With the final seven episodes of “Mad Men” about to launch on April 5, I recently went back to re-watch the first season of the series; after all, maybe Matt Weiner had planted some clues about where he wanted to take the series in the early episodes.
I wasn’t binge-watching, which is what so many people did in the lead-up to the end of AMC’s other critical smash “Breaking Bad.” Instead, I was savoring and noticing how much the series had evolved in seven seasons.
The experience of watching Season One is as disorienting today as it was when it debuted in 2007. It’s a testament to the profound changes of the 1960s and the ability of “Mad Men” to depict them that jumping back to 1960 still seems like visiting a world that is exponentially more foreign than the world of 1969 where we last met Don Draper and friends.
It only takes about five minutes of the first episode to understand why “Mad Men” was such a sensation when it first hit the screens. It depicts a sleek, polished social system of cocktails, classic fashion and beautiful interior design; a system where the characters seem to know and accept their place in the social hierarchy. Everyone seems to be smoking all the time, which immediately distances us from this period but adds a forbidding allure. And the drinking is so pervasive that life back then initially seems to have been a non-stop party.
Having set a scene of apparent glamor, Matt Weiner proceeds to knock it down. The characters are neither physically nor emotionally healthy. There’s a sickness at the core of the late Eisenhower era that requires the self-medication of consumerism – a consumerism that is driven by the very ads produced by our heroes. We see that men are pigs, women are enslaved, blacks are nearly invisible, Jews are barely tolerated, and gays are deep in the closet. No one is really happy.
Matt Weiner didn’t live through the 1960s like I did, so he gets some things wrong in emphasis, occasionally sliding into didacticism. His depiction of women seems particularly off. It’s as if he’s gotten his insight from books – two books in particular. Betty Draper’s frustrated, bored, and infantilized suburban housewife is a caricature straight from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) while Peggy Olsen’s mousy secretary and Joan Holloway’s voluptuous office manager are the yin and yang from Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex And The Single Girl. With all due respect to the two Bettys, I have to stand up for my mother and the mothers of my childhood friends, none of whom were as incapacitated by affluence as seems to be the case on “Mad Men.” And while we’re at it, my father and the fathers of my friends would never have treated their wives with the casual contempt that we see from the “Mad Men” husbands.
If the women are stereotypes, at least Don Draper is more nuanced. I’ve always thought that the Korean War/Dick Whitman switcheroo was more than a little far-fetched but at least it gives Don an interesting backstory. Don falls into that long American tradition of self-invented men, starting with Ben Franklin and running through Horatio Alger and Jay Gatsby to Bill Clinton (whose birth name, after all, was William Jefferson Blythe); it’s not surprising that he prefers the self-made Dick Nixon to the rich playboy Jack Kennedy. From the beginning Don was one of the most fascinating characters in television history, always surprising – sometimes strong, often weak, frequently brilliant, occasionally tender and a master manipulator.
Looking back now, some of Matt Weiner’s preoccupations in Season One are surprising. The pervasive anti-Semitism of the era was real but seems like a Weiner fixation, particularly since the more urgent issue of race is completely absent. Further, the season-long plot line about the agency’s attempt to get a role in the Nixon presidential campaign never seems to go anywhere and doesn’t contribute much to our understanding of the 1960 race.
Much has been written about how Don and Peggy are the two main protagonists on the show and their character arcs over seven seasons have indeed been central to the show. But less has been said about the importance of Pete Campbell, even though it is clear from a review of Season One that he is the third most important character. Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete, gets third billing in the credits and has just as much screen time as Elizabeth Moss’s Peggy Olsen. Pete stands in for all those entitled young-men-in-a-hurry from the post-War era. He’s never satisfied – not with the progress of his career or the state of his marriage – and is always looking for ego-gratification. It’s bad enough that he has sex with Peggy on the night before his wedding, but it’s horrifying that he tries to pimp out his wife to get one of his short stories published in “The Yorker” (and how hilarious it is when it ends up in “Boys Life Magazine” instead?) Critics don’t often write about Pete, and the rest of us don’t really like to think about him since he’s an uncomfortable reminder our own dissatisfactions and neediness. But anyone who doesn’t think deeply about the meaning of Pete Campbell is missing one of Weiner’s main themes.
To the extent there’s an overarching them, though, it’s been hiding in plain sight all along – or not even hiding at all. The trailer for the last half of the final season is called “Nostalgia” and reprises the most famous Mad Men scene of all – the pitch for the Kodak Carousel. Nostalgia, Don claims, is a “twinge in your heart, for more powerful than memory alone.” It’s a time machine that “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” That place is home, and every TV show, movie or book set in the past mixes memory and desire and trades in this ache to go home. And if “Mad Men” has been about anything, it’s been about our conflicting feelings for a world that is both idealized and scorned – the past. Whether Don Draper lives or dies by the end is a plot point – the important thing is that we’ve stared at our past and come to terms with how it’s shaped our today.