Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Meditation on Mad Men

 "...nostalgia. It's delicate...but 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 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.

Soviet missiles in Cuba

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.

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.

America, perhaps in its adolescence at mid-century and reeling under the weight of too much power, wealth and responsibility too soon, was entering a period of increasing uncertainty and anxiety as the 1960s unfolded. Clearly Don Draper, with his double life and murky past, is guarded and isolated, and most in his professional and personal orbit are perplexed by the changing, often frightening times.

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
As Weiner focused on writing the story of a character he thought of as a man who has sold out in some ways but is still trying to find himself, he hired a researcher to investigate the 1960s in detail. According to Weiner, the very first piece of research he received was about the crisis in cigarette advertising in 1960. And so it followed that when we first catch sight of Don Draper in the series opener it is 1960 and he is alone at a table in a cocktail lounge quizzing a black waiter about his brand of cigarettes - Old Gold, it turns out. Draper is struggling to come up with an ad concept for Sterling Draper’s biggest account, Lucky Strike. The noisy, smoke-filled room is dim and in the background a recording of Don Cherry singing “Band of Gold” plays. The episode tracks the sharp, charming and handsome Mr. Draper through the evening and into a night spent with his commercial artist girlfriend, then on to his next day at the office and his trip home after work to – surprise! – his wife and children in the suburbs.

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...


  1. Exquisite post. I haven't followed the series very closely, but I admire the attempt to understand the past as I admire attempts to understand a different culture. They are often the same thing.

    Great writing.

  2. I love that Kodak pitch of Draper's - sheer poetry in the service of commerce. This was a wonderful finale for your Mad Men month, Eve. You struck many notes regarding Don Draper and the series that resonate in the american soul. I particularly enjoyed your linking of the show's dynamics with "The Lonely Crowd" and it's take on social alienation. Draper is truly a "piece-of-work" constructed by himself like some focus-grouped advertising campaign. Megan Draper's performance of "Zou Bisou Bisou" during the fifth season premiere was also an interesting dose of nostalgia. The new Draper apartment and the swinging 60's flavored party brought to mind images of Hugh Hefner's Playboy Penthouse show (later he had "Playboy After Dark") except you didn't see celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. or Robert Culp hanging out with playmates. To me the Hefner show had the feel of an older generation trying to connect with an emerging freer mentality - to be contemporary swingers. In this case Megan Draper was trying to bring Don and his co-workers up to speed. Megan's song also brought to mind Jane Birkin vamping it up for Serge Gainsbourg (I'm sure that Gainsbourg, though, would have been quite pleased and not squirming like Don). Great post, Eve - can't wait for the new Mad Men show tonight.

  3. Thank you, Jacqueline. The past does sometimes seem like a foreign culture - a familiar if distant one. But can it ever be truly understood?

    MCB - One of my older cousins read "The Lonely Crowd" when in college (while listening to folk music and going to coffee houses, I imagine). He stored his books at our house at one point and I leafed through it - without much understanding, I'm sure. It was one of several books on America's social character of that time but was, by far, the most prominent. It's impact was far-reaching. Erikson's theory on 'identity crisis' also seems very pertinent to "Mad Men" - every featured character in the series seems to be asking, in one way or another, "Who am I?"...but to paraphrase a popular song by the most famous band of the time: "Aren't they a bit like you and me?"

  4. Eve, a lovely and bittersweet finale to your month long celebration of “Mad Men”, the people and the decade that have fascinated us for five years. Your haunting description of “The Carousel” episode reminded me that I found myself weeping as Season One closed: Don’s alternate versions of his return home for Thanksgiving captured a man (and a country?) who didn’t know what he wanted.

    The first season also portrayed Peggy Olson as a young woman “between two worlds”; her former home life and her new work life. She found herself lying to Joan about her sexual experiences, and at the same time she would have denied the same experiences if confronted by her mother. You beautifully captured the sense of “unease” of a culture facing external and psychic turmoil. I often think of Betty Draper in therapy when she tells her therapist “I can’t help but think I would be happier if my husband weren’t cheating on me”. I remember that she looked directly at the camera, as if to say “You the viewer, just as a permissive 1960s society, are complicit in encouraging the idea that adultery is a man’s prerogative” (maybe I read all of that into her gaze, but I’m still trying to understand Betty).

    I’ll admit I felt a bit like Joanie when returning for Season Five, I wanted to weep because I didn’t understand what was happening. I felt like I’d missed far too many days of work and everyone was in on the punch line of a joke I’d missed. I watched the episode twice that night, something I haven’t done since “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, but that time it was because I was becoming obsessed with the show. I hope the writers aren’t working to make Bert and Roger redundant.

  5. 'Gypsy -"Mad Men" has consistently opened and closed each season with outstanding episodes. The tradition began spectacularly with "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "The Wheel," two episodes I've watched many times and will watch again.

    The characters of "Mad Men" and the trajectories of their lives are endlessly fascinating. Don Draper - the dashing, flawed enigma, Peggy Olson - with her own secrets and sometimes unfathomable dreams, Betty Draper - completely unconscious and so unhappy, Joan Harris - with so much buried beneath her luscious surface, Pete Campbell - well, if only Sigmund Freud were here to weigh in on Pete...and Roger Sterling, so jaded and so compromised. And Lane and Ken and Harry and Bert and Jane and Mona and Sally - and now, Megan. Plus the tumultuous '60s. What I'm trying to say, 'Gypsy, is that I understand your obsession completely.

    Some have said that the Season 5 opener started slow but I just felt like I was feeling my way in catching with everyone and everything that had happened during the long hiatus. I felt a bit like Joan, maybe we all did...

  6. Wonderful post. I'm so excited for the rest of this season.

  7. A wonderful and eloquent post Lady Eve.The fascinating aspect about Mad Men is how we can discuss so many trends and social issues in the 1960s because they are reflected in the show. Of course that was Matthew Weiner's point. I will be curious to see which characters identify with the change that is happening and which ones will resist it. The interesting part about advertising is that it had to fit in with the growing youth market (although belatedly) and the changing times. How the individuals react will be another matter. Peggy and Megan will no doubt lead the way. Roger's comic cynicism might just fit in. But will Don adapt like he's had to in the past? He has basically always been an outsider "passing" as an insider. He could see merits in the youth and liberation movements - or he could decide he's had enough change. I'm afraid Betty's salvation lies too many years in the future.

  8. Thank you, Dave, and welcome. So nice to meet another "Mad Men" fan.

    Christian - It's true, so much was going on in the '60s in so many arenas - and the rise of youth culture was one of the most significant. It will be interesting to see how Don copes with Megan and Peggy, not to mention Sally as the full impact of the "youthquake" hits. Soon Megan won't be the only one in a mini-skirt with friends who "smoke tea," etc.

    Roger seems to be heading in the direction of the very slippery slope on the other side of "over the hill." And Betty seems en route to a "19th Nervous Breakdown" by way of "Mother's Little Helper." But we'll see. In just one hour, more to come...

  9. Oh, this is such an excellent post. Not only a good analysis of Don Draper and Mad Men, but a good analysis of the Sixties as well. And I must say, the former psychology student in me loves the reference to Erik Erikson.

  10. Thank you, Terry, for your kind words. It was the 'identity crisis' concept that originally inspired this piece, but one idea leads to another - especially on a subject with as much depth and scope as "Mad Men." By the way, congratulations on winning "The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook" - lots of interesting backstory there - and I'm happy to hear you've received it.

  11. You took me right back to the 60's, with your wonderful post. I have watched my first episode of "Mad Men". I loved it!! I wished that I had been watching them from the start.

  12. Dawn - Great to hear that you've started watching "Mad Men." I hope you have the chance to see all of it, it's an absolutely fascinating journey from 1960 to 1966. I just loaned Season 1 to a young friend of 20 who began asking me about it. Spread the word!

  13. Lady Eve - I have delayed commenting because I have read your piece over and over. Well written and insightful as always, you seem to be on the same heartbeat of this show. So many people I know watch this with a superficial eye (which is fine), but you really get to the soul of this wonderful show. Thank you so much for all of your wonderful posts and the attention you have drawn to this disturbing and addictive drama.

  14. FlickChick - "Mad Men," even on the surface, is spectacular and easily appreciated just for that. And yet viewers can, if they want, explore it in so many ways and on so many levels - as each blogger who has contributed to this event has shown. Actually, I'm having trouble letting go of "Sunday Night is Mad Men Night" and may try to continue it, not weekly but regularly, through the 5th season.

    So glad you enjoyed this post, FC, and thank you!