Politics & Policy

Mad Men and the Paradox of the Past

A show that divides America politically plunges into its fourth season.

Mad Men is a show about an unbending generation on the cusp of dissolution; Matthew Weiner, the show’s head writer, has often said that the majority of America in the early ’60s was still, by and large, living in the domestic ’50s. Weiner, a Baby Boomer, has a conflicted relationship with this time period. Because it is the generation of his parents, he wants to explore it and pore over it; because it’s the generation that, through Weiner’s specific political prism, reflects a hypocritical façade, he’d like it to form a gangway for the liberation to come. This ambivalence creates a divide in the audience’s responses to the show, which tend to fall along political lines.

Conservatives and liberals just can’t help but see Mad Men differently: the former with apprehension, the latter with anticipation. The show inspires a certain self-satisfaction in the type of viewers who would observe each instance of sexism, racism, and general prejudice as just more foundation for an interpretation many critics have arrived at: “The show explains why the ’60s had to happen.” Rod Dreher says, “For unreflective liberals, Mad Men is only temporarily tragic. It has a happy ending. Deliverance from all this sexism and repression and cigarette smoke draws nigh.”

The show, and in particular, the third season, is shot through with references to that impending deliverance. Don Draper says, “New York City is decaying.” Paul Kinsey says, “This city has no memory.” The World’s Fair in New York, given passing lip service on the show, turned out to be a bust, the old-money business class’s last hurrah at corralling an innocent kind of fun already beset by the counterculture. Its slogan? “Man in a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” That’s not only a pointed assessment of modern fear, but a wonderful précis of the theme of Mad Men. And it’s difficult to ignore the ambitious allusions to the prototypical decayed society of ancient Rome, which made a few cameos in the past season. Don’s daughter, Sally, reads to her grandfather the beginning of a passage from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The Praetorian bands, whose licentious fury was the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire . . . ”

The Praetorian guards, of course, were a specially chosen group of soldiers who abused their imperial power over Rome. Mad Men depicts a group of men who have great influence over what they consider their particular citizenry — consumers — and their particular emperor — consumerism. By cataloguing this group’s “licentious” excesses (imbibing during the workday, hiring prostitutes on the company dime, etc.), general indifference to the burgeoning youth counterculture (think: Bertram Cooper’s horror at Kennedy’s lack of hat), and miring themselves in the past (Roger Sterling’s unfortunate minstrel show in “My Old Kentucky Home”), Weiner, consciously or unconsciously, is demonstrating the ways in which America’s Old Guard is leading the ’50s generation to its end by stubbornly refusing to go forward. Weiner has remarked of that generation of people, “[They were saying,] ‘We don’t want to be that way. We’d rather fail.’”

Clearly, Don Draper is the starring figure of this collapse. He is the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, an Ayn Rand–ian allegory of a stoic firmly in the past. He is the prototype ’50s representative male, confident in his role without, and in turmoil within. Don is member of a dying breed who wants to play by the old business rules, and he can barely conceive of the ways in which advertising is inexorably moving (unlike, say, fellow ad man Pete Campbell). He is a relic waiting to be phased out.

But Weiner’s flaw is that he loves Don Draper too much to make him that relic, as intended — he is clearly not going to leave Don in the past, if season-four promotional posters are any indication. So the show attempts to imbue him with the sympathy of the audience, despite his stodgy ’50s limits — which leads to all sorts of annoying contradictions. Don looks down on Roger for the blackface, yet behaves dismissively toward his own black servant; Don assaults his mistress in a bathroom and demands women not speak to him “like that, despite facilitating his former secretary Peggys surge upward through the ranks; Don lectures his wife about being a good parent even as he picks up strangers in his car and recklessly partakes of some unidentified drugs. These frustrating contradictions can’t simply be chalked up to mere nuance of human character, either; it seems clear that Weiner started out by using Don as an emblem of the ’50s, defining him in opposition to the ’60s to come.

Which brings us again to the main political schism for viewers of this show: Conservatives and liberals cannot see the inevitability of the ’60s the same way. The hedonism, the “licentious fury” set up in these soldiers of such terrible, soul-destroying consumerism, is about to give way to the tortured emoting of Frank O’Hara and reggae-inspired coffee commercials, both of which have been featured in the past few seasons. But conservatives understand that the hedonism is only just beginning. The Me Generation is about to swing into full effect, after which we lose both the unrepentant ambition and charming earnestness of the American Dream — a phrase never to be uttered without a small smirk again.

True, the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality was unsustainable, simply because of the practical problem of the single income that families were expected to fulfill the traditional iteration of the American Dream on. And, often, the unwavering values of the ’50s resulted in an outwardly homogenous appearance that left many marginalized parties gasping for air. But the ’60s, with their relentless concentration on the self and self-expression, shaped individualistic tendencies in consumers that brought them out of the follow-the-leader consumption of the ’50s into a gluttonous consumption merely for selfish purposes. So which is better? And is that really the redemption the show hopes to establish, and what liberal viewers gaze backward and clutch the edges of their seats in anticipation of?

Weiner’s chosen narrative posits that our present is much better than the ’50s zeitgeist he portrays, but the essential paradox is that he portrays it with so much love and tenderness that it is sometimes impossible to pull out the theme of generational decay. The audience is caught between a mislaid nostalgia for the often sexist and bigoted environment and an equally mislaid moral desire to see it all disappear. As Benjamin Schwarz pointed out in the Atlantic, the show invites us to “indulge in a most unlovely — because wholly unearned — smugness.”

Mad Men has lost its way a bit; Weiner, wrapped up in adoring his main character and the intricacies of a period he wants to evaporate, has fallen into a quicksand trap, not wanting to move on, despite his obvious political loyalties to the ’60s generation. Critics remarked that the pace of Mad Men has recently slowed to a ponderous crawl, perhaps to allow Weiner time to languish a while. But he is definitely plunging forward now, having commented in an interview that “It’s got to be something different. . . . Life is change.” Here’s hoping that the fourth season marks that change with the same ambivalence we’ve seen prior, which would prove Weiner is interested in portraying history with a fair hand. Falling into a rote ’60s nostalgia would be wholly unwelcome for a show that has come to be known for its nuance.

– Natasha Simons is assistant to the editor of National Review.

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