case it wasn’t renewed. Chase directed the first and last episode of “The Sopranos.”
Other than the myriad of Don/Tony parallels and technical aspects, there are the larger thematic and dramatic elements that run throughout each show. Both shows acknowledge that innocent people are ruined wantonly while the bad and powerful get to do whatever they want. Peggy says as much when a building employee is fired for her coworker’s actions. “The Sopranos” delights in destroying working people, none so much as when Chrissy and Paulie kill a waiter in a back alley of Atlantic City. Both shows initially focus equal amounts of time on their protagonists work and family lives, but drift toward the work lives more as the shows progress.
Depression, mental illness and addiction are big recurring themes throughout each show. Don Draper is a picture-perfect example of undiagnosed depression. Tony and Don’s impulsive, ceaselessly selfish actions routinely throw the lives of everyone around them into upheaval. Tony’s on-again off-again therapy with Dr. Melfi is still the gold standard for television depression, but Pete’s monologue at the end of season five of “Mad Men” about his superficial life being a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound” is the show’s greatest psychological effort. Uncle Junior and Grandpa Jean suffer from dementia later in their lives. Betty is not unlike Tony’s mother, Livia with her destructive, border-line personality. Freddy Rumsen is fired in season two of “Mad Men” for getting too drunk in the office and Don and Roger take him out drinking as a goodbye. This is not unlike Tony’s treatment of Christopher after he tries to get clean from heroin. He at once congratulates Chrissy on his sobriety and then judges him for his perceived weakness. Tony finally kills Christopher over his continued drug use and then celebrates by going to Las Vegas and tripping on peyote.
When Pete tries to blackmail Don into an undeserved promotion in season one, Cooper shuts him down but warns Don against firing him saying “One never knows how loyalty is born.” His words prove prescient when Pete informs Don of Duck’s impending deal and coming tyrannical presidency of Sterling/Cooper in season two. This is not unlike Junior’s attempted murder of Tony in season one of “The Sopranos,” who then turns around the following year and sells Richie out to Tony in a double-cross that ends with a contract being put out for Richie’s life.
Both Betty and Carmela have cancer scares. Both women pursue men outside of their marriages under the pretense of home improvements or civic engagements; Betty with local politics regarding Henry Francis, and Carmela with real estate and Furio, wallpaper with a contractor, and religion with Father Intintola. Later in each series, Betty and Carmela are threatened by their former friend’s success in business; Betty with the part-time travel agent Francine and Carm with the bodyshop-operating Angie Bonpensiero.
Roger Sterling and Bobby Baccala are forced to unwittingly wear Santa suits. Kenny and Bobby both have to wear eye patches after on-the-job injuries. Tony and Roger both trip on psychedelic drugs and end up geeking on the floor, staring up at buzzing bathroom light fixtures. (Both of their temporary enlightenment wears off over time.) Characters on both shows routinely misquote other characters. Stephanie and Meadow have psycho roommates in college. Pete brings oranges to the office after his trip to California, as does Ralphie upon his return from Miami. Both Tony and Betty see caterpillars in dreams, as a kind of ominous reference to change, transformation, and death.
After Tony and Carmela’s separation and the beginning of Don’s second marriage, both men make an effort to commit to monogamy, only to fall back into their old, destructive behavior. Don’s second marriage disintegrates, while Tony and Carmela stay together. In doing this, both shows acknowledge that there are no fresh starts in life, regardless of how much their characters might try, and that while the shows aren’t repeating themselves, their characters are.
On Sunday, May 17th “Mad Men will end it’s final run, nearly eight years since the finale of “The Sopranos” aired. Both shows come to the same conclusion that neurosis and moral relativism are nonsense, and that while traumatic events contribute to the drama in their characters’ lives, the consequences of personal decisions fall on the shoulders of the people who make them. These were two of the greatest television shows ever made, with iconic protagonists telling a dual and interlocking story about people’s struggle to change and how the idea of a personal arc is an arbitrary storytelling invention. As much as he tried, Tony Soprano never changed. The last seven episodes of “Mad Men” will determine if Don Draper can.