Monday, June 11, 2012

800 Words: Why Mad Men Matters

He sits blankly at his desk against the wall in his cathedral of an office, with a cloud of smoke as thick as incense permeating the room's every corner; his face as illegible as an icon, the blankness of his visage absorbing every emotion simultaneously. His eminence is adorned by apparel as central to his image as birds to Francis and lambs to Agnes; a suit tailored so immaculately as to look like organic tissue, hair gelled to seem at one with a face sculpted out of marble, and a nicotine bass that seems to emit minerals. He does not tailor his appearance, he is his appearance. It is a figure as familiar to us as our parents, welcoming us to our dreams and haunting us in our nightmares. He is the very image of America, repelling us with every gesture even as we're seduced – not a man who wants to be liked, but a vengeful god to be worshiped

This is Don Draper, creative director of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency of the 1960's - a man paid to convince people that their dreams exist; a man without qualities or quality, his two definable characteristics being his ability to understand what we desire, and to make us believe it attainable. He is more paradigm than character, everything Americans are told to aspire to from birth, yet unknowable either to other characters or to his audience. 

Don Draper is not a person, he is America itself – precisely the image all America wants to present to each other: self-made, independent, competent in everything he touches, and tough as iron. Don Draper, the bastard son of a dead whore and an abusive farmer, became the King of Madison Avenue. Like everyone else in our country, he aspired to the American Dream. Unlike everybody else, he had the willpower it took to achieve it, and can't understand why other people don't have the same. Like all Americans from Jay Gatsby down to Willy Loman, Don is first and foremost a salesman – and we believe everything he sells us because we want to believe it’s possible, and he is his own best evidence. But few if any of us are as tough as Don, and if Don is America, then Mad Men is the story of how the world came to reject Don Draper’s sales pitch.

The beguiling layers of echoes and enigmas which surround Don Draper are only possible because the world around him is so immaculately recreated exactly as it should be - perhaps not as it was, but precisely as we remember it - a world created by advertising, full of the promise of the 'American Pastoral' in which cigarettes, alcohol, misogyny and high cholesterol were mere venal sins. It was a world which ran on the Faustian bargain of being a White Male: who accepted the world on a plate in exchange for the anonymity which conformity brings, and who surrounded himself with an invisible underclass of all who are unable to be a part of the same pact. 

Indeed, the seduction of this show comes from the almost imperceptibly slow realization of each of its major characters that their lives are changing, inexorably and forever. But it is not a metamorphosis that happens in the twinkling of an eye, it happens so slowly that only we know what will happen. With our 50 years of hindsight, we know exactly what people like the cast of this show turned into, but what makes the show so watchable is that they have no idea. 

It never ceases to amaze that Mad Men's detractors claim there is nothing behind the show's immaculately conceived veneer. Time and again, people hear and read the same contradictory views: 

To half Mad Men's critics the show is pornographic nostalgia - presenting a past bereft of half-a-century's liberal guilt during which America was free to be its truest self: an era in which American superiority had no reason to be questioned and the 'American Way' was the world's. To these critics, Mad Men presents to us nothing but our innate longing to recapture a paradise lost, an era that can never again be and perhaps never was. These critics allege that the show looks upon the suppression of the rest of the world to a tiny coterie of white males with nostalgia, perhaps even approval. 

To the other half of its critics, perhaps the more vocal half, the show is a nightmare vision of the past - presenting an era so backward in its view of the world that we from the present can bask in a cozy blanket of self-congratulation. To these critics, Mad Men presents to us nothing but our innate arrogance in assuming that we of the Obama era are far superior in our enlightenment to those who preceded us. These critics allege that the show looks upon the vices of the sixties with such holier-than-thou self-satisfaction that it turns a blind eye to to the virtues of that era, and even moreso to the vices of our own.

It is no blight upon the greatness of the show to concede that there is something to both interpretations. Who can look at the workplace camaraderie on display and deny that something important was lost in the intervening years? But just the same, who can look at the workers blatantly casual mistreatment of one another and deny that something at least as important was gained?

No, Mad Men is not a show that presents the sixties exactly as it was. No television show could. Those who claim that Mad Men is nothing more than surface rendered immaculate give the show far too much credit. Whole websites exist to document its errors of period style. The show is great not because it presents the sixties exactly as it was, it is great because it presents the sixties exactly as we remember it. 

It was Emerson who said that "[A man] dismisses without notice his own thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a sort of alienated majesty." The genius of Mad Men is that it displays America's memories of the sixties with complete fidelity to our present view of it. It's all there: the infidelities, the smoking, the drinking, the racism, the sexism, the pride and the prejudice, displayed with neither guile nor guilt. It takes no side and seeks nothing more than to present this era to us without judgment or inhibition. The fact that people have such divergent reactions to it speaks to that it does so with all the clarity of a balance sheet. Mad Men is not a show like The Sopranos that achieves greatness by giving us visceral thrills. It is a show that presents us a vision of an era that’s supposedly distant, and we respond because it is still an era very much like our own.

Like The Sopranos, Mad Men holds a mirror up to us, but what their mirrors display are very different. In The Sopranos’ mirror is a society of murderers and thieves from America’s present; we’re supposed to be repelled by their acts, yet we see that in so much of their lives they live exactly as we do – and we have to wonder, how different are we really from these thugs? In Mad Men, the mirror shows us an American society fifty years in the past in which the upper class is utterly indifferent to those around them – and we can supposedly congratulate ourselves on being different. Yet how much has really changed? Supposedly, we’re a less racist and misogynist society, more inclusive, more aware of our faults. But the poor of America is a larger group of people than ever, and probably poorer too. Is our country any more aware, any more concerned for their welfare than ever before?

As we wrapped up the fifth season, the show became ever truer to our memories. Those who once disliked have grown to hate it. For a number of years, the show seemed to be 'about' less and less with each passing episode. Just as history seemed to take a break from America in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the show opening seasons set a glacial pace, perfectly reflecting how light were the burdens of a white upper-middle class that had everything, yet was miserably unhappy. Nothing of consequence happened to them, and so they felt utterly without purpose. By the middle of season three, it's became difficult to remember if there was any linear plot to the show at all.

But since the end of season three, the momentum of plot development has grown as exponentially as an avalanche. Mad Men was once nothing more a smoky hall of mirrors with which the viewers could interact in any way they saw fit, but the mirror has long since shattered to reveal a funeral pyre. In season 5, probably the best yet, nearly every episode revealed a new development more shocking than the last. World events are catching up to these people, and the turbulence is getting closer and closer until the talons finally draw upon their necks.  

This show is about nothing less the dawn of the era that is still with us and now draws to its close. By 1968, the springtime romance of American power drew to its end, and in its place came the black comedy of a superpower grown fat on its over-privilege. Don’t expect that any of these people will be at the vanguard of the 60’s, it isn’t that kind of show. Mad Men is not a show about underclass people, it’s a show about the overclass’s reaction to the underclass – it’s a show about spoiled people who go through life blithely unaware that there are people whose entire existence is bound up in serving them, and these people are suffering. It never occurs to Pete or Roger that these people whose lives exist at their whims might want more, and if they’re not given it as a gift, they may take it.

I hate to disappoint people, but Mad Men will not end with the Storming of the Bastille. The Pete Campbells and Roger Sterlings of America still control this country, and the more people bristle at their authority, the tighter their grip grows. It’s 2012, and the story of Mad Men has still not finished, and the true rebellion against the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has not happened yet. I shudder to think of the magnitude of the explosion Mad Men foretells when it does. 

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