I started binge watching Mad Men a few weeks ago and just finished the 6th season. As stories have a tendency to do, this show pushed some buttons with me…which pushed MORE buttons with me…until saw a pattern emerging that I wanted to think through with y’all readers. The roots of things, or what my PGI professor Laura Grillo used to always call “what we are actually up to” come out in both our stories and our actions and those roots (for me) have been everywhere in the news this week.
What is it about Mad Men that tells us what we as Americans are actually up to? Two words: Don Draper. He speaks to us in the same way that Jay Gatsby does. Yes, this show is about an entire cast of amazingly archetypal characters working together in an advertising firm, but as many of the characters often say–this is Don’s world. We all just live in it. That is the point. Don Draper is an American everyman, living the American Dream. Or is he? Yeah, we can pretty much all agree that he is a jerk. He’s a functioning alcoholic. He is a capricious womanizer. He is a pathological liar and he is certainly a narcissist, if not a complete sociopath. He is generally not a nice guy, and he is certainly an anti-hero–something we’ve seen over an over again in American television storytelling of late from The Walking Dead to Breaking Bad to Dexter to Masters of Sex. Post-millenial story tellers have a fascination with the need to show multifaceted, flawed characters in a role of hero. Yeah, this has been going on for a while now.
What is it about Don Draper (besides the glory of Jon Hamm) that gets to the audience?
–His broken search for Utopia. America is an utopian experient gone awry…as they all do. We continue to work to perfect our union, but honestly, we know we never will…because it is not possible to ever perfect it. Consider this quote from President Ronald Reagan. “America is less of a place than an idea, and if it is an idea, and I believe that to be true, it is an idea that has been deep in the souls of Man.” From the stories of Atlantis to Rome, to the modern states of Israel and the US, humanity has searched for a way to bring the concept of utopia to their own lives. America, and the construct of “The American Dream” are based on utopian ideals and the search for peace, harmony and a life free of want and desire. Don is convinced that if he can just do more and acquire more, he will reach fulfillment. Sorry Don, it doesn’t work that way.
Like Gatsby before him, Don came from nothing. Even his name is manufactured. He has no identity of his own. He hates talking about himself, because when he does he has to admit that he is the child of a father just as broken as he is…the kind of man who would leave a 15 year old prostitute that was pregnant with his child alone to die…the kind of man who would starve his family because of his pride and die stone drunk in the rain kicked by a horse. And he is in pain. The pain of being shamed into believing that his desire for wholeness is shameful. That shame becomes fear, that fear becomes numbness, and that numbness becomes a life of ego satisfaction.
This story reflects our American one. None of us came are healed about our past. We immigrated to America because the past was painful. Or we were dragged here against our will and have endured unspeakable horrors and unmitigated oppression. And wouldn’t so many of us love to forget that past and start over? Isn’t the desire for reinvention the impetus of American myth?
We’ve seen this story play out in myriad ways in American myth. So the question remains: what is it about “Mad Men” that makes it fresh? I feel that what makes it so fresh is its place smack dab in the beginning of the 1960s advertising. As television became an ever more important staple and society began to unravel around us, America began to witness growing power in media and advertising to create identity. If, as Don states, “Advertising is about love” (albeit manufactured love), this show gives us a mirror into something incredibly important to consider: 1). how America fell out of love with itself and 2). what it has replaced that love with.
Finally, why do I love Don? Compassion. Because I understand him. As an American mythologist with my own love/realistic relationship with utopia, I get his brokenness. I feel his nostaglia, his desire to return to something that never existed in the first place. I understand his bitter disappointment as he continues to fail at building something that can’t be built, and I root for him to find peace.