Maddeningly Inconsistent.Posted: August 27, 2007
Mad Men can be infuriating when it is sloppy, and it was sloppy in its most recent episode. One character says to another, “Remember, the medium is the message.” This is supposed to sound like a smart allusion to McLuhan, but it’s not smart, because the show takes place in 1960 and McLuhan didn’t come out with that iconic phrase until his book Understanding Media, published in 1964. (I didn’t need to look this up. I knew it. If I knew it, I think the writers of Mad Men, who are purporting to tell us something about a time and place, ought to know it.)
Later there was a scene in which ad man Don Draper confronts, in his mistress’s apartment, the mistress’s beatnik boyfriend. The scene had all the freshness of a Goldie Hawn movie from the late 60s—which is to say, none. (The original Hawn model for the Mad Man scene was either There’s a Girl In My Soup with Peter Sellers or Cactus Flower with Walter Matthau, I can’t remember which—but either way not good.) The Hawn movies were rancid in their own time; to rip them off now seems like a sell-by violation worthy of a call to the Board of Health.
Early in the episode, in a scene in which Don is pitching the Israeli tourism account, we’re asked to swallow, for the sake of exposition, that he would not know that the novel Exodus had been on the top of the New York Times bestseller list for the last two years. Please.
And yet–something in the show stays with you. The mysterious, flashback-told “Don was someone else in a former life” subplot feels lifted from a generic nighttime soap, yet, on further examination, it reinforces the theme of the show–that these “mad men” are men deeply separated from themselves. And how could it be otherwise? Like Tony Soprano, Don is very good at a job which is not good. (You can make a case that advertising performs an indispensible role in our economy, and that it entertains, but Mother Teresa wouldn’t have gone into it.) Being good at your job gives you self-esteem, the kind that allows Don to answer the question “How do you sleep?” by replying, proudly, “On a bed of money.” But being good at a job that is not good is bound to create self-loathing. (And the better you are at it, the more doubts you have about whether being good at it is a good thing.)
As with any job, the only way for Don to excel is to make himself care passionately about his work. Yet, what’s it to him, on any personally meaningful level, what brand of deodorant people choose? Advertising is a profession in which success is a function of being able to make yourself care deeply about things you care nothing about; and if that isn’t a definition of being separated from yourself, I don’t know what is. The “I’m really somebody else” storyline is merely the manifestation of that.