The Atlantic’s brilliant literary editor, Benjamin Schwarz, has written the best piece yet on Mad Men, a show of which I am a fan, despite its occasional annoyances. His larger criticism — that the show signals clearly what actions one should disapprove of, even while portraying them as normative at the time, with a heavy dose of political correctness – is true. He is spot on when he notes that the subtext of all the displays of racism and sexism, some a bit improbable, is that “The sixties had to happen.” Let us concede that there was enough hollowness to the traditional values in increasingly wealthy postwar America that the culture was sure to change. But that doesn’t make it inevitable that the sexual revolution, feminism, and the civil-rights movement would play out precisely as they did, or that everything that followed was an improvement.
That might be clearer if there were any characters on the show who were happy, moderately sincere about religion, or at least somewhat contented despite the normal problems we all have with life.
So why do I like it? As drama, it’s compelling – partly, as Schwarz and everyone else have noted, because the period detail is so well created, particularly the material aspects. The clothing is structured and elegant. The furniture is either suburban ersatz colonial or urban mid-century modern — the charms of which have always eluded me, but there they were. Yet it is the bad behavior of these upper-middle-class WASP characters — not all to the manner born — that is so riveting. Their unhappiness is just more interesting than our unhappiness — about which we know so very, very much. The characters are less free to do as they please. They are still constrained by sex, class, and expectations in a way we mostly are not (though 40 years or so from now, someone will show us how limited we really were too). The writers maintain a nice discipline of showing the inner lives and failures of communications by facial expression rather than talk. Who knew that the sex, race, and gender revolutions were as nothing compared to the annoyances of the “you must express yourself at all times and don’t expect anyone to understand what you haven’t articulated” revolution?
And of course, despite his deep character flaws, Don Draper is one of the more attractive characters to show up in our living rooms in a long time. No one had a crush on Tony Soprano, or the guy who ran the funeral parlor in Six Feet Under. But Draper, as Schwarz writes, “projects sexual mastery and ironic intelligence, poise and vulnerability. That alchemy . . . wins for [him] both the desire of women and the fondness of men.” Yup. The show has actually created a character who demonstrates the property, ascribed to certain leaders, whereby it really doesn’t matter that he cheats on his wife all the time; you’d still want him in charge. And don’t we miss that.
Betty Draper, Don’s wife, is the show’s least satisfying figure. She is portrayed as a ”shallow sorority girl,” but from a good family that had values. In her incoherent backstory, she is said to have attended Bryn Mawr. Benjamin Schwarz writes, “By far the brainiest of the Seven Sisters — cussed, straight-backed, high-minded, and feminist (its students, so the wags said, preferred the Ph.D. to the Mrs.) — Bryn Mawr was probably the least likely college that Betty Draper, given to such non-U genteelisms as ‘passed away,’ would have attended.”
For pointing that out, Mr. Schwarz should know that he has won the gratitude of large numbers of Bryn Mawr alumnae, who have spent much of the past two days furiously e-mailing their assessments of whether Betty could have cut it at the alma mater. No, in a word. We’ve only twice seen her with a book. Sweet Briar or Pine Manor Junior College were more social, and probably graduated more women who went on to be fashion models, a field in which BMC was notoriously weak. This was, after all, a college whose founder proclaimed, “Our failures only marry.” Of course that quote was not widely cited during the middle of the last century.