Mad Men: Still Smokin’?
Did people really smoke that much? This was one of my first two responses when I sat down to watch Mad Men from the beginning on DVD two years ago: it could’ve been called That Cigarette-Smoking Show. In much of America, the slate has now been wiped so clean—a process begun by the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, dealt with in Season Four of Mad Men—that it’s hard to believe the clouds we used to live and work in. But it’s true: in 1965, after that unsettling report, 23 percent of American adults smoked a pack or more a day. (It had fallen to 7 percent in 2007.)
If you’ve seen AMC’s show, you know what clouds I’m talking about. If you haven’t, try dropping in on an episode. It may seem uneventful, which is because everything connects—much of the meaning derives from implications for a larger picture. But you’ll know right away that you’ve landed sometime else: clothing and hairstyles and décor and cars, the easier pace of work, the chattering of typewriters, drinking out of the office and in, the bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village, limited jobs for women, a derisive attitude toward Jews, freedom marches in the South, the invisibility of most ethnic immigrants, the visible decline of faith, the near-total absence of abortion, the presence of Playboy Clubs, the arrival of copying machines…
The history is always there, and it’s potent even though it isn’t always rendered as drama. The lure of the past and the look of the show have proven influential in ways large and small. Mad Men’s opening-title graphic design has created echoes, for instance in a book ad I saw just a day ago. At least one entire series, Pan Am, was launched to provide another fantastic voyage back in time; it could never light up the same first response in me, though, because its network, ABC, banned all foreground smoking.
The historical notes in Mad Men, however they’re sounded, make it easy for baby boomers to connect with the show. For me, that happened early in the first season, prompting my other initial response. The central character’s wife, Betty Draper (played by January Jones), spends much of her time at home in a comfortable suburb. “Can you imagine worrying about money at this point in our lives?” asks a friend and neighbor of Betty’s, regarding a divorcee with two kids who’s moving in. The single woman isn’t given the warmest welcome.
That troubled me about my mother’s fate all over again. After my parents divorced, later in the 60s, she found herself living in a conventional, lily-white, and rather well-to-do neighborhood (because her parents lived there), faced with working and raising children on her own. Among her friends and the families I met—in an enclave within Dallas, Texas, of more than 20,000 people—only one other woman was in her position. How my mother was greeted I don’t know, but she must’ve been conscious of her difference from her neighbors.
That business and the scenes of a family breakup that came later amount to only a few resonant moments in the show’s cavalcade. A few seasons back, Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott raised an objection to one particular historical aspect of Mad Men: that it shows “zero grasp of the elastic optimism and vigor of the Kennedy years.” The show’s setting has since advanced a few years, but Wolcott’s point is still germane—you might expect a little more joy along the way. After much head scratching, I’ve concluded that our notions of history are too reductive. Girdles weren’t abandoned upon JFK’s inauguration, as an occasional disrobing on the show lets us see. Not everybody hummed Camelot tunes as they created the future. These characters don’t know they’re living in what we think of as “the 60s.”
Besides, Mad Men’s dramas are as often personal as social. The characters often think they know who they are and often discover their self is as unstable as J. Alfred Prufrock’s, though without the hesitation. They sense what the existentialists proposed, that existence comes first and having an essence isn’t guaranteed but has to be accomplished. Roger Sterling (played by John Slattery), the show’s silver fox, wants out of his marriage; when he gets that, he wants into another; at intervals throughout, he also wants Joan (Christina Hendricks), the Monroe-esque bombshell of the office. Betty Draper looks like the perfect housewife (as enacted by Jones, she resembles Grace Kelly), but something about her is usually locked up; it gets loose in Season One, leading to a spree with a pellet gun. She connects better with children (except for her own), including a strangely grown-up neighborhood boy, and she later breaks free of Don, who’s a problem all right—he’s just not her problem.
Most important, the character at the center of the show is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who’s always wary about something and still has something to be wary about. Everyone who watches the show (but almost none of its characters) knows what that is. With Don at its heart, Mad Men is bound to have a case of nerves. As much as anything else, that explains why it persistently dramatizes anxiety more than optimism.
Matthew Weiner’s magic-carpet ride frequently lets us ponder a big irony: We know where history is going, and a lot of the Mad Men aren’t going with it. Though Don’s an innovative ad guy, practically an artist, he’s no revolutionary. Early on, he dismisses the first of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s rule-breaking Volkswagen Beetle ads. No doubt he isn’t alone in that, in terms of his historical analogues; Don’s office partners aren’t alone in drinking at work and at lunch or in hitting up the “girls” at the office; their wives aren’t alone in being left alone at home. The 60s didn’t transform everything instantly. And this is how the people of Mad Men are true to their time. Except for Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), no one on the show is in the vanguard or the dernier-garde; they’re somewhere in the middle.
The show abounds in reminders of what would be swept away. The descendants of Peggy, a woman who sets out from the typing pool to pioneer a better job for herself, now people the offices of the land, despite not yet quite ruling many of them. Most of the others, as they lived then, and most of their attitudes, are gone. Mad Men shows a lost world.
But for one fact, a late-night writer, drink in hand, who’s considering the passing of times past might be excused for thinking of this memorial, possibly too bright for the chiaroscuro subject at hand: “Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.” That one fact? Their period has departed, but their show is back, now in its fifth season.
The gleaming cocktail glasses are set out on a side table. The unkind light of change shines outside. Shadowy passages and dark recesses lurk within the characters, yet to be plumbed…
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