It was an odd thing to see the promotional material some months ago for the final half-season of Mad Men, nostalgic as it was. The promo was a nod to the famous, oft-quoted, speech Don gave years ago (both for us and for him) to sell the Kodak executives his idea for the slide carousel. AMC even called the season trailer “Nostalgia”. The network doubled-down on the technique prior to the final episode, cooking up a montage of clips set to the tune of Paul Anka’s “Times of Your Life”. Perhaps it’s no surprise. The Kodak guys bought that carousel pitch, after all.
And yet, there was a time when this show was about the future. Back in Season 2, Don had one of his moments of clarity and burst from his office to tell his team to ditch all the work they’d done on an American Airlines proposal. “American Airlines is not about the past any more than America is,” he declared. “Ask not about Cuba, ask not about the bomb. We’re going to the moon. Throw everything out.” When Paul Kinsey was brave enough to confirm, “everything?” Don replied, “There is no such thing as American history, only a frontier.”
Ah yes, utopia. That uniquely American myth that it’s all simply there for the taking, and when it’s reached, it will be perfect by virtue of just being there. It was clear from the off that Mad Men wasn’t going to pretend that everything in the early 1960s was exactly so perfect, even if the early reaction to the show was general fawning over how cool everyone looked. Sexism, for instance, was displayed prominently all along. But that was from our perspective. As far as the characters were concerned, this was it – the American dream, mostly realized. The house in the suburbs. The 2.5 kids and a dog. The Cadillac. The boozy lunches. They did it. They were there.
Considering this, one of the more striking moments of the final season was Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch. The America she describes is much different than the one Don invoked eight years earlier. Utopia had been intruded upon.
“The TV is always on. Vietnam playing in the background. The news wins every night,” Peggy tells the Burger Chef team. “And you’re starving. And not just for dinner. What if there was another table where everybody gets what they want, when they want it? It’s bright and clean and there’s no laundry, no telephone, and no TV. And we can have the connection that we’re hungry for.”
As for going to the moon? America had just achieved that very thing only the night before her pitch. It was fitting then, perhaps, that the ad Peggy presented opened with a bird’s-eye view, looking down at a family dinner table. Rather than looking up or to the great beyond, the gaze had turned back down to Earth.
Very early on in Season 2, Peggy delivers to Don a cliché: “Sex sells.” Don retorts: “Says who?” He goes on to admonish her for the remark. “Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and stick it in a briefcase, completely unaware that their success depends on something more than shoeshine,” he says. “You are the product. You, feeling something. That’s what sells. Not sex.”
Whether intentionally or not (we never really know), Don is echoing a line from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, a benchmark sociology text that, fittingly, had just been re-printed in 1961: “The product now in demand is neither a staple nor a machine; it is a personality.”
Riesman’s immediate context for the line was a discussion of social mobility in what he called “other-directed” cultures – ones in which people look to their contemporaries for direction. “While all people want and need to be liked by some of the people some of the time, it is only the modern other-directed types who make this their chief source of direction and chief area of sensitivity.” It’s not just keeping up with the Joneses, per say. It’s keeping up with the Joneses “not so much in external details as in the quality of his inner experience.”
Something like this had perhaps long been a part of the American experience, but it became more acute in the 20th century, both in the U.S. and abroad – particularly those societies where raw production or manufacturing gave way to more white collar jobs in the service industry or, for example, advertising.
Person as product. Don’s immediate point was that the corporate executives would buy Peggy (or Don – whoever was selling the idea), over the idea itself, or whatever immediately relatable concept it delivered (sex, in this case). But of course his comment was a summation of what advertising was quickly becoming: a way to choose an identity, a way to understand your inner self via your consumption patterns. In a postmodern age of branding, this notion seems almost quaint, but someone had to dream it up. That person was Don.
And it’s not just any identity Don, and later, Peggy, was pitching. It was a binary one. You are either this or that. You are either smoking toasted cigarettes or you are smoking plain old tar. You are either in shape or you are fat. You are either living in chaos, or you are living in a stable family. You are either moving forward or you are stuck where you are. For each, there was a product. Inner identity shaped by external image.
'The Hobo Code' (Season 1, episode 8) offered us an early glimpse into Don’s childhood. Don goes to see Midge, an artist who he meets in the Time Life building, and has a flashback that sheds some light on Don’s childhood (as Dick Whitman). Some beatniks come to Midge’s to smoke weed, and they chide Don for being an ad man. Don tells one, Roy, to “make something of [him]self”. Roy replies: “Like you? You make the lie. You invent want. You’re for them, not us.”
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent,” Don replies.
There is, of course, a big lie that, as viewers, we knew well by that point – Don is not who he says he is. He’s also not being truthful about advertising, either. Roy The Beatnik is right. Don is the creator of falsehoods – perhaps only small ones, but falsehoods, nonetheless. He is a mythmaker, a constructor of a system of differences and of strict binary identity choices. But why doesn’t Don see it this way?
This was a constant frustration with Mad Men: how is it that these characters, Don especially, couldn’t see the lies they were constructing? How is it they could continue to convince themselves they were doing the right thing when it was so clearly wrong? The simplest explanation is that it’s difficult for anyone to see their own faults as such while they commit them. But of course, this wasn’t just a story about anyone – it was about people who create advertising.
A common way to describe Mad Men is that it’s a show that, as the New York Times put it last month, “chronicles the New York advertising world in the 1960s.” I’ve lingered over two words in this phrase – ones that appear next to each other everywhere – recently: advertising world. This is what the team at Sterling Cooper (and its successors) are in the midst of creating – a world of advertising. To consider how one creates such a thing prompts a question that perhaps we ought to have been asking ourselves all along: what is it like to see the entire world only as advertising, either the kind that already exists, or the opportunity for more? What is like to be these great ad women and men?
It is not just to see everything as a product. It is perhaps to become obsessed with image as identity. It is to see everything in the immediate. It is, eventually, to see everything as a possible utopia – that if you can just keep re-defining yourself, keep trying to achieve that next mythical step, you will have made it, and whatever came before – history – will be irrelevant, only the misremembering of nostalgia will count. You will have a fresh start, a clean slate. You’ll be on the moon.
UPDATE: I've written more about the end of Mad Men – on the finale, specifically – here.