Cogito: John Branch


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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5 Responses to “Cogito: John Branch”

  1. S. P. Nix Says:

    Excellent points, especially with “We know where history is going, and a lot of the Mad Men aren’t going with it.” In my years of listlessly following this—in my estimate—fairly overrated series (atmospherically bold, yes, but almost devoid of characters one can care about), I hadn’t stopped to consider the context of the real 60s to such an extent (though I do find it curious that you included “the visible decline of faith” among the clues that this couldn’t possibly be present-day). After Sunday’s season opener, I wondered whether I’d continue to trudge along with Don and the other so well-played but mostly tiresome characters; now I think I’ll stick with them a little longer.


  2. John Branch Says:

    Thank you, Mr. Nix. Regarding the practice of faith in America, I won’t try to find statistics but can report that Time magazine was willing to ask, on a cover in 1966, “Is God dead?” and that it’s hard to imagine the question appearing on its cover now. My impression, maybe from paying too much attention to news reports, is that religious faith is having one of its periodic revivals in America.

    I’m glad if my post gave you reason to stick with the characters for a while. I think, however likable they are, they’re pretty understandable, and often pretty complex.


  3. Cindy Morgan-Olson Says:

    While I would still prefer working with Y&R or Doyle Dane over Sterling Cooper, some random thoughts: as a sixties kid, I never much thought of it as a Camelot – I recall ducking and covering, the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis – huddled in front of the family black and white wondering if we would be bombed to hell. Then came one assassination after another – Kennedy (Catholic school girls crying on buses), King, Kennedy (would it stop), then marching against the war. While there may have been post War optimism for many adults, we kids had a different lens.

    Some of my first part time jobs (early seventies) were with some of the (New York)cities revered ad agencies – Compton (P&G), SSC&B (Cover Girl which offered me a job writing), the great senior guys who ran the Mars Candy account at an agency I forget, and others. At some, the execs had bars in their offices and long afternoon lunches flowed as the admins and support staff wrote up their lavish expense reports as “client business”. Yeah, right. Occasionally the examples on Mad Men are laugh out loud, spot on though — why I love it! Most of the teams I worked on though had a more reasonable work ethic though.

    I too had a fifities mom who worked — but she was home for the first four or five years of my toddler years before heading back. In my small rural-ish community, some thought she was a snob since she wasn’t out at the local drinking emporiums with my dad and had a college degree. She was just a journalist who had two kids to raise; the poor women needed sleep. But the majority of my friends’ moms in the sixties indeed wore their best Betty dresses and kept their very neat houses — and participated in local civic organizations to occupy their time. I snapped up at the line of Joan’s mom: “your husband won’t let you go back (to work),” etc. Accurate for the time.

    Me, i relate more to Peggy — been in her shoes. At one agency I worked at, I sat working while the leads on the team was out for long lunches, and yes I was the one they tossed their expense reports to and I since I also booked those lunches, i knew exactly where they were. Eventually, I came to the attention of the Creative Director who offered me a real writing job — he would have been a great mentor, but as he made the offer, he cautioned — “you might be bored, you are published in magazines already and you will be writing about soup and soap and…..”. Chelsea-Village girl that I was, I decided he was correct and writing snappy headlines about fruity jam and soapy suds would drive me crazy eventually so I went off to the magazine world. A different crazy I suppose.

    But for a brief few years, I was a Mad Girl. Though early seventies style, it was close enough to what is depicted on Mad Men. Go Peggy!

    By the way, while I noted the smoking, it is the heavy drinking that struck me even more — how did they ever get any work done! .

    Thanks for the read, John. And love the show.


  4. John Branch Says:

    Cindy, I was glad to see your recollections of advertising work, your mother’s position, and your relation to Peggy. I’ve done some work in marketing for television, and while it rewards creativity, concision, and care–much of it, such as crafting prints ads or 15- and 30-second promos, is pure advertising–I eventually came to feel I’d prefer magazine work too. As well as other forms where I could unleash more words, as I did here. Thanks!


  5. jeb54 Says:

    Reblogged this on Je Suis, Ergo Sum and commented:
    In March 2012, as the fifth season of Mad Men got underway, I wrote about the show for the blog to which I contributed at the time. My perspective on the issues raised by the show is now sharper, more complicated, and better informed, thanks largely to this collection of critical essays, and if I were to write about Mad Men now I’d have to tackle some of those issues. This post is largely a matter of personal impressions—but those, after all, are part of everyone’s response to the show. (Incidentally, anyone who has yet to experience the show at all will find nothing essential spoiled here.) I’ll let these rather limited remarks stand and add one further thought. With just two episodes left, we still aren’t sure—or at least I’m not—how to interpret the show’s title sequence. Don Draper enters his office, suitcase in hand; his surroundings collapse, and he finds himself falling, through towering buildings and a collage of ad-like images. It suggests that the character is himself heading for a fall, yet the sequence ends by restoring him to stability, comfortably reposing on a couch. Does Don always land on his feet—or, more precisely, on his seat?


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