[Editor’s note: This column is dedicated to the memory of House contributor, Time Out New York editor and regular Mad Men recapper Andrew Johnston, who passed away Sunday, Oct. 26 at age 40, following a long battle with cancer. Andrew’s burial will take place Saturday, Nov. 1 at 2 p.m. at the Monticello Memory Gardens in Charlottesville, Virginia. There will also be a memorial Wednesday, October 29 at 5:30 p.m.; if you were a friend of Andrew’s and would like to attend, email Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.]
During the first season of Mad Men and throughout the second, much critical discussion centered on the the show’s depiction of advertising, domestic life and gender relations in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the immense cultural changes America was about to undergo, and what opinion series creator Matthew Weiner might have on it all. After watching the last three episodes, I believe those aspects are mere means to an end. Like the mob storylines on The Sopranos—a series on which Weiner served as a writer and producer—they exist to inform and amplify Mad Men’s real interest: the continual struggle between what Sigmund Freud called the id and the superego, between the deep, authentic self inside us—the sum total of our desires, appetites, urges and fantasies—and what we might call the constructed self, a superstructure of social conditioning that cages the beast within and lashes it with guilt and shame when it gets too rowdy. The third major component of the personality, the ego, referees between the id, the superego and the external world; in a sense, the ego is the locus of drama, because it’s the place where decisions happen. The struggle is apparent in any story worth watching, but it’s foregrounded in Mad Men, a series in which—like The Sopranos—dramatic decisions often come down to a blunt cost-benefit analysis. A character in moral quandary tries to choose between what he or she wants, and what his or her conditioning—and the expectations of family, friends or society at large—will allow.
Don Draper/Dick Whitman is the most obvious example of this phenomenon because he’s the main character, the guy whose problems and actions drive a lot of the drama—and he happens to be an impostor, somebody who took the identity of a dead soldier and, if the flashback material and California scenes are meant to be taken literally, stepped into the shoes of the soldier whose identity he stole and served as a sort of husband stand-in for the “real” Mrs. Draper (by which I mean the first Mrs. Draper, Anna). The Don-Anna relationship is fascinating because it seems, to quote Shakespeare, a marriage of true minds. Neither Don nor Anna seems beholden to traditional concepts of morality and decency. Anna calls Don out as a fake at the car lot, but rather than rat him out and have him punished, she engineers an arrangement whereby he’ll serve as a stand-in for her late (missing) husband. And judging from that revealing flashback in the second-to-late episode, “The Mountain King,” they both seem quite content with the arrangement. When Don is with Anna Draper, he seems more relaxed and open, more vulnerable—even somehow younger, smaller and thinner!—than he’s seemed in the rest of the series. He seems—yes, indeed—like a different person: maybe the person he was meant to be.
Our mutual friend Alan Sepinwall wrote in his recap of “The Mountain King” that this material demonstrates the debt that Weiner’s show owes to The Sopranos. Alan’s recap begins by quoting a key passage of dialogue: “It means the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone,” Anna Draper tells Don. “What if that’s true?” Don asks. “Then you can change,” Anna replies. “People don’t change,” Don counters. Alan goes on to write,
““People don’t change” may as well have been the motto of Matthew Weiner’s previous series. The Sopranos was an 86-hour argument against human beings’ capacity for real personal growth. As Mad Men borrows so many other visual and thematic elements from its mobbed-up predecessor, it would be easy to assume that Weiner, like David Chase, doesn’t believe change is possible. But “The Mountain King” makes it clear that, in the world of Mad Men, people can change—provided they have a partner to aid their transformation. If you think you’re alone, then you’re stuck ... The episode is filled with partnerships both old and new that enable major changes, some more welcome than others. Anna Draper, widow of the woman whose identity Dick Whitman stole, helped our Don step more concretely into his new identity. Betty, fearing that Don may never come home (or that she may never want him to), enlists her daughter as an ally for her potential new life as a divorcee. Pete breaks off his business relationship with his father-in-law rather than be forced to lose his role as dictator in his marriage. Roger wants to use the possible merger with Putnam, Powell & Lowe to pay for the transition into his new marriage, while Bert Cooper fears it will render him an irrelevant old man. And, in the episode’s most horrifying moment, Joan discovers what her fiance really thinks of her and her career when he rapes her on the floor of Don’s office.”
In his notes at the end of the column, Alan adds:
“The scene where Don happens by the hot rod mechanics at first seemed out of place in the rest of the episode, but on watching it a second time, it became clear: just as Don succeeds through his partnership with Anna, the mechanics take parts of two different cars and meld them together into something that’s greater as a new whole.”
I think he’s right on all of the particulars, but at the same time, and at the risk of seeming cynical, I think Alan’s reading is too hopeful, and that the message of Mad Men in re: personal growth is, “People change their lives, but they can’t change their essence,” or maybe, “People change their lives, but maybe they shouldn’t, because the change only hides the real problem, disguises it or delays the necessity of confronting it.” Or maybe it’s even simpler than that, and phrased as a question: “Would most personal unhappiness disappear if people were allowed to be true to their natures?”
When I watched the car scene, I had a thought similar to Alan’s but came to a different conclusion: that the mechanic’s strategy works on automobiles but can’t work with couples. People aren’t machines; you can’t change their essence with a new coat of paint or even a meticulously rebuilt engine; the essence of the person—particularly that insatiable id, always seeking visceral satisfaction and comfort—stays the same. The conflicts within the couple are the conflicts of the individual squared: unless the two participants in a relationship want similar things—unless they’re on the same page, so to speak—the relationship is doomed. Whether the conflict within the marriage is between an id and a superego (as seems to be the case with Don and Betty, the husband continually straying in one form or another and then slinking back home to his wife and presenting his bare back for a lashing), whether they stay together “for the sake of the kids” or pull the plug on the partnership, it’s a no-win situation, a car that barely runs and that probably never should have been taken from the showroom.
Thinking about the probable messages of Mad Men and The Sopranos, I suspect that The Sopranos, as hard-edged and pessimistic about human nature as it was, ultimately seemed moralistic in a backhanded way. It presented the hypocrisies of its characters (and the various emotional and physical savageries they justified) as a blight on happiness, actions that departed from the accepted norms of daily life and that brought grief and pain to those who abide by the rules, the norms. (Think of all the subplots and individual scenes depicting the misery inflicted by the mob characters on “civilians.”) The tone of Mad Men is different, I think—more of a lament.
The show presents social compacts (marriage, family, full-time employment in an office—all institutions that Don neglects or abandons when it suits him) as shackles on the freedom of those who are predisposed to do without them. It’s a subtle critique of traditional bourgeois morality of the Father Knows Best, two kids-and-a-mortgage variety. It treats the very concept as an illusion, a useful fiction built atop the reality of human need—a superego-style overlay, a construct, a set of goals that we’re conditioned by family, society and other forces to want, to need, regardless of whether it matches up with our own deep-seated, possibly unrecognized, maybe repressed true desires. (Peggy, for personal and self-interested reasons, is the least judgmental of the show’s major characters, responding to Pete’s irritation over Don’s little L.A. holiday by saying she’s sure he had his reasons for going AWOL. Is it just me or, at that moment, does Peggy seem to speak for the show?)
It’s here, I think, that advertising’s significance to Mad Men becomes clear. What’s the purpose of advertising? As articulated by Don—the show’s emblem and sometime philosophical mouthpiece—it’s to stoke desires that were repressed; or (more daringly—the Holy Grail for any ambitious ad man) to create or instill a desire that wasn’t there before—maybe even a desire that’s of no use, perhaps antithetical, to the consumer who’s suddenly feeling it. Don’s Season One “carousel” speech crystallizes this objective and ironically applies it to Don himself (in ways that remain largely invisible to the other characters). It’s half auto-critique, half confession, and a brilliant illustration of Don’s (and Peggy’s) belief that the most effective advertising is that which connects on a personal, emotional, very deep level, and that necessarily draws on autobiographical sources, on the ad man (or woman’s) own sense of reality, of human nature. Peggy manages the same feat, more humorously, when she draws on her Christian (Catholic) upbringing to devise the “sharing” campaign for Popsicles; Don wishes he could feel the nostalgic feelings he outlines in the carousel speech, but (to his shame) he can’t. So he uses those feelings in his work, to land a client, effectively finding a new way to pass on the desires that have ensnared him, desires that don’t really match up with who Don is.
In the final episode of Season Two, Mad Men juxtaposes individual fealty to the mid-century social norm against the looming threat of nuclear Armageddon (represented by the Cuban Missile Crisis the characters follow in news reports throughout the finale); the possibility of mass extinction is just an amped-up version of the anxiety each person faces when contemplating the certainty of his or her own death and wondering, “What’s the point of playing by the rules, of doing what society expects, when I’m just going to end up as worm food anyway?” (Don, predictably, is the character least threatened by this eventuality, responding to Joan’s request to brief the staff on emergency preparedness by indicating that if the missiles start flying, such knowledge will be useless and pointless.)
Don Draper/Dick Whitman is clearly a man uncomfortable with the responsibilities he’s saddled with. He’s ill-suited to marriage (and perhaps somewhat suited to fatherhood, though his track record there is spotty, too). He’s the sort of man who gets drunk while building a child’s playhouse—self-medicating his depression and alienation from the person he’s pretending to be. A shot late in the Season Two finale dollies slowly away from the Draper family reunited, reassembled, in their living room, a Saturday Evening Post cover image of domestic perfection, Eisenhower-standard. But we’ve seen the turmoil roiling beneath that placid image, so the effect is ironic and unsettling rather than reassuring.
To me, the scenes between Don and Anna—and the scenes in the preceding episode where Don hooks up with the Europeans in what seems like a jet-set predecessor to a hippie commune where traditional social roles are downplayed or obliterated, and a father can have a perfectly ordinary conversation with his daughter while she’s lying in bed post-coitus with her much older lover—were designed to show Don in his true element, living in a world where he doesn’t have to be burdened by the expectations he’s shouldering for propriety’s sake.
Both the Anna scenes and the LA commune scenes give us glimpses of a secret world where selfish people—meaning people who put their own happiness first and don’t lose sleep over what society expects of them—can live without anxiety, without guilt. The last three episodes of Season Two often showcased Don in situations that amounted to a holiday from the usual pressures afflicting a man of his social stature; I was reminded of the plot of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged (referenced in Season One), an uber-libertarian tract in which the truly exceptional people get tired of having to suck up to the “mealy-mouthed” commies and hypocritical, guilt-dealing parasites and go on strike, watching society collapse from the safety and comfort of a secret hideout that’s essentially Shangri-La for intellectual supermen.
Don’s soujourn with the jet set and the scenes between him and Anna had a Shangri-La feel. They were visions of homegrown paradise, of places where a man uncomfortable with his constructed self could reestablish contact with his deep self, his true self. There’s nothing condemnatory in any of this material save a closeup of a young boy in the swinger’s compound regarding Don and his young lover in the pool; in retrospect that shot might be the image that starts Don back down the road toward his day job and family, toward embracing his constructed self. He has to start being that other guy again for the sake of his kids. In a sense, that’s why we obey all sorts of rules—for the sake of the kids. Not literally our kids (some of us don’t have any and don’t want any) but for the sake of future generations. Middle-class morality exists (so we’re told) to perpetuate society, to keep the machine humming along. Damage it or even question it (as the social revolutions of the ’60s did in real life, and as they’ll do on Mad Men if it keeps getting renewed by AMC) and you risk tearing down the status quo and replacing a somewhat restrictive but functioning paradigm with pure chaos, pure selfishness. (It occurs to me that one of Ayn Rand’s key philosophical tomes was titled The Virtue of Selfishness.)
There’s a marvelous moment in the jet set compound when a relaxed Don slumps on a couch. The shot is framed from behind: Don’s arm is draped along the top of the couch. It’s a mirror image of the shot that closes the show’s credits—the period at the end of a sequence that shows the ad man entering his workspace, dropping his briefcase, leaping out of a window and plummeting through concrete canyons as, all around him, manufactured images of bliss fall apart.
That image of Don seen from behind communicates a sense of stillness and utter mystery (we can’t see his face), but the intent is different. In the credits, the shot represents the falsely calm and centered Don, a man who, on the inside, is moments away from leaping through a window and exposing the illusory nature of what passes for happiness in his world. But when we see the same shot in the European compound, I think we’re seeing an image of, not true contentment, exactly, but something closer to it than what Don experiences back home.
The jet set compound scenes and the Don Draper-Anna Draper scenes also reminded me oddly of the bits in Season Six of The Sopranos dealing with Tony’s alienation from the man he had to be—the scenes where he escaped temporarily into Coma World, or to Las Vegas, and got a chance to meditate on the basic material of which he’s built, to sort of peer into his own soul. After that, the question for Tony became, “Now what do I do about it?,” and we know the answer was, “Nothing, really.” I think Weiner believes on some level that, as Alan puts it, “People don’t change”—or that they can only change with unstinting support from like-minded people. But I think Weiner is paying even more nuanced (and empathetic) attention than Chase did to the stuff outside the self that makes it so hard to change—the expectations that we be a certain way, live a certain way. And he’s mourning the loss, or burial, of the authentic self, the id, the little death that comes with accepting a restricted life, a life of fewer freedoms, less autonomy; and he’s perhaps conceding, and being saddened by, the inevitability of such compromise.
It seems not at all coincidental that Don is visually defined by that broad-shouldered suit and the hat that shades his eyes. That’s not who he is; it’s his uniform, the armor he dons, the disguise in which he drapes himself before entering a world hostile to his essence.
A Brooklyn-based filmmaker and a former critic for The New York Times, The Star-Ledger and New York Press, Matt Zoller Seitz is the editor emeritus of The House Next Door. He posts videos on YouTube under the name InsomniacDad.