Mad Men Mad-men-title-card WikipediaPicking up from my 2010 post on Mad Men, it seems apposite to add a bit — yet (?) — more analysis to this outstanding drama series which explores not only advertising but the socio-political elements of the 1960s.

Warning — spoiler alert!

Producer Matthew Weiner has strongly hinted that the next series — the seventh — will be the last.

As series six wound down recently, protagonist Don Draper (pictured in the title card above) was either sacked or given an indefinite leave of absence from the advertising firm where he had become partner.

Don’s truth brings rejection

As viewers discovered in the first series, Don Draper stole a fellow soldier’s identity in the Korean War. The ‘mad man’ (short for ‘Madison Avenue advertising man’) Don Draper is really Dick Whitman from rural Pennsylvania. When Dick Whitman discovered in situ that his comrade Don Draper had been killed in action, he took the man’s dog tag along with a few other possessions and assumed his new persona.

Whitman’s greatest fear is that as soon as someone finds out about his real background, he or she will reject him.

Mad Men Wikipedia 220px-Mad_Men_season_5_cast_photoAnd so it proved true. His first wife Betty discovered parts of his Whitman truth and divorced him. In series six, Draper revealed sordid aspects of his Whitman childhood to Hershey’s chocolate bar executives during an ad pitch. They were astounded to find out that Draper-Whitman grew up in a house of ill repute after his mother died and an aunt — her sister the madam — adopted him.

They were further aghast to find that Draper told them Hershey’s should not advertise. He explained that, as a boy, the only comfort he had in life was from eating a Hershey’s bar alone. To him, it was a totemic product, almost sacred — therefore, it was something which advertising should not defile.

However, this candid revelation proved to be Don-Dick’s undoing. Up until then, his fellow partners had no idea that Don Draper was really someone else, a hayseed. Roger Sterling (pictured second from left above, next to Joan), the well-heeled silver fox and Draper’s closest colleague, was disgusted at finding out about this lowlife with whom he’d associated for nearly a decade. There was also the business matter of losing a potential huge client known across the nation. Don would have to go.

In a way, once again, as Don Draper-Dick Whitman knew, as soon as his truth emerges, people actively reject him. Some viewers have posited that it’s not what you say but the way that you say it.

Living with a lie

From the very first episode, I’d wondered how the new Don Draper was going to be able to hide the real Dick Whitman.

We saw the Korean War scene, then a tense episode on an evening train from New York City to Ossining, where an old Army buddy attempts to make conversation with Dick. Our mad man deftly discouraged conversation and found a seat elsewhere.

In a subsequent series, if I remember rightly, Dick’s dissolute brother Adam tried to extort money from him with regard to his identity. Don-Dick delivered an attaché case of cash to Adam’s hotel room and gave him strict instructions never to cross his or his family’s path again.

The big question intriguing me is how one can continue such a lie for so many years. It must gnaw at the conscience every day. As Don was raised with practically no religious identity, he has nothing on which to fall back.

However, in series six, he heard a preacher giving a sermon on Judas’s pride. The upshot was that no sin is too great that Christ cannot forgive it. The preacher says that Judas, in his pride, chose suicide instead: he thought his sin was too great to forgive, which was wrong.

I wonder whether Don’s Hershey’s revelation demonstrated his decision to come clean about his identity. Although he would become a truly broken and rejected man, at least he could come to some rebirth by embracing the truth and rejecting a great lie.

Storytelling in Mad Men

Matthew Weiner Wikipedia 220px-MattweinerWeiner (pictured at left) and his team of writers have put together a marvellous show. Granted, the later series are less well done in places than in earlier ones, yet each episode attracts eight to ten million viewers, four or five times the Nielsen ratings average.

Weiner, being Jewish, is — by definition — a natural storyteller. My favourite boss was Jewish and had a different — and true — work story to relate to me every day. I learned so much from him.

Weiner says that he has borrowed true stories from his own life and those of his writers for Mad Men.  As improbable as some of them seem, they have happened at some point in America of living memory.

Therefore, we can trust what he and his writers portray for us on screen. I find Mad Men a realistic depiction of life in the United States in the 1960s. Admittedly, not being a Sky subscriber, I have not seen series five or six but have recently read in detail about the latter (links below).

Furthermore, we never have a black-and-white, clear-cut episode. We’re drawn in further each time. The end of one series leads to anticipation of the next. Few people who regularly watch Mad Men find it boring or a show to scratch from their viewing list.

Weiner and crew present us with puzzles, moral dilemmas and questions which transcend the 1960s. Their writing lends itself to comparisons with Shakespeare, opera and Dante’s Inferno. Viewers’ analyses of the programme bear this out in fascinating detail.

The detail Weiner and his team put into clothes, office interiors, homes and more also shows careful attention to the time. It would be difficult to point out where a hairstyle or setting was out of place. (My only tiny complaint is box-style cigarette packs. I do not recall they came out as soon as portrayed in the series. I didn’t really see them regularly until the late 1970s.)

The trauma of the late 1960s

Although Weiner was born halfway through the decade and has not exactly found that period a redeeming time in America’s history, he and his writers weave historical events and advertising in each episode.

When the series started, I recognised the pleasant, secure years full of optimism. New consumer durables and postwar prosperity filled the middle class with hope for the future. It is no surprise that procreation reached record levels — the Baby Boom. When the middle classes have hope, they procreate.

So we see normal-looking American families happily going about their business until JFK’s assassination in 1963. We then see Betty Draper, like millions of other Americans, glued to the television set for wall-to-wall coverage. I remember it quite well, especially the complaints from female Kennedy opponents who were missing their soap operas. In those days, when television covered an event, it was non-stop during the daytime for as long as necessary. In Kennedy’s case, if I remember correctly, the coverage lasted three days on the main networks.

Later on, Weiner shows us the shock of 1968, with MLK Jr’s assassination and the Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago. It’s a pity that they did not fit in the interim event — RFK’s assassination — because it would have shown just how quickly America herself was assaulted.

By 1969, Americana was well and truly over; it had died an ignoble death.

A decade which had begun full of promise and peace — despite the Cold War — ended so horribly.

1960s home life

On the domestic front, Weiner accurately depicts Don and Betty as a married couple and as parents, typical of the 1960s.

Men were strong and silent. Women were also self-contained, the only exceptions being for a bit of gossip at the hairdresser’s or the grocery store; however, even that concerned other people, rarely themselves. There was little ‘talking about things’, which really only came about in the 1970s. No parent ever ‘related’ to their children. That wasn’t even a parenting concept.

Yet, as we see in Mad Men, times were changing. Whereas ‘nice girls’ didn’t do certain things without suffering social sanction, as the decade progressed, fornication and adultery progressed among all sorts of people who wished to ‘experiment’. The Pill, mainstream psychology and a postwar Beat Generation (1950s) questioning of mores increasingly became the norm. And the Frankfurt School was partly responsible for changing the way the middle classes viewed life (see my Marxism/Communism page) as more young people attended university. The media were also changing; ideas from New York and California — featured in magazines and on television — permeated the rest of America. Homespun truths from the first half of the century were eventually displaced by revisionist versions of history, Christianity and statecraft (e.g. the Vietnam War).

The well-read household often made mainstream reading material available and accessible to children. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Draper children — Sally and Bobby — pick up on the zeitgeist. Sally demonstrates an early interest in sexuality, Bobby in race relations.

I’m closer to Bobby’s age than Sally’s, although I’m probably a mix of both. My mother says I was precocious; I certainly was compared to my contemporaries. Some Mad Men viewers are worried that Sally has no friends of her own sex. I don’t find that strange at all. Despite what might be seen as repressive — perhaps cruel — parenting, Don and Betty’s household was one of new ideas and trends, for better or worse. Although I might have given the impression here that everyone was receptive to change in the 1960s, a substantial number of households ignored or downplayed their significance. That extended to the perspectives which their children held.

My paternal grandmother tapped into the zeitgeist but my maternal grandparents did not. My immediate family did in order to better understand it but a number of our neighbours did not. (I think this explains why American conservatives are so divided today. A lot just do not pay attention to what’s happening, never mind analysing it. This, understandably, annoys those who keep track of the news and apply it, along with history, to America’s future.)

As one of my former high school teachers told me several years ago, ‘It was all new then. We had no idea what the consequences would be.’

Change came thick and fast at the end of the 1960s — too much so. In fact, every time I hear the word ‘change’ today, I cringe. What more needs to be done?

I am glad now that BBC4 gave up the rights to Mad Men to Sky. In some sense, it would have made me sad to see a realistic portrayal of those years. I’d rather read about them instead.

Closing thoughts — for now

It surprises me that Jon Hamm has never won an Emmy for his depiction of Don Draper. I hope he wins next year; he is long overdue and well deserving.

Vincent Kartheiser plays Pete Campbell so well that I’m beginning to connect him personally with the character. He, too, deserves an Emmy, but only after Jon Hamm wins one!

Kiernan Shipka, who plays Don’s daughter Sally, is a well grounded actress, despite the fact that she is only 14. See the first link below for an interview.

Don’s telling Peggy — who had just delivered Pete’s illegitimate child (series one) — that ‘this never happened’ was a typical response of the 1960s. Peggy, if I remember rightly, took some time off for ‘female trouble’ or similar in her final trimester and gave her baby up for adoption. Don came to pick her up at the hospital and took her home, at which point he uttered those words. Some viewers found this harsh. I do not. He was trying to preserve her reputation by urging her to keep the pregnancy a secret for her protection. He did not want her to be seen by others as a fallen woman.

It is interesting that Don has never challenged the buxom siren, office manager Joan. I think he sees something in her that reminds him of himself. I would have liked for Weiner and Co. to have explored her background a bit more for us. I suspect she and Don aren’t too far apart in socio-economic origins and life experience.

Finally, many viewers are worried for Sally’s future. (I hope none of them are in the 55-60 age range. If so, they are talking out of their hats, for reasons explained in this paragraph.) I think she probably did just fine. Yes, we used recreational drugs to a greater or lesser extent and fornicated — sins to true Christians but less so in modernist Christianity. That said, most of us graduated from university when a degree was still worth the paper it was printed on. We then went on to marry and raise children whilst being productive members of society. I think that Sally was in the preppy circle, went to an Ivy League or Seven Sisters school and made a good name for herself, probably as a civil rights lawyer and prominent Democrat.

But that’s looking too far ahead.

For now, I wish Matthew Weiner and his team all success for series seven.

For further reading on Mad Men series six (when only the best links will do — don’t miss the comments):

Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka …

‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner on … series 6

‘Mad Men’ creator: Don’t hate Don Draper

Tom & Lorenzo — Mad Men: In Care Of (last episode of series six with more on their ‘television’ page)

Mad Men: Notes from the break room (every episode of series six analysed)

A Psychiatrist Analyzes Mad Men‘s Sally Draper

A Psychiatrist Analyzes Mad Men‘s Don Draper

‘Mad Men’, Oranges And Their Role In Foreshadowing Death

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