Don Draper is watching his wife Megan get ready to film an ad for Baxter shoes. She’s dressed in a mock-European folk costume consisting of a canary blouse, scarlet dirndl and floral headdress. It’s ludicrous, like a parody of Snow White (the ad’s motif is Beauty and the Beast), but she looks great in it. And while she’s filming, Don watches her with a look of, well, what exactly?—is it amusement, pride, satisfaction, contempt? As usual with Don it’s hard to tell. Except for rare moments of intense emotion, Jon Hamm’s face is a mask. The camera follows him as he walks out into the empty soundstage surrounding the set in a beautiful slow tracking shot out of Sunset Boulevard until the set shrinks into a point of light. The camera pivots and then catches Don again as he’s walking into a vaguely Oriental-themed bar while the theme to You Only Live Twice plays in the background. Don orders an Old Fashioned. A beautiful woman approaches him, asks for a light. Then she points to a friend at the other end of the bar who wants to know, is he alone?
After five years we should be used to this, but still: what a tease. TV is generally a fairly transparent medium—conflicts get stated up front, characters announce why they’re doing what they’re doing, something moderately exciting happens before every ad break. But at its best, Mad Men remains admirably opaque. Characters’ motivations remain unstated and unexplained, their emotional reactions uncertain and subject to endless interpretation. Does that final question mean that Don is really alone, and that by giving in to Megan’s ambitions he has severed his connection to her? Or had he already lost her before, when he played a reel of her screen test for himself in a replay of the famous Carousel scene from Season One, and saw the flicker of an emotion that already existed only in memory, and on film? Did he give Megan the audition to spite her mother, or because he felt sorry for her? What does it all mean for the future? Is Don about to go back to his tomcatting ways, and be with Megan like he was with Betty? Is he alone and desperate, or fulfilled and free? And what is the rest of the gang going to be doing in 1968?
One of the great things about Mad Men is that the end of each season holds the seeds of the show’s future. This year featured Timothy Leary, the Chicago Nurse murders, the Texas Sniper, George Romney, the Rolling Stones. Next year I see Megan in Paris, appearing as an extra in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend or on the barricades during the May events. Roger will be in India, up in Rishikesh with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Beatles, or in Marrakech with a bag of bad hashish. Joan will have left it all for the West Coast, hiding a gun in her purse for her Black Panther friends and scoring a bit part (quotes, unattributed) in one of Joan Didion’s high-class hippie-kickings. Don will be selling the two great American incendiary devices—napalm and Richard Nixon. Or maybe he’ll take a job with the Democrats and be the third person on the left when Sirhan Sirhan shoots Bobby Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel. Shaken, he’ll hole up in a Topanga Canyon bungalow with a starlet and a stack of Pocket Poets paperbacks until her new friend Charlie knocks on the door…
It’s all possible, but in all likelihood the next season is going to start the same way as every other season, inside the Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce offices, centered on the lower-case drama of chasing accounts and hiring staff. Mad Men belongs to the new generation of long-form programs characterized by big plots, complex character arcs, and patterns of foreshadowing and symmetry spanning years. But among the shows of the so-called TV revolution—The Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, The Wire—Mad Men is an outlier. For one thing, it’s the only one of these shows that isn’t principally about organized crime. As a result it’s much less violent, and often much slower, in terms of plot, than its peers. Compared to the spectacular, bloody confrontations on those programs, the world of Mad Men tends to be pretty mundane. Events on the show center on office relationships, romantic entanglements, and the season-to-season business of the advertising agency. An entire episode can be devoted to Don having a cold or taking a trip to a Howard Johnson with his wife, and a whole season can hinge on getting the account for Heinz baked beans. In fact, it’s remarkable just how compelling the show makes the actual business of making and selling ads. Where the high points of the other programs involve fratricidal murders or assassinations, many of Mad Men’s strongest scenes revolve around pitch meetings—the Lucky Strike “It’s Toasted” campaign, Belle Jolie lipstick, Jaguar, and most indelibly, the Kodak slide projector or Carousel.
That pitch, which takes the form of an unexpectedly moving monologue about the etymology of nostalgia, ends with Don comparing the slide projector to a time machine: “This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” Mad Men works in a similar way, taking viewers back to a nostalgic, beautiful past, fulfilling a yearning we didn’t know we had. Through its immaculate art direction, the show presents an incredibly desirable world, a self-contained bubble of late-Fifties fashion and retro vice made out of, in no particular order, Brooks Brothers suits, glass partitions, whiskey tumblers, vintage Cadillacs, narrow ties, pomaded hair, elevated busts and sherbet-colored dresses.
The outward beauty of Mad Men can suggest a certain moral glibness. For several critics, this surface is the source of the show’s appeal and the root of its failings. It’s a costume drama, or a soap opera in period clothes. For Jenny Diski, the historical recreation itself is too perfect to be convincing: “The style of the Sixties in Mad Men is so relentless and polished in every detail that it actually deals a death blow to authenticity.” Other critics fault the show for what they take to be an ironic distance between the politics of the past and those of the present. In this view, Mad Men works by satisfying the self-regard of its viewers, inviting them to gawk at the repellent norms of a vanished world. Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in the New York Review of Books, finds its attitude towards the past “simultaneously contemptuous and pandering.” It’s an exercise in hypocrisy, “a kind of dramatic having your cake and eating it, too,” while for Mark Greif the whole show is merely “an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better.”
But if Mad Men does do a better job than actual advertising at making alcohol look refreshing, cigarettes pleasurable and sex enticing, it’s because its characters recognize that those things are beautiful, and make life worth living. And although it’s true that the characters on Mad Men move through a glamorous haze of cigarette smoke, brown liquor, and sex which makes their frequent moral lapses—apt in any given episode to include racism, treachery, callousness, indifference, smugness and lechery—seem not only forgivable, but attractive, that’s only because of the depth of our identification with them. Devoted watchers of the show forgive them their faults, and condemn them for their cruelties. Why would we expect them to act better than we act now, or to lack prejudices that still exist? Who are we to take credit for the fact that we know now not to smoke when we’re pregnant? I’ve never felt superior to any of the characters; I just want to spend time with them, and dream alongside them. Who doesn’t want to be Don, or Roger, or Joan? Or Peggy. Especially Peggy.
Mad Men invites sympathy in complex and often contradictory ways. Like many people, I waver between Don and Peggy, but the show keeps the door open for a host of others (who could have guessed that of all the characters Daniel Mendelsohn would find Glenn, the sweaty neighborhood Holden Caulfield, to be the most compelling?). This play of identifications is something novels do. And because of it, like a novel (and unlike a tragedy) Mad Men is able to tell a complex story about the past, in which every step forward involves a series of tradeoffs, unforeseen consequences and painful sacrifices. Beneath its layers of vintage décor and television cliché, Mad Men is a story about history, and possibly the closest thing we have in the culture to a historical epic.
Georg Lukàcs said that the historical novel, in its classic nineteenth-century form, was “an epic depicting a transformation of popular life through a set of representative human types whose lives are reshaped by sweeping social forces.” The great transformation of popular life tracked over the course of Mad Men is the entrance of women into the workforce. Slowly, and with a gradualness that only novels and long-form television can afford, Mad Men is taking us through this revolution in American social life. It wasn’t something that happened all at once; the percentage of women employed doubled between 1940 and 1980, and only rose by some fifteen percent over the course of the 1960s. Nor was this process synonymous with the emergence of feminism as a philosophy or a political movement. Instead, it was a phase in a tectonic shift in the structure of American society. It’s the kind of movement that changes everything it touches but only registers retroactively in its full dimension. Mad Men treats this shift with an impressive deal of nuance. It shows the changing terrain; as the field expands, different strategies open up. Each of the women on the show—Peggy, Joan, Megan, Betty—belongs to a slightly different generation and each navigates the field of opportunity in a different way. Watch the men with one eye, and the show is a boozy boardroom version of Glengarry Glen Ross, all competition and banter with a mild twist of male melancholy. Watch it with the other eye, as a show entirely about women, and it’s Hedda fucking Gabler.
It takes a while for this to become apparent. Notwithstanding occasional excursions, the characters on Mad Men live in a closed world. History, as we generally define it, in terms of political events and social transformations, only occasionally intrudes. The Sterling Cooper partners briefly work on the 1960 Nixon campaign. Kennedy’s assassination disrupts the wedding of Roger’s daughter. The Ali-Foreman fight becomes the inspiration for an ad for Samsonite luggage. The Vietnam War shows up mostly on television. Before Season Five, the Civil Rights Movement barely featured; then it was addressed through an episode of race baiting at a rival agency and the hiring of a black secretary named Dawn. For most of the show, though, life at the offices of the Sterling Cooper agency is a sort of ancient regime before the fall. The offices are a stage for mid-Fifties kabuki, a bubble erected to allow Roger Sterling to relax in a perpetual martini swoon, Bert Cooper to pad around in his socks and examine his antique Japanese erotica, while Joan manages the secretary pool like a busty prison guard from Women in Cages.
Of course, not all characters are created equal. Many of the players are made to fit a type. Lane Pryce, the English accountant who helped save the firm from the clutches of British shareholders (played by the superb Jared Harris), is the schoolboy out of water. Pete Campbell, junior account executive, is a greasy, entitled striver with a Napoleon complex; a casual rapist, office pimp, and an uptight prig, he skulks around the office like a WASP Iago. (A pure villain, there to hate—and yet, his reading The Crying of Lot 49 on the train to work made me want to like him. Speaking of which, Don reading Frank O’Hara made me love him—who cares if he’s really more of a William Carlos Williams kind of a guy.) Ken Cosgrove, his less interesting rival, is a cheery but flint-hearted man of many talents, who spends his nights writing short stories about maple trees and existentially depressed robots. Paul Kinsey, the most notable of the copywriters besides Peggy, was a pipe-smoking fop and would-be White Negro who sounds like he crawled out of the faculty lounge of a Kingsley Amis novel. Long my favorite, he was banished for two years before coming back this season and trying to hustle spec scripts for Star Trek while in the clutches of the Hare Krishnas.
Then there’s Don Draper, the creative director of SDCP and the center of the show. In the first episode Don comes across as a weirdly handsome blank. Born Dick Whitman, the son of a small-town prostitute, he was brought up by a stepmother who despised him and watched his father die in front of his eyes after being kicked by a horse. In Korea, he stole the identity of his commanding officer after a freak battlefield accident, later hustling his way into a job at Sterling Cooper by tricking Roger while he was drunk. By the time we meet Don in Season One, he’s the agency’s leading asset and rainmaker. He’s like Cary Grant, without the self-deprecation or inner distance, or Clark Kent if he were trapped in a Richard Yates novel. He’s a suburban husband and compulsive philanderer, a man in a gray flannel suit with a taste for foreign film matinees. If Don were to narrate his own life, it’d be full of hard bitten self-pity. He sympathizes with Nixon, “Abe Lincoln from California,” and Sonny Liston over Muhammad Ali. At the same time, he’s capable of moments of deep empathy (or is it pragmatic understanding?) with people from different backgrounds. He’s the self-made man who is also a cipher, a hustler, a man from nowhere, a self-invention and a mask, the rebel conformist. He’s a figure from American literature, and American myth—at different moments Melville’s confidence man, Cheever’s swimmer, Dick Diver, Coleman Silk from The Human Stain, Rock Hudson as Ron Kirby in All That Heaven Allows and his double life outside of it.
But if Don is a myth, and the other male characters on the show are brilliantly executed types, Peggy belongs to history. It is Peggy who absolutely refuses to accommodate herself to what’s expected of her—doesn’t acknowledge her child; won’t be pressured into anything by her boyfriends; would rather work all night with Don. Joan Harris, the voluptuous office manager, marries a handsome idiot who rapes her before leaving for Vietnam. In the past season opportunities have been dangled before her—she briefly reads scripts for the television department and becomes indispensible to the financial operations of SDCP. But ultimately she only acquires power by trading sex for it. At the end of Season Five the partners (except for Don) persuade her to sleep with an oleaginous car sheikh in exchange for five percent of the company as part of a bid to win their first car account. Meanwhile Megan Calvet, Don’s new wife, succeeds effortlessly at advertising, winning the Heinz bean account with a bravura pitch over dinner. But when she quits the agency to try her hand at acting, she finds herself stymied without her former connections. Towards the end of Season Five she’s increasingly adrift and lost, on the edge of artistic failure and feeling herself increasingly to be little more than an object for Don’s sexual attention.
Betty, Don’s first wife, is more of a challenge. She starts the series battling depression and the ennui of the left behind. Over time, she’s treated as a neurotic, demeaned for her childishness, made to seem cruel and infantile. Unable to see past a horizon of men in her life, she uses her children for validation and spite. This season she barely figured at all, except for a brief cancer scare brought on as a result of some rapid weight gain. As she’s given a moment of tragic awareness, Betty becomes briefly sympathetic, but before the episode is over the danger passes and she is revealed again in all her childishness.
The relationship between Don and Peggy is at the heart of the show. It is less the story of a suppressed romance than of a quest for mutual acknowledgment. The ties that hold them together—mentorship, money, emotional dependence, creative collaboration—are all tacit, and involve libido only indirectly. In the economy of the show, Peggy is Sister Carrie to Don’s Jim Gatz, until she turns into Girl Friday. Over five seasons she rises from an abject, exploited secretary, expected to take care of the sexual needs of her bosses to a copywriter and now the creative director at another agency. In the beginning, she’s repeatedly humiliated in the office, subject to frank sexual appraisal by the men and catty one-upmanship by the women. Seduced by Pete, she gets pregnant without realizing it; after the baby is born she refuses to acknowledge it. Don visits her in the drab municipal hospital were she’s interred (did she have a breakdown?) and tells her that this never happened, offering her a way forward—after all, he knows about reinvention.
Over time, Peggy goes from being Don’s charity case to being his protégé and, finally, his secret sharer. The shift in power between them culminates at the end of Season Five. Belittled by Don and frustrated by her diminished role in the agency, Peggy decides to quit SCDP to become the creative director at a rival agency. The scene in which she announces her decision to Don is one of the most powerful in the whole run of the show. In a few instants, Don shifts from bravado to pleading to acceptance to grief. After he kisses Peggy on the hand, we realize that it has been a kind of love affair after all.
So where do they go from here? We don’t know what’s going to happen with most of the characters, but Matt Weiner has tipped his hand pretty heavily about what Peggy will be doing next year. When she runs into Don in a movie theater, she tells him that she’s been asked to come up with a name for a new women’s cigarette (the same cigarette was already in development at the end of Season Four, when a consultant promised to get a meeting for SDCP with Reynolds after they lost Lucky Strike). Presumably this is going to become the famous Virginia Slims “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” campaign. These ads featured short vignettes set in the early part of the twentieth century in which harried housewives grind meat and chop wood for their mustachioed husbands, occasionally sneaking away for an illicit cigarette while a voiceover explains how different things were back then: “It used to be lady, you had no rights. No right to vote, no right to property, no right to the wage you earned.” “Civil Rights were for men only. Such as, drinking. Such as, smoking.” The scene then switches to the Sixties present. As the theme jingle plays, modern, liberated, smoking women stride confidently toward the camera in modern dress, which c. 1968 involved astounding combinations of candy-striped leggings, diaphanous pastel robes and pentagonal capes. (It may seem oddly regressive for a series of advertisements celebrating women’s liberation to feature models who look like escapees from a futuristic harem, but then again, no one sings about the nineteenth amendment anymore either).
Peggy’s involvement in the Virginia Slims campaign will bring at least one motif of Mad Men full circle. The first episode of the show begins with Don dreaming on his couch, searching for the inspiration that will turn into the “It’s Toasted” slogan for Lucky Strike, long the agency’s biggest and most important client. Don’s original insight was to realize that it didn’t matter what quality was used to this end—all cigarette tobacco is toasted, but once that trait was claimed for Luckys, it becomes distinctive and useful. Peggy’s realization promises to be larger: you can sell cigarettes by selling America. Smoking and drinking can be civil rights, just as much as voting. Any movement that starts as a drive for liberation or equality will eventually end up as a way to sell soda.
In the fourth episode of the second season, Don says something strange. After a plane crash in New York (which kills Pete’s indolent father), American Airlines comes to SDCP to try and save their image. Don says to forget about the past: “American Airlines is not about the past any more than America is … throw everything out … There is no such thing as American history, only a frontier.” Peggy’s answer seems to be that history is America’s advertisement for itself. It’s the story we tell ourselves to sell the world on America, and to sell ourselves on a promise. So in a sense, the Virginia Slims campaign is Mad Men in miniature, and in reverse.
Mad Men may look like an ad—and it even does an ad’s “job” of arousing and inflaming desire in its viewers (as anyone throwing a Mad Men party or contemplating Christina Hendricks or Jon Hamm knows), but it is, at heart, a sly sort of historical chronicle. The show’s ability to incite passion indiscriminately may be part of what makes critics so nervous about Mad Men—after years spent reading pop culture like Roman augurs, studying the entrails of defeated shows for a path into the zeitgeist or a sign of the demise of capitalism, its blatant seduction must seem either dangerous or put-on. But even as Mad Men sells us on a shimmering vision of mid-century vice, it’s also telling us a story about our past, and our present. And it will be especially fitting if Matt Weiner lets Peggy have the big self-reflexive epiphany about the show. She’s always been more than a wounded, moral, ambitious foil for Don. She’s our everyman, the little Balzacian figure leading us through the labyrinth of the past. She understands Don’s point about American history being a frontier better than he does. There’s no history; only marketing. It isn’t a time machine; it’s an ad.