“Mad Men” and the Triumph of the Insubstantial

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It always happens this way: My son returns from college over the break and brings with him his Netflix account, tempting me to binge-watch notable television shows. Being weak, I succumb! I also felt guilty. Here I am, a self-anointed ’60s expert, and I hadn’t watched a single episode of “Mad Men,” touted as a ’60s retrospection.

I am now fully up to date, having watched the seven seasons and anxiously awaiting the last seven episodes, to be aired in April 2015. The show conjures an advertising world in which everything stands for something else; it is copy. The show is about an historical moment when we began to lose touch with real things and real selves, as the ’50s opened into the ’60s and then into the postmodern. It is wildly popular because the characters, NYC ad agents, drink all day, have a lot of sex and self-destruct. Mad Men has become a brand, with themed clothing and weddings. Meanwhile, all the characters produce is advertising. Awash in the internet, which makes all that is solid melt into air (Marx), viewers can’t look away – me included. The opening montage, with the falling ad man who never hits ground, burns into the brain. Mad Men resonates because it tracks the emergence and triumph of the insubstantial.

As in “The Sopranos,” with its gangland killers living in suburbia, everyone is a train wreck. We experience schadenfreude, enjoying the misfortunes of others, when we watch celebrities get hassled by paparazzi and reported on “TMZ”. So, that’s what they deserve for living in Beverly Hills and being famous and rich. There is neither privacy nor charity anymore.

The Characters

In “Mad Men,” there is no one with whom to empathize, except, perhaps, the children and Pete’s blue-blood wife. Even she is somewhat entitled. Don Draper, one of two protagonists, is an antihero. Everything he does is wrong, from switching his identities during the Korean War, to rebuffing his suicidal brother, to drinking, smoking and philandering endlessly. The costar, Peggy Nelson, a bright, Brooklyn-bred secretary, is mentored by Don when he realizes that she is capable of being an advertising copy writer. But, then, she morphs into a self-absorbed senior writer who is unlucky in love and lacks empathy.

So far, that is soap-opera material. The show is compelling because it evokes a certain historical moment through which many of us baby boomers lived, and it does so with great attention to modernist detail, such as fashion and furniture. The ringing period-piece IBM Selectric typewriters make our Pomeranian bark at the screen! The suits are sharp and sideburns grow as the decade wears on. The products being sold, such as Lucky Strike cigarettes, are familiar and timely ones. But the critical conventional wisdom is wrong: The show is not really about the ’60s, except inasmuch as certain emerging themes are pasted in. The characters watch various late-’60s political assassinations, and, in a moving final episode of the penultimate seventh season, they watch the moon landing together, a capstone moment of the decade, which fulfills President Kennedy’s audacious 1961 promise to land on the moon by decade’s end.

In this climactic scene, Don, Peggy, Pete and Harry put their lives on hold to immerse themselves in collective spectacle much as we all did when King made his 1963 speech; JFK was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963; Vietnam officially started in 1964; the three civil-rights workers were killed during Freedom Summer; the Selma-to-Montgomery march took place in 1965; King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered in 1968, followed by the August 1968 police riot at the Chicago Democratic Convention; Weatherman’s Chicago Days of Rage in autumn 1969; and, finally, the Weatherman townhouse explosion in 1970 – arguably the last ’60s moment. There is even a reference to the Port Huron Statement.

Peggy’s emergence as a self-sufficient professional woman anticipated and mirrored the women’s movement. But, for the most part, the office, gender and race politics depicted in the show are taken from the 1950s. White men rule, and women serve them as secretaries, housewives and concubines. The advertising world may have pivoted on certain ’60s trends, such as long hair and bell bottoms, to sell products, but it was seriously behind college campuses as a site of ’60s liberation movements.

The ’60s came late to Don Draper, even though, in a fascinating early plot twist, he realizes that Peggy is smart and can be more than a secretary. Antiheroes are, in their way, heroic and even the many damaged souls in the show have the potential for good as well as perfidy and self-destruction. Nothing is seamless.

Depicting Madison Avenue ad agencies is not an idle trope. There are various levels and layers of simulation (Baudrillard’s concept) going on. I think this is the real import of the show, anticipating a laptop capitalism of the 21st century in which community is a message board and friends are the people one follows on Facebook and Twitter. The show spends a good deal of time on the efforts of the small agency to win big accounts, such as automobiles and airlines. In the first half of season seven, they pursue and win Burger Chef, a national chain, largely because Don and Peggy, once alienated from each other, join creative forces and evoke the experience of “family,” promised by eating hamburgers together.

We learn to care about the whole ensemble who, like people today, experience family in the workplace and may fail to attend to their personal lives. The show simulates advertising, which copies commodities, and advertisers, played by actors, putting us at a remove from “reality,” a term challenged by postmodernists as we lose foundation – like the falling ad man in the opening frames.

The director Matthew Weiner, born in 1965, a post-baby boomer, has a deep understanding of the insubstantiality of today’s wired world and uses a ’50s/’60s ad agency as a metaphorical vehicle, doing, in effect, generational archaeology as he follows the characters forward from the prehistory of simulation to the latest version, facilitated by iPhones, social media and YouTube. I think he understands the ’60s less well, which is why he merely pastes in a triumphal and tragic ’60s, represented by the media spectacles of assassination, political struggle and technological triumph.

Weiner captures a moment when we began, slowly, to shift from substance to image, which is really what the show is all about. The ’60s open into the next half century of inflation, debt and a leveraged capitalism. Madison Avenue joins forces with Wall Street, such that we must also consider Michael Lewis’ written treatment, Flash Boys, about a fast capitalism in which people don’t transact real goods but the chimerical wealth of so-called high-frequency stock trading. All that is solid melts into enormous and asymmetrical profit – the 1 and the 99.

Never Questioning Social Worth

I am left wondering why the (m)ad men didn’t often realize that they were living a fluid history in the making, as social-justice movements were breaking out all over. This could change in the final episodes. They drank deeply of capitalism, both literally and figuratively, never questioning their own social worth. Paul Kinsey, the intellectual of the bunch, becomes a Hare Krishna after having been a Freedom Rider, suggesting that social amnesia wasn’t an iron law. When we leave him, he is trying to write scripts for Hollywood. In my own semi-autobiographical The Sixties at 40, I record that many were not caught up in the maelstrom of the decade but, like the mad men, they largely spectated from the outside. One scarcely notices that the copy writers – the “creative” side of the agency – switched inebriants from whiskey to weed.

We await the final episodes, when we will learn whether Peggy derives a lesson from Don and his damaged life and manages to blend work and love. I hope that she ends up happy, and I fear that he will end up alone, his likely destiny. It would be fitting that they open their own small agency, perhaps with Roger, and grow old together.

When we get emotionally involved with cultural oeuvres, we project ourselves: I want Peggy and Don not to be spectators, let alone celebrants. I want them to work for progressive candidates and eschew the profit motive. In my dreams, she would quit Madison Avenue to head up public relations for Geraldine Ferraro. Having given up smoking and kicked the bottle, he would run an ecologically conscious nonprofit in Oregon. Roger and Joan might have become vegans and raised their child in the ways of Montessori. In the last episodes, I want the ensemble cast to make choices that redeem them, both personally and politically. Like time travel backward, I want their enlightenment to have changed the post-’60s years, bringing us to a different place than we are today.

We know what happened in the meantime: Advertising became branding; the right rose out of the ashes of Goldwater, Nixon and COINTELPRO; young people were diverted from politics by college debt, a bad job market, and social media. And yet. Kids write up a storm, blogging, tweeting and texting, making this the most literary of ages. Perhaps apolitical, they aren’t doctrinaire. They resist the attenuation of their childhood and teen years as adults bear down with unreal expectations. Alienation is now diagnosed as ADD.

From now on, “Mad Men” will be required viewing as I teach the ’50s and ’60s to college students for whom the ’60s are but a rumor of incense and album rock. They may realize that we were young once and bore our own crosses.