“It’s got no message.”
That was Heinz executive Raymond’s assessment after seeing the waltzing beans presentation. Dancing beans didn’t have a message. “Beans is the war, the depression. Bomb shelters. We have to erase that. They have to be cool.” It’s the nearly insurmountable problem every mad man faces when he agrees to take on the challenge of making the ordinary and pedestrian into something exciting and desirable. Tonight, this presentation with “no message” became the best statement to date of Mad Men’s thesis. Mad Men has a message, of course, and it is to be found in the challenge of the Heinz presentation. But the message is not a generic call to advertising creativity—to make beans sexy. The message is focussed, insistent, and immediately relevant to every one of us watching.
Tonight, the beans presentation became an allegory for the symbolic representation of Season Five, and the starting point for the three characters whose stories must be fully realised by the end of the series, most likely to be set on July 20, 1969, when a newly-promoted young woman sips brandy while watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. We will see Don Draper, too, finally making sense of his reflection, perfectly centred between naked mannequin and seated figure in smoke jacket and red pyjamas. But the final scene of Mad Men, I have to believe, will focus on a minor character, for on her shoulders rests the full weight of the inspirational message that will become the legacy of Mad Men.
Insensitivity toward black Americans and civil rights in general has been a recurring theme throughout Mad Men. Paul Kinsey’s Season-Two relationship with a black woman, Sheila, was depicted as nothing more than a brick in the façade of his carefully-cultivated liberal persona. Lane Pryce’s later fling with a black Playboy Bunny was shown to be the essentially accidental result of Lane’s obsession with taboo charm, manifesting this season as restrained gentlemanly desire for Mr. Polito’s “girl”, Delores. Even Betty Draper’s firing of Carla, superficially the result of Betty’s desire to control every aspect of Sally’s life, carried quite distinct racial overtones.
Tonight we saw the boys at one of the houses competing with Sterling Cooper Draper Price (SCDP) provide a demonstration of Northern indifference to racial equality and social justice. The men of Madison Avenue have not been depicted as racist. The very first scene in Season One showed Don Draper consulting a black waiter, seeking to understand his reasons for smoking. The scene demonstrated the value Don placed on the man’s words. A racist would have consulted a black man only out of necessity; Don consulted the man out of a curiosity that transcended racial barriers—and because in Don’s eyes the waiter was a man no less than anyone in the restaurant.
Insensitivity, complacency, and the ready acceptance of the status quo have been recurring themes relentlessly applied to racial issues since the inception of Mad Men. The denizens of Madison Avenue are shown to be comfortable in their white-shirt-and-tie world of Lucky Strikes, three-martini lunches, and Velveeta sandwiches. But this comfort with capitalistic excess was not the only factor driving the perpetuation of racial inequality. In Season Three, Pete Campbell analyzed sales trends for Admiral Television and found their “TV sets” were purchased most frequently by urban black families. When Pete brought his findings to Admiral executives, hoping to score an advertising campaign directed at a black audience, the executives were firm: There could be no campaign centred on Negroes. The men running Admiral could not afford to become known as the “Negro television company”, because any such connection would harm sales in every other market sector. Racial inequality, Pete found, was self-perpetuating, and built right into the fabric of American culture.
“Why don’t you get a job!” the men yelled out the window as they tossed water bombs on the civil rights protestors. The protestors could get jobs, of course, but employers offered them only the most menial assignments—positions no self-respecting white person would deign to occupy. The real problem, in the 1960s, is that waiters and cooks and janitors were a dying breed of common labourer. By the mid-1960s, white people had moved up from poverty into the largest middle class the world has ever seen. Only blacks, Latinos, and other despised minorities remained in the lowest class, and there were few jobs for unskilled or undesired workers. Virtually the only positions available were to be found in the middle class, and these simply were not available to women and men of colour.
Since the neoconservative uprising of the early 1980s more and more people, regardless of race or colour, have been slipping back into poverty. Children born since 1980 may have difficulty believing there ever was a time when one man, working no more than forty hours per week, could support a wife, a family, a car, and a mortgage—all by himself. Today, more and more families live in poverty, even when both parents work fifty or sixty hours a week. But in the heyday of the American Dream, if you had fair complexion, chances are you lived the good life. Life was “stable”, as Kenny Cosgrove might say.
But racial and economic justice is not the focus of Mad Men. We know Kenny Cosgrove’s “stability” is nothing more than a lull in the storm that has been rolling and heaving and crashing just outside the closed windows at Sterling Cooper, and now at SCDP, since the winter of 1959-60, when the series opened. The racial storms are leading to “riots in three cities in two months”, as Peggy’s journalist friend noted. But these storms will not penetrate the walls of SCDP. Other storms have been brewing, gathering strength, and taking form and substance within the very halls of power—in the meeting rooms and offices of every firm on Madison Avenue. It is this storm—the coming revolution—that Mad Men documents and uses as backdrop for its powerful statement of purpose.
You Don’t Know Her At All
Megan: I’m throwing a surprise party for him on Saturday.
Peggy: For Don? [A look of incredulity crosses her face] Men hate surprises. Didn’t you have Lucy [“I Love Lucy”] in Canada?
Megan’s problem is not one of cross-cultural ignorance born of an upbringing in French Canada. Megan’s (and actress Jessica Paré’s) connections to Canadian culture so far have been limited to the occasional reference to her québécoise heritage and her fluency in the language of her birth. But Canadianisms have not become a theme, and even Megan’s (and Ms. Paré’s) speech patterns are entirely American. It’s difficult, if you’re born and raised Canadian, not to say “out” or “about” with the pronunciation peculiar to the provinces north of the 49th parallel. But Megan even manages to say “Sarri” like a good American, rather than “Sore-ree” like a good Canadian, when pronouncing the word “sorry”.
Megan’s problem, shared with every other character on the show—save one, is her propensity for believing she understands everyone else, and especially the man with whom she is intimate. Only Don Draper—as we know from innumerable instances over the past five years—knows what people want. Whether in the boardroom or the bedroom, Don knows.
“Look, nobody likes it in theory, but people are always glad. And you’ve never seen me throw a party. Everyone’s going to go home from this and they’re going to have sex.” This claim is pregnant with significance, not only as an ironic statement about the ultimate failure of Megan’s party, but as a direct corollary to the main idea of Mad Men. I will return to the centrality of this concept later, in Don Draper After Dark.
The characters of Mad Men cannot understand each other because they cannot understand themselves. Don Draper is the artificial shell around the real person, Dick Whitman. Don Draper is flamboyant, public, assertive, and gregarious—the life of the party and the man every woman wants. Dick Whitman, on the other hand, is shy, private, dependent, and a loner—a man who is truly himself only when he bends to no one else’s expectations of him. Dick is as different from Don—as distant in attribute and essence—as it is possible for one person to be from another.
“So,” Sal Romano said in the first episode of Season One, “we’re supposed to believe that people are living one way and secretly thinking the exact opposite? That’s ridiculous.” Ridiculous, perhaps, but an essential motif of Mad Men, the foundation for every character we have ever seen on the show, and the thesis question of the series: Does advertising construct a sexy but false veneer around the humdrum and the ordinary, or does it reach into the soul, psyche, and centrality of our human existence?
I would venture to say the true appeal of Mad Men is that all of us, like Sal Romano, are gay men trying to tell ourselves we are straight, or like Pete Campbell, uncultured men trying to believe we are gentlemen of rare breeding and accomplishment, and that we see in these characters the reflection not only of our unfounded conceits, but also the projection of our noblest aspirations. “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it—because we want them to be who we want them to be,” Don Draper told us in Season Four. Advertising, in Don Draper’s hands, does not sugar-coat the bitter pill. Rather, it brings out in the product that which represents our truest, inner selves.
“Well, technology is a glittering lure,” Don said in Season One, Episode 13. “But there is a rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash – if they have a sentimental bond with the product … the most important idea in advertising is 'new.' It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion… [and there’s] a deeper bond with a product: nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent … in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device [the Kodak slide viewer] isn’t a space ship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel [the name the Kodak execs used], it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.”
Don knows the essence of a product’s appeal, because he knows his true, inner self. Don knows us, because he knows Dick Whitman.
This secret knowledge, available only to Don, allows him to break the rules of 1966 and the expectations of 2012. When Peggy told Don that Megan had left, Don began putting on his jacket, preparing to leave.
“I think she wants to be alone,” Peggy said.
Don didn’t even hesitate. “You don’t know her at all,” he said as he walked out the door.
Back in the Jetsons’/Playboy pad, Megan took off her robe and began the final act of the ritual she had initiated at the party. Arching her back and raising her buttocks, in a posture that meets every reasonable definition of the word provocative, her words became a taunt:
“Besides, you’re too old. I don’t need an old person. You probably couldn’t do it anyway.”
Don said nothing. He advanced—virtually lunged—and pulled her arm up toward himself.
“No. I don’t want people to think you’re getting this.”
“You want it so badly.”
Don’t try this at home, kids. When Don forced her into his arms and pulled her into a kiss he was beginning an act that today would be called rape. She said “No”, and No nowadays means No. It doesn’t mean Yes. It doesn’t mean “Women say No, but they men Yes.” It means No, and transgressing that firm injunction is an invitation to 20 to 40 years in a maximum security prison.
Those who have not been following Mad Men may be yelling foul at this point. “Another instance of misogyny,” they say. But they are wrong. As oblivious as Don surely was to the fact that Megan fully shared in Don’s dignity and humanity, sexism was not the point of this scene. Mad Men is not a fictionalised telling of the good old days, when men were men and women were women, and it is not an accounting of the nascent feminist movement. Mad Men is not a documentary at all. It is fiction, and it has a point.
The point in this scene is that Don really does know Megan. Unfortunately, knowing oneself and even knowing others does not grant even one as gifted as Don Draper any superhuman ability to construct a reality conducive to human comfort and expression. Just as Kenny Cosgrove’s “stability” is an illusion, Don Draper’s comfort will not be found in Megan, the French Canadian sex kitten. To understand why this is so, we need to revisit Don’s 40th birthday surprise party.
Don Draper After Dark
The allusions to Playboy have been sometimes subtle (e.g., the Season Five poster shown at the beginning of this essay) and sometimes explicit (e.g., Lane Pryce’s flirtation with the Playboy Bunny, Toni). The seated mannequin wrapped in smoking jacket and dressed in red pyjamas is not just any mannequin. The choice of smoking jacket and the colour red for the pyjamas is not accidental or coincidental.
The combination of red or black pyjamas and red smoking jacket is virtually unique to one person—a man who was synonymous with the sixties-era sexually-charged split personality at the core of Mad Men.
Hugh Hefner single-handedly jump started the sexual revolution in December, 1953, with the publication of the first issue of Playboy magazine. Playboy made girlie magazines respectable, and elevated the ogling of women to a rarefied estate befitting only gentlemen of distinction and refinement. Or so the immense advertising machine behind Hefner’s empire wished us to believe. The deep influence of Playboy magazine, Playboy clubs, and the aura of refined hedonism projected by Hefner’s persona permeated the 1960s and left an enduring mark not only on the culture of the time, but on the very fabric of American life.
The surprise birthday party held in Don Draper’s jetsetter pad evoked the banal liberal, establishment expectations of the time best exemplified in Hefner’s television programs “Playboy’s Penthouse” (1959-1960) and “Playboy After Dark” (1969-1970). Those expecting racy or naughty shenanigans were quickly corrected. Here’s a typical exchange, this one drawn from the February 1960 episode of “Playboy’s Penthouse”. Hef is explaining to Elsa the difference between his sexy new jacket and the older style worn by another guest, Tom:
Hef: Well, this suit is Continental, Elsa. It’s a new style in America. Look, Tom’s formal is Ivy, which has been very popular. The difference is in the cuff. This has a little more cut to the jacket; it’s a shorter jacket. You’ll notice Tom has flaps on his pockets. These pockets are slanted. After the war, when everybody was wearing full shoulders and full suits, Ivy came in. Ivy had been with us in the East for a long time, but it became very popular on a national level. Ivy has enjoyed a strong popularity, but just this last season something new has come over from Italy, and it’s Continental. It’s like Ivy in that it’s slim, but it’s a little more trimmed at the waist, a little more padding in the shoulder, the pockets are often slashed, and in addition the jacket is a little shorter, and you get accessories sometimes like the cuff and no belt.
Tom: Do you think Continental will replace the Ivy League style?
Hef: Playboy doesn’t think so. We did an article on it a couple of months ago. Ivy is so fundamental that I think it’s going to be with us. It’s basic, good conservative dress, and we think it’ll stay with us always. But Continental has a little more flair, it’s a little more elegant, and we think it fits those occasions when a man wants to dress up. We think there’s a place for both.
Racy talk like this filled the hour-long episodes. One quickly learned the reason for placing “Playboy After Dark” in the late-night time slot: Not because the episodes were full of adult content, but because they were more effective than the most potent, prescription-strength sleeping aid. Only the most determined could remain awake during these televised snorefests. Hef and all the other hip cats were immaculately and correctly dressed at all times. I think the only person ever allowed onto the show without a bow tie was the performer Sammy Davis Jr.
Megan, the adaptive student of American culture that she is, took as her template the most successful sixties-era party animal, and she created her own Don Draper After Dark birthday party.
All the cool cats were there: Kenny, Pete, Trudy, and lots of people Don didn’t even know. And all of them obeyed the Hugh Hefner rules of 1960s partying: Be cool, which means be square. Be yourself, which means put on a perfect Tupperware smile.
“The reason I didn’t want you to have that party is I didn’t want them in our home.”
Home is the place where Dick no longer has to be Don. It’s the place where he is comfortable that Megan knows every detail of his sad history. It’s the place where Tupperware smiles are forbidden, and the people Don loves can be themselves.
At the party, Roger made a point of thanking Megan for the only event that broke the Hugh Hefner code against public displays of sexuality:
“To Megan, for letting us see the Don Draper smile usually reserved for clients.”
In fact, Don’s smile at the party was the perfect Tupperware smile, the same smile he usually reserved for million-dollar deals. It was the kind of smile Don hoped he would never have to wear at home.
“I know why you’re upset,” Megan said, her legs straddling Don’s abdomen. “You’re 40.”
“I’ve been 40 for half a year.”
“When is that going to stop? Only you know that. This is your birthday now.”
That is, Dick Whitman’s birthday is no longer important, so why keep mentioning it? Only the carefully constructed persona known as Don Draper has any significance. The only birthday with any meaning to anyone—including Megan—is Don Draper’s birthday.
Don told her of his desire to remain private, quiet, withdrawn, to forget his birthdays, to stay out of the limelight, at least when he was with those he loved.
“Didn’t Betty ever throw you a party?” Megan asked.
“Aw… Nobody loves Dick Whitman. I love you.”
Megan loves the party animal, the man of primal virility that is Don Draper. Don, of course, has no interest in a sex kitten. The ritualised display of sexuality embodied in Megan’s song and dance at the party was the direct opposite of everything Don has been seeking in Megan. She was good with the kids. She made him feel free. She knows all about Dick Whitman because Don thought he had found in Megan the woman who would replace the only person Don has ever truly loved.
Anna Draper was no sex kitten, but if there is anything we can call Love in this world, Don surely felt in himself the truest and most unvarnished variety of this human state in his relationship with her.
Don married Megan, dazzled by her easy rapport with the children, amazed at her willingness to accept him as he was. Only now, months later, does Don find out Megan is waiting for Dick to surrender his reality to the Don Draper façade. “When is that going to stop?” When are you going to stop insisting on perpetuating shy, withdrawn Dick Whitman? Nobody wants to be around a quiet, private man. “Nobody loves Dick Whitman.”
Zou bisou bisou
I knew Megan was going to sing, and I knew she would sing in French. It would have to be a 1960s song beloved of French Canadians, and the first song that came to mind was the one Vicky Leandros made famous, “L’amour est bleu”. You can see Baroness Leandros’ first public performance of “L’amour est bleu” on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpFIYX7Hyoo&feature=related
Megan wore the perfect mid-sixties miniskirt, and her haircut was nearly identical to the Vicky style of 1967. But Mad Men is in 1966 now, and Megan and Don are far removed from the Summer of Love sentiment expressed in Vicky’s haunting song; I should have known Megan would not be singing this song, even if it is French Canada’s most beloved song of the 1960s, even if Vicky Leandros was more popular in Québec and Montréal than anywhere else in the world. “Zou bisou bisou” fit nicely into the Tupperware sexual artificiality of the Don Draper After Dark party; the soul-piercing “L’amour est bleu” would have been too raw and honest for any such precise and just-so gathering.
But I think we will hear this song, or something like it, by the end of the season. I have at least two reasons for believing this. First, Megan has demonstrated her affinity for French culture. Second, the biggest cultural event in the history of Québec is about to occur: Expo 67. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PAJkFsBCek&feature=related
If Betty could drag Don to Italy to show off her mastery of the Italian language, will the writers of Mad Men be able to resist the urge to allow Megan to pull Don into the greatest party Canada ever threw for the world?
Going to Expo will not be done strictly for the novelty factor. It will have to fit into the greater thematic scheme. Because I believe the event will fit perfectly into that scheme—and especially into the evolving Don/Megan love story—I believe it will inevitably serve as potent backdrop to the couple’s development and the springboard for the sixth or final season of the show.
I will be surprised indeed if we do not experience at least a few scenes at Expo. The Summer of Love would be the perfect time for a major realignment of character relationships, and Expo 67 would be the perfect place for this to occur. In fact, the protagonist in one of my novels experiences a life-changing event here, in the company of the 20th century’s most famous eligible bachelor/prime minister-to-be. Brush up on your québécois French—and don’t forget your Kodak Instamatic 100 camera!
Chaos, Order, and Redirection
Tonight’s story began with a civil rights tableau thrown into discord by water bombs from an inconsiderate mob of ignorant advertising executives. It ended with a dignified display of perfect harmony and orderly progression toward the eventual hiring of a black woman into a secretarial position.
Mad Men will deal with the occasional bout of racism. Lane Pryce’s sense of English civility ought to serve as perfect counterpoint to the at times less-than-civil American approach to race issues. Already we have seen the British character used in racially charged situations, and I expect the writers will continue to avail themselves of his unique outlook on matters of racial relations.
But Mad Men is not fundamentally about the civil rights movement. We were given an explicit announcement to this effect at the end of the episode:
“First of all, we’re only looking for secretaries, so gentlemen, you are … welcome to … go.”
Even when the fine fellows at SCDP found it in themselves to rise above their innate tendencies toward racism, they could not avoid the most frequently invoked social shortcoming of Mad Men. “I hate it when he calls chicks broads,” a man, believing himself sensitive and enlightened, says to another regarding a chauvinist colleague. Who would dare call a chick a broad?
In the world of Mad Men, even when men try their darnedest to be magnanimous, inclusive, and sensitive, they cannot help but succumb to the snares of misogyny. Men are men, and women are naught more than playthings to be engaged for a bit of fun now and then. Only women, in the world of Mad Men, are suited to the menial and thankless clerical work of typing, filing, keeping appointment schedules, and making coffee for busy executives. An occasion that might have been celebrated as a victory in the civil rights struggle becomes instead the latest gender-based irony in the sexist world of Madison Avenue. The scene was perfectly executed, and even more hilarious than Pete’s 6:00 a.m. meeting with Coca-Cola.
Mad Men finally threw down the gauntlet. The challenge is directed at the two most creative minds at SCDP. We did not witness the satisfactory resolution of the Heinz Beans question tonight, nor will we see it anytime this season. The problem of Heinz Beans is the central problem of Mad Men.
“You ever seen beans up close?” Raymond, the Heinz executive asked. “They’re slimy. They look like a bunch of bloody organs. And it’s not just for fellows like me who saw things in Korea.”
[Don walks into the conference room]
Don: Are you as excited about this as we are?
Raymond: I don’t know.
Don: You said “be bold”. Nothing on TV is going to look like this.
Raymond: … It’s got no message. Beans is the war, the depression. Bomb shelters … They have to be cool—Don, you know what I’m talking about.
Peggy worked hard on the problem and came up with a campaign that would have had America salivating for Heinz beans. It was a winning campaign, but it wasn’t enough. “It’s got no message.”
Peggy would have handled the meeting differently, and Don knew it. She would have worked on the Heinz people “for an hour and a half,” Don said. But it would have done no good. It’s got no message, and it needs a message. The ad must tear into the human psyche. It must reach into and represent shared experience. “Don, you know what I’m talking about.”
Raymond was referring to his and Don’s shared personal experience of the Great Depression, bomb shelters, the war in Korea.
One might take away from this meeting the conclusion that Raymond was appealing to the Old Boys’ Network. Don was one of the boys. He’d experienced war—the same war in which Raymond had fought. Peggy could never fit in, because her gender would never experience war, never experience any part of the world of men.
But that is not the message of Mad Men. The message is that the single essential component of successful advertising is the evocation of primal, shared experience. “They look like a bunch of bloody organs”—that is, primal. “And it’s not just for fellows like me who saw things in Korea”—shared experience, but not necessarily shared in war, or even among men.
The message is both challenge and opportunity. It is challenge because the route leading to successful evocation of primal human sentiment is not clear. It is opportunity because making something as humble and ordinary as beans evoke primal sentiment is a challenge open to all who are willing to apply themselves to the task.
Mad Men does not say that women deserve a place at the table. Mad Men says women will have to earn a place there. No one is going to break the glass ceiling for Peggy Olson. She will break it herself, and she will do so by making beans dance in a way that even the executives at Heinz will embrace as evocative of their own wishes and dreams.
July 20, 1969
The dreamy, surreal music seemed at first out of place. But the music and the prolonged sequence of waking, meandering down the hall, and making her way to the large double doors had great significance for Sally Draper, and it contains even greater significance for us. I will write more about Sally—and about this unusual scene—in future essays.
For now, though, I make a prediction. I believe the final scene of Mad Men will belong neither to advertising guru Don Draper, nor to newly-minted partner and breaker-of-ceilings Peggy Olson. I believe the final scene, after Don finds happiness and Peggy finds success, will show a 14-year-old girl discovering something neither of the two main characters could have hoped for.
The greatest event in Mad Men is not the landing on the Moon. It is not Don Draper’s discovery of happiness. The single most important occasion in the series will not be Peggy Olson’s promotion to partner. The most significant event will be the one that happens to us—as revealed in the life of the girl who will become our surrogate. The final message of Mad Men, I believe will be carried by a child—the bearer of our hopes, dreams, and wishes. In the end, Mad Men’s quest is the journey toward wholeness and integrity of spirit. As Anna showed, integrity of this order is not plucked from the marketplace, but given without weighing the cost. Wholeness is not found in sexual relationships but in giving unselfishly to another.
Just as Don lost innocence and wholeness in his childhood, so too will he discover innocence and wholeness by bestowing integrity in childhood. In the end, Don will give love, not take it, and he will give it unceasingly, without counting the cost, to his daughter and the object of our hopes and dreams and wishes: Sally Draper.
Love: primal, but pure. A relationship built on the deepest of shared experiences. It passes the Heinz Beans test. Most importantly, no one at the end of the series will be able to say “It’s got no message.”
March 26, 2012
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Posted by DarkUFO at Tuesday, March 27, 2012 8 CommentsMad Men Reviews
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