Mad Men: final curtain

It’s hard to know what to say about this penultimate season of Mad Men.  What my thoughts kept turning to, though, was the Presidential candidacy of George Romney.  This was not a 60’s historical event that Matt Weiner and his co-writers actually referenced on the show, but it’s from the same time period: 1966-68.  Bear with me: this will become relevant.

George Romney was governor of Michigan, a successful businessman (credited with saving American Motors), and a popular and moderate Republican.  In the winter of ’66-67, he was the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican nomination for President, and the favorite to defeat Lyndon Johnson for the Presidency.  He was a bit gaffe-prone, and his campaign had some early stumbles–still, he was a strong candidate, his biggest weakness being foreign policy.  And since the Vietnam war had become such a huge issue, he needed to get up to speed.

Wikipedia’s Romney article does a nice job covering the campaign.  In August of ’67, Romney said, “when I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get” while announcing his opposition to the war.  He went on to question the whole ‘domino theory’ rationale for the war, and declared that, if elected, he would end it.

That word, ‘brainwashing’ ended his campaign.  It destroyed him politically.  As a Republican (and remember, Republicans were by no means all conservative back then; liberal Republicans had been at the forefront of the civil rights movement, opposed by Southern conservative Democrats), he was saying the unsayable.  There was no legitimate reason for the US presence in Vietnam.  The reasons being offered, by the White House and Pentagon, were lies, ‘brainwashing.’  Propaganda.  Our boys were dying to no good end.  We were wasting their lives, wasting our moral standing in the world, wasting our national ethos.  We were victims of a lie.  This war (and remember, in 1966, it was still a very popular war in Middle America) had no purpose, no rationale.  Those unwashed rebels, at the Berkeley Free Speech movement and the Students for a Democratic Society, Mario Savio and Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman,and the kids at the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, they were right.  The majority, the short hairs, the good kids, the cheerleaders and football captains, the mainstream, us; we all were wrong. And the essence of the 60s (which Madmen does show), the undeniable fact that the war was very popular, and almost nobody wanted their kids to fight in it, was build on a foundation of hypocrisy.

George Romney’s Presidential campaign ended, in essence, because he told the truth.  The mainstream consensus, about Vietnam and about the fight against international communism, was simply not true.  We’d been brainwashed, sold a bill of goods.  We’d been advertised to.  And we’d bought it.

Mad Men, set in that same period, the early to mid to late 1960’s, is in part a look back at that whole world, at the brainwashing taking place, at the comfortable middle-class values being exposed as falsehoods.  The show itself is about a world of lies.  Don Draper, the main character, is a creature of lies.  Even his name isn’t authentic–he was born Dick Whitman, and took the name Don Draper by stealing the identity of a dead soldier, killed in Korea. Newly minted, Draper moved into advertising, becomes creative director for the ad agency Sterling Cooper, and, as it grows, eventually a partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

But he was born Dick Whitman, an orphan, raised in a whorehouse.  He was badly physically and sexually abused as a child.  His childhood was utterly hellish.  And, as Dick Whitman, he’s married to a woman in California, a marriage his New York wife, Betty, doesn’t know about at the beginning of the show.  And he cheats on Betty all the time.  And then, caught, he divorces her, marries Megan, cheats on her too.

And of course, Don Draper works for an ad agency, selling dreams and fantasies, selling products by spinning tall tales.  In one episode, Sterling Cooper has a client, Dow Chemical, which has come under attack for creating napalm.  Their media guy, Harry Crane, meets with Dow’s execs, and proposes a Dow Chemical Family hour TV special.  Lots of singing and dancing, MCed by Joe Namath.  With Ann-Margret. I remember those variety shows, lots of singing and dancing and sketch comedy. The Dow execs think its a terrific idea.  Don thinks it’s great too, and Harry gets a big pat on the back for thinking of it. For glossing over napalm, with lame jokes and stale music.

As Mad Men‘s last couple of season’s progressed, Don developed a nasty hacking cough.  The character smoked like a chimney (all the characters did), and we sense the onset of cancer or heart disease. No such plot point ever developed, but the cough became emblematic of Don’s larger cancer, the lies that define him metastasizing within.  The biggest of his lies are his many many affairs, his complete inability to stay faithful to any of his three wives, or his mistresses. For most of the show, his children remained unaware of his adulteries, until the moment when his oldest daughter, Sally, caught him in flagrante delicto.  He tries to paper over his shame with more lies, with obviously transparent lies which she sees right through, but she’s clearly disgusted with him, and we can hardly blame her.

But in a world of lies, telling the truth is what becomes dangerous.  George Romney told the truth, and it destroyed his career; Don Draper eventually tells a truth, and it nearly destroys his.  All the characters on Mad Men lie, and their lies echo the larger lies of late 1960’s America.  All the male characters are the most appallingly sexist pigs, for example, but it was a sexist society, in which women were meant to be decorative and subservient.  And yet, the truth of the matter, which is that all the men who work for Sterling Cooper could go away and the agency would survive just fine, as long as they kept Peggy Olson and Joan Harris, becomes the secret nobody dares speak aloud.  And yet, at the end of the final episode, there’s Peggy moving into Don’s office.  The show is blatantly racist, and yet Don’s constant troubles with secretaries ends when he finally hires Dawn, the firm’s first black hire.

So truths can emerge, if they do so quietly.  Ted Chaough (played, marvelously, by my former student, Kevin Rahm), can fall in love with Peggy, but once he declares that love, he dooms it.  Don lands the Hershey chocolate account, by telling a sentimental (and false) story of Don Draper’s imagined idyllic past, but by that time the accumulated weight of all the lies over all the years threatens to choke him, and he tells Hershey’s appalled execs of Dick Whitman’s actual childhood, and the real importance of an occasional Hershey treat to an abused and unloved orphan.  And they can’t take it, find it embarrassing and off-putting, and the other Sterling Cooper partners agree it’s time for Don Draper to take an unspecified leave of absence.  Don Draper, the spinner of comforting falsehoods, always had a home in advertising.  Dick Whitman, orphaned and abused, has to go away.

And so, in the last moments of this extraordinary sixth season, Dick Whitman takes his poor, disillusioned, troubled, basically decent daughter to the home where he really grew up, and for the first time, tells her the truth about who he is.  And she looks over at him, startled and amazed.  And he looks at her with a kind of resigned love.  And Joni Mitchell sings “Both Sides Now” and Mad Men says a momentary goodbye to the ’60s.

I originally thought this was it, the final season.  Turns out I’m wrong, it’s got one more to go.  They’ve got a lot to live up to, though; the indelible, unforgettable images and metaphors and scenes.  The agency party, where an exec loses his leg to a riding lawn mower.  Roger Sterling’s LSD dreams.  Ken Cosgrove shot in the face by wild account managers at Chevrolet.  Joan’s excruciating decision, and her fierce and humiliated triumph over bosses who forced her to prostitute herself.  Peggy’s rise to power, from secretary hiding a shameful pregnancy to de facto head of creative.  Ted Chaough, who only showed up the last two seasons and came to dominate the show, a decent man who betrays his own decency, and ends up exiled to (sigh) California.  Megan Draper singing Zhou Bisou Bisou.  Roger Sterling, who never once had a soul, and Bert Cooper, who only pretended to have one.  The horrid Pete Campbell, who nonetheless occasionally managed to be the conscience of the show.

It’s been a great show, a great ride, a magnificent exploration of the lies at the heart of the American Dream, and the truths those lies conceal, a show about a deeply damaged deceiver, which concluded Season Six by telling a sad and painful truth. American television, American narrative art has never seen anything better, and precious few shows will ever be its equal.  Can’t wait for Season Seven.



Leave a Reply