Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mad Men: Through a Glass Darkly

by guest contributor Motorcycle Boy

“A personality marked by traits of compulsive and habitual use of a substance or practice in an attempt to cope with psychic pain engendered by conflict and anxiety.”
~      definition of addictive personality, Mosby’s Medical Dictionary
Mad Men glorifies alcoholics.”  This statement was made to me by an acquaintance, clearly meant as a criticism of my favorite television series.  He went on:  “It seems the writers take every opportunity conceivable to shove a glass in the hands of the actors.”

Now, there is no denying the fact that at the office of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, alcohol is a constant given. “I drink, therefore I am” seems to be the ad man’s motto.  And everyone on this show smokes – they smoke like chimneys, as if there’s no tomorrow (or at least a tomorrow not leading to premature illness and death). Of course, these characters live in a different time – the early 60’s -  a not so distant past when people freely and thoughtlessly litter a park while they picnic and adults slap children, even ones that aren’t their own.  This was a time when women and minorities were openly treated as second class citizens.  And along with this, it was a time when many people were alcoholics, though they may not have identified themselves as such, who drank throughout the day. Mad Men depicts all this as it enters into the reality of the era, though these things are never portrayed as something to be emulated.

But as  much attention that is given to Mad Men -  its smoking and drinking, its obsessive attention to period detail (the length of women’s skirts, the hairstyles and interior design of the rooms)  -  there is so much more that lies beneath the glossy, escapist surface of this show. Mad Men is an extremely complicated drama - a human drama.  There is much to discover in its characters and storylines – much about our society and about ourselves. I believe that it’s all these factors that contribute to this show’s great appeal.  Something draws us to watch it - something we’re seeking to discover (whether we’re conscious of it or not) and this, in itself, is addictive.

Mad Men depicts a period in American culture when habitual drinking and smoking (and bigotry) were an accepted part of the norm. It deals with the social changes that were happening at the beginning of the 60’s and into the mid-60’s. Often different episodes will show the tension between the passing era of the 50’s – the rigidity, repression and denial – and the approaching of the turbulent changes associated with the 60’s – the civil rights and women’s movements, open sexual freedom, drug experimentation and the events that were about to blow the lid off of American society. It’s quite fitting that there’s an episode in the first season titled “Kennedy vs. Nixon”.  There is the “old order,” in which the different levels of society were much more hierarchical and defined (like the male dominated pecking order of the ad agency), and then there is the dawning of a new awareness that is full of promise and, at the same time, threatening. How society worked and how people coped during this changing time is fertile ground for exploration and producer/creator Matthew Weiner makes the most of it.
...So what habits are Don Draper and his agency pushing?
The basic thrust of consumerism is marketing an image to people so that they can be sold a product. It’s not just about what people want, but what they really want – their unconscious desires and the obstacles to fulfillment represented by their unconscious fears.  In the time period of Mad Men - much more so than even today - there were many social boundaries around sex and race, of one’s basic identity, and a suffocating rigidity in roles that people felt pressured to act out in their lives.  This is an obvious formula for the kind of psychic pain that comes from conflict – the conflict that grows from a repressed identity.  How can you know what you really want or need when you don’t know who you really are?  If the “social mask” fits too tightly it makes it difficult to breathe.  The constant drinking in Mad Men is shown more as a socially sanctioned way that many people sought some relief from this internal pressure – or at least as a way to numb themselves.  A person who is imprisoned, whether conscious of it or not, feels the overwhelming need to be released.

Don Draper and his associates cater to this need.  By the 1950s America had undergone a form of mass hypnosis constructed around total consumerism.  Television and growing mass media connected people in a way that opened them further to manipulation by the “professionals” who understood the pressure points of living a false identity and could use it to sell product.  Many people, then and now, present a fabricated image to society - a façade for the real identity underneath. This condition  is embodied in the whole Madison Avenue advertising industry as presented in the show and, in particular, in the central character of Don Draper, who literally has taken on a false identity to hide the truth from the world, and, as best he can,  himself.  If anyone is in psychic pain its Draper and it touches everyone in his life.  Still, no one knows better how to sell people a bill of goods by manipulating their insecurities and, unavoidably, their addictions.  On some level Draper seems to understand that he reflects a kind of mass delusion where consumerism is a substitute for self-knowledge and love.  The whole thing, from the perspective of the men in advertising and the unknowing public, is like one great dysfunctional, addictive process, founded on repression and denial and affecting everyone.  What motivates people is spiritual “thirst” and Don Draper knows how to use that to sell product because he’s so familiar with the feeling himself.

Mad Men is a series with many stylish surfaces and is so well done it could easily be appreciated strictly as escapism. But it’s so much more than that.  The characters are full of twists and turns and their fates interest us because they’re very much up for grabs.  What will happen next?  By the fourth season Don Draper is moving headlong into alcoholism and we wonder if he’ll end up a more fashionable version of his rival, Duck Phillips, or a less farcical Roger Sterling.  What’s captivating is that we, the audience, know what is to come for America but we don’t know how these characters will respond to or reflect the change.  The events are part of history, and though these people’s lives are shaped by them, they have to strive and discover for themselves their place in the new society.   We wonder if Betty Draper will completely go over the edge and continue to alienate her children.  She seems hopelessly stuck and unable to discover a path out of her false existence - she could take a number of courses, one of which could easily be addiction.  Sally Draper, the difficult young daughter who also is struggling to find her way, seems to represent a coming generation which will be defiant and loud, sexually active, and impossible to ignore.

There are multiple angles from which to interpret Mad Men, but I feel that there’s a great overriding tension at the core of the series, and in many ways it’s linked to the addictive process.  When people live within tightly wound conventions and are prevented from expressing their true nature, they can cut themselves off from their life force – there’s no creativity, only conformity.  If, on the other hand, they go deeper and connect with their instincts, it’s possible to feed the soul but it’s inherently dangerous because there is no formula to follow – anything can happen – the “old order” drops away and chaos can emerge.  Fear is what keeps the characters in Mad Men from genuine lives and leads them to grasp at substitutes, whether it be alcohol or consumerism.  Don Draper attempts to stay fixated on externals and selling an image rather than facing his true identity. He functions on the inside of society, spinning out illusions (he’s a powerful force and influence on people’s lives), still, when it comes to his personal relationships and his own inner life, Draper is the ultimate outsider – a living enigma.

As long as Mad Men is able to peel back the layers and creatively express this very human conflict, it will continue to mesmerize (perhaps the word should be intoxicate).  Over the course of multiple seasons Matthew Weiner and his writers have the luxury to explore these characters and their relationship to the times – to get at the truth of their lives.  Mad Men is addictive on so many levels because it’s a psychological adventure, an entry into a tumultuous past that has shaped our current world of mass media - of reality shows and twenty-four-hour news. In this context, it’s not just a joy to watch and a benign habit, but, through the range of its insight, a lush oasis of sanity.


Motorcycle Boy, a new contributor to the Lady Eve's Reel Life, is a loyal follower of this blog as well as a family friend. He has worked professionally in the fields of psychology and music, is a longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and a lifelong lover of art and history.


  1. Motorcycle Boy, you've written a perfect summary of what makes Mad Men the addictive and excellent show that it is. As you point out, it's the psychological tension behind the actions of the characters that gives the show so much dimension. And it's incredible how well the show's presentation of facade, and the social apparatus behind it, and the rigid conformity you outline, was true to the era. These were the things I rebelled against myself in the 60s. But now the era itself is a source of nostalgia - alcohol, cigarettes, bad behaviour, and prejudice notwithstanding. Mad Men is like those TV shows of the era, only with just the sets varnished, not the real motivations or actions of the people. It makes a striking contrast to the tropes of film noir - a period that was only 15 years earlier than the time setting of Mad Men. How will our own era be depicted in shows of the future? Not much different in essence than Mad Men I'm afraid. Only our gadgets will have largely replaced alcohol as the form of escapism.

  2. Christian - thanks for taking the time to read my little meditation on Mad Men. Yes, human motivation, of the "unvarnished" variety (I like your metaphor) doesn't seem to change much over time - it wears different costumes and has different conventions in which to play hide-and-seek with itself. As far as someone depicting our era in the future, writing is a journey of understanding and perhaps some Matthew Weiner fifty years from now will use his creativity to see us from within better than we see ourselves.

  3. MCB, I thoroughly enjoyed your insightful and well-written ode to the absorbing world and complicated lives of Mad Men’s characters. You referred to the hard work required for self-knowledge, a journey which became de rigueur for most adults by the waning years of the 1960s, and which Don Draper appeared to begin in season four. The internal turmoil that began to manifest during the decade also had echos in numerous forms of external strife. The observation made by an acquaintance regarding the show’s glorification of alcohol and drinking reminds me that every generation convinces itself it is somehow wiser than previous generations. The danger in assuming we have done all the work necessary is an illusion that self-awareness can be achieved through exposure in reality television formats. The truth of Mad Men, if there is one, is in the unflinching portrayal of people with messy lives learning to admit to the messy truth of those lives. If Don Draper and the other characters of Mad Men needed alcohol to cope, we, as a society, still find ourselves acting habitually and “spinning out illusions” in much the same way . . . the myths may have changed but we embrace our myths just as tightly.

  4. Gypsey - I appreciate your statement that the internal turmoil of the 60's was echoed in numerous forms of external strife - that expresses a great truth about history. And you're right on the money, we have so many of our own illusions that reflect our current collective state-of-mind. Are we any less "mad" today? Maybe in certain ways, but we've also created whole new psychological minefields that didn't exist 50 years ago. Our reality show mindset is like observing ourselves in a funhouse mirror ... Anyway, all this Mad Men discussion is making me start to drool - I can't wait for the two hour feast on sunday night.

  5. As always, MCB, you go straight to the heart of things with tremendous insight and eloquence. Your contemplation of the themes explored in Mad Men brought me around to considering the incredible creative talent behind the series. The intelligence of Matthew Weiner’s (and his writers) perception of a time before his time, of multiple complex characters with ever-evolving inner and outer lives – and of human nature itself – is astonishing. That such a multi-layered vision managed to become a high-gloss (and successful) television series seems nothing short of miraculous.

    Those of us who were alive in the 1960s have watched Mad Men in near disbelief– amazed at how cannily it not only reflects the surface of the time and historic events, but also an underlying tone of the era – which seemed to me a mix of restlessness and anticipation. Fans of the series who were not alive then but have seen and heard plenty about it, must be fascinated as history and the personal sagas of Mad Men’s characters play out – in dazzling style – before their eyes. It is mesmerizing –and I’ll admit, I’m addicted.

    This is a great piece, MCB, thank you for taking part in this blog event. And now, in just a few hours, Mad Men, Season 5! At last…

  6. Great article MCB and a great way to get ready to view the long-awaited new season. Like life, the series is about survival and how we chose to survive. Peggy is my hero because she knows her heart, if not her path. Can we hope that Don and Betty will find a better way to survive? I am hoping so - but not without loads of drama first! And thank you, Lady Eve, for putting together this great month of articles that only added to the anticipation.

  7. MCB,
    What a fun contribution as we are now to a mere few hours to the premier.

    Perhaps I'm in the minority here but the last season took a weird turn for me and while it was still a good season I preferred the first two.

    The way you described it by 'peeling back the layers to express this very human conflict' was perfect! MM has very creative writers which keeps us all tuning in and yes, it's a very addictive show. When The Playboy Club and Pan Am aired last year I actually had high hopes for the two being that I love that era and the costumes, getting to go back to what was going on in the world at that time. Sadly the writing stunk so both shows didn't stand a chance. Luckily we still have Mad Men.

    My favorite show is MASH and I suspect it will always hold the #1 spot for me for obvious reasons but MM is a close #2.

    A great read.
    Lady Eve, will you be having a viewing party tonight?


  8. Lady Eve - I think it's great that you put together this "Mad Men" extravaganza, and I'm delighted to participate in the party. You sucked me in with your wonderful month of Vertigo so I was definitely looking forward to your coverage of Mad Men. I love hearing what people have to say on such a fascinating subject.

    Flickchick - in many ways Peggy is THE transitional character in the show who really connects the earlier era with the change that's taking hold. Her courage to overcome her fears and step forward really does make her heroic. I'm wondering what direction Betty is going to take. I know a lot of people dislike her now but I find myself having great sympathy for her plight - she's suffocating and has almost given up. The scene where Don tells her he's now engaged (she was sending feelers toward him once again) was quite heartbreaking and well acted.

    Page - I also think that last season was really challenging to many of the characters, and, likewise, to the audience. Don Draper was drinking more and more and getting increasingly desperate.
    His engagement to his secretary blew a lot of minds. Tonight could go in almost any direction - that's what's so exciting.

  9. In answer to Page - no viewing party tonight, I'm in a recuperation mode and just happy to be up and around in time for the Season 5 opener

  10. Ohmygosh !! You guys !! I can not wait to see this for the first time.. So, I can be part of the fun!! Love, the pictures!

  11. Well, it was fun last night - I won't say anything further although I'd like to ppoint out that many of the cast and Matt Weiner were interviewed on Charlie Rose last Thursday evening (for the hour) No revelations but great back story stuff. Those interested may look for repeats or webcast (?).

  12. A most interesting beginning to Season 5, I thought, and - except for the too-frequent commercial breaks - very satisfying. This morning NPR's Fresh Air featured an hour-long interview with series creator Matthew Weiner on the opening episode, which he wrote. The interview is accessible online.

  13. I really enjoyed the premiere, but as you said Eve, the commercials were incessant - can you imagine AMC had wanted to shave more time off the program so they could put in MORE commercials - Weiner battled hard to not let that happen.

    Christian - I would love to at some point read your opinion of the look and design of this season's first show - to these untrained eyes it looked uncanny, I almost expected to see Pamela Tiffin walk into the Draper apartment. I also saw the Charlie Rose Mad Men cast interview and thought it was fascinating.

    ... hopefully we can soon discuss the season opener - perhaps putting in a spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.

  14. Motorcycle Boy, thanks for the prompt on covering the costumes of the first show. I've been thinking about that too though I think I'll wait for a couple of more shows to have some more variety. I'm also hoping for some of the 60s look to start appearing on the men. I'm pretty sure this will happen on the show, although in the real business world of that time (for men), the 60s didn't really start showing up until the 70s.