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Why Smoke Got in Our Eyes, What No One is Saying About Mad Men

“I realized that these people who ran the country were all from these very dark backgrounds, which they had hidden, and that the self-transforming American hero, the Jay Gatsby or the talented Mr. Ripley, still existed…I sympathize with feminism the same way I identify with gay people and with people of color, I know what it’s like to look over the side of the fence and then to climb over the fence and to feel like you don’t belong, or be reminded at the worst moment that you don’t belong.”

-Matthew Weiner, Interview with The Paris Review

“It’s like sitting on a shelf in a refrigerator, and someone opens the door and the light comes on and they smile, but they’re not quite looking at you. Then they pick something else, and they close the door, and the light goes out.”

-Last Episode of Mad Men

 

Whenever he is asked what his show is about, Mad Men series creator Matthew Weiner has always said “it’s about becoming white.” He then clarifies what he means: it’s about becoming in a rich white guy in the 1950’s and how the desire for that definition of success is really unachievable, putting what feelings of happiness  success can provide out of reach for everyone. Everyone. Profoundly, the rich white men of the show are not happy either, even Ivy Leaguer Pete Campbell sees his daughter rejected for being from the “wrong” Scottish clan, and therein lies the deep compassion of the series. Social injustice is not a mechanism of control so much as it a poison, like Agent Orange, killing user and recipient alike. As Don tells a beatnik “There is no Big Lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent.”

Don Draper is a mask, a construct born out of shame, a protective aegis as thick as Roger Sterling’s jokes or Betty Draper’s hair. Mad Men was a show about society’s cruel demands on personal identity, and how they not only obscure, but rot our true selves. It was a show about the power of lies.

And what a show it was, a darling of TV critics, except for a minority of obtuse contrarians who slight John Hamm for not being Jimmy Stewart, (what kind of asshole Gainsays anyway?) Mad Men takes its place as one of the best shows in the mediums history. After Wiener and company demonstrated with The Sopranos that quality can sell, network TV showed a willingness to fund character driven pieces where the writers held the rains. Breaking Bad, The Wire, and The Americans would not have been possible without David Chase and his bid to make up for the creative decline of film.

Critics, entranced by some shiny bauble of the show, pick a favorite detail as if it alone has the explanatory power to encapsulate the series. Mad Men was not a show about period clothing, nor women in the workplace, nor the indulgence of a more permissive time or the sheer joy of drinking in the office until you wet your pants. Mad Men was about how society obscures identity, its setting a brilliant way to develop its somewhat broad characters. We start just when he oppressive spell of the 1950’s is about to break, then venture to the turbulent 60’s, the process is like ripping off a mask. With the pressure of the fifties removed, the real personalities of our characters emerge. The normal character development process is tied to the progressing era, merging, in an unprecedented way for TV, theme and plot and character to tell us not just who but why.

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And who is Dick Whitman? A coward. A Creative. A compassionate fraud truly alone in the world. The most important scene in the series, I should think, is when Peggy Olson finds out about her pregnancy by giving birth and sits catatonic in a hospital bed. No one looks for her, and so no one finds her, except Don. He finds his protege, and with no ulterior motive, gives her the biggest gift he knows how to give: the gift of lies.

“This never happened. It will shock you how much is never happened.” Notice that the lies are not simply for others, but the focus is on deluding yourself.

The compassion of Dick Whitman is why the audience can bestow the forgiveness it withheld from Betty. From saving Peggy to giving a small time conman a second chance (and his car keys) we are tantalized with hints of what this could have been. Betty, for contrast (and, as Don’s foil, her purpose is contrast) reveals herself to be a petty, spoiled child. She betrays a friend by pawning off a younger suitor on her and neglects her children, acting like the teenager she was when her emotional growth ended. The show makes clear her mother was to blame for her barbie-doll sensibilities. “You are a masterpiece, hide the brush strokes,” she was told. The audience which forgave Don’s clear contempt for family life (also a product of his youth as a whores-child) and constant philandering was not prepared to forgive Betty the crime of being a bad mother, and perhaps the most painful parts of the show were watching her pass on her neurotic elements right down to Sally per family tradition, even how to hold a cigarette.

The most painful moment of the show is brought to us by Sally the day she tries to see her father at work. This cry for help is rejected and she, still a child, tries to run down the hall of the office, as if she escape her horrid home life. She falls. A secretary tells her, helping her up, that everything is going to be okay. “No its not,” replies Sally Draper, suddenly an adult and aware that life will be a series of disappointments.

We, the audience, are Sally. More than we are Peggy even. (Women old enough to remember the bad old days, my mother included, found this show very hard to watch. It’s treatment of women in the workplace is non-fiction) We are meant to come to understand the power of lies, and how long those lies can last. But, in the long run, the lie cannot be maintained: divorce, failure, and breakdown occur. This final season has been nothing if not the characters admitting what they really want, and submitting to those needs rather than the expectations of others.

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The mask Don wears functions of multiple levels, including physical. We see Pete’s hairline recede and mustaches crawl across the face of Ginsburg and Sterling, but Don is ageless, unchanging. A white shirt with a gray suit. From a distance he, along with better, appear much a 1950’s couple from a an advertisement, and that is the point. Our appearance is not for ourselves, we cultivate it for others.

Not everyone is freed by the coming counterculture. The shows less sympathetic characters are really those victimized, rather than enabled, by change. Pete Campbell, as close as the show comes to having a recurring villain, is someone who depended on the old order. He was told that Advertising is the place to make use of what he had: connections. When he arrives, he is instead told that meritocracy is at hand, and the people telling him that are drunks and frauds. Yet we like drunks like Sterling and frauds like Don better. Sterling was a kind man made sad by the wars and the cynicism of his time, and Don, when we encounter him, has already been forced into his high, miserable position by the expectations of others.

With the end of the 60’s, Don’s transformation is complete. The harsh judgement of the 50’s are long gone, and the feckless unwillingness of the 60’s (“How does it make you feel to hear that. Can I say how I feel about that?”) has given way to the cynical 70’s where Dick cannot even hitchhike because of Charles Manson.

The final season complete Don’s arc by showing him shed himself of Draper completely. Draper’s apartment that never felt like home, his final relationships, including Peggy, Betty, and the kids no longer encumber him. (That he tried as hard as he did with the kids he never wanted says much) Even his physical possessions, cars and clothes, are left behind as he achieves the Buddhist ideal of the abolishment of the self.

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Don’s self.

Some have speculated that the coke ad in the end is meant to represent Don’s return to McCann. Or that this is an old writers trick of showing the audience what could have been to signal the importance of what actually did.  Fair enough, what they do not see is that Don is gone for good. That’s Dick smiling. Dick Whitman returns to New York to pitch that ad.

It’s hard to say goodbye to one of the few shows where the writers seemed to care more than not at all, but you can always pretend the show never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.

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Good Things

  • One of the best shows in the history of the medium.

Bad Things

  • It's over.