In the most recent episode of AMC’s hit show Mad Men, a central character, Pete Campbell, comes face to face with his own feelings of worthlessness. In a fascinating video-blog about the episode, two Mad Men mavens discuss whether the writers are setting up a plot development in which Pete tries to commit suicide. It’s plausible, I think, but there’s one factor that in my mind militates against it. One of the video-bloggers points to the fact that Pete’s rifle has been mentioned a couple of times. Now, in a average TV show of typically TV-average averageness, this would indeed be a strong hint. But: Consider that the creators of Mad Men are precisely the kind of people who would know about Chekhov’s rule — if you introduce a gun in Act One, it must be fired in Act Three — and precisely the kind of people who would, as a wink to viewers, introduce a gun in Act One that will not be fired in Act Three.
Pete Campbell’s rifle reflects a deeper issue in the show discussed by the video-bloggers: the undercurrent of dread and violence in the Sixties. The Sixties, in the mainstream popular imagination, have been reduced to 1) Good Music and 2) an End to Sexual Repression. Both of these elements were indeed present in the era, but Mad Men is trying to recover a fuller sense of what the decade was, as it was lived: an era in which poetic expressions of peace, love, and understanding took place in an atmosphere of genuine fear, insecurity, and violence. Conservative writers have long been trying to change the public perception of the Sixties, by seeking to debunk both the artistic and sexual components mentioned above. (The propagation of this view, like that of the pro-Sixties view over the previous few decades, has become an industry unto itself.) But one need not accept the culture-war pining-for-the-Fifties view (I, most emphatically, do not) to want a less rose-colored view of the Sixties. What’s interesting about Mad Men’s take is that the show is not, as far as I can tell, consciously trying to put forward the conservative critique with which we are all familiar: It is, rather, trying to supplement the “usable past” (peace, love, understanding &c.) that most of American culture has made of the Sixties with a richer, more nuanced portrait. It eschews both Left culture-war glorification of the Sixties and Right culture-war vilification of the Sixties — and it is non-didactic, integrating the historical events seamlessly into the drama of the characters.
In this last episode, right before Pete Campbell and another character get into a fistfight that will have emotionally devastating consequences, a couple of other characters in the same room exchange comments about the trouble LBJ is getting into in Vietnam, and how difficult it might be to get out of it. There is no endorsement or denunciation of the war, on the writers’ part; there is, as with the fistfight that is about to break out, only a sense of people trapped (by a combination of chance, character, and their own choices) in situations that will end in heartbreak.
Pete may not commit suicide, just as America did not commit suicide in the traumatic period that began with the Sixties. But the trauma of this fictional character is made, onscreen, every bit as real as that of the nation. Mad Men shows itself yet again as a rare TV program that can be both uncomfortable, sometimes, to watch, and impossible to stop watching.