Movies We Like
Set on the cusp of the advertising revolution in 1960s Madison Avenue, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men follows the exploits of the admen at a mid-level firm as its old-fashioned ways are being challenged by the popular onset of the counterculture. Advertising is America’s subterranean cultural history and most of the drama from Weiner’s show comes from contrasting our collective marketed images with the personal reality of his characters as this distinction begins to dissolve. As lead adman Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sits on a train confounded by the new Volkswagen Beetle ad from Doyle Dane Bernbach, you can feel the Age of Schizophrenia coming on. It was no accident that the Beetle became a signifier of the hippies.
William Bernbach’s major innovation was using the anti-consumerist rhetoric of fifties pop culture critics to sell more stuff. Where ads had previously promoted the supposed benefits of some object to the viewing subject, the new advertising began to redefine the subject through the object, emphasizing what that object says about its owner. As the potential buyer began to define himself by the connoted images of his desiderata, homo economicus gave way to homo consumens, man as consumer. That it has become nigh impossible to extricate ourselves from Madison Avenue’s Mephistophelean bargain can be seen by the way product placement serves to make the critique possible. Does it matter if the use of the VW Bug functions as sponsorship or objective correlative? The Marxist critique of capitalism has been reduced to comedic effect by this point – only, we’re the butt of the joke.
The brilliant conceit of Mad Men is the way it dramatizes the corrosive cultural effects of commercial image-making by drawing a parallel to the images the characters have to present in order to survive. At the show’s core is Don, an embodiment of 50s iconography with chiseled visage, natty suits, a perfect homemaker of a wife and the statistically representative two kids. However, at his core, Don is pure palimpsest, a guy who has confabulated an image of whom he once thought he’d like to be in order to escape what he once was. As a Marxist might say, images control us – even while we create them – and not the other way around.
In a scene that could’ve come from Max Ophüls, Don is shown brooding at his office desk while the camera tracks across all the liquor bottles and office ephemera in front of him like bars on a cell. (The production design and cinematography are better than just about anything you’ll find at the movies these days.) He’s been living with the illusion long enough that it’s become reality. He’s trapped and his only means of escape is to create more images. Thus, he tries on different sexual partners, one, a free-spirited beatnik gal and the other, a confident businesswoman, neither of whom is as independent as she presents. Failing to escape, he returns to manufactured domestic bliss, smoking and drinking a little more each time. Much has been said of the sheer amount of vice on the show as a sign of the times, but little attention has paid to the way it’s used to signify the inner oppression of the characters.
The show is replete with parallels similar to Don’s, such as: Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is the youngest and most carnivorous at the agency, treating others as mere exchange-value in his attempts at acquiring cultural capital. He marries for the prestige of his wife’s family (it helped him land the job at the agency) only to find that he must cede control to someone he believed a mere trophy. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is Don’s new secretary who becomes fresh meat for Pete (the steno pool functions like volunteer lambs to the slaughter). As she becomes increasingly depressed, she gains weight, which shields her from further predatory advances in the office. This unattractive armor leads to a promotion when the men discover that she has a gift for creating ad copy. As with the others, the newfound image ensnares her, adding to her troubles, while helping to make her upward mobility possible. Finally, Betty Draper (January Jones) is the suffering wife of Don who supplanted her dreams of being a model with those of being a homemaker. Of all the characters, Betty’s the saddest since she’s imprisoned in her husband’s delusions, rather than her own.
Alienation and anxiety don’t exactly make for entertaining television, but who says television has to be fun? The characters and themes hit so close to home that The Sopranos appears vaudevillian by comparison. Indeed, Mad Men’s main narrative weakness is the borrowing of that show’s therapy sessions to spell out what’s going on in the mind of Betty when her actions have already made it clear enough. But that’s a minor quibble. All in all, it’s refreshing to see a TV series so populated with unlikable characters that it feels much like our own world.