Pop Culture

Selling Mad Men

If you haven’t been watching Mad Men, I can’t say I blame you. With 3,666 critically acclaimed minutes under wraps already, jumping in just before the final season is daunting. However, there are two full weeks until the April 13th premiere of the first half of the final season, so a few hours a day to catch up won’t hurt. Much.

And there is much to watch for. Mad Men is more than “Sad Men” or, as we say around my house, “Beautiful People Making Bad Decisions While Smoking.” It is more than Janie Bryant’s brilliant costuming (see Tom & Lorenzo’s fabulous Mad Style posts for more on this than you could ever imagine). It’s more than cultural nods, mod squads, and name drops (check The Guardian’s Notes from the Break Room for the most basic level of this sort of analysis). It is more than a serial exploration of Lefebvre’s “right to the city” versus “little boxes all made of ticky-tacky.” Mad Men is modernity. It is ennui and nostalgia and angst. It is the story of bullshit and dreams and lies. In short, we have met ourselves and we are Mad Men.

Modernity is knowing that you are living in the friction between two tenses: past-perfect and future-perfect. That is, to entirely throttle grammar, those who believe in Eden and those who believe in Heaven. To be caught inside the idea that we are always getting worse or we are always getting better. Though this has forever been the case(1) it is in the Modern age where we obsess about our own sapience that we don’t live with the friction but in it. We don’t sail through Scylla and Charybdis knowing we might lose a few friends–we spin shipwrecked on the flotsam between the monsters and quake.

Understanding this fear is what makes Mad Men as close to perfect as a TV show can be. Matthew Weiner and Company picked the perfect decade (the 1960s) and the perfect medium (2) of advertising. The 1960s are perfect because everything before then was in black-and-white and everything after is in color. A pre-1960s America is virtually unrecognizable, but we can’t put a finger on how we know why. Mad Men attempts to explain this why by wealth of example. Which is why the show exists in the 1960s. By 1970 we think we understand everything. It’s all familiar to us; even if it looks funny, we think it’s a joke we know the punchline to. Even if we don’t remember when we first heard the joke, Mad Men is going to tell us when, down to the hour.

Advertising is perfect because just like we think we understand everything after the 1960s, making that decade still mysterious enough to draw us in, we think we understand everything about advertising. This means we think we can come up with better ideas than any old characters on a cable network show. As Don Draper says in Season Two, Episode One, we “think monkeys can do” advertising. We also think, simply because we’re aware of the pernicious existence of the devil that is advertising, that we’re immune to its wiles. Again, the perfect medium for sneaking art, which is to say truth and beauty, into our arrogant little heads. We’re so wise and knowing and yet, like the unidentified masses of Mad Men (with the notable exception of Betty and her Heinecken), we still buy all the crap we see in those totally ineffectual ads. Before you protest, ask yourself: am I reading this on a Linux-driven computer made with no-name parts? If not, why did I buy this computer? Who told me to buy it and why did I believe them? In the end, is Mad Men anything more than a forty-seven minute drug that gets us high enough to buy whatever’s being sold for the other thirteen minutes of that hour?

Of course it is. Television started as an excuse to put ads in front of people, and it is still that same thing. But just because they’re selling you something doesn’t mean they can’t make it into art. Popes Julie and Sixty wanted to sell folks on God and AMC wants to sell folks on Nationwide Insurance and itself. We get the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Mad Men. If we buy a little God and insurance into the bargain are we really worse off?

The fact that we’re unsure of the answer is the reason Mad Men exists. Its basic plot is simple enough. Season One was built on the idea that you can run from who you are but never run far enough. Season Two was about the fact that lying to yourself is the same as lying to everyone else. Season Three was about the world moving on even though you’re stuck in the same rut. Season Four told us that we were probably never going to learn from our mistakes and we were doomed to repeat them. Season Five was again about lying to everyone, and by Season Six everyone was back in that damned rut while the world moved around them. I imagine, with the transition of the show to California instead of New York, that Season Seven will be right back to running away. In the end is the beginning.

But isn’t that our life? Don’t we make the same mistakes over again? If you want to sell someone something, it’s got to be familiar but just new enough to be interesting. So these plots spin and dance and we think we’re seeing some new dance but it’s the same steps to a new beat or the same beat with new steps. And sometimes, when you’re at a minstrel show in 1963 it’s the ancient Charleston rearing its head. When folks talk about Mad Men they always compare this person to that one: Peggy and Pete and Bob all want to be Don, Jane and Megan want to be Joan, etc. Mad Men isnt’a parade of doppelgangers out of cliche, but because that’s how we live: by comparison. We aspire to be the people who we think are like us. We make the same mistakes and dance the same steps because we can’t see outside of our own orbits. And we see ourselves make these mistakes and we still can’t do a damned thing about it. The Greeks called it fate. We know better. We just call it life.

So Mad Men is a mirror of life. So what?

So get this. Matthew Weiner, as recently as March 12, says that a great part of Mad Men is about “the rise of California.” What does that mean? It’s old versus new. In the language of America: East versus West. In New York you’re tied to your name (viz Peter Dyckman Campbell, thank you very much), but in California everyone is lying about who they are. No wonder Don is so at ease there.

Which means that everyone isn’t trapped. The mirror of Mad Men isn’t making us modern day Ladies of Shalotts. There is a place where things change. If they fall into the same ruts even with a place, “in the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, a geographical solution” (3), it’s because they can’t look past where they came from to where they are. They will have become not someone living with or even in the friction but someone past-perfect or future-perfect. Trapped in the days gone by or days yet to come. Tense.

Even if all the characters end up failing in Season Seven’s California, even if everyone becomes that silhouette falling from the skyline, it doesn’t matter because what Mad Men finally shows us is that change is a thing to be embraced, not run from. In Mad Men, New York represents all the fussy terror of a world in turmoil. You can see it in the character’s expressions, how they deal with the new and the strange. But in the California of Mad Men, everything’s just groovy, man (even if Don winds up face-down in a pool). In a series where so many of the characters have resisted change, the new season seems poised to be about accepting that change. Not living in the friction but living with the friction. That prepositional shift might be subtle, but it’s all we’ve got.

For years now Don—and, at times, the other characters—have been able to catch this groove only to sell something. They’ve understood (and it has always been noted in the analysis of the show as something beautiful and ironic) that being truthful and in the moment is what makes an ad succesful. They’ve just never applied it to their lives. It’s probably too much to hope that any of them will in Season Seven. But that’s besides the point. The point is this: If the transition to California is even partially realized, it will mean the difference between acknowledging change and accepting it.

And that’s how Mad Men helps us get out of the rut of Modernity we’ve lived with since Al Prufrock babbled on at a party, since Ginny Woolf went for Ophelia’s swim, and since Billy Owen caught death in the trenches. We acknowledge everything but we never accept it. We grope instead of groove. But with Mad Men, a saga that although analyzed by others never analyzes itself, we are moved into the acceptance of what is instead of what we think it is. Bert Cooper quotes “the Japanese” at the end of Season One: “a man is whatever room he is in.” Whether or not any character understands this by the end of Season Seven in the summer of 2015 is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether or not we buy that idea.

Is Don Draper that idea? It’s wrong to say he’s the American Dream and equally hamfisted to say he’s the American Nightmare. He is the central idea in a show about ideas. Mad Men is a show not of things but of ideas and the selling of those ideas. For Mad Men and so for us, Don Draper is the ultimate commodity. Broken, bankrupt huckster Dick Whitman sold his greatest idea not to a client but to himself and he’s never even paid the interest on the debt. It is by this paradox, being sold to oneself, that Mad Men has become one of the most powerful pieces of American art.

It is easy to see and say that Don Draper the idea has failed Dick Whitman. It may even be true. If so, it’s because Dick Whitman allowed his idea to become an ideal. Don Draper isn’t the ideal anything unless it’s a person you don’t want to be. Jon Hamm is happy to tell us “you really shouldn’t like Don Draper.” In the words of his closest friends, Don is “garbage” and “a monster.” But Don Draper the idea? Don Draper the idea is that it doesn’t matter where you come from; it matters where you are.

That’s an idea worth buying. And it’s what Mad Men is selling. It comes with seventy-eight episodes of Surgeon General’s warnings and will give us fourteen more. It comes selling booze and cigarettes and sex and insurance quotes. But Mad Men is the most honest huckster we’ve ever met. Do you buy it?


1: Indeed, in Episode 1.04, Roger Sterling bets “there are people in the Bible walking around, complaining about kids today.”

2: Which, as Joan Holloway anachronistically points out in Episode 1.06, is “the message,” though McLuhan wouldn’t come up with that phrase for another four years.

3: Here allow me to take a David Foster Wallacean pause to note that alcoholism and a positive portrayal of Alcoholics Anonymous in general is integral to both Mad Men and that other incredible work on overcoming the dilemma of Modernism: Infinite Jest. It is not too much of a stretch to note that both works are about their characters striving to escape the trappings of a life lived in friction and instead exist, as AA would have one exist, “one day at a time” but that’s an essay that can only be written in the fall of 2015.

G.M. Palmer lives on a poodle farm in North Florida. Find his work at www.gmpalmer.com.