With the conclusion of the first half of season seven on Sunday, May 25, Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed AMC series Mad Men has only seven episodes left (which we won’t get to see until next spring).
Main character Don Draper began this season at the nadir of his career and personal life. The previous season began with Don on a beach with second wife Megan, now an actress. Reading the opening of Dante’s Inferno, he intones: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” The book is a gift from Sylvia, a married neighbor with whom he is having a torrid affair but whom he tells at one point, “I want to stop doing this.” The despair in his voice indicates how incapable he is of freeing himself from something he knows is wrong. Season six proceeded to portray a descent for Don, perhaps reminiscent of Dante’s journey into the depths of hell: progressive alienation from his new wife, a heart-wrenching scene in which his daughter Sally catches him in sexual congress with Sylvia, and his self-destruction in the middle of a business meeting in which he breaks down and tells clients about his childhood in a brothel. The last move put him on an indefinite leave. Unlike Dante, however, Don has no clear path and no Virgil as his guide.
The question of season seven is whether, like that of Dante, Don’s descent will be followed by an ascent or at least a return to form as a Manhattan master of the universe. In the concluding episode of the first half, Don finds himself facing loss on multiple fronts: the end of his marriage, as he and Megan realize they have been leading separate lives; and the imminent loss of his job — especially with the death of Bert Cooper, who had reluctantly continued to support Don’s presence at the firm. But the episode ends on a high note, with Don’s job and his connections to the longest-standing members of the firm restored. In a final note of whimsy, Don has a vision of the now dead Bert doing a song-and-dance routine of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” Is this a sign that Don is coming unhinged or that he has found his Virgil?
Yet Mad Men has not for some time been about the financial rulers of New York whom Tom Wolfe dubbed masters of the universe. Some have gone so far as to label and denigrate the series as a soap opera, although admittedly at least one critic has seen fit to defend both the genre and Mad Men as an instance of it.
In the first two seasons, the question was: Who is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the impeccably dressed master of the universe of advertising at a Madison Avenue agency? A man with a secret past, a horrendous childhood, and a stolen identity, Draper is the archetype of the self-made man. As the revelations to the audience about Draper’s past grew, the question shifted to whether others, particularly his wife Betty (January Jones), would find out and what would be the repercussions once they did. Because he is fleeing his past, Don strives to live in one direction, forward. He lives by the motto, which he shares with others in the midst of painful events, “This never happened. Move on.” In one of his greatest creative moments, Don’s team has been assigned the account of American Airlines right after a horrific crash. As the team fumbles its way through various advertising schemes addressing the accident, Don emerges triumphant from his office to proclaim, “I’ve got it. The crash never happened. There is no American history. There is only the frontier.”
Yet, the attempt to live life forgetful of the past is futile, and not just because others do indeed discover Don’s secrets. Don’s own past catches up with him, quite directly and personally, in a series of episodes early on when his brother finds him in New York. Don’s own ambivalence, his conflicting desire to escape from and to come to terms with it has tragic repercussions in this case. Some of the best scenes of Don Draper, master of the spoken and written word, show him standing or sitting silently, overcome with some memory from his past.
Of course it is not difficult to see in the show’s unmasking of the illusions of the self-made man a critique of the world of capitalist advertising with its construction of images of happiness. But Mad Men also manages to capture something of the attraction of the life of the entrepreneur. I am not thinking here so much of the allure of the lifestyle, the classy outfits, the sophisticated attention to food, drink, and the mores of New York City society life. There is all that. Instead, I have in mind the show’s depiction of the passion of the entrepreneur, of the admirable traits of someone who earns his way.
During the Nixon-Kennedy presidential election, Don’s firm is drawn into the campaign attempting to aid the Nixon camp. While the wealthy, young, and attractive Don and Betty might seem the picture image of John and Jackie Kennedy, Don identifies with Dick Nixon. “Kennedy?” Don says. “Nouveau riche, a recent immigrant who bought his way into Harvard. Nixon is from nothing. Abe Lincoln of California, a self-made man. Kennedy, I see a silver spoon. Nixon, I see myself.” When he learns that Kennedy money helped swing the election by buying votes, the ordinarily cynical Don complains. “It’s not fair.”
For me, the best episode in the entire series is the finale of season three, entitled “Close the Door, Take a Seat.” With Betty, who already suspects his affairs, discovering Don’s secret identity and leaving their house with the kids, Don has nothing but work left to him. An affair with another woman ends when she is taken aback by Don’s abrupt willingness to escape his entire life in New York and start over, like “Adam and Eve.” Then Don learns that their company is about to be purchased, the result of which will be financial security but complete loss of control over business decisions. Senior partner Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), who claims to be a devotee of Ayn Rand (“Atlas Shrugged, that’s the one,” he says in reverential tones), shrugs and counsels Don to take the money and relax. But Don is piqued. He firmly rejects Bert’s advice, proclaiming, “I want to work. I want to build something.” Don’s refusal leads to a plot among many of the principal members of the firm to opt out just before a long vacation holiday weekend, take much of their business with them, and start afresh with a new firm, operating out of a single hotel room. It’s the most enjoyable episode in the entire series, an episode in which petty jealousies and pretentious trappings are cast aside in a communal willingness to take a risk and build something as a team: something of this spirit reappeared in season seven’s mid-point finale.
One thing that makes Mad Men so different from soap operas and that explains much of its appeal is its fanatical attention to period detail and its way of occasionally weaving into its story line the culture-altering events of the 1960’s: the Kennedy-Nixon presidential battle, the assassination of President Kennedy, civil rights, the women’s movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the ensuing riots in major cities, and in the final episode of season seven, the moon landing. Now, Mad Men is careful never to let these cultural markers dominate the plot, but audience attention is increasingly obsessed with such nostalgic interludes. Witness the rampant online speculation over whether Megan’s fate would end up mirroring that of Sharon Tate, actress and murder victim of the Manson family, or whether a recent beating of a gay character meant that Weiner was alluding to the Stonewall riots.
In one of his most inspired sales pitches in the entire series, Don presents his advertising campaign for Kodak’s wheel, a device that shows slides of photographs. Here is Don’s pitch, which had grown men tearing up, in its entirety:
Well, technology is a glittering lure. But there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old pro copywriter. Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is “new”. Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of . . . calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It’s delicate . . . but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means, “the pain from an old wound”. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. 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. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.
This is vintage Don Draper moving back and forth between a promised future, the itch of the new, and the longing for a past, nostalgia for what was or at least for what we wish had been but never was. At this point in the series we know that Don’s own childhood was a horror story from which he longed to be set free. We also know that as he makes this pitch, his wife, fed up with his self-indulgence, has left with the kids to visit her own family for the Thanksgiving weekend.
If Mad Men consistently feeds its boomer audience’s craving for nostalgia, it also poses the question whether such longing is empty, predicated on the way we wish things might have been rather than the way they actually were.
The carousel, the Hollies song version of which made an appearance in the series, has thus far been a fitting metaphor for Draper’s life. In a recent episode, Don explains to Peggy what he does when he gets bogged down on a project: “I start over, I go back to the beginning and see if I end up in the same place.” For the most part, Don has arrived back where he started and the return has not been happy. The question for Draper and the series in its final episodes is whether Don’s circling back can signify more than entrapment, whether he can experience the best things in life without having them dissolve in his very act of possessing them.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was recently published by Baylor University Press.