The Shock of the Pretty
James Meek writes about ‘Mad Men’
The second episode of season four of Mad Men opens in 1964, somewhere in New York State. Luxurious flakes of snow fall on a lot filled with flawless Christmas trees for sale, lit by strings of lights hung from red and white candy-striped poles. The camera swoops on a family of five, husband, wife and three children, arranged in perfect descending height order from left to right, husband Henry to little Bobby. The shot is framed by two trees; in the upper right corner, a group of smiling shoppers coming through the lot balances the family in the lower left. Tall, masculine Henry is exquisite in camel-hair overcoat and a polo-neck in the same Christmas green as the pine needles. In the centre his wife, Betty, holds baby Gene in her arms, his scarlet jacket setting off her teal coat. The juxtaposition of Bobby’s tartan zip-up jacket and baseball cap with the Madonna-like incline of blonde Betty’s passionlessly beautiful face combine the ideals of wholesome American family life and the purity of the Virgin.
We don’t need to have watched the previous forty episodes of the series (out of 85 aired so far, with another seven still to go) to guess that this tableau must be undermined by some horrid sinkhole of reality. Peace, prosperity, health, the nuclear family, fulfilment through consumption and a white, white Christmas: even if you’ve never read Yates or Cheever or Salter, generations of cinematic art, from Hitchcock to Lynch, have prepared you for the nastiness below the surface of stuff like this. You assume there’s a dark underbelly, and there is.
Betty is on her second marriage. She broke with her previous husband, the Madison Avenue advertising executive Don Draper, when she found out he was lying about who he was, and was sleeping with another man’s wife; we saw him cheat on Betty with at least five other women: a commercial artist, a wealthy client, a 21-year-old Euro-drifter he met in Los Angeles, a flight attendant, and his young daughter Sally’s teacher. Betty suffers from chronic depression at a time when neither the diagnosis nor the pills to smother it are easy to come by. But what, here, is undermining what? What if, with or against our will, we aren’t shocked by the darkness beneath the surface, but childishly delighted by the prettiness of the surface shimmering over the darkness? What if the vintage fashion-shoot perfection of the Christmas scene leaves a more powerful impression on us than our awareness of the suffering of Betty and her children?
Sterling Cooper, the fictional advertising agency around which Mad Men is built, is a caricature of the commercial TV system that produced the series: a pool of creative people in bitter thrall to the accountants and deal-makers they rely on for money. Although we learn in parenthesis that the agency gets most of its income from commission on the ads it places, for dramatic purposes the agency is divided into two departments: Creative, which comes up with campaign slogans, artwork and copy for ads, and Accounts, which persuades, charms, fawns, bribes and pimps its way to getting and keeping corporate clients. Mad Men is a show about writers dependent on advertising, written by writers dependent on advertising, the difference being that the fictional writers of Creative write the ads on which they depend.
Dozens of characters come and go, but six are in the foreground throughout, three women and three men. There’s Don Draper (Jon Hamm), head of Creative; his wife, Betty (January Jones), who stays at home in upstate New York through her divorce and subsequent remarriage to Henry, looking after her and Don’s three children; Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who rises from twenty-year-old secretary to executive in Don’s team, the first woman to do so since the war; Roger Sterling (John Slattery), the urbane old-money wit and rake who runs Accounts; Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), the spoiled, petulant, baby-faced young scion of neo-aristocratic New Netherlanders, also Accounts; and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), who, from the position of senior secretary, makes partner and Accounts exec in her own right.
Mad Men has two ways to encourage us to appreciate the cruelty and seediness masked by the super-designed gorgeousness of the world of appearances. First there’s the characters’ behaviour. Some commentators, noting that Don Draper was reading Dante’s Inferno on the beach in Hawaii at the beginning of season six, have suggested a connection between Don’s adventures in subsequent episodes and the journey of Beatrice’s lover through the Underworld. But from the start no episode passes without at least one character in Limbo and at least one example of lust, gluttony, greed, anger, violence, fraud or treachery. Given that the cult of romantic love is the chief post-Christian form of religion, add heresy to the list.
Yet the hellishness is played out with characters and in mises-en-scène of such ravishing external poise, elegance and colour co-ordination as to dilute their dramatic intensity, or swamp them altogether. There are many moments like the one in season six when, as Peggy and Ted Chaough discuss their feelings for each other, we struggle to follow what they are saying over the deafening beauty of Ted’s peacock blue suit and Peggy’s sleeveless polka-dot blouse and kerchief, framed by the trippy wallpaper in Ted’s office. In Mad Men there are more words out of place than hairs out of place. The suits fit immaculately, the ties are eternally flat and straight, the shirt collars tamed and pristine. Don’s suit fits as sleekly to his body as a superhero’s costume. In an early episode, Don visits his mistress late at night, having come from the hospital after a colleague’s heart attack. ‘You look terrible,’ she tells him, apparently for no reason other than that his fringe has divided into multiple strands. The dramatic force of the scene, the way Don exploits the heart attack to get her to sleep with him, is attenuated by a conflict between writers and designers: a 1960s setting, 21st-century dialogue, and wardrobe standards that are not of the actual 1960s, but of 1960s film and TV.
It’s one thing, it turns out, to ask those responsible for the texture of fictional TV worlds to re-create the 1960s, quite another to get them to take that re-creation and make it scruffier, meaner, more disappointing, more real; to accept that while the ideal 1964 might contain artefacts and costumes from 1964 alone, the perfectly real 1964 would be packed with the fashions of 1963 and 1962 and the distressed remnants of the purchases of the 1950s; to accept that banal interiors, clashing colours, tawdry novelties and dull messiness are also ideals in their way, ideals whose incorporation into costume drama might deter the viewer’s suspicion that the designers of Mad Men are answering a bigger share of the question ‘Why am I watching this?’ than the writers would like.
Mad Men’s second overt challenge to its own glamour relies on the audience’s self-flattering sense of historical irony, on our consciousness of our social enlightenment relative to the 1960s. ‘How wonderful they look,’ we’re invited to think, ‘but how racist they are, how sexist, how homophobic, how reckless in their diet; what snobs!’ And what polluters: in one early scene, at the end of a family picnic, the beautiful, well-heeled Drapers shake their trash off the blanket onto the grass and drive off, leaving their beer cans, Coke bottles, paper plates and sandwich wrappers spread out across the slope.
The first episode of the show, set in 1960, is chauvinism and hypocrisy bingo: the anti-Semitism, the obviously (to us) closeted gay art director Sal, the onslaught of casual and structural sexism experienced by Peggy on her first day as Don’s secretary.[*] When he’s introduced to her, Pete says: ‘Are you Amish or something? … It wouldn’t be a sin for us to see your legs. If you would pull your waist in a little bit you might look like a woman.’ Don rebukes Pete for his lack of gallantry, but when on the same day Don meets a department store heiress and potential client, he finds her power intolerable. ‘I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like this,’ he says. Later, he tells her: ‘You’re a beautiful, educated woman. Don’t you think that getting married and having a family would make you happier than all the headaches that go along with fighting people like me?’ Peggy goes to a (male) doctor for birth control; lighting up, the doctor observes: ‘I would like to think putting a woman in this situation is not going to turn her into some sort of strumpet.’
There’s technology bingo: ‘It’s not like there’s some magic machine that makes identical copies of things,’ Don says to Pete in the first episode, a year before the agency gets its first Xerox machine. There’s lifestyle bingo: ‘So what if Reader’s Digest says [cigarettes] are dangerous?’ Sal asks. ‘They also said Bambi was the book of the century. There’s no proof.’ It comes with this-day-in-history bingo: ‘He’s young, handsome and a navy hero,’ Roger tells Don. ‘Honestly, it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince America Dick Nixon is a winner.’
It’s funny, in a pilot. But over a whole series, these temporal markers of the American 1960s crowd the portrayal of chauvinism to create an effect where, rather than being a cause of shame, past racism and homophobia come to seem an organic and inherently temporary aspect of nostalgia, like puberty – as if civil rights for all races and sexual orientations have been won (to the limited extent they have been) not through protest, obstinacy and sacrifice, in the face of vicious opposition and popular derision, but because they were inevitable. It is as if the worst chauvinisms of straight white 1960s America were childish bad behaviour that the adult straight white America of the new millennium would probably rather not repeat, but permits itself to shake its head over with bemused affection for its impetuous younger self.
The writers of Mad Men consistently smother racial and gay storylines. They’ll start them, but they won’t follow through. The ugliness, mean-mindedness and contemptuousness of the things people say in private about groups they feel allowed to hate, the epithets, the jokes, the vicious folk legends – they’re not here. Mad Men’s enactments of past racial prejudice and homophobia are more vinegar than acid, and when they have power, they peter out. There’s a strong passage in the third season when an executive for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Sterling Cooper’s biggest client, tries to get Sal to have sex with him in the agency film room. When Sal refuses, the executive tells the agency, without giving a reason, that he’ll pull Lucky Strike’s business unless Sal is sacked. Without hesitation, Roger fires him. Sal, who is married, takes his case to the only person in the company who knows his secret, Don Draper.
Sal: I guess I was just supposed to do whatever he wanted? Well, what if it was some girl?
Don: That would depend on what kind of girl it was and what I knew about her. You people!
Sal: I didn’t do anything but turn him down. He’s a bully.
Don: Lucky Strike can shut off our lights. [They stand up.] I think you know that this is the way this has to be. [Don shakes Sal’s hand.] You’ll do fine.
And that’s that: end of Sal, end of Sal’s job, end of Sal’s storyline. Sal is only the first of a series of gay characters who vanish from Mad Men just when their situation threatens to become dramatically interesting.
Similar fates await black characters. As the decade wears on Sterling Cooper begins to recruit black secretaries. Eventually one of them, Dawn, is appointed to the agency’s reception desk. The elderly founder, Bert Cooper, won’t stand for it. ‘I’m all for the national advancement of coloured people but I do not believe they should advance all the way to the front of this office,’ he tells Joan, who by this time is managing the agency. ‘People can see her from the elevator.’ A dramatic confrontation is promised, but the writers avoid it: Joan is promoted and Dawn gets her job. Dawn attains greater empowerment without having to risk humiliation or offend her racist boss with an act of defiance. The Mad Men writers raise the ghost of racism without giving it the substance to kick us in the gut.
These are real weaknesses. But Mad Men is worth the trouble when it transcends them. The idealised period magnificence of set and costume that is so tiresome as a static, shop-window affair, when it acts as a distraction from bad dialogue and unlikely plot-driven character shifts, can acquire significance and splendour when it acts as a vehicle for narrative in its own right: when, as in an Edward Hopper painting, period fashion recedes in favour of a chiaroscuro telling of the hour and the season, and colour co-ordination gives way to a dialogue between the characters and the inanimate tokens of their regrets. Thus at the end of season two we see Betty in the doctor’s office, waiting to be told she’s pregnant; she sits on a raised piece of medical furniture as if floating off the ground, the pleats of her demure charcoal full-skirted dress spread out beneath her like the umbrel of a great airborne seed. The image cries out so needily to be admired for its magnificence, its painterly composition, that at first it seems to suck the dramatic impact out of the scene, or to be a substitute for it. In fact, the dress is part of the drama: she is dressed in mourning for her girlhood and young womanhood, marked by the imminent birth of her third child and the imminent death of her surviving parent.
The cost of period street scenes, and the fact that Mad Men, set mainly in New York, is filmed in LA, deprives us of the visual possibilities of Manhattan itself. But Christopher Manley, the series cinematographer, does grand things with light. At one point in season two as Don prepares to leave his corner office, the strong late afternoon sunlight, full of optimism and the promise of reward, stripes his face through the blinds. Then Betty calls him, telling him he is no longer welcome at home. The same afternoon light falls on her, but now it has become the threshold of night and solitude; a montage of night scenes follows, showing Joan alone at home in silence, having been passed over for a non-secretarial job, undressing, fingering the bra-strap weal on her shoulder; Peggy, having been chastised for lack of piety by her priest, alone in silence in her bath; the young priest, sitting alone on his single bed, playing a Peter, Paul and Mary song on his nylon-stringed guitar; and finally Don in the office kitchen, alone in a patch of light that recedes as the camera pulls back into the darkness of the deserted typing pool.
In one arena the chauvinism of the era is played out with zeal and persistence: gender. The series has a masculine name. If there’s a single leading character with primacy, the first face of the series, it is Don Draper, Sterling Cooper’s top ideas man. The creator and chief writer of Mad Men is a man, Matt Weiner. But Weiner aside, the 15 women writers who have worked on the series rack up almost twice as many episode credits as the 14 men. Weiner may have worked on The Sopranos, and AMC had another award magnet with Breaking Bad, but nobody gets whacked in Mad Men. It has thematic ties to Sex and the City and Girls, and their antecedent, Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group: women in New York grappling for dominance with men in defining the terms of their intimacy, and the tyrannical apposition of autonomy and loneliness.
When Mad Men opens in 1960 (the most recent season took us up to 1969 and the moon landing), the gender divide runs along ancient lines. The men fight and hunt, dominate and control, fornicate and impregnate promiscuously, sometimes violently; the women seek mates, bear children, tend the hearth and defer to the men. In the context of Sterling Cooper, as the 1960s begin, women have a limited number of possible roles. They may be wives at home; servants, specifically secretaries and typists in the workplace; single women seeking husbands; or courtesan-mistresses, the last three roles being interchangeable.
The set-up at Sterling Cooper, and the broader social codes within which the senior men operate, give them great sexual power over women, and they take advantage. Wives exist to bear and raise children, cook and clean, entertain at the husband’s pleasure, and be his escort at certain functions. They have some claim to his money but otherwise must not question his authority, and must never challenge his claim that he has to work late, or spend the night in the office, or in a hotel. Women in the workplace – secretaries, typists, switchboard operators – exist to do their job but also to lie to bosses’ wives; to be fun and a good sport, that is, not to resist the men’s sexual advances; and to provide a pool of second wives. Over the course of the series both Don and Roger have sex with one of their secretaries and marry another. Don proposes to the beautiful young Megan while still seeing the beautiful but not quite so young market researcher Faye, who, we are told, ‘helped develop the indelible image that has become the standard of feminine hygiene advertising, the carefree girl in white pants’. This is just after Faye has risked her career to give Don inside information in the mistaken belief that sleeping with him several times and being his daughter’s emergency carer gives her a special call on his affection.
The executives gather young women for consumer testing sessions in the agency and watch them from behind one-way glass, whiskey in hand. There are casting sessions for roles in radio and TV commercials at which the executives have the power to pick the girl, with the implication that the favour should be returned. It’s while Roger and Don frolic in the office after hours with young twins who came in for a part in a Double Sided Aluminum ad that Roger has his first heart attack. It doesn’t stop him going on to get Joan pregnant, marrying and breaking up with his young secretary, Jane, dropping acid and hosting a rolling orgy at his grand Manhattan apartment. So powerful is the masculine culture of the agency that even men who don’t work there are enthralled by its mythology of dominant men and compliant women. When Joan takes her fiancé Greg into work after hours, he rapes her in Don’s office. ‘This is what you want, right?’ he says.
As well as the structural obstacles to women’s advancement, to reach the Creative-Accounts stratum Peggy and Joan must overcome their distaste for the peculiar kinds of opportunity the men offer them. Joan eventually makes it to Accounts and gets a lucrative partnership in return for having sex with a businessman, Herb, whose blessing Sterling Cooper needs to win the US ad campaign for Jaguar. Don assures her he’s disgusted by what the other partners have made her do, but he still pitches the agency’s campaign to the car firm, under the slogan: ‘At last, something beautiful you can truly own.’ In the episode his pitch is intercut with Joan in the businessman’s hotel room:
Don: [to Jaguar executives] We’re taught to think that function is all that matters. But we have a natural longing for this other thing.
Herb: [in dressing gown and bare chest in opulent hotel room, to Joan] Well, I, uh, got you a little something. [Hangs pendant round her neck] I thought a woman of your complexion would look good in emerald.
Don: When I was driving the E-type, I passed a ten-year-old boy in the back window of a station wagon, and I watched his eyes follow. He’d just seen something he would want for the rest of his life.
Herb: [pouring champagne] I feel like a sultan of Araby and my tent is graced with Helen of Troy.
Joan: Those are two different stories.
Don: He’d just seen that unattainable object speed by out of reach. Because they do that, don’t they? Beautiful things.
Herb: [to Joan’s décolletage] You know, I don’t know how much longer I can restrain myself. Let me see ’em.
Peggy becomes a copywriter not because the men in Creative believe she’s an original thinker but because they see her as a native interpreter from the country of women, able to articulate for them how women’s desires – which are, naturally, to be wanted by men – can be manipulated to make them buy cold cream or tights. She’s seen as someone who speaks ‘woman’ but through working with men has lost citizenship of womandom: a sexless creature, a brainy schoolgirl, repeatedly compared to an eager, faithful hound. When Freddie first spots Peggy come up with a tagline for lipstick, he tells the guys: ‘It was like watching a dog play the piano.’ She is asked to come up with a new idea to sell Playtex bras but a bar-room brainstorming session she wasn’t told about by the male Creatives beats her to it. The copywriter Paul Kinsey’s vision is that every bra-buying woman in America aspires to be either Jackie Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe:
Paul: Bras are for men. Women want to see themselves the way men see them.
Sal: Jackie or Marilyn – a line or a curve.
Peggy: Which do you think I am?
Ken: Gertrude Stein.
Joan and Peggy’s journey involves little solidarity between them and the secretaries who believe themselves to be their allies in fate. When a drunk Don has sex with his secretary, then has no interest in her the following day, Peggy recoils from the secretary’s assumption that she, too, is one of Don’s cast-offs, and owes her ascent to it. Peggy resents it when her future boyfriend Abe, a radical journalist, suggests she isn’t doing enough to help the civil rights movement:
Peggy: Most of the things negroes can’t do, I can’t do either. And nobody seems to care.
Abe: What are you talking about?
Peggy: Half of the meetings take place over golf or tennis in a bunch of clubs where I’m not allowed to be a member. Or even enter. The University Club said the only way I could eat dinner there was if I arrived in a cake.
By this time, in 1965, Peggy has already acquired enough power to be able to fire a young man in Creative, Joey, not long after he asks Joan: ‘What do you do here besides walking around like you’re trying to get raped?’ By 1969, Joan and Peggy are able to perform a perfect enactment of male executive behaviour from ten years earlier: Joan strolls into Peggy’s big office on her way out, congratulates her on her pay rise, grabs herself and Peggy a huge whiskey from Peggy’s bar, and the two of them bitch about Don, who is now Peggy’s subordinate. It’s a victory of sorts, but one that brings the original goal into perspective. They’ve successfully broken into a man’s world, and now, alongside men drinking too much, plotting against each other, impetuously firing people, alienating their children and getting in a lather about who has the best idea for persuading Americans to buy synthetic frozen dessert topping, there are women doing it, too. Even as they’ve gained some power, and pushed back old-guard male chauvinism, Peggy and Joan see a new generation of sexually opportunistic men come into the workplace, the asshole nouveau, for whom the language of sexual liberation is a fresh way of playing on women’s anxieties to get them into the sack. Peggy and Joan are single mothers: Peggy, who gave the child up for adoption, from a momentary fling with Pete, Joan by Roger. Like the men, they now have to satisfy their sexual and family desires in a way that is not only enabled by power, but compatible with it. Sterling Cooper is seldom a happy place, the men racked by insecurity and self-pity. ‘Everyone’s scared there,’ Dawn tells a friend. ‘Women crying in the ladies room, men crying in the elevator.’
Jon Hamm brings to the role of Don a manly handsomeness, charm, plausible wit, aggression and, when other qualities fail, a remarkable ability to conjure an air of bewildered, ordinary-dope innocence. His character suffers from a cartoonish springbackability: his morals are constantly being blown to pieces, his integrity always falling off a cliff, yet each time, his essential virtue is made whole again. He helps people selflessly, yet by 1969 has two suicides on his tab. He’s vindictive yet loyal, controlling yet tolerant, devious yet trustworthy; for Don, nobility is an occasional, random quality. Early on we learn that he began life as the orphaned son of a prostitute, was brought up in a brothel, then stole the name and identity of an officer who died next to him in Korea. But the recurring drama of whether his past will be unmasked gets stale. He is too fantastically successful and too bound up with the plot, with the ratings-driven story rhythms of early season complacency, mid-season crisis and end of season rescue, to expose his existential self. Early in season six it seems that Don, the archetypal friendless success story, has found a buddy, a heart surgeon who’s a neighbour in the Manhattan apartment block where he lives with Megan, his second wife. The friendship turns out to be a mask for Don’s affair with the surgeon’s wife, Sylvia. In the dying of that affair, we glimpse what might have been a deeper Don: his haunted look back at the room service breakfast tray in the swirl of bedsheets after Sylvia has tired of his domination-submission play in a sepulchral hotel, his pressing his ear to the wall outside her apartment, trying to hear her voice in the kitchen, hearing the radio playing instead, listening to it anyway.
Betty and Pete both play off, and so to some extent depend on, Don – Betty because she is married to him until 1963 and is the mother of his children, Pete because he’s Don’s character opposite – but they are more interesting than him. It’s a strength of Mad Men that the series keeps faith with Betty as a character long after she flies to Reno for her divorce, and not merely as Don’s ex, or as a tool to keep his children in the picture. The writers avoid the simplistic portrayal of a good woman wronged, or a naive woman shattered by the discovery of her husband’s deceptions. Betty is neither a victim nor a proto-feminist, but a bored, depressed, highly educated, esteem-craving woman, terrified of losing her looks – at 28, she’s worried about getting old – and by the prospect of having to identify the terms of her complicity in the dependency trap that is bringing her low. She fears gradual change and hates sudden change and expends emotional energy on the maintenance of a present that is actually the past. All the exits from her situation – adultery, employment – seem, to her, marked with the sign of failure. In early episodes it seems she is trusting of Don, as the stories of the infidelities of others horrify her. A clever device reveals the truth: she discovers that Don, who’s paying for her to see a psychiatrist, is getting secret reports from the shrink. Instead of confronting Don, she realises she can use her sessions as a back channel to tell Don the things she thinks and knows but doesn’t want to tell him directly. ‘It’s interesting the way he makes love,’ she tells the psychiatrist. ‘Sometimes it’s what I want. But sometimes it’s obviously what someone else wants. I suppose it means I’m not enough.’
The rage of the Mad Men housewives, in other words, is not that their husbands are cheating. They know they are. It is that the men do it in such a way as to force their wives to confront them. The women have consented to play their part in a lifelong performance of an elaborate, highly stylised, brightly coloured comedy drama called Ideal American Families. This allows plenty of room backstage for the men to step out of character, yet still they don’t have the decency to stick to their roles when they’re in front of the audience. As Trudy, Pete’s wife, puts it in 1968, when their marriage comes to a sudden end,
Couldn’t you just pretend? I let you have that apartment. Somehow I thought that there was some dignity in granting permission. All I wanted was for you to be discreet. She lives on our block! There’s no way for me to escape. To not be an object of pity while you get to do whatever you feel like.
The incident that prompts Pete’s expulsion from the family home in Connecticut is a neighbour finding out that his wife has been sleeping with Pete in Manhattan. The neighbour beats her up and dumps her, bloodied face and all, on Pete’s doorstep. This isn’t the kind of thing that ever happens to Don. The glamour and delight of adultery goes to Don; the sleaze, the awkwardness, the messiness, the failures, the setbacks, to Pete. And so on in every sphere of life: Don, of Creative, bests Pete, of Accounts. Pete is an unattractive character, treacherous, greedy and smarmy, with a grotesque sense of entitlement and the damning trait of not being able to drive. His own mother says to him: ‘You were a sour little boy, and you’re a sour little man.’ An entire episode devoted to successive masculine humiliations, where he is bested in seduction, DIY and fistfighting, ends with his being reduced to a character in another Account man’s short story. This is appropriate. Pete’s obnoxiousness goes along with self-knowledge, and his defeats give that self-knowledge a weight Don’s occasional moments of introspection lack. If Don too often sounds like the cornily earnest, remorseful antihero, reciting the moral at the conclusion of an otherwise cynical 1950s film noir, Pete seems to have wandered in from the pages of Cheever or Yates. Where Don’s doubts about who he is spring from a limited and concrete variation on the American fable of reinvention, Pete’s doubts are more universal and abstract. In mid-series he sees a mistress, the wife of a fellow commuter, recovering in hospital from electroshock therapy for her depression. She no longer recognises him, and he tells her about the end of their affair:
When it went away he was heartbroken. And then he realised everything he already had was not right either. And that was why it had happened at all. And that his life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.
Mad Men episodes are about 45 minutes long. But when they air on AMC in the States or on Sky Atlantic in Britain they take up an hour in the listings. The difference is made up by ads. Mad Men, a series set in an advertising agency, is interrupted by actual advertisements. Most of the brands Sterling Cooper pitches for the advertising accounts of are real: Jaguar, Lucky Strike, Playtex, Clearasil, American Airlines, Kodak, Samsonite, Hilton. Most companies have told reporters they were approached by AMC to tell them they’d be in the show, and some helped with research, but they didn’t pay for product placement. Sometimes the relationship is more blurry. The giant Dutch-British food and cleaning products conglomerate Unilever sponsored Mad Men’s fourth season, during which the fictional Sterling Cooper wins the campaign for Pond’s Cold Cream, a Unilever brand. Throughout the season, during the commercial breaks, Unilever aired ads for its other products, set in its own fictional 1960s advertising agency. I watched one of these real adverts for a real product set in a fictional advertising agency based on another fictional advertising agency that was pretending to be pitching for a real product made by the real company that was sponsoring the show. It was a video clip on the New York Times website. Before I got to watch it, I had to watch an advert for something else.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite. The newspapers I worked for in my reporting days were mainly funded by advertising. I’ve been advertised as a product myself, or at least my novels have, and I raised no objection. I grew up in Dundee, the last city in Britain to have a daily newspaper with a front page entirely covered in small ads, and I joined in the general sigh when news replaced them. Intentionally and unintentionally funny ads have made me laugh, and even if we do live in Adorno and Horkheimer’s false society, laughter is not always ‘a disease which has attacked happiness’. Advertising is a social superstructure, and by making Leopold Bloom an ad man, Joyce anticipated the modern world, where a common dream is to brand ourselves, project an attractive corporate image through social media, then stumble on the one meme or clip that will stop the world in its tracks and get us bought:
What were habitually his final meditations?
Of some one sole unique advertisement to cause passers to stop in wonder, a poster novelty, with all extraneous accretions excluded, reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and congruous with the velocity of modern life.
Yet the weight of big corporation commercial propaganda that occupies so much space, time and thought has a malignity. The cumulative effect of current British advertising is that in order to be happy, beautiful and prosperous, you should borrow money, drink, gamble, buy a new car and eat processed food.
The protagonists of Mad Men seldom address advertising as advertising. In Don’s first effort to articulate what it’s all about, he declares:
Advertising is based on one thing, and you know what that one thing is? Happiness. Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK.
This doesn’t make sense. Advertising that convinces you your life is fine isn’t going to make you buy something new; the aim of advertising is to promote dissatisfaction, a sense of specific want, not reassurance. As it turns out, however, Don is merely deluded. The happiness he speaks of is his code for the state of the ideal American family life he believes himself to have created, and believes himself able to sustain, even as he gives himself the freedom to step outside it at will. His early crisis with his wife comes because she is both a consumer of his brand, the Perfect Draper Family, and an essential part of it.
The tension between Don the cynic and Don the idealist has remained unresolved so far. The Don who tells us that advertising is happiness is the same character who tells a beatnik, much more plausibly, that ‘people want to be told what to do so badly they’ll listen to anyone.’ Weiner and his collaborators seem to feel that this works – assuming, perhaps, that the narrative driver of Don’s identity theft will carry us through. But if part of their aim is to make a link between the business of advertising and a man defining his own image, they’re timid. There’s never a sense that advertising is being conceptually challenged in Mad Men. To say, ‘Behold the ad man, selling himself to the world with the same tricks and lies as he sells soap,’ is moderately interesting. To say, ‘Behold advertising, as rotten as its prince of lies, Don Draper,’ would be subversive. But Mad Men doesn’t say it.
Don comes up with corny slogans and tags in his personal life. He writes to Betty, seeking forgiveness: ‘I know that you won’t be alone for very long, but without you, I will be alone for ever.’ He takes out a full-page ad in the New York Times when Sterling Cooper is dumped by Lucky Strike, claiming that the agency has, in fact, taken a principled stand against smoking; soon afterwards he’s visiting Dow Chemical, pitching to help them sell napalm; not long after that he’s explaining to another tobacco firm how good it’ll make them look if he publicly recants on his anti-smoking shtick. It all comes across as the advertising industry illustrating an aspect of his degradation, rather than the other way round.
Advertising is used to make political points. Amid news of bloodshed in Vietnam, the young men of Sterling Cooper yearn to sell ketchup. (‘It’s Heinz ketchup, Don! It’s the Coca-Cola of condiments!’) It’s used for the comedy of bathos. (‘No one’s paid attention to me for nine years at the company. They gave me a suicide mission: vinegar, sauces and baked beans.’) But it is not, in and of itself, a target. Stan Rizzo, Sal’s replacement, enters the series as an archetypal asshole nouveau but evolves into a licensed jester who gets to pipe rare notes of dissent about the underlying structure of what they do:
Don: Well, I don’t know what anybody knows about Cool Whip …
Stan: I read a thirty-page dossier that fails to use the words ‘fake whipped cream’.
If a commercial TV station were to commission a full-on dramatic assault on the basis of commercial TV’s existence, it would be surprising. What’s disappointing about Mad Men is the missed opportunity to use the advertising industry as a way to explore the relationship between our modern sense of self and the composite identities we assemble from external ideals. By focusing Don’s identity crisis on a concrete, specific case of illegal identity theft, Mad Men distracts attention from the artificial construction of personality that everyone indulges in. And whatever advertising does, it’s at the heart of the personality construction business.
We fall back on Pete as the voice of the absurd. In ‘Flight 1’, an early episode in the second season and one of the best of the entire series, Pete’s father dies in a plane crash, and he’s baffled by the lack of social conventions. ‘What does one do?’ he asks Don. ‘Make arrangements, I guess. What am I supposed to do? I don’t even know how old he was. Someone’s going to ask that. You know what? I don’t think I’m going to tell anyone … Am I going to cry?’ If you don’t have a product, what do you have? Nameless things, unlabelled things, things without brands and logos, generic things, free things, things without margin: love, death, loss, disappointment, unpossessed beauty.
Cheever’s great parable of American dissent and contentment, ‘Goodbye, My Brother’, ends with an accepting man, a man who loves the way things are generally supposed to be, whacking his relentlessly sceptical sibling over the head with a tree root. ‘Oh, what can you do with a man like that?’ he asks, when his injured brother has fled. ‘How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life?’ Surface beauty quite often finds a way of truncheoning the skull of unwanted truth. There’s a comic enactment in Mad Men when Peggy accidentally stabs Abe in the stomach with a homemade spear she made to defend their home in the crime-ravaged Upper West Side (this is 1968). Abe, the radical journalist, is writing about life in the area. He’s a fervent revolutionary, but also a minor character, while Peggy is the feminist face of modern consumer capitalism. In the ambulance, with the blade sticking out of his stomach, he is the one who has to leave the series. ‘Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment,’ he gasps through the pain. ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll always be the enemy.’ Peggy’s concerned expression mutates into the dismay of a market researcher baffled by consumer resistance. ‘Are you breaking up with me?’ she asks.