But maybe Mad Men’s most distinctive function is that it’s a time-lapse machine. Its most simple but radical premise has been to say: Here is what it looks like, how it feels, for ten years of life to pass. (Though the show could still flash forward before it ends—it’s not as if Weiner is telling—it’s run from 1960 to 1970 so far.) Most TV series distend time, deny it, cheat it. M*A*S*H took 11 years to fight a three-year war. Bart Simpson remains in grade school even though, as a character born in 1987, he is old enough to be his own father.
Mad Men, on the other hand, has covered about a decade of its time in about a decade of our own. We see hair grow longer, hemlines shorter. Paul Kinsey’s blazers give way to Stan Rizzo’s fringe jackets. Weiner has talked often about Don being a representation of American society, steeped in sin, haunted by his past but always asking the question: Why am I doing this again? Sexual liberation and feminism arrive, but the show is deeper than the sex—it’s about human experience and human nature and time unfolding. The children grow up (including four—count ’em, four—actors playing Bobby Draper). The colors get more saturated, the social mores more extreme. The cultural power shifts toward youth. The creatives are pitching TV storyboards, not text-heavy print ads. Characters get prosperous, get fat, get lost. It’s a potent effect: Just like in life, you don’t notice the gradual changes until you look back and—holy cow—how far have they come? How far have we? Where has the time gone, besides into the creases of our foreheads?