Mad Men: Bridge to History

19 06 2015

(Spoilers. Why would I do that?)

[This would have been way more relevant back when I started writing it, when the series actually ended. But I’m not bothered if you’re not.]

I always enjoyed Mad Men most as a history lesson. A dramatic, unpredictable, emotionally turbulent history lesson. Surely that’s the wrong way to watch it. The show was never a mere nostalgia fest, but was driven by vibrant, three dimensional characters, as any story should be. Still, I’ve gotten more interested in history in the last ten years or so, trying to form a coherent mental picture of the decades and centuries flowing one into the next. TV dramas have been my primary tool, and probably what sparked my interest in the first place.

I knew some things about the 60s, and didn’t know a lot of things. Of course I’ve always heard about how it was a dynamic time of sweeping social change, but you always hear that in a way that emphasizes the goals and outcomes of the counterculture. Mad Men focused more on the entrenched old guard, and seeing them struggle really brought home the psychological violence of all that upheaval. Even as it happened gradually, almost in real time over seven seasons. The key to the whole series is Don’s reaction to Kennedy being shot: “We’re not who we thought we were.”

The last half of the final season takes place in 1970, the year before I was born. That makes the show a bridge from history to my lifetime. For the kid I was, the 70s was all fun and games. I was too young to understand the cultural vein of deep cynicism brought on by Vietnam, Watergate, economic recession and the failure of the Age of Aquarius to materialize. That understanding I gleaned later on from Philip K. Dick, Network, The Ice Storm, and so on. In Mad Men’s final episodes, we see the seeds being sown.

Out of a dissatisfaction he could never understand or articulate, Don has finally walked away from his whole life; his job, his home, his assets, his identity that was never fully his anyway. His family too, although I had the sense that he maintains a tenuous connection to Sally. He’s gone as far west as there is to go, and fetched up in a new age hippie commune. He attends workshops designed to plumb the emotions and access the truth. And it works, to a certain extent. The efforts of the gurus and the pilgrims are genuine, and the methods make sense in a time when so many longstanding, reliable traditions have been turned inside out. But we know where it all leads. It leads nowhere. The communes all failed, the gurus gave way to crooks, self-actualization degenerated into petty self-interest. (Is my Gen-X mistrust showing?)

The final shot is a cut from a meditating, ohm-chanting Don, with a smile spreading across his face, to the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. The prevailing wisdom among viewers said that Don conceived the ad in that peacenik love den, and brought it back to McCann Erickson (a real ad firm by the way, which really did make that ad), having learned just enough from the Aquarians to exploit their optimism and change the face of advertising forever.

I didn’t see it that way. Because I couldn’t imaging Don going back to the company after disappearing without a word for so long, I saw that cut as Don breaking away from the cynical world of advertising. He had stepped out of his fog at last, learned to see himself objectively, lost all interest in corporate achievement and could maybe start his life over for real. Meanwhile the company, absent Don’s sensitivity, ushered in a new era of advertising with a piece that was highly successful despite having none of the emotional truth of, say, the Carousel campaign.

Except the more I think about it, the more that outcome seems impossible. If Don is our window into history, it’s only fitting that he would design the Coke ad. It’s only fitting that he would transform the promises of the 60s into a cash cow. The Coke ad is the perfect summation of a cultural failure to awaken, and Don is the perfect vehicle to bring it to life.

Maybe it comes down to whether the show is about history, or about its characters.

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