There was an advertisement that blanketed Manhattan in July and August. A man – handsome with sharp features, immaculately dressed in a charcoal two-piece suit, straight black tie and dark hair combed to one side – sits in an armchair with his legs crossed and a cigarette in his hand. He stares at the camera as though trying to both intimidate and seduce it, and knows he has succeeded at both. Here was a man completely in control of his universe, and yet, a closer look revealed something more. The office in which he sat was completely under water up to the seat of his chair, drowning his legs and shoes and all but reaching his waist.
The man, of course, is Don Draper, protagonist of AMC’s television show Mad Men. The show is based on a 1960’s advertising agency located on Madison Avenue in New York – the term “mad men” was invented by ad executives as a play on “ad men” and Madison. We see a slice of American history during which the landscapes of business and New York were very different. The only role of women in the agency is as secretaries – constantly harassed as sexual objects and treated like second-class citizens. The men drink scotch on the job, chain smoke, and partake in dalliances with working girls in the city while their homemaker wives, tucked safely away in the suburbs, prepare their dinner and look after their children. All of the clothing on the show is immaculate: the neat, lean suits; the slim ties and pocket squares; fedoras and cufflinks; and the women in pattern dresses with a halo of hair. Every conversation is razor sharp. Mad Men presents a romanticized and corrupt version of sixties life in Manhattan, but also one that is not entirely inaccurate.
But the central appeal of the show is its main character, Mr. Draper. Invented by the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, and materialized by actor John Hamm, Draper is one of the most engaging television characters to appear since Tony Soprano, and he has certainly imprinted himself upon the imagination of New Yorkers. Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers each unveiled a Draper-inspired line of suits for the fall. Esquire based their fall fashion guide on the man. Hamm even made guest appearances on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, giving us a slightly more humorous take on his character. And what’s not to like? Don Draper is handsome, sophisticated, well connected, and rich. He knows exactly what he wants, and he gets it. He has a mesmerizing grasp of language, and when he hits his stride in an advertising pitch, it feels like watching a magician loose doves from his fingertips, from thin air.
This is Draper’s initial appeal, but the core attraction is somewhere deeper. The show is painstaking in its demonstration that Draper and the men with whom he works have every material desire at their fingertips: clothes, cars, watches, expensive vacations, and lavish meals at the finest restaurants, and all of the latest luxuries that money can buy (which is also part of the dramatic irony of the show – viewers can chuckle at what was novel and cutting-edge to consumers of the sixties). But, at the end of the day, Draper understands that all of the sheen and gloss of the Manhattan material success and excess is an elaborate lie.
In the very first episode, he tells a client, “What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell nylons.” Most of us would cringe at this statement as excessively cynical, but Draper also has a point. Because of his participation in the machine that creates the consumer culture facade, Draper understands the falsehoods of the Manhattan image. We are consumers of an ideal that in turn makes us consumers of products in an attempt to reach that ideal. Men like Draper have crafted this ideal, and although he wears the fine suits and purchases fast cars and the latest housewares, he realizes that the picturesque life he is trying to attain is mostly a fabrication, created to sell something.
Mad Men has two running gags based on this theme. The first is to show us what consumers believed in the sixties due to advertising that has since been discredited (what’s that? Smoking is linked to lung cancer? But how can that be since 4 out of 5 doctors prefer Lucky Strikes?) We marvel at how far we have come, and to wait for the characters to discover for the first time things that we take for granted all our lives.
The second gag is less fun for today’s viewer. We sometimes watch the mad men come up with advertising campaigns that create terms and ideas that we know well, and take for granted. Take, for example, that idea of a disposable tissue. “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket” was invented to sell Kleenex, and effectively eliminated the use of handkerchiefs in American culture. I still hear the phrase repeated if I pull out a handkerchief, though the speaker is usually unaware of its origin. Before the advertising men, people didn’t think twice about carrying handkerchiefs; now we all take for granted that they are disgusting. There is a slight discomfort in watching these men invent slogans and realize that some of today’s accepted truths were invented solely for a company somewhere to stick a hand into our pocket.
This is perhaps the central idea of Mad Men as a show, and the motivation for Draper’s actions. Early on in the series, Draper tells a young woman with whom he is about to have an affair that that he is “living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.” Don lies to his boss and family, cheats (repeatedly) on his wife, drinks heavily, uses drugs from time to time, and often lets his ego and temper get the best of him.
And yet, Don Draper is still a sympathetic character. He goes to great lengths to hide his humble beginnings from his coworkers and family because they were painful and embarrassing. He loves his wife and children, but his sense of meaninglessness continues to lead him to actions that betray them, for which he is sorry – and which he then repeats. Draper’s existential problem is that once he has unveiled the falsehoods of the material life sold by popular culture, he has no grounded worldview with which to replace them. He is puzzled that the universe he has spurned as indifferent continues to lavish gifts upon him in the form of a beautiful loving family, talent, continued success at work, and material wealth. When these things leave him empty (how could they not? It was men like him who invented the idea that they could make you happy in the first place), he partakes in increasingly erratic and damaging behavior. Draper tries to maintain his world, but there is nothing solid for it to rest upon. And the waters continue to rise.
By the end of the third season of Mad Men, Draper’s world is beginning to crumble. His family has fallen apart, broken first by his infidelities and finally by the lies he constructed to protect himself. Even Sterling Cooper, the firm where he works, has been sold and sold again, and he and his partners finally ransack it, starting again – a new agency from the bottom up, working out of a hotel room with a small number of clients.
Yet I, for one, hold out hope for Don, for his wife to forgive and for his agency to rebuild. There is already evidence in Mad Men, from some of the plights of other characters, that the writers believe in some form of reconciliation, some redemption. Perhaps Draper too can recover from the fact that possessions and success are ultimately meaningless, and perhaps the hole this has left in him can be filled with something more meaningful, some rock to build on when the waters rise. We’ll have to wait till Season 4 to find out.