Mad Men in Its History
Lane PryCe: [looking at the newspaper
for a movie to go see with Don Draper]
"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Don: Yes, it is.—"The Good News," 4.3

Mad Men: it's a pretty nifty title. Obviously and efficiently (and aided by
the consonance of those monosyllabic words), it puns on Madison Avenue
and on that location's key role in the development of postwar advertising
culture ("ad men"). And it taps perhaps into a general if intangible anomie,
frustration, and even anger that these men in gray flannel suits sometimes
feel toward the way of life they're caught up in (and caught in), and that we,
the spectators, are typically supposed to feel that men in the popular culture
devoted to life in Madison Avenue corporations are supposed to be feeling.
But it's here—in the reference to "men"—that the title already reveals
an incompleteness: clearly, Mad Men has been as much about women, and
their own desires and dreads, as they confront the fraught historical period
referenced over the course of the series. Just as it was easy to forget the plural
in Matthew Weiner's previous series, The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007),
and imagine it as being centrally and even primarily about Tony Soprano's
"issues," it is tempting to see Mad Men as another installment in the ongoing
saga of popular culture's representation of a "masculinity in crisis"
(and here the show would be doubly invested in that representation as both
a show about men in the 1960s and a show made in the newer representational
moment of the first decade of the twenty-first century—which has
brought its own sense of the imputed crisis of masculinity to bear on the
subject matter).
Obviously, Mad Men is not not about an overbearing, omnipresent, and
(to its own view, at least) omnipotent masculinity. One could even suggest
that the incompleteness of the title is ironic and contributes to the series' ongoing
depiction of the way these men themselves confront the incompleteness
of their masculine hold on their world. If the very end of the very first
episode serves as a sort of punch line to suddenly reveal that Don Draper
has a suburban life complete (or incomplete in its own way) with suburban
housewife (this after much of the episode has shown him cavorting with a
beatnik woman from Greenwich Village), it is one consequence of later episodes
to fill in that other world, and give perspective and voice to the wife
(and to other women characters) in a manner often apart from Don (and
from other male characters). Of course, that the women are sometimes given
their own scenes and their own points of view independent of male presence
does not mean that they in any way become independent. Not for nothing, if
the series title focuses on masculinity, is a season 4 episode that focuses on
the women overall named "The Beautiful Girls" (4.9), picking up the sort of
patronizing phrasing that we might imagine the ad men to use, precisely, to
pigeonhole the women in their work and leisure lives.
In this respect, if, from the very partiality of its title to the course of its narrative
over the seasons, Mad Men bears an incompleteness to its representational
project, it is as possible to argue that the representation of such incompleteness
is its project, rather than a failing within it. In other words, it might
be that the series uses the partiality of the worlds it depicts—such as the
world of "men" in the corporate demographic—to dramatize limitation and
the forms of narrative struggle against it. This is not a total or totalized picture
of the times as they were but a deliberately partial and incomplete picture
of how some people lived some parts of those times and, in some cases,
groped toward other ways of living them. The issue of incompleteness then
becomes less a question of accuracy—does, for instance, the title "correctly"
sum up the series?—than of representational function: How does Mad Men
use incompleteness in the service of its dramatic project and to what ends?
In this respect, just as we can see as ironic or deliberately limited the emphasis
in the series' title on "men," it is worth noting that the qualification of
them as "mad" seems incomplete in its own right. Notions of being "mad"
run rampant through the 1960s, but Mad Men invokes them only indirectly.
Again, the issue is not one of accuracy. And the point is not just to catalogue
the absences but to clarify how their nonpresence is often a deliberate choice
and has constitutive effects on what the show prefers instead to show of its
times. In 1966 the French philosopher Pierre Macherey analyzed gaps in a
cultural text's representational coverage as what he termed "structuring absences,"
and it is the way in which valences of the "mad" hover around Mad
Men even as it chooses other representational projects to explore that serves
as the impetus for this chapter.
For instance, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the doctrine of
always trying to outdo the enemy in nuclear firepower so that the would-be
belligerent will blink and back down from first-strike actions, is nowhere
mentioned in the show, but it is there implicitly in continued references to
the Cold War threat (for example, in season 1, one elevator conversation is
about how absurd it is that the French, too, now have the bomb; in seasons 2
and 4, the agency flirts with a defense contract and all that it entails in terms
of security clearance; and season 2 ends with the Cuban missile crisis).
Likewise, Mad Men offers little awareness of that sense of the absurdity of
war that is summed up in the last line of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957),
"Madness! Madness ... madness!," and that increasingly filters into 1960s
popular culture with works like Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961)—where Yossarian's
feigned madness is outdone by the military's real insanity—only to
then move beyond representation into reality with the Vietnam war. Even
though by season 5 of Mad Men we are past the midst of the decade, there is
little mention of the war's increasing escalation and media visibility (Joan's
one-time husband, a doctor, serves in Nam, but we get minimal glimpses of
the war [most often through brief news reports on tvs in the background of
scenes], and certainly no assertions of any absurdity to it). More generally,
Mad Men eschews that 1960s reversal of values so well depicted by Heller
or by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern in their screenplay
for Dr. Strangelove (1964), in which it is institutions of control—like the
military, but also, by extension, schooling, medical establishment, government,
and so on—that are seen as insane, and the seemingly crazy or damaged
people they are processing as so much fodder who are seen as having
a visionary sanity beyond institutional recognition. (As Hot Lips Houlihan
puts it in M*A*S*H [1970], "This isn't a hospital; it's an insane asylum!" In the
cult classic King of Hearts [1966], a soldier on mission [Alan Bates] falls in
with the inmates of an actual asylum and comes to find their company preferable
to the absurd and deadly insanities of military command.)
True, Sterling Cooper's founder Bert Cooper is presented as somewhat
not quite right in his love of abstract painting (always a giveaway in mainstream
popular culture) and in his insistence on going barefooted. There is
something a bit off at the top of the corporate world. But Bert's eccentricities
are presented generally as amusingly benign (both to the workers at the
office and to us spectators), and there is little sense of a generalized institutional
insanity that has dire consequences for the lower-echelon inhabitants
of this world. It would be hard to argue that Mad Men is using the advertising
agency as in any way a metaphor for the madness of institutionalized power
in the manner that Catch-22 does for the military.
Similarly, the 1950s and '60s are the moment in which that great symbol of
what-me-worry irreverence, Mad Magazine, flourishes, but Mad Men doesn't
have much of that publication's wacky, even sick humor aspect to it. Perhaps
the moment from the episode "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency" (3.6)
in which, during a wild party, one of the secretaries, on a demonstration
lawnmower out of control, runs over the foot of one of the executives and
mangles it, comes close in its morbid yet comically zany weirdness, but the
moment is ultimately just that—a moment, a single instant pulled from the
flow of the show (and given special narrative explanation by the fact that
the accident happens at a party that got out of control). Mad Men is wicked
and sardonic, but rarely in the consistent and committed scandalous way
that Mad Magazine was.
To take a different notion of "mad," the series does, as noted, seem to tap
into a common, even stereotypical, figure of the postwar nine-to-five male
as consumed by an anomie that can render him anywhere from frustrated
to cantankerous to, at times, downright angry. But being "mad" would then
seem to connote something so variable (in frequency, in reach, in quality
and intensity, and so on) that it would seem too vague to be a serviceable
concept. This seems to be the case no matter which contemporary valences
of being mad we choose to look at. For instance, the discontent of the "mad
men" on the show very rarely converts into that excessive anger that drives,
say, Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) to explode at a waitress in an iconic
scene from Five Easy Pieces (1970), a film at the very end of the period, or that
pushes Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Network (1976) to declare as his infamous
motto, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more."
And for all the obsession of the period with psychiatric and antipsychiatric
conceptions of madness as mental disorder—reflected in the popular
culture in such titles as The Mad Woman of Chaillot (1969) or Diary of a Mad
Housewife (1970) or A Fine Madness (1966)—Mad Men itself offers few representations
of a vibrant nuttiness. The most literal case of mental dysfunction
in the series is that of Betty Draper's father, Eugene, who is suffering, in quite
ordinary and realistic fashion, from senility. There is little here of the energetic
madness that takes over 1960s figures in Marat/Sade (1967) or Morgan:
A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)—to reference two films from the
decade in which madness is seen as an inspiration in a generalized rejection
of social norms. And although Betty herself sees a psychiatrist in season 1, in
this case the series' flirtation with the psychiatric establishment ultimately
peters out: Betty discovers that her husband, Don, is being given updates on
her treatment by the psychiatrist, and she uses the information against both
of them, a triumph that basically causes the plotline to drop away. (This
often seems to happen with Betty's accomplishments in the course of the
series: when she does something affirmative, she scores an immediate, local
point, but then the show offers no follow-up, as if her achievements have no
lasting impact.) To the extent that Betty is indeed a character consumed by
anomie, it is worth noting that by season 4, this has manifested itself not just
as rage (her misguided dismissal of the nanny who has been with her children
from the beginning) but as its opposite: a descent into a passivity little
different from inertia. The fourth season's last image of Betty Draper is of
her curled up in veritable fetal position in her bed. In pointed contrast, 1960s
madness in the popular culture of the moment was often an uplifting, invigorating
leap into action: for example, "Charlotte Corday" (Glenda Jackson)
in Marat/Sade is an inmate with sleeping sickness who rouses herself both
to act the killing of Marat and, more important, to participate in the lively
revolution of the inmates over the aristocrats that ends the film. What many
viewers of the fourth season saw as the increasing rendition of Betty as a horrid
harridan (one piece I came across ranked her as one of the worst moms
of all time, along with Medea and Joan Crawford!) was also the increasing
framing of her as powerless to the point of inconsequentiality (followed by
her frequent absence from the episodes of season 5). From Thomas Szasz, to
David Cooper and R. D. Laing, to Foucault and Guattari, the 1960s were all
about finding revolutionary potential in madness, but this is not a historical
path that Mad Men thus far has chosen to venture into. (Sally Draper may
be one exception, but I will reserve discussion of that for the last paragraphs
of this chapter.)
Nonetheless, it is worth returning to the question of accuracy for a moment,
since one particularity—and perhaps peculiarity—of Mad Men is that
in addition to being seen as an example of "quality tv," it is somehow taken
to be, and admired as, a document or even documentary of upper-middle-class
suburban life in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Viewers assume it offers
a picture of the way things were in those times. The paradox here is that a
series appreciated as an aesthetic accomplishment—that is, as a construct
whose value lies precisely in its creative divergence from reality (which we
might take to be one mark of quality TV)—is also appreciated as an accurate
picture of its time. Among the quality shows, Mad Men may be unique in this
respect: The Sopranos, for instance, might often end up being about ordinary
issues (family, work, relationship, moral choice), but it would be difficult to
imagine that its comic Mafia was in any way to be taken as a deep document
of "real" Mafia life.
Maybe there is something in the long sweep of the postwar period in
America—from the clichés of a 1950s that is simultaneously conformist and
about rebels without a cause into the impression of the 1960s as the period
in which rebellion becomes wholehearted—that generally tempts us to take
aesthetic representations of this cultural moment as veritable documentations
of it. These years are ones we feel we know well, and any cultural work
that offers even minimal iconic markers of that knowability can become elevated
into an accurate portrayal of the times. In particular, the 1950s, we
might say, seem directly sociological: that is, there is an ongoing representation
of the period that invests in a set of common tropes and motifs to make
us feel that we have a clear picture of what 1950s society was all about. Significantly,
the most common picture of the period is built up not only from fictional
works (from contemporaneous examples such as The Man in the Gray
Flannel Suit [both the novel of 1955 and the film adaptation of 1956] to recent
ones like Mad Men itself) but in the critical accounts of it which themselves
play on recurrent iconography and narrative stereotypes. One has only to
read virtually any scholarly study on the 1950s to come quickly across references
(often quite similar from text to text) to sociologists of the time such
as William Whyte or C. Wright Mills or David Riesman or even Vance Packard,
as if they summed up the period and can still easily be referenced for
doing so. The writings of these figures are adduced as symptoms of the time
but also as accurate analyses that can still be used for their evidentiary, explanatory
yield (thus, for instance, Riesman's notion of the "outer-directed"
American is somehow taken to indicate that Americans in the period were
overwhelmingly outer-directed in point of fact). Even as the classic sociologists
from the time talk about how the decade witnesses the hardening
of identity into sociological categories, their own writings participate in the
very same process of reification and of constraining categorization. It is as if
people in the 1950s were direct embodiments of abstract laws.
It is an easy step, then, to go from this seductive impression of the categorical
knowability of the average American to the sorts of stereotypes on
display in a film such as Revolutionary Road (2008), which came out after
Mad Men's second season: a shot of men in gray flannel suits getting off a
commuter train and then marching in veritable unison is all the viewer needs
to feel in the presence of a familiar set of themes (alienation, the white-collar
worker as cog in the machine, etc.) and to believe that this is the way
it was back "then." Such works of popular culture so become conventionalized
symbols of a time that they then start to be taken as reference points for
other works that come after them (in other words, conformity to their vision
is taken somehow to be conformity to the historical times they claim to be
representing). Thus, in 2010, when Variety reported on plans by the BBC to
develop a television series that would be about "sexual tension against the
backdrop of the ruthless, male-dominated world of 1950s mass media," the
industry journal could offer as its single commentary, "Sound familiar?"—
obviously suggesting that the show sounded a lot like Mad Men (Clarke).