I’ve got an article up this week at The American Prospect about “Mad Men”, where I look beyond just the usual talk about the daring approach the show has to gender issues, etc. and I talk about how the writers have a unique—and accurate—view of the 60s. That Don Draper is just pretending to be himself isn’t just a gimmick, in my view. It points to some of the more interesting themes of the show, and how much it’s about how the 60s was really an era where illusion became reality, how “cool” was mainstreamed by Madison Avenue to be something that everyone wants a part of, how irony and counterculture became the culture itself.
Writing this article really helped me come to terms with the whole Eurotrash storyline on “Mad Men”. Initially, I wasn’t really sure what was the point of having Don nearly run off with a bunch of mysterious Eurotrash and then rebaptize himself in the Pacific. But writing this, I realized that really, what’s going on with Don is that he still feels like a pretender in his own life, because he’s never really come to grips with the fact that he stole the identity of Don Draper. And then he meets these Eurotrash types, and of course, they’re all about having no culture, no identity, and you even get the feeling that they reject the concept of family. They’re permanent cultural tourists, preferring to be permanent outsiders. And since Don feels like a tourist in his own life, he’s tempted to just go with them, but then I think he realizes how empty it all feels to him. And so instead of drifting further away, he finally accepts that he is Don Draper. And he baptizes himself as such.
The show in general is obsessed with the question of whether or not someone can just choose to be someone different, and by extension, whether or not a culture can just choose to be something different. It’s not just Don. Peggy is the good Catholic girl from Brooklyn, but she chooses to be a sophisticated Manhattan career woman. Pete is the WASP who is slated to be a lawyer, doctor, or businessman, but he chooses to be an ad executive. And that this promise of self-transformation took the country by storm in the 60s, and in no small part because of Madison Avenue, and the way that marketers realized that by selling Americans an image of themselves as cool and playful, they were going to make a lot of fucking money.
Sarah Seltzer, Pamela Merritt and I are having a roundtable discussion about “Mad Men” at RH Reality Check, too. Here’s the first round. Maybe next week I’ll talk some about the show’s interesting take on the Catholic church.