Reading Twitter reactions to Mad Men last night, I got the impression that a lot of people thought it was a strange episode that just crammed a lot of storylines together in order to ramp up for the next few episodes that close this season down. I agree that there was certainly table-setting going on, but somehow the episode also managed to be a meditation on the theme of desire. In this video, we explore all the ways that people convince themselves that they can truly be satisfied, and how each fails us in the end. I don’t spare my criticisms for faith, which is just as bad—if not worse—in offering itself as the solution to your internal hunger than even the material goods that marketers peddle.
Whilst out having drinks with a friend the other night, I found myself launching a theory of Mad Men, which he hadn’t yet seen, returning to form. (He waits until the end of each season, so he can devour the whole thing like a book.) My friend complained about the way the show had drifted away from really interrogating advertising as a concept and cultural phenomenon. I argued that while the past couple of seasons were immersed in the interpersonal drama, this season is really getting back to a fundamental investigation of advertising not just as a cultural phenomenon, but as a symbol of the inchoate yearnings of humanity. The Don/Megan relationship has returned us to the essential drama of Don Draper, which is that he is full of want, and that scares him.The reason he’s such a good ad man is because he really gets, in his core, what makes people buy stuff, and it’s these kind of never-fulfilled desires. Intellectually, he knows that lipstick and baked beans aren’t actually going to silence the yearnings, but his ad campaigns have resonance, because on an emotional level, he truly believes that satisfaction is attainable. Because he believes, he can sell that illusion. That’s why he gets the staff to buy into his Jaguar-will-save-us pitch, enough so that they don’t seem miffed about having to miss Christmas to work.
The whiff of Eastern religion, culture and philosophy has hovered over this season, mostly I think because it became an interest in America, especially in the corridors of the cutting edge like New York City. (Interestingly, there was a nauseating ad for yet another “white people find themselves in the spiritual wholeness of India” movie during this episode, a dream that’s set up—rightly—for vicious mockery inside the episode.) “Christmas Waltz” suggests that it was a result of American exposure to Eastern cultures in the most troubling way imaginable: war. Roger gets drunk and sets off on another ignorant rant about Japan on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor (this is when the anniversary’s significance started to wane). Megan and Don go see “America Hurrah”, which is an anti-Vietnam War play, though it angers Don mostly because he didn’t like its criticism of materialism.* This stuff occupies the same episode as a satirical, but surprisingly moving, bit about Hare Krishna. I get the sense that the writers find Eastern exoticism irritating like I do, for roughly all the same reasons: It collapses the divergent cultures into one big mass, it romanticizes and objectifies, and of course, it’s inseperable from the imperialist urge that “America Hurrah” critiques.
But it’s not like the show is saying, “Eastern philosophy, give me a break,” even as it mocks Americans who try to be “interesting” by grabbing at the cultures of the East. The hints of Buddhism that have drifted to the surface have been interesting(previous episodes have hinted at the Tibetean Book of the Dead), because of course, Mad Men struggles with exactly the same themes that dominate Buddhism: desire, suffering, delusion. There’s a dialogue there, but my sense so far is that Mad Men rejects the central tenet of Buddhism, which is that it’s possible to extract yourself from the cycle of wanting-grabbing-getting-wanting through “enlightenment”. In this episode, religion is posited as just another thing we use to delude ourselves into believing we can finally reach bliss, but in the morning, we wake up and the wanting begins again. Enlightenment is a lie; Roger thinks he has it, but it slips away. The Hare Krishnas pretend that they’re in a state of bliss while chanting, but Harry is just experiencing the ramp-up of desire.
But perhaps that’s okay. I always wondered what it is that we’re supposed to do with our time if we ever really do get past wanting, either by having everything we want (the traditional Western answer) or by eliminating desire and reaching nirvana (Buddhist solution). A state past wanting and striving and achieving moments of bliss before wanting again? Always sounded boring to me. To live is to seek. The only real way to cope with this is to accept that the journey is the destination. I’d even argue that Megan’s career change is unsettling to the others for just that purpose, since acting by its nature is an endless journey. Not just because there’s always the next part to strive for, but because story-telling itself is about desire and striving. People who want for nothing don’t make good characters. Acting—creating in general—is giving yourself over to the process, knowing that there will never be that final success that allows you to take a bow and step off the stage forever. And why would you want to, anyway? Death is coming for all of us soon enough, and that’s when the wanting will end.**
In this episode, peddlers of religion and capitalists pushing goods are framed in the same way: Telling stories of desires satiated to get you to give them money and power. I don’t know about you, but the advertisers come across as the better people, however. At least they don’t tell you they can fix your soul.
*Also worth pointing out that he didn’t like how blunt it was. A lot of people have complained that Mad Men is losing its subtlety this season, a complaint we can imagine Don approving of. But the show itself suggests that one of the cultural shifts that happened in the 60s was from this kind of soft-and-subtle aesthetic that Don adores to the “sock it to me!” mentality. Don’s a fan of doing ads that worm their way into your soul through insinuation—remember him dripping with disdain for Peggy’s “sex sells” mentality in an earlier season?—but even he has to admit that throwing snowballs at cops is a more suitable aesthetic for the times. You know, when people were letting it all hang out. I’m not surprised the show is shifting its aesthetic approach in light of this. It’s certainly been effective for making it feel more mid-to-late 60s than earlier seasons.
**Of course, if you believe in reincarnation, that throws a wrench into this whole philosophy.