Mad Men: The Death and Redemption of American Democracy

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In the first season of AMC’s Mad Men, advertising executive Don Draper gives a presentation to some prospective clients from Kodak. The clients are looking for a way to market a new rotary slide projector. Don upsets and exceeds their expectations when, instead of focusing on the “exciting technology” of the projector’s rotary wheel, he emphasizes the feelings of nostalgia created by old family photos—“a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone” (1.13). As Don delivers his presentation, he projects images of his own past onto a screen, old wedding photos, pictures of past Christmases, and images of his children when they were younger. He compares the slide projector to a time machine that can take us “forward and back, to the place your heart aches to go again.” The scene is especially poignant because the audience knows (though Don’s clients and coworkers do not) that the images of domestic bliss he projects present a carefully edited version of what is actually a tense and unhappy family life. Through this scene—perhaps Don’s paradigmatic pitch—Mad Men illustrates the power and the perilousness of fictional histories. In this moment, the series invites its audience to think critically about the Mad Men’s own representation of American history.

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men is set during a politically turbulent decade. While the series focuses on the personal and professional lives of a group of advertising executives, specifically Don’s, it also obsessively positions plot developments in relation to the political and cultural events of the 1960s. Race riots, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, and America’s entrance into the Vietnam War play pivotal roles in particular episodes and these events often track crucial incidents in the lives of the show’s characters. The series uses newspapers and television broadcasts as props to set the scene; topical dinner party conversations and political debates between coworkers in the break room provide context for individual ambitions, desires, and concerns. Mad Men thereby contends that all of the character’s melodramatic romantic entanglements, as well as their professional successes and failures have to be understood in the context of a particular political regime. Put another way, through its fixation on past events, the series illustrates how macro-political and world historical events shape interpersonal relationships and individual psychology.

As an example, consider the Season Six episode, “Favors,” in which Don helps his mistress’ son avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam. While Don’s wife, Megan, refers to his desire to help as “sweet,” his willingness to circumvent the political order mirrors his willingness to evade his marital obligations (6.11). One might excuse Don’s efforts in the first instance on the grounds that the war is unjust, but framing it in these terms also excuses Don’s philandering insofar as his marriage might be unsatisfactory. Both patriotism and marital love are species of fidelity, of course. Here Weiner provocatively expands and twists the analogy so that adultery might be akin to conscientious objection.

Similarly, in the Season Three episode, “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency,” Sterling Cooper welcomes representatives from its parent company, the British firm Puttnam, Powell, and Lowe. During their visit, the British higher-ups cancel the July 4 holiday and inform one employee, Lane Pryce, that he has been reassigned to Mumbai, India. In the same episode young American staffers at Sterling Cooper express concern about potentially being drafted into service in Vietnam (3.6). The episode thus prompts the audience to consider how the acquisition and long-distance administration of a foreign company, as well as America’s invasion of Vietnam can be understood in relation to the history of British imperialism. It also points out how capitalism and the “advertisement” of the American dream are implicated in the United States’ fight against Communist expansion. The episode ends with a rising young star from Puttnam, Powell, and Lowe losing his foot in a bizarre accident involving a John Deere tractor. This shocking and random mutilation prefigures the physical toll the war will take on a generation of America’s young. Complexities such as these pervade each episode such that it is difficult if not impossible to define any one event in the series as either strictly personal or political.

Mad Men directs our gaze at an exceptionally stylish and luxurious vision of 1960s America, only to then deconstruct and trouble that image. The show, for instance, highlights gender and racial inequalities that are often elided in romanticized discussions of an idealized past historical moment. And of course, this political incongruity is mirrored by the personal story of the show’s protagonist, who is introduced to us as a successful advertising executive named Don Draper, but who is, in actuality, a man named Dick Whitman, a Korean War deserter who grew up in a brothel. Mad Men is a drama about characters with secret lives and false identities set against the backdrop of an industry that specializes in manipulating the truth and a political culture based on promises that are never fully realized.

Mad Men’s critique, however, is not limited to the politically fraught 1960s. Weiner indicates that he believes the problems of that decade can shed light on our contemporary struggles. Specifically, he notes that the post–9/11 era is reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Cold War society.1 The United States’ difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan have frequently drawn comparisons to the Vietnam War. One might also reasonably compare recent demonstrations against police brutality to the race riots of the 1960s. Read this way, Mad Men becomes a commentary on modernity more generally, specifically on western liberal democratic regimes and the kinds of lives they afford their citizens. From this perspective, Mad Men’s relevance to our current situation is disconcerting. Perhaps the crises the show dramatizes are permanent features of American life, or maybe they are signs of a regime in decline. This bleak interpretation is at least suggested by the opening title sequence, a graphic animation of a businessman seemingly falling from a great height past a series of skyscrapers and advertising bill boards. While the title sequence does not reveal the outcome of this particular “falling man,” the imagery is ominous.

In philosophical terms, the show is, at least in part, an exploration of existentialism, particularly the crisis that ensues when one realizes the inevitability of one’s own death. Recalling the suicides of Don’s brother, Adam, and his business partner Lane, the death of Don’s close friend Anna, along with the deaths of Roger Sterling’s mother and Betty Draper’s father, watchers of the show will quickly recognize the centrality of mortality in the series’ representation. However, again, this crisis of meaning is writ on a wider scale than just the existential angst experienced by particular characters. This spiritual crisis is repeatedly represented as a widespread cultural anxiety endemic to American society. For instance, just as the seemingly perfect nuclear family of Don and Betty Draper is quickly revealed to be an illusion, founded on lies and consistently undermined by Don’s adultery, so too the race riots and assassination of Martin Luther King highlight America’s failure to make good on its political promises. Hope that these ideals might be reaffirmed and realized is seemingly destroyed with the deaths of the Kennedys. Draft dodgers reveal youth who no longer trust that the principles of the regime that animate the government and suspect that the American dream should no longer animate their own ethos.2 While the characters of the show confront the possibility of their individual deaths, the political backdrop of the show speaks to the loss of American idealism and innocence.

As the series concludes, however, there are images that suggest that despite certain troubling realities, there might yet be hope. In the middle of Season Seven, groups of characters sit in front of television screens to watch the first moon landing. The event inspires real wonder in all of the characters. In fact, when Sally Draper tries to assume the characteristic pose of the cynical teenager, her father reprimands her (7.7). This general optimism is reaffirmed later when, after his death in this same episode, Bert Cooper appears to Don in a vision. Along with a chorus of brightly clothed secretarial dancers, Bert performs a Broadway musical number, replete with some soft shoe dancing to accompany his song, “The Best Things in Life are Free.” Just as the earth may not be the limit of America’s physical existence, so death may not be such a hard limit after all. Bert’s musical “resurrection” might signal a similar kind of renewal for America.

Moreover, even when Mad Men disrupts nostalgic reminiscing about an idealized American past by illuminating the uneven distribution of the American dream—especially to women and people of color—the series also points to the freedom made available to individuals when they are given legitimate opportunities for economic independence and self-determination. In the series finale Joan Harris, a single-mother who has climbed the corporate ladder at great personal cost, breaks up with her boyfriend and comes out of retirement to found a film production company. Joan’s initial plan is to partner with her friend, Peggy Olson, who has achieved a similarly improbable ascent from the secretarial pool to a position of corporate responsibility. In her pitch to Peggy, Joan proposes the company name “Harris Olson,” joking that “you need two names to make it sound real.” When Peggy opts not to leave her job at the advertising agency, Joan christens her enterprise “Holloway Harris,” combining her maiden name with her married name, a clear symbol that she is going into partnership with herself (7.14). Joan’s climb to independence has not been easy, but as the series ends, watchers have good reason to imagine that her future will end with her personal and professional satisfaction.

On the surface, Mad Men is a melodramatic story about a group of advertising executives who go through a series of professional and personal ups and downs. However, when these personal narratives are attended to in light of the political and historical cues that pervade the backgrounds of most episodes, a more complex story emerges. The lives
of these characters speak to the potential and possibility inherent in the American project and that of liberal democracy more generally. In studying the lives of these characters, a compelling, often critical, but also optimistic account of the American way of life is revealed. This book examines Mad Men’s exploration of American political principles. Each chapter focuses on one element of the series’ political commentary. Weiner says that one of the consistent elements of the show is the question of whether human beings can change or must constantly fall into the same mistakes. Given the close relationship between character storylines and the political details, we must conclude that the series asks a comparable question about American democracy: Is the country doomed to repeat its past mistakes, or is political redemption possible as well?

Chapters Outline

The book is divided into four sections each containing a pair of essays. Each section focuses on a fundamental principle or element of American life. Watchers of the series know that its episodes and arcs are peppered with references to political events as well as to works of philosophy and literature. The authors of the following essays attempt to situate the series within certain philosophical, political, legal, and literary contexts. Through these juxtapositions, the following essays seek to show how Mad Men joins a broader political and philosophical conversation about the limits of human freedom, the nature of desire, and the ends of modern politics. At stake in this conversation is the validity and sustainability of the project set forth in the Declaration of Independence, a project which has been embraced, for the most part, by the modern western world.

Freedom and the Pursuit of Happiness

The modern world has seen incredible advances in human freedom. Mad Men arguably treats the rise of human liberty as the most crucial feature of modern American life. Throughout its seven seasons, the series considers whether or not the spread and expansion of freedom is conducive to human well-being. Does our happiness increase in direct proportion to our freedom, or, alternatively, are certain prohibitions and limitations necessary to the human good? The first set of essays in this volume explores how Mad Men engages with American freedom, and specifically whether or not the kind of freedom embraced by Don Draper can lead us to happiness.

In “Mad Men and the End of History,” Barry Craig examines Mad Men’s account of freedom through the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel. Craig argues that while Mad Men initially appears to interrogate American freedom, exposing it as something shallow and unsatisfying, the series ultimately illuminates and celebrates the virtues of liberal democracies and liberal democratic citizens. Don Draper, Craig contends, is the primary means by which the series makes its argument. Don first seeks to eliminate all limits on his life, such that he can enjoy an absolute freedom, but by the end of the series, Don embraces a freedom that is more compatible with a moral life—a life that might afford him happiness. This latter kind of freedom, Craig argues, is particularly available in liberal democracies and represents the actualization of the American promise of freedom laid out in the Declaration.

In the second chapter, “Don Draper’s Life, His Liberty and His Need for Happiness,” T. D. Anderson alternatively argues that Don seeks a kind of positive freedom that can never ultimately be satisfying. Tracing Isaiah Berlin’s understanding of freedom through the development of Don Draper, Anderson argues that the brand of self-mastery Don pursues is not compatible with happiness. More fundamentally, according to Anderson, Mad Men—like Berlin—reveals that freedom and happiness are absolute values that cannot be reconciled or organized. In Don’s case, for example, it seems the limitations imposed on him in loving relationships will necessarily impede his freedom, even while those same limitations improve his prospects for happiness.

American Dreams

Mad Men does not represent American life as a purely historical or material condition. The series also recognizes that America is an idea, a commitment to certain abstract principles. Moreover, American political life seems to depend upon imagined futures and shared mythologies. This “inspirational” dimension of American life is captured most clearly in the concept of “The American Dream.” The second section of this book explores the various imaginative and creative techniques—nostalgia, invention, advertising, and poetry—that characters use in order to navigate American life. Mad Men suggests that imaginary fictions can be used both well and badly: to advance one’s ambitions and achieve self-knowledge, or to inhibit one’s progress and limit political consciousness.

In “Selective Nostalgia and Uncertain Progress,” John-Paul Spiro and Peter Augustine Lawler demonstrate how, on the one hand, Mad Men shows how new technologies and more liberal social arrangements generate anxiety (for characters and viewers alike), while on the other hand, the series deconstructs nostalgia and refuses to let its audience romanticize past eras that were demonstrably less just than the present. The suffering of characters like Betty Draper—who is never allowed to live up to her potential—highlights the limitations of mid-twentieth-century
American life. Mad Men treatment of progress is thus nuanced and complex. The series demonstrates that while liberty can create social disruption, it is ultimately through personal autonomy—and especially work—that individuals make their identities manifest in the world around them and, in so doing, find their satisfaction. Just so, it is through the conscious (rather than forced) acceptance of social roles that characters prosper on Mad Men.

Matthew D. Dinan uses Plato’s commentary on the “ancient quarrel” between poets and philosophers to evaluate the creative endeavors of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, and Michael Ginsberg. He reads Don, Peggy, and Michael as modern poets who use images to sell products. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Dinan suggests the ads crafted by Sterling Cooper’s creative team are not merely clever deceptions designed to manipulate the consumer, but beautiful images which might lead the individual towards real happiness and fulfillment. “Mastering the Infinite: Mad Men’s Poetic Modernity” shows how the advertising industry of the series, an industry that is at the foundation of modern consumerism, has the effect of reconciling what individuals truly desire to a stable and even just political system.

Equality and Opportunity

While Don Draper exemplifies the kind of freedom afforded to an affluent, white man, not all individuals in the series are as fortunate. Arguably, Don’s persistent existential angst is a luxury that is not afforded to other characters, specifically women, homosexuals, and minorities. In the third section of this book, we turn our attention to Mad Men’s treatment of those individuals seemingly left out of the American dream, who struggle to be granted the basic freedoms that Don casually enjoys.

“‘Just Like a Man Does’: Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Autonomy in Mad Men” focuses on the series’ treatment of gender and sexual orientation. Drawing from Kathryn Abrams’s feminist theories of agency as the capacity to resist subordination and oppression, Dave Snow reveals that American liberalism’s commitment to individualism and autonomy may in fact work against the liberation and advancement of women and minorities. Though characters such as Peggy Olson champion and embody the virtues of self-reliance and hard work, overcoming adversity to climb the corporate ladder, Mad Men ultimately suggests some obstacles are too great for individuals to overcome on their own. Systemic barriers to freedom for women and for homosexuals mean that not everyone can have it all, and that the path to change will require more than just the hard work of solitary agents.

In “Mad Men’s Tell-Tale Heart of Racism,” Amanda DiPaolo examines how the series deals with the rampant racism of the 1960s advertising world. This chapter situates the series in its historical legal context, explaining how the civil rights movement came to the real-world Madison Avenue of the 1960s in the form of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. DiPaolo notes that Mad Men rarely focuses on the real-world legal strategies that were used to address inequality in New York’s advertising agencies. Instead, Mad Men adopts a more indirect strategy for exploring racism. The series consistently focuses on the white experience of racial tension and dramatizes instances where white characters are painfully unaware of their privileged position. The situation of African American characters on the margins of the series, reveals the degree to which racial minorities were seen as only supporting players in American society. However, DiPaolo suggests that the series runs the risk of falling into the traps of the dominant culture it portrays by inadvertently reaffirming the marginalization of black citizens rather than openly
criticizing it.

Redemption and Forgiveness

Despite all of the difficulties that Mad Men identifies with respect to the fulfillment of the American dream, it nonetheless still offers the promise of some redemption. The final set of essays in this volume explores the ways by which the series affirms the redemptive potential of American life and modern life more generally.

In “Dante and Draper Share a Coke,” Sara MacDonald follows series’ suggestion in Season Six that Don Draper’s character arc is mirrored by that of Dante in the Divine Comedy. Using Dante’s narrative as an interpretive key, MacDonald suggests that Don’s journey throughout the series is a modernized version of the descent and ascent that structures the Divine Comedy. MacDonald further contends that Dante’s poem and Weiner’s television series are in agreement on the redemptive potential of human desire and love. For Don, as for Dante, the challenge is to overcome pride, to love other human beings despite their flaws, and to accept that people might, in fact, love him. Don’s personal development might also signal possibilities for redemption for American citizens more generally whereby the satisfaction of one’s desire—for a Hershey bar, or a bottle of Coke—might be consistent with broader and higher goods, such as prosperity, liberty, and justice.

In the final chapter, Andrew Moore explores the series’ obsession with history through the political theory of Hannah Arendt. Virtually all of the characters on Mad Men are tormented by their pasts and periodically anxious about the future. Don develops sophisticated strategies for escaping the burdens of living within time—circulating myths of perpetually  open futures and deceptively stable pasts. However, Moore suggests the series ultimately exposes the folly of Don’s temporal trickery and explores alternative methods for managing our temporal anxieties. In “Between Past and Future: Promises and Forgiveness in Mad Men,” Moore shows how the political philosophy of Arendt (a woman addressing the same historical moment as Weiner’s Mad Men) helps to illuminate the series’ political argument. Deeply informed by Christian philosophy, Arendt conceives of promising and forgiveness as more effective methods of managing our historical condition. Mad Men suggests that American liberalism might be the political model that manifests these principles in the world. America may not always be successful in fulfilling its contractual promises, but the efforts of the regime to stabilize the future and the willingness of citizens to forgive short-comings are means by which Mad Men suggests the modern political project might succeed.

Although the essays in this collection offer different and sometimes competing analyses of Mad Men, they all point to a common interpretation. Mad Men is a series that grapples with a world wherein individual freedom is making greater and greater demands on the traditional structures of human community. Characters in the series find greater or lesser satisfaction to the extent that they are able to transform the institutions they participate in to recognize the validity of their actual desires and needs. This depends on individuals willing to evaluate their own claims and institutions that are open to the principles upon which the modern project was envisioned. Some truths may be self-evident, but their practical realization is one that requires effort and time.

 

Notes

1. Matt Patches, “Matthew Weiner on Mad Men’s Origins, Peggy’s Baby, and Why There Will Never Be a Spinoff,” Esquire, March 20, 2015. http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/interviews/a33815/matthew-weiner-interview-mad-men-final-season/. Part Three: Equalityonsumptions.rew Mooreothers. in liberal democratic societies. void the living death of the Big Lebowski. Ho

2. Weiner says that Season Seven is about dismantling America’s façade. See Elizabeth Cline, “Q&A—Matthew Weiner (Series Creator and Executive Producer), “ AMC, April 7, 2014. http://blogs.amctv.com/mad-men/2014/04/qa-matthew-weiner-seriescreator/.

Sara MacDonald and Andrew Moore

Written by

Sara MacDonald is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada; and Andrew Moore is the Director of the Great Books Program at St. Thomas University.