The Nostalgia Machine
I’ve been away from writing about films for a number of weeks because I’ve been working my way through the 6 seasons of ‘Mad Men’. I had the DVDs piled up all year and sort of traipsed past it because there seems to be a deluge of good TV content that has to be surveyed and unlike movies, they all demand serious time commitments that come in tens of hours. Six seasons consisting of 78 episodes is a lot to digest. That’s in the ballpark of the original Star Trek episodes. Consequently it has taken me 6 weekends of binging through seasons to watch the whole damn thing, bringing me up to date.
The other reason I had avoided it is because the world of advertising, even set in the 1960s didn’t really seem like a novelty. Having worked for an advertising giant once-upon-a-long-time-ago, I’ve had my fair share of awful anecdotes that came from hanging with hard-drinking advertising execs. There are some truly awful things that you can witness when you get into the accounts servicing end of the business and layering it on with nostalgia in a bid to explore classic sexism racism and generally unpleasant sexual misconduct didn’t seem like a recipe for much fun. So truth be told, I resisted it as long as I could until I found I had cleared the decks of all other viewing material. Maybe that it is what it takes to be receptive.
We all think we know what the show is about. What is surprising is what it actually is.
In an early season Don Draper is asked to brand the Kodak carousel projector and when he finally explains it, he hits upon the device being a time machine that takes people back through nostalgia for moments. What the show does is effectively service everybody’s nostalgia through these fabricated episodes of people that might have been there. The experience of Mad Men is to evoke an era with as much verisimilitude as possible while attempting to dissect the origins of our own mores. In one sense it’s a ‘Downton Abbey’ for 60s fetishists, but on another level, it is a show that boldly goes to a place that brought us our contemporary consumerist culture. It is a ‘Back to the Future’ trip back to the 1960s where we in the audience are Marty McFly.
What’s Good About It
Just about any part of the craft from cinematography and production design through to choice of music and sound mix are extraordinary in this show.
The casting is equally impressive. There are some great actors putting in some extraordinary performances. The characters they inhabit are filled with unspoken angst and desperation. It is an amazing show that allows us to be Buddha-like, feeling a compassion for all these people for their weaknesses foibles, doubts and self-loathing.
The scripts are always surprising, witty, insightful and compelling. The sense of existential agony sits side by side with the banalities of consumerism, giving rise to a beautiful aesthetic irony.
What’s Bad About It
In the earlier series you feel the budget doesn’t stretch far enough so you end up seeing a lot of interiors and hardly any exterior shots. It doesn’t get claustrophobic, but you get the feeling the limit of the show’s misc en scene, is just beyond the frame of the shots. At times this feels quite hokey but as the seasons progress you can see more money being thrown at it and it becomes less of a problem.
Considering all the naturalism in the acting and realism in the production design, you get the feeling that Don Draper’s sexual stamina is superhuman. Especially when you watch the episodes back-to-back. As the seasons progress, these sense of the exaggerated sexual stamina becomes utterly laughable that it begins to tear at the carefully crafted fabric of the show’s milieu.
Apart from that odd sort of unintended hilarity, the plot lines can meander into the kind of soapiness one associates with things like ‘Days of Our Lives’ or ‘Beverly Hills 90210’. Sometimes the performances are a little spotty and you notice it as the tenor of the performance jumps from one shot to the next. Maybe it’s bad editing, but it leaves you a little cold because it takes away from the otherwise perfect, seamless presentation.
What’s Interesting About It
Quite simply, ALL of it, actually.
1960s Through The Po-Mo Glass
The year 1960 where the series kicks off is quite a foreign place to us. We think we have a great grasp of what exactly happened in the 1960s thanks to the mass of media artefacts form the 1960s but Manhattan in the year 1960 is closer to Holden Caulfield’s hatred of phonies in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ than the Manhattan of Lou Reed and then Punk rock – That is all in the distant future and what we witness are the dying embers of the New York City in ‘The Age of Reason’. America is at its peak power, the pinnacle of its omnipotence and New York City is the crown jewel in this prosperity. The city then slowly goes into decay as certainty in social cohesion and cultural unity begins to break up.
The six seasons combined – as we still await the seventh to be fully concluded – traces the fall of Don Draper, white male top executive against the rise of Peggy Olsen, the proto-feminist creative executive into the top offices. And it is against this double dynamic we see all the other characters essentially flower into their full weirdness. Through this process we come to understand what the events we know in the 1960s, such as the Kennedy assassinations and the Luther King assassinations as well as the Vietnam War did to American society. America reached the top, and then quickly turned the corner into a decadent phase just as had the Roman Empire. In one sense, having reached the top America had nothing better to do but to fuck around, which is exactly what Don Draper does as he slowly loses touch with the America that allowed him to succeed. In its place emerges an America with which he can only loosely relate.
It’s a curious thing, this change. Over the years white conservatives have unleashed the culture wars against the progressives as if they are the disenfranchised. This has manifested in accusations of ‘reverse racism’ or ‘moral decay’ but what the show presents to us is that economic growth happened in such a way to enfranchise the other more rapidly than it presented more growth to the established white demographic. It wasn’t the white establishment that got disenfranchised; it was that America grew so fast it enfranchised everybody beyond just the white establishment. When you consider ‘the other’ as a group, it includes women, immigrants, Blacks, Jews, Italians and eventually the gays. The show doesn’t show too many instance of affirmative action. It does however capture the bewildering change, season by season. At first it is like a whisper. By Season 6, the change is like a roar.
Beyond Memory, Beyond Broken Homes
American cinema is decidedly about the formation of families, just as American TV is about the maintenance of families. This is true of things as broad as ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Brady Bunch’ through to ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Breaking’Bad’. The glaring exception to date was ‘Seinfeld’, which was revolutionary in the sense that no families were formed, and the central quartet were decidedly not a family but a coalition of disparate single entities. They were disparate single entities because they were in some ways all exiles from the ideological construct of family, trying to avert the mistakes of their parents. Thus, ‘Mad Men’ arrives as an explication of how American families fall apart.
The trope of ‘First Wives Club’ is that the husband cashes in his success by divorcing the first wife with whom he has a family, with a much younger wife with whom he just has fun. This is no ordinary trope, because there were many kids I knew through my childhood who were from these ‘broken homes’ where the “father ran off with the secretary” and other such narratives. It was a phenomenon that silently ate away at corners of our existence – how some of our friends had fathers who would never come home, and their homes would never be whole again. And all the while the engine of desire for being whole or for your friends’ families to be made whole is there. The yearning and the pain that gets repressed and folded into interactions is exquisitely rendered. The show goes through the various scenarios on which the classic nuclear family setup is torn asunder by the very consumerist society that purports to support them through wondrous products. It leaves one devastated exactly because failure is more common than success, and so many people fail so willfully in the show. Except you come to realise that this is also true in the people who populate our real lives.
The show sheds a light on why the institution of marriage in the American nuclear family of the 1960s failed so spectacularly, so often. Nothing so schizophrenic can survive without actuating the schism.
The Dream Of The World Of Our Parents
I only have a sense of the 1960s through old photographs. My memory of the 1960s is too far back to make any kind of sense. The Vietnam War was there by the time I had any inkling of the world. Demonstrations and marches were regular news items. The context for the sturm und drang has always sat behind records books and movies. Robin Williams joked that if you could remember the 1960s, you probably weren’t there. There’s a weird compelling quality to that joke because as a toddler at the time, I hardly remember it. The 1960s I know of lives in my head through the media construction but strangely there is nothing in it that offers a wider view of society. The fragments of first hand accounts that have actually come down to me through anecdotes remain blurry. The Cuban Missile Crisis, day President Kennedy was shot, Beatlemania, and the day Martin Luther King was shot – these events only form a kind of diorama in my head without the context of the world. Thus it is singularly enlightening to see these events at arms length, sitting in the lounge room with these characters.
The 1960s sits at the precipice of the moment when human history goes from having more people dead than alive, to having more people alive than there ever lived. The post modern explosion happens at 1970, necessarily as the ancien regime of hierarchies begin collapsing, disintegrating bit by bit. As such, the rigid certitude in things such as gender roles and social rank that characterises the earlier seasons seem distant and alien to us, but as the show moves through the decade, we sense the accelerating change barreling towards our contemporary awareness. If the world changed this quickly on our parents, then it sort of makes sense why our upbringing for Generation X was so fractured and cognitively dissonant. They must have thought they were raising us for a world that had the certitude of 1960 when in fact we were always going to grow into a world of ever increasing moral and ethical relativism.
The show that kept getting evoked by the earlier seasons was ‘Bewitched’ where Samantha was the perfect housewife and her husband Darrin was the advertising executive. It’s funny because Samantha was played by Elizabeth Montgomery so the name Betty goes to the wife; and Darren was played by Dick York and Dick Sergent, and so Don Draper’s secret identity is Dick Whitman. Don has a white-haired boss Roger Sterling, just as Darrin had Larry Tate. The rest of it is completely off the rails that flies in the face of the theme of maintaining a family. Instead of a happy housewife who uses magic to make things perfect, Betty is bored and un-empathic with her kids; instead of being a bumbling doting husband, Don Draper is a philandering alpha male. ‘Mad Men’ posits an American household that disintegrates under the very desire stoked by advertising. The irony is that the central characters are deeply committed to the business of advertising and are fully aware that they are there to fan the unending fires of desire.
‘Mad Men’ effectively posits that the marriage of Samantha and Darrin from Bewitched is doomed to fail exactly because they are in a particular kind of nuclear family arrangement that maximises household consumption but dissatisfies more people than it helps. Darrin, if he were genuinely an ad exec of his times, would have had too may opportunities to philander. Samantha, without magic, would be too vulnerable to the pitfalls of being a suburban housewife, through isolation, boredom and depression. ‘Mad Men’ is partially a tart retort from the 21sst Century towards the cultural delusions of the 1960s. It is on the whole unsparing and unkind.
Don Draper’s Elegant Existential Angst
It’s interesting how the character Don Draper is laden with backstory. They place so many extreme situations in his background, he is practically the other even if he is white. On one level this makes sense because in order for a white male character to have insight into the other, they must be laden with elements in their life that would enable them to share empathy with the other. This gap in turn informs the degree of alienation the main character feels from the mainstream of society. As with the Great Gatsby, Don Draper has arrived at the Big Time in the Big Apple, but he has arrived as an imposter. His origins are worse than humble, his identity is fractured, and he is busy covering his tracks.
In order to portray the great sea tide of change in people’s attitudes through the 1960s, they had to devise a character who is at once very conservative on the surface but is deeply mutable and given to impulses and therefore endless infidelities. What is peculiar as a protagonist about Don Draper is how he is consumed by a silent self-loathing quite unlike any other character in America TV except maybe Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’. At this moment in history, the most interesting aspect of American masculinity on screen is not self-assuredness, but the depth of self-loathing combined with a troubled existential malaise and affliction.
Jon Hamm is remarkable as Don Draper because he is able to milk the nuance of the character as well as deftly play apart the many, many fractured facets of this man. He seems to have so many different smiles, all of them memorable for suggesting different parts of his psyche. The leery lewd smile, the condescending patronising smile, the genuine seductive persuasive smile, the gimme-five smile; all of these smiles are played differently and with great control. The series is essentially an Odyssey through the 1960s with Don Draper who is a kind of Odysseus of advertising – except unlike the Odyssey, it is not certain just where home/Ithaca is for Don Draper. The vast number of episodes allow the story-tellers to really go into every episode of the man’s life, with the sort of detail that would have made James Joyce jealous, for Don Draper is the 21st Century rendition of Odysseus/Ulysses.
Betty Draper, The Emotionally Austere Mother
January Jones’ performance as Betty Draper is the other amazing performance in the earlier seasons. The character drops back significantly after the third season and she’s not that great in season 3 as she becomes this sort of bitchy harridan ex-wife. What’s extraordinary about Jones’ performance is how much she loads into a casual glance or a look away. She raises her eyebrows, or wrinkles her forehead to show displeasure, and generally works through a quick array of conflicting emotions. As a kind of latter day Grace Kelly, she gives off the impression of the perfectly manicured ice queen but there is so much ironic layering in what she does. I don’t think I’ll forget some of the subtle gestures or expressions of disapproval.
The evolution of Betty Draper gives us a sense of how American whiteness preserves itself as an identity. She’s a fantastic character in the fist two seasons. It’s sad that she gives away the stage to Don’s next wife as her 50s kind of beauty gives way to Megan’s swinging sixties vibe. It is as if she is forced to retreat off the stage exactly because what she represents belongs in the past that has died.
The show is in many ways quite an exercise in metonymy. Don Draper in our parlance might just be a sex addict, but because we are watching a time and space where such language does not exist we end up witnessing the drama. Similarly with Betty she might just be a classic ‘First Wife Club’ member, but because she is operating in a time and space without that concept we witness the drama of her emotional disintegration and reconstruction in a different way. Don and Betty as played by Jon Hamm and January Jones are so perfectly matched with their beauty in their scenes in the car as they drive, you almost wish like Goethe’s Faust that their time stands still. The grand tragedy of ‘Mad Men’ – as it is in real life – is that time simply cannot stop for anybody, and all we can have is memory and nostalgia.