Saturday, October 23, 2010


“Who is Don Draper?” is a question which is one of the central themes of the hit AMC series. A friend asked my opinion of this season’s finale and about how I thought the series would ultimately end. It got me to thinking about a lot more than Don’s dilemma and urge to confess. My confession is that I have a love/hate relationship with the show.

I grew up in the era that it depicts so well—what I hate is the mirror reflection of what I remember of that time as a child of divorce. But I what I love is the great dramatic craft and wonderful acting—even though, I did pick up one anachronism last year. In the offending episode, the ad guys celebrated on one occasion by breaking out a bottle of Stolichnaya—a gesture that certainly would not have gone over too well in the Cold War Era. I’ve subsequently seen bottles of Smirnoff in later episodes, which has righted the situation. That said, there is so much to admire about the art direction and attention to period detail that it almost makes you want to take off your fedora, take out a pack of Lucky Strikes, and reinstate the three-martini lunch ritual.

But getting back to my friend’s questions, I told her that I thought that the last scene of the finale was unnecessary. When I saw the masterful scene before it, I thought that it was a great open ending—after Don tells his ex-wife that he’s getting remarried, we see an empty bottle on the kitchen counter of their former family home, framed center stage like a dark, Courbet still life as the lights are shut off by the departing former couple in what I thought was a fade to black and end credits. The question becomes—is there a spark between them that will come between Don’s impending new marriage? We already should have reservations about the match knowing that he is an inveterate cad and his impulsive decision to marry his secretary does not auger well for faithfulness or longevity.

But the writers couldn’t resist the obvious and my enthusiasm was quickly dampened because it didn’t end there. They chose to continue, and cut to Don and his fiancée in bed with Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” playing in the background. Now, the inference here—and a rather heavy handed one I thought—whether it is subconscious or not—is that the duo singing on the soundtrack had a fairy book Hollywood marriage that ended in divorce—hence, the seemingly sentimental, hippie love song casts a foreboding shadow over the betrothed couple lounging in bed. This final scene seemed to lack the subtlety of the one beforehand—do we really have to spell everything out in TV America? The kitchen scene struck me as something you’d see in a foreign film. The bed scene, typical soap opera.

OK. I’ll stop producing the show. Let’s get back to Don. He’s got a secret that is now burning after the last season. The perfection of his character is written down to his Dickensian name—his “adopted” namesake of “Draper” lends itself to two meanings—his hidden identity is sequestered under the draping of what happened in the Korean War; the other, is that, in addition to hiding personal truths, he is the perfect Ad Man because he’s so adept at all the shadings of truth that his profession requires.

The well-spun phrase “Truth in Advertising” (actually a law) certainly has a different spin to it especially with the platform now offered by social media. Consumers can instantly flex their muscles and spark negative PR grassfires that can grow into the kind of outright conflagrations that have sometimes brought corporate giants to their knees—remember the Domino’s pizza disaster when several misbegotten pizza twirlers posted a video on YouTube showing them adorning their pies with toppings that were…shall we say, not on the menu, but definitely organic? There are countless other examples that have motivated most major corporations to preemptively hire legions of twenty-year-olds to maintain a vigilant watch in the blogosphere for negative consumer rumblings. Mad consumers can now be an activist virus.

Back in the 1960’s however, we were living the American Dream and drinking the Kool Aid that turned us into that consummate culture of consumption which has for the last several decades displaced our standing as a manufacturing country—the rest as they say, is subject of daily reports on the unemployment rate, foreclosures, and the general Fall of the Dow Jones and perhaps Empire. One of the many things that “Mad Men” gets so right is the way that we were sold and bought a bill of goods in the 50’s and 60’s from unfiltered cigarettes to the bomb shelters that we didn’t need. It all seemed so simple—merely “duck and cover” until the inconvenience of an atomic attack passed over and we could return to our regularly scheduled programming.

So, Don Draper is really the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” come several years early and in some respects, he is a reflection of several generations who lived through the post World War II era. He’s caught in between the sheets as a relationship train wreck that doesn’t know who he is and between the 50’s and the 60’s that are starting to explode as we see in the season just concluded.

Don is a hybrid archetype of both T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men”, and the discontented businessman captured by Sloan Wilson’s, “The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit”, a 50’s best seller and hit movie with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in 1956. Like this work, “Mad Men” has appropriately been celebrated as capturing the mid-century American “zeitgeist” just as “The Social Network” has been cited as doing the same for the Internet Era. The irony about Don’s secret is that he is about to enter a time period when his identity problem is
no longer be relevant.

Even though I enjoy the series, I hope that next season is the last. In America, the lifespan of a TV series is not motivated so much by its organic narrative shape and pulse, but by the economic imperative of reaching the magical goal of a syndicatable 65 episodes. This is the threshold for the number of episodes that can be “stripped” or be distributed as “repeats” five days a week for roughly half-a-year (26 weeks) before they have to recycle and repeat. One of the reasons that foreign, and in particular, British TV series seem to have an edge to them—take the seamlessness and naturally closed narrative arc of a classic series like “The Prisoner”, for example—is that rather than produce a show until it runs out of steam, foreign shows are written and produced as so-called “limited series”, a standard emulated well by some US cable network shows.

The end of “The Sopranos” was roundly criticized as a cop-out by many critics and fans, and is a prime example of how the American system is wanting at times. Sitcoms may be one thing to draw out as long as the stars stay the relative ages of their characters, but drama is better written as an entire story arc at the outset rather than running on tracks that have no final destination in sight—except having enough episodes to syndicate.

So, how should “Mad Men” end? Here’s my take: An energized client pitch is disrupted at the agency offices as a growing brouhaha emanates from the New York streets below. It's the sound of thousands of Peace Marchers parading to protest the Vietnam War and starting to fight with hooting construction workers. Maybe according to the series’ lifecycle, it’s a tad early for this and I’m committing my own anachronistic crime, but time lapse could help the series get through the inevitable relationship body counts which predictably lie ahead.

For all we know, Don may have already dropped acid in a future episode, thus confusing his identity issue even further like so many who psychedelicized. Now, with a burgeoning Peace Movement and Hippie Scene converging on our Nowhere Man, he is overcome by curiosity as everyone in the pitch meeting is drawn in astonishment to the high window to look out over the spectacle of history in the making. Impulsive to the end, he bails on the pitch and descends to the street. On the ground, he is caught up in the crowd, looking unsure of himself as his tie is loosened and jacket pawed by hippie chicks who welcome the “straight”. We last see him as he looks around in disbelief, not knowing whether to join “the parade” or run for his life. What he realizes quickly is that his desire to confess and his problems, in the immortal words spoken by Humphrey Bogart at the end of “Casablanca”, don’t “amount to a hill of beans” compared to the march of history. And the audience doesn't know either. End of story.

That way, Don Draper represents a whole generation of Mad Men, who like my father, were all so convinced that they were defined by their work. Blame the Cold War or Madison Avenue. Don is only special because he had to deploy a mask to cover up an identity issue that is no longer a big deal when assassinations, LSD, and Vietnam ripped open the facade of the mythic 50's/60's “Ozzie and Harriet”/I Like Ike/Apple Pie/Take A Letter/Zone, and everyone was revealed as not knowing who they were, where they belonged, and what tribe was right for them...Ultimately, Don can only find the redemption we all hope for him once the women finally take over, so maybe he gets hit on the head at the end with all the secretaries’ burning bras as they fall from high out of the agency office windows like a snowy ticker tape parade over Madison Avenue.

And now, for these messages from our discorporate sponsors…

(With thanks to Sarah Kelley)


Tom Grasso said...

This is the best and most thought provoking piece on the Mad Men/Don Draper phenomenon I've seen.
Having lived through the 60's as a young man in my 20's I remember the atmosphere those days before Fox News.
There have been many who have predicted that Fascism would eventually come to the USA. The findings of the science of Behavioral Psychology should be used to help mankind but I fear they are being used instead to control thought and perpetuate the economic and social status quo which favors a tiny few.
When Winston Smith reaches for his pack of Victory cigarettes does he see the face of Rupert Murdock upon it?


Tom, thank you for your kind comment about the piece. I guess now I have to actually watch the series!

With respect to behavioral psychology taking us for a ride, try neuromarketing. Once we become willing victims of new techniques like fMRI, Winston Smith's Victory cigarettes will blow up in all our glass teat faces like bad clown cigars...