Mad Men in a Mad World

Mad Men brilliantly shows the everyday cruelties of the old order, but insists that those who challenged them were fools.

The new season of Mad Men is upon us. The official posters, with Don looking at a psychedelic print, aren’t out-and-out historical gaffes like this Netflix ad, but they point to a lot of the problems the show had last season.

Mad Men started out as fundamentally a show about hierarchies. (“It’s a hierarchy!” Ken cried desperately in this season’s premier.) Well, it was — and largely still is. In the pilot, Peggy’s first day tour of the office showed us the lay of the land in all its beautiful horror. We knew part of the long arc would be about how the people at the top — whom we had more or less been asked to identify with — had their positions challenged.

But the show’s strength was always in showing the everyday cruelties of the old order. Many of the best episodes, like “The Gold Violin” from season two, or “Signal 30” from season five, have the feel of a certain kind of old school New Yorker story. As Vivian Gornick described it in “The End of the Novel of Love”:

In the fifties, John Cheever’s stories of marital disillusion seemed profound. That famous climatic moment in Cheever when the husband realizes she holds him in contempt, or the wife knows the husband is committing adultery, these moments delivered an electric charge. The knowledge encoded in them seemed literally stunning, leaving the characters riven, their lives destroyed. Who, after all, could go on after this? Then came the shocker — the thing that made the story large, awesome, terrible — they did go on like this.

This describes the lives of many of Mad Men’s characters throughout the early seasons. Then, of course, as Gornick recounts, “within a generation . . . there was divorce. And psychotherapy. And sex and feminism and drugs.” Some of the suspense came in who would crack first, and how, and at what cost.

Don’s wife began the show as an iconic fifties housewife whose values were already outdated. Every time she asserted her belief in marriage and motherhood, it brought home how little pleasure she took in either. Would she be doomed if forced to live outside her illusions? Pete Campbell, Don’s foil, was defined largely by his inability to fake what Don faked so well and his seething contempt for everything around him. Would that contempt explode, or would his wife Trudy unearth it?

Don and Roger, while threatened by certain aspects of social change, are poised to benefit from others. Roger dumps his wife for his secretary; and just when viewers feel confident Don won’t follow suit, he does the same. There’s little admonition for that — just the realization (in Roger’s case, the realization comes thanks to LSD) that they are in exactly the same position with the new wife they were with the old.

And so, for the old guard, even as the social movements of the sixties take hold, life remains a Cheever story; the real shock is how effective denial can be. As Don once told Peggy when advising her to forget about the child she is forced to give up for adoption, “You will be amazed how much this never happened.”

Where the show has faltered — and where it comes up against its contradictions — is when it attempts to look at those who are no longer living in the Before. So effective in detailing the quiet terrors of the old order, it has been largely unable or unwilling to present anyone who stands for this challenge in a serious way.

African American characters appear in the background, and occasionally make a telling comment. The counterculture mostly exists insofar as it embodies aspects of Don’s psychodrama. In the first episode of season six, there was a fascinating moment where Betty’s search for one of Sally’s friends leads her to a band of wayward hippie kids. Her implicit sympathy for and identification with them pointed to a rare moment of possible self-awareness, but the show quickly dropped the idea.

Throughout the same season, many obligatory moments were designed to show that hippies and activists were really just as petty and status-seeking as everyone else, only more hypocritical — a thread that climaxed when Peggy, the audience’s main identification figure, does hippie punching one better and goes in for some accidental hippie stabbing when she mistakes her boyfriend Abe for a burglar.

A few seasons ago, in a rare scene that shows a direct political argument instead of a thrown-off comment here and there, Abe and Peggy argued about civil rights and women’s rights. Abe is righteously indignant about racism, but makes fun of Peggy when she suggests women might have related grievances.

In a way this was an easy gibe at Abe, but it also pointed to how much easier it is for people to support justice from a distance, when it doesn’t bring their own position into question. But by the end of season six, Abe was mostly shown as a fool. He becomes absurd just as the show first showed the counterculture to be absurd in the first season, when Don got high with his Beat girlfriend and her cliché-spouting friends. When one of them asked Don how he slept and he said “on a bed made of money,” the fiercest anti-capitalist watching couldn’t help but smile at his retort.

Certainly, in any time period, even one of mass political action, the majority of people are not activists. Most experience change through the mundane reality of their daily lives. The episode on Martin Luther King’s assassination tried to show this in an interesting way by focusing on the painfully awkward reactions of the white characters and their attempts to “reach out” to the African-American characters they normally ignore.

But there’s something perverse in the fact that after that episode, the show itself largely went back to ignoring them — and in the way Mad Men keeps suggesting that while the old ways were unjust, those who directly challenge them are fools.

Which brings us to Peggy. Some of the publicity for this season — along with the shot late last season of her in Don’s characteristic pose — suggests this will be “her season.” It’s an intriguing possibility: Perhaps the most radical and astute solution to the Don Draper problem would be if he simply fades away, like characters in The Wire, who are significant only for the ecological niche they inhabit.

But this also points to show’s ambivalence about social change. That awful Netflix ad reading “Before feminism, there was Peggy” isn’t just grotesquely historically ignorant. It also points to a certain reading of Peggy — she’s a feminist, kind of, but not part of feminism; she represents change and the struggle for respect through her story, but doesn’t have a relationship to the organized social movements of the time.

When one points things like this out, everyone rushes to explain, yet again, the difference between art and politics, or to complain you’re looking for agitprop. The implication of such an idea is that any portrayal of collective movements — or even of characters having some remote relationship to them — would automatically detract from complexity.

Certainly, it is easy to imagine a poorly executed story line where Betty or Peggy or Joan “get their consciousness raised.” But would it really be so impossible for someone in the Mad Men universe to have some real relationship to this movement, or the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-war movement, which captured the imagination of so many? And if we can’t imagine it doing so, what does that tell us?

At the same time, I think Peggy’s story does reveal something interesting about contemporary feminism and its discontents. I cringed a bit at the end of the season premier, when she cries alone in her apartment after a bad day at the office, so lonely she wanted the plumber to hang out. But Peggy’s rise has always been interesting precisely because it is in advertising, a field that can’t possibly live up to the creative and personal energies she has put into it — as so many of our jobs cannot, not because we more properly should put them all into our home and family lives, but because of that little thing the show is actually largely about: capitalism.

Much is made about Don and Peggy’s affinity for each other because they are both outsiders who struggle for respect. But that outsider status also gives them a certain take on what they are doing: They take advertising seriously and are good at it precisely because in some ways, they aren’t taking it seriously; they know how to manipulate want and need, if often unconsciously, and they know it can always be manipulated because it can never be satisfied.

We want Peggy to triumph, but we should not have illusions about what triumph looks like in the venue she’s in. (Not, one should note, the venue she has “chosen,” simply the one she has found herself in.) This doesn’t mean that Peggy is an unappealing, proto-Sheryl Sandberg or some such. It just means that when it comes to work, we are all still living in the Before.