Originally published in The Worcester Journal on July 1, 2015
The older I get, the more I see how watching TV can be like reading a poem. Only a few shows have struck me in this way – despite my deep affection for Gilmore Girls, Parks and Recreation, and other shows, their poetry is not as resonant as that of, say, Lost or Breaking Bad, or even The Office (for a little while). Of course, not every sitcom will be a “Road Not Taken,” and not every drama can be a “Howl,” but when each episode rings so truly to the humanity of its characters and is equally if not more potently beautiful when perceived as part of a larger story, the poem becomes more visible. When each rewatch further embeds into your subconscious how we are it and they are us, and with each revisit, these realizations slowly guide you towards something like an answer to a question you hadn’t yet asked, the poetry becomes clear. Maybe nothing strikes you at first, but maybe when it’s over the sheer richness of what you come away with overcomes any sense of an ending, the fullness of the story somehow leaving just enough blank space for you to look forward to one more careful reading.
Some shows are like this for me; now, I’m thinking of Mad Men.
“It’s the real thing!” The final statement of the series looms over its ninety-two episode arc in retrospect, casting the light of a question over everything we’ve seen before; what is The Real Thing? The dichotomy between real life and the life advertisements would have us believe is attainable has always been one of the leading forces of Mad Men; Sterling Cooper, as a glamorized beacon of the in-between state, where its troubled employees inspire manufactured ideas of happiness for the rest of us to consume, is a purgatory for Don Draper and the others, who come face to face with their ideals every workday (and sometimes weekends) and yet find themselves unable to produce such fulfillment in their own lives.
This fundamental failure to connect the dots between the flaws of reality – sexism, racism, rape, and cancer, to name a few – and the impossible dream of perfection pervades the life of every character. When modest co-heroine Peggy, whom we’ve seen climb from secretary to copy chief, deems Stan a “failure” for being content with his work instead of trying to find something better, we – particularly my generation, I believe – are uneasily reminded of ourselves, of the need to try harder, score higher, and make more, which unconsciously determines perhaps one too many so-called “life-changing decisions,” even when we are convinced we make such choices ourselves. Her realization that there’s more to life than her job reminds overachievers everywhere that sometimes good is good enough.
The impossible quest for perfection, however, is far from the pursuit of happiness – it’s being able to tell the difference that finally releases most characters from their self-imposed suffering. Betty, for instance, was quite the opposite of Peggy in this regard: whereas Peggy valued her work above any expectations of her gender, letting opportunities for marriage and motherhood fall behind the prospect of a career, Betty tried and failed for most of her life to believe that marriage and motherhood was enough. When an old friend forces her to question how satisfied she is with everything she once wanted –“I thought they were the reward”– she starts thinking more like Peggy (who, incidentally, starts thinking more like the unexpected workplace feminist Joan, who has always been capable of thinking for herself but is now free to think only for herself). The attraction to an ad man like Don is obvious, for Betty is nothing if not the ideal consumer, always living just the life ads said she should – she married a handsome man, mothered three kids (when the housekeeper went home, of course), wore the right clothes, smoked the right cigarettes, and maintained the image of charm and grace she thought every woman should.
But there’s a danger to “shoulds” – as Don learns in the final episode – and this is ultimately what the show teaches us; there is no right way. Even the folks at Sterling Cooper know it, they’re just doing their job by trying to sell it to us under the guise of what it is we really want – which the finale title, “Person to Person,” articulates in its most basic terms. In the significant mid-season-seven pitch to Burger Chef, Peggy recalls the remarkable feeling of knowing that, during the moon landing, while she and Don and the rest of the team were watching on TV in their hotel room, everyone else she knew and didn’t know was watching their TV too, sharing the experience and “doing the same thing at the same time.” She notes the “pleasure of that connection,” and that they were starved for it.
This rivals only one other pitch on Mad Men for its potent authenticity; as with Don’s nostalgic approach to selling “The Wheel” in season one’s finale, Peggy here taps into an undeniable truth and a basic human anxiety — to sit down to dinner, for example, away from television or music or anything that isn’t the people sitting right in front of you, then look them in the eye and share a meal and conversation – Peggy herself wonders, “Does this family exist anymore?” The question is still relevant, and the connection is one we still starve for. When the IBM supercomputer suddenly becomes part of the Sterling Cooper company in “The Monolith,” it is this connection that is threatened, and this threat which eventually drives some of its employees insane; when a father first sees his child do something that makes him mean the love he thinks he is supposed to have, as Don realizes with his young son Bobby, it is this connection being formed; and with every phone call made to daughters, lovers, and friends (brothers, clients, and nieces), it is this connection we are aching to imitate – but it’s not The Real Thing.
Don Draper ought to know this more than anyone, but he’s the last to figure it out. His crucial struggle to relate to those around him has never been more clear than when, in a group exercise during his climactic retreat to California, he is instructed to simply express how he feels towards another human being. Looking around the room with utter blankness, his partner finally pushes him out of frustration which leaves Don only more bewildered. Taking cues from a number of similarly confused and isolated protagonists from major Italian directors of the 1960s – it’s no coincidence that Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) is mentioned at one point as Don’s favorite foreign film – Don grapples with his inability to accept himself throughout the series, as his Dick Whitman past continues to haunt him in spite of his apparently tried-and-true “move forward” strategy. (Indeed, Don looks more and more like the man he might have been as his season seven road trip goes on, until he’s finally seen in a flannel and jeans, having shed everything external that made him Don Draper.) In the same vein as Red Desert’s Giuliana (Antonioni, 1964) and 8 ½’s Guido (Fellini, 1963), Don’s emotional moment of epiphany centers around his ability (or rather, inability) to love and receive love.
Although the finale makes this clearer than ever, Don’s fundamental sense of detachment is foreshadowed as early as the very first episode, in a remarkably revealing conversation with client-to-lover Rachel Menken. “Mr. Draper,” she says during one of their earliest exchanges, “I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.” While Don manages to brush the moment away and their relationship (both business and personal) is short-lived, it is obvious why Rachel, of all the many, many women in his life, is the one who reappears to him during one of Mad Men’s signature surrealist moments in the final season’s opening scene. Rachel isn’t the only woman to have Don figured out over time, but she is arguably the one who is both most and least like him. Her ability to empathize is striking to Don, but not something he can name or learn himself until much later, for although most of Don’s life has been spent “in another man’s shoes,” so to speak, he has never put himself there for the sake of understanding someone else, only to hide further from himself.
“I don’t think I realized it until this moment,” Rachel tells him in the same conversation, “but it must be hard being a man, too.” Bringing gender into the exchange – another one of the most important facets of the show – Rachel also presages the arrival of Leonard, a stranger and crucial character seen only in the finale. Leonard is a foil to Don in many ways (invisible, whereas Don is used to turning heads) yet both face the same essential struggle – the one Rachel articulated ninety-one episodes before. Though much of the series rightly focuses on the realistic sexism and mistreatment of women at the time, Don and Leonard’s group therapy session proves how right Rachel was; for all the shortcomings of the privileged (and probably white) male, there are arguably few demographics who are more emotionally repressed. We see this in Don’s gradual decline, and Don sees it, and himself, in Leonard. No longer forcing the belief in his individualism or trying too hard to project or create the connection he craves (as he did with the enigmatic waitress Diana), Don genuinely relates to this stranger and finds himself uninhibited, for the first time, in his physicality; hugging Leonard in a moment of sincere empathy, Don finally sees The Real Thing.
Perhaps your twenties are supposed to feel this way, or perhaps it’s because my generation is among the most lonely and confused there has ever been, that I felt I understood Don Draper so much – for he, of all tragic and redeemed anti-heroes, is most certainly lonely and confused. These are some of the most significant feelings of Mad Men, explored kaleidoscopically through the nuances of each character as he or she struggles through separate and intertwined journeys. Through each of the show’s seven seasons, these perpetually shifting impressions of the cycle of isolation and reconnection take many forms, and existential notions of identity and purpose are subtly woven throughout the narrative more and more until the finale’s spiritual peak. Fans like me who initially took interest in the show for its notable 1960s setting will be satisfied to see evidence of the era’s counterculture (an infrequent but always welcome visitor for viewers as it enters, interrupts, and edifies the lives of Sterling Cooper’s staff) in full bloom at last as we get a final glimpse of our anti-hero in the company of his fellow human beings. “People just come and go, and no one says goodbye,” he laments in frustration near the end of his journey – an obscene hypocrisy, considering the vast number of people and places Don himself has left behind – but he knows this already, that “people can come and go as they please,” that they will and they do. With nothing left but the possibility of a new day and new ideas, the poem of Mad Men closes out its final stanza, and leaves us to turn off the TV and sign out of Netflix, to see ourselves and those around us – face to face, person to person.
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