"...nostalgia. It's delicate...but potent...in Greek, nostalgia literally means 'the pain from an old wound.' It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone."
Creative director Don Draper, of the Sterling Cooper ad agency, is pitching his promotional concept to Kodak, a prospective client, for its new product, a wheel-like slide projector. As images of his own young family flash by, one by one, on a projection screen, he continues his inspired dream-spinning:
"This device isn't a spaceship. It's a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again."
With these words, words that also echo an aspect of Mad Men's emotional appeal, the client and everyone else inside the hushed room is in the palm of Draper's hand; he concludes:
"It's not called 'the Wheel." It's called a 'Carousel.' It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again...to a place where we know we are loved."
The carousel whirl that is AMC's Mad Men sweeps viewers along on the labyrinthine journey of Don Draper, preternaturally savvy and eloquent Madison Avenue dreamweaver, as he and those close to him navigate the dark and white nights of their own souls and that of 1960s America.
Click here to watch Don Draper's entire 'Carousel' pitch
In an early episode, Betty Draper, Don's then-wife, stares at him as he lies sleeping and wonders aloud, "Who are you?" Betty's now-deceased father, Gene, didn't like his son-in-law at all and, in another episode, complains of him, "He has no people. You can't trust a person like that..." Season 4 opened with the question, "Who is Don Draper?" posed to Draper over lunch by a reporter from Advertising Age. Series loyalists learned early on that Draper was once a neglected farm boy whose impoverished family moved from the Midwest to Pennsylvania coal country. While serving in the Korean war he saw a way out of his nowhere-man future and seized the opportunity. In just a few years he would be a rising star on Madison Avenue with the trophy wife, children, Cadillac and suburban Ossining house to certify his status.
|Don and Betty Draper at home|
Draper's mysterious past and meteoric ascent have inspired comparisons to another iconic fictional character, Jay Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It was of Gatsby that Fitzgerald's narrator, Nick, would say, "If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him..." Gatsby, born James Gatz in an upper Midwestern backwater, was based on a character out of ancient fiction named Trimalchio. A freed Roman slave who became wealthy and powerful and was intent on winning over the 1st century crème de la crème, Trimalchio hosted an elaborate but tasteless feast about which the elite laughed behind his back. Gatsby, who made his fortune through confidence schemes and shady connections, was rich but naive, and his grand soirees were attended but scorned by New York's finest.
|A man in full|
Though, like Gatsby, Don Draper is an arriviste who was once "a penniless young man without a past," no one is laughing at him. By 1960, when Mad Men picks up, the talented and charismatic Mr. Draper has sparked awe and envy throughout the world of advertising. No, at this point, Don Draper is perceived less like the ill-fated Gatsby and perhaps more like a more fortunate young man who fled his roots and re-made himself: Archie Leach of Bristol, England, who made his name in America and of his reinvented self said, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."
Despite his great success, Draper lives in barely contained turmoil. He wrestles with personal demons and chafes under mounting pressures at work and at home. The very time in which he lives is a jittery age - it is the height of ‘the cold war’ and American culture is in the midst of rapid change.
It was at just about this time that developmental psychologist/psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term ‘identity crisis,’ a condition of disorientation or role confusion that results from conflicting internal and external experiences, pressures and expectations that can lead to acute anxiety. Though Erikson originally viewed 'identity crisis' as primarily an adolescent experience, its definition expanded to include crises that occur during major life transitions as well as within social structures.
|Soviet missiles in Cuba|
Not very many years earlier, in 1950, sociologist David Riesman had written what became, and remains, the best-selling book ever in the U.S. on sociology. The Lonely Crowd examined America’s social character and described the country’s shift from 19th century ‘inner-direction’ (behavior internalized early through parents and community) to mid-20th century ‘other-direction’ (responsiveness to peer groups and the media). Riesman’s theories spoke to concerns of the time regarding the conformity that accompanied the rapid and vast spread of suburban culture. It was Riesman’s view that the confidence and unity that followed World War II were in part an attempt to deflect cultural despair, and his term ‘the lonely crowd’ entered the mainstream as a description of alienation within an affluent society.
|November 22, 1963 at Sterling Cooper|
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has said that it was during his tenure as a writer on the sitcom Becker that an idea occurred to him for a show set in the ‘60s about someone like himself, “who… had everything and was miserable.”
|Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Season 1, Episode 1|
Since then Don Draper and his family and his colleagues at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (formerly Sterling Cooper) have grappled with the wildly unpredictable 1960s as best they can. Having witnessed everything on the national scene from historic space flights and assassination to the explosion of the civil rights movement and the beginning of the women’s movement, they are at the same time dealing with upheaval in their personal lives.
The 1960s are accurately reflected and exquisitely replicated in Mad Men, and immersion in that glittering and chaotic decade is mesmerizing. But it is the series’ finely drawn, palpably authentic characters, credible story lines and archetypal themes that provide its greatest appeal. Mad Men, to borrow a phrase from Don Draper's Kodak presentation, affords that "rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash."
Season 5 begins...