This Way Lies Madness.Posted: August 14, 2007
When Mad Men is great—which it has not been consistently in its first four episodes—it is so great as to defy easy description. Underneath a simple enough storyline (this is not one of those shows that has you going “Huh?” like John from Cincinnati) there are so many layers in it, so many complex and absorbing tensions pulling the characters three ways from Sunday, that it may become one of the great all-time TV shows. When The Sopranos ended, it seemed all but impossible that we’d see anything on its level on television again for a long, long time. As it turned out, it may only have taken about a month.
Mad Men’s time is 1960, and its protagonist (it’s hard to call him “hero”) is Don Draper. Unlike the Rock Hudson/Gig Young/Tony Randall stereotype that has defined the ad man in popular culture for the last half-century, Draper takes his job seriously. His whole life is fodder for the problem-solving he does for his clients. He falls asleep at night with a legal pad of jottings on his chest; he has ideas while banging his mistress; he takes notes on human behavior while sitting in a bar; he searches his wife’s nervous breakdown for insight into how to sell deodorant. And it’s not all about “approval” for him; some inner imperative to do his job well impels him to give his clients good value for money.
Passionately caring about and doing the job you’re being paid to do instead of taking someone’s money and fucking off: This is behavior that we normally describe as admirable and moral. Yet Don’s hard work is sometimes on behalf of products that are bad for us (like candidate Dick Nixon). This is action that is amoral, at best. In doing his damnedest to reach American consumers/voters with insights that can move them, is Draper doing a good thing (because he’s holding up his end of the contract excellently), or is he the German officer who is “merely following orders”? At one point in Episode 4, he makes a remark about his agency that “there are more failed artists and intellectuals around here than in the Third Reich.” Although he seems to be lashing out at others, the shoe fits his own foot. The question is not limited to advertising. It is endemic to capitalism, our way of life, the American air we breathe. Which of us, impelled by the need to get what we need for ourselves and our families, hasn’t made choices that fail to stand scrutiny when judged in the light of the common good? Mad Men looks like a window into a different time and place, but it’s not a window—it’s a mirror.
The ambivalencies about Don Draper are just the beginning. When we see the drinking the ad men do in their offices (happy hour seems to start at 11), are we meant to think how sad that is, or are we meant to think, “Man, those were the days!”? (Day-long, day-after-day dope smoking sure looks cool when they do it in Entourage, so why should we feel any different about the alcohol use in Mad Men?) When we see kids in 1960World jumping around unseatbelted in cars, are we meant to feel good about the strides in consciousness we’ve made since then in protecting our young, or are we meant to mourn the loss of innocence and sense of security, even if false, of that carefree time? When we see a suburban world of moms and homemakers, are we meant to key in on the lack of career options available to women then, or are we meant to celebrate a time when families could live well on one income? All of the above. Mad Men shows that complexity does not have to be confusing. Sometimes it can be enlightening. And then, there’s John from Cincinnati.