So the new season of Mad Men started last night. The official posters, with Don looking at a pyschadelic print, aren’t out and out historical gaffes like this Netflix ad, but they point to a lot of the problems the show had last season. Season six was, I think, one of false starts and frustrations. A lot them came from having to sustain a long-running show that’s worked through a lot of its premises, but others point to something interesting that’s been there since the start. Mad Men started out as fundamentally a show about hierarchies. (“It’s a hierarchy!” Ken cried desperately in last night’s premier. Well, it was – and largely still is – but more on that later.) Peggy’s first day tour of the office showed us the lay of the land in all its beautiful horror. We knew part of the long arc would be about how the people at the top – whom we’d more or less been asked to identify with – had their positions challenged. But the show’s strength was always in showing the everyday cruelties of the old order. Many of the best episodes, like “The Gold Violin” from season 2, or “Signal 30” from season 5, have the feel of a certain kind of old school New Yorker story. As Vivian Gornick described it in “The End of the Novel of Love”:
In the fifties John Cheever’s stories of marital disillusion seemed profound. That famous climatic moment in Cheever when the husband realizes holds him in contempt, or the wife knows husband is committing adultery, these moments delivered an electric charge. The knowledge encoded in them seemed literally stunning, leaving the characters riven, their lives destroyed. Who, after all, could go on after this? Then came the shocker – the thing that made the story large, awesome, terrible – they did go on like this.
This describes the lives of many of Mad Men‘s characters throughout the early seasons. Then, of course, as Gornick recounts “within a generation . . there was divorce. And psychotherapy. And sex and feminism and drugs . . . ” Some of the suspense came in who would crack first, and how, and at what cost. Betty seemed doomed if she was forced to live outside her illusions – this was true and not. Would it be Pete unable to live with his own contempt, or would Trudy beat him to it? Don and Roger, while threatened by certain aspects of social change, are poised to benefit from others – they trade in their spouses with little reprisal. Except, of course, that they discover nothing has really changed. For Roger, this works insofar as we can experience his semi-nihilistic questing as a comedy, but it’s left us impatient with Don. The wonderful Emily Nussbaum pretty much nails the corner into which Don had been painted by the end of last season. The aside about sneering and swingers is interesting too: in an odd way, our favorite horn dog is a bit of a prude: Roger might have the most depressing stoned group sex ever, but he’s still game and mildly amused. Don’s still caught up in the guilt and secrecy. (The show’s attempts to show him as kinky, like with the prostitute who smacks him, fall flat, the way so many shows still use mild kink as a shorthand for sad people having sad sex.) I remember reading somewhere about when the Diggers who set up a free store, they had to explain to people who tried to shoplift why that was impossible at a free store. There may be sex in the streets in 1968, but Don still prefers the neighbor and hotel rooms with heavy curtains. No one needs to tell Don there’s no such thing as free love. The scene when his daughter discovers him is devastating – but where can we go from there?
The problem gets more complicated – but it still feels like a problem – when we think about the show’s broader historical and social canvas. Here too, the show was wonderful in its depiction of the repressive Before. But once that order is shaken, it has been largely unable or unwilling to present anyone who stands for this challenge in a serious way. African-American characters appear in the background, and occasionally make a telling comment. The counterculture mostly exists insofar as it embodies aspects of Don’s psychodrama. (Or, Betty’s, in the first and strongest episode of season six. Her implicit sympathy for the hippie kids was a fascinating thread that was unfortunately dropped.) And then there was the hippie punching throughout season six. Or, rather, hippie stabbing. When Abe and Peggy argued about civil rights and women’s rights a few seasons back, some of it was an easy gibe at Abe, but some of it actually got at the ways it’s easier for people to support justice from a distance, when it doesn’t bring their own position into question or even just make for an awkward conversation. But by the end of season six he was mostly shown as a fool. He becomes absurd the way the Beatniks Don smokes up with in the first season is absurd.
Now, it’s certainly true that in any time period, even one of mass political action, the majority of people are not activists, and mostly experience change through the mundane of their daily lives. The episode on King’s assassination was trying to show that in an interesting way. But there’s something perverse in the way that the show keeps suggesting that while the old ways were unjust, those who directly challenge them are fools.
Which brings us to Peggy. Some of the publicity for this season – along with the shot late last season of her in Don’s characteristic pose – suggests this will be “her season.” It’s an intriguing possibility – perhaps the most radical and astute solution to the Don Draper problem would be if he simply fades away – like characters in The Wire,
who are significant only for the ecological niche they inhabit. It also points to show’s ambivalence about social change, though. That awful Netflix ad
isn’t just grotesquely historically ignorant. It also points to a certain reading of Peggy – she’s a feminist, kind of, but not part of feminism:
she represents change and the struggle for respect through her story, but doesn’t have a relationship to the organized social movements of the time. Now, when you point things like this out, everyone rushes to explain to you, yet again, the difference between art and politics, or to complain you’re looking for agitprop. What is interesting to me about that is the idea that any portrayal of collective movements – or even of characters having some relationship to them – would automatically detract from complexity. Certainly it is easy to imagine a poorly executed story line where Betty or Peggy or Joan get their Consciousness Raised. But would it really be so impossible for some one in the Mad Men
universe to have some real relationship to this movement, or the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-war movement, which captured the imagination of so many? And if we can’t imagine it doing so, what does that tell us?
At the same time, though, I think Peggy’s story does reveal something interesting about contemporary feminism and its discontents. I cringed a bit at the end of last night’s episode, when she cries alone in her apartment after a bad day at the office, so lonely she wanted the plumber to hang out. But the thing is, Peggy’s rise has always been more interesting precisely because it’s in advertising, a field that can’t possibly live up to the creative and personal energies she has put into it – as so many of our jobs cannot, not because we more properly should put them all into our home and family lives, but because of that little thing the show is actually largely about: capitalism. Much is made about Don and Peggy’s affinity for each other because they are both outsiders who struggled for respect. But that outsider status also gives them a certain take on what they are doing – they take advertising seriously and are good at it precisely because in some ways they aren’t taking it seriously – they know how to manipulate want and need, if often unconsciously, and they know it can always be manipulated because it can never be satisfied. We want Peggy to triumph, but we don’t have illusions about what triumph looks like in the venue she’s in. (Not, one should note, the venue she has ‘chosen’, simply the one she found herself in.) This doesn’t mean that Peggy is an unappealing, proto-Sheryl Sandberg or some such. It just means that when it comes to work, we are all still living in the Before.