Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Ancestral Roots

Mad Men begins its focus with an observation presented in terms of the series title’s definition itself. Specifically, the term “madmen” emerged within temporal boundaries in the 1950s, describing the inhabitants of the advertising world located along the famous Madison Avenue. After a pause, it becomes clear that they are the ancestors of this lexical creation. Thus, the main motif in the storyline of the series is revealed, characterized by the tendency of the dramatic characters to narrate their personal stories. Persuasively, it supports its truth.

Apart from that, there is an opinion that most period dramas always reflect the social environment in which the drama is set. Compared to the historical era they aim to depict, we can draw confirmation with the example of the series Downton Abbey, which debuted in the midst of 2010. It coincided with the peak of post-financial crisis austerity measures. The series peddles a calming ethos encapsulated by the adage “Keep Calm and Carry On,” which epitomizes a sense of duty so similar to the socio-political landscape brought about by the rise to power of David Cameron’s government.

Debut and Setting

Mad Men debuted in 2007 and lasted until 2015. It tells the story of the focus of an advertising agency, Sterling Cooper, located in the prestigious Madison Avenue neighborhood—along with its charismatic creative leader, Don Draper. Filled with an evocative aura, the series creates a dark memory from the past amidst a bustling Manhattan highway, enveloped in haze from mafia-style smoke-filled rooms.

In the background, important historical milestones such as the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., the fervor of civil rights protests, and the tumultuous Vietnam War unfold, while protecting figures who to this day remain unaware of their rights and their roles as participants. Without realizing it, we never grasp how these histories are still ongoing.

The narrative of Mad Men represents many societal mores that prevailed at that time: men having a more dominant position of influence, workplace misogyny that seeped into the professional world as a norm to be accepted, and ubiquitous smoking and alcoholic beverages. They symbolize the spirit of the times. As the creator of the series, Matthew Weiner tries to navigate themes of varying depth. Often, it is characterized by an intellectual rigor rarely seen in television production, especially at that time. However, the essence of the series revolves around the protagonist’s struggle to assert dominance and formulate his political agenda—despite the increasing intrigue of external forces ready to wrest control from his grasp.

Played by Jon Hamm, Don embodies a depiction of 20th-century America that portrays a landscape dominated by the art and philosophy of branding. More precisely, Mad Men attempts to dissect the disconnect between the stark reality of existence and the enduring appeal of the quintessential American Dream. Therefore, it illuminates the gap between reality and perception.

In the epoch after the turn of the century, the confidence inherent in American branding has perceptibly waned. Noteworthy dramas often succeed in interweaving minuscule, intimate emotional intricacies within the broader tapestry of grander narratives. The brilliance of Mad Men lies in its revelation that these seemingly disparate facets are, in essence, intrinsically intertwined.

Unraveling Don’s Identity

Over the course of its seven-season run, Mad Men endeavors to unravel the enigmatic query: Who precisely is Don? Concurrently, Don himself embarks on a relentless quest to decipher this very inquiry, employing a plethora of falsehoods and self-deception along the way. Across the initial three seasons, the series systematically dismantles the façade of an idyllic existence meticulously cultivated by Don, thereby precipitating the erosion of his meticulously constructed, albeit concealed, persona.

During this progression, we are afforded a glimpse into Don’s meticulously curated existence, wherein he orchestrates a carefully choreographed life replete with imbued meaning and a carefully woven narrative, one scarcely challenged by external scrutiny. By fashioning an artificial persona, Don endeavors to exert dominion over his own identity, so adeptly executed that the boundaries between truth and fiction become blurred, even to himself.

Indeed, Don emerges as a consummate arbiter of control, diligently shaping perceptions of himself and, by extension, influencing the collective consciousness through the medium of advertising. His categorical rejection of the concept of fate, as articulated in the sixth season, underscores his steadfast commitment to agency and manipulation. Even in his capacity as an advertising professional, Don exhibits an innate acumen for discerning and satiating the latent desires of the populace, often assuming the role of a pedagogue in dictating societal aspirations.

Don’s portrayal within the show initially presents him as a paragon of creative brilliance, seemingly possessing the epitome of success and fulfillment. He embodies a dichotomy, seamlessly navigating between the roles of suburban patriarch and urban libertine. His occupation within the glamorous realm of Madison Avenue is not merely a vocation but a fervent passion, exemplified by his adept handling of the prevalent chauvinism within the professional sphere, which, particularly in the nascent seasons, endows him with an aura of gentlemanly refinement.

In the inaugural episode, a deliberate narrative device is employed, wherein Don ostentatiously displays a Purple Heart medal, thereby fortifying the perception of his uprightness and moral rectitude. Even as we are granted insight into Don’s extramarital liaison with a woman named Midge, there exists a propensity to sympathize with him, primarily owing to his purported discussion of ideas about his clients’ accounts. Notably, the sexual component of this interaction is relegated to a peripheral consideration, underscoring Don’s perception of Midge as a mere conduit, rather than a conventional mistress.

Fabricated Nobility

The ostensibly noble attributes attributed to Don are predominantly artifacts of his fabrication, emblematic of his fervent desire to be perceived as a paragon of virtue. The milieu of Mad Men is characterized by grandiose gestures and conspicuous displays of affluence, juxtaposed against a conspicuous absence of introspection, mirroring the ethos of the Madison Avenue cohort, whose endeavors were pivotal in shaping the national narrative. The characters within this milieu are portrayed as projecting outwardly, eschewing introspective contemplation in favor of adhering to the conservative ethos prevalent during the 1950s, notwithstanding the emergence of countercultural elements within the depicted timeline.

As it progresses, subtle indicators of societal evolution emerge, manifested in shifting sartorial and behavioral trends indicative of the burgeoning countercultural movement. However, Don’s reluctance to embrace such change is palpable, as evidenced by his dismissal of The Beatles’ avant-garde opus Tomorrow Never Knows. The denouement of the series encapsulates a moment steeped in profound cynicism, as Don’s purported moment of introspective reflection during a retreat seamlessly transitions into the conception of an iconic Coca-Cola advertisement.

The series deftly incorporates symbolism, elucidating how meaning can be imbued into ostensibly mundane objects or concepts, thereby effecting a transformative alteration. Emblematic of this thematic exploration is a pivotal scene in the pilot episode, wherein a client confides in Don during a convivial tête-à-tête, lamenting her lack of matrimonial union due to a purported absence of love in her life. In response, Don, characteristically impervious to matters of sentiment, dismisses her romantic yearning and endeavors to construct an alternative narrative, asserting his agency in determining the significance of emotions and experiences. He espouses the notion that notions such as love are not inherent but rather constructed by individuals akin to himself, purporting that it is he who ascribes meaning to phenomena, relegating others to the subordinate role of adhering to his constructed reality.

Notably, the denouement of Mad Men coincides closely with the conclusion of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2015. This temporal proximity is significant, as it underscores the era in which the series unfolded, a period encompassing the aftermath of pivotal events such as the September 11 attacks, the protracted conflict in Iraq, and the global financial crisis. Despite the prevailing anguish and uncertainty engendered by these seismic events, there persisted a semblance of collective optimism, as Americans endeavored to construct narratives of nobility and unity within their society. This sentiment is encapsulated by the oft-quoted words of Martin Luther King Jr., invoking the belief in the inexorable progression of justice along the moral arc of the universe.

In numerous respects, Don epitomizes the philosophical tenets of existentialism, wherein the inherent absence of predetermined meaning in life engenders a profound sense of freedom and agency in the individual. However, there are instances wherein this existential facade fractures, yielding to a nihilistic perspective, as exemplified by his candid proclamation during the nylons monologue: “You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, ’cause there isn’t one.” Don’s adeptness at fabricating meaning, even in the absence of inherent significance, is a hallmark of his character. He possesses a consummate ability to construct narratives, persuading both others and himself of their veracity. This is exemplified by his penchant for convincing individuals that certain desires are their own, irrespective of their actual predilections.

Assimilation of Identity

It is divulged in the first season that Don opts to assimilate details from another man’s life into his own, despite their inherent inauthenticity. It exemplifies his propensity to adopt personas and identities not inherently his own, perpetuating the facade upon which his life is constructed. Throughout the initial three seasons, Don grapples with his pre-Korean War identity as Dick Whitman, striving to distance himself from this former self. The original Don, a deceased soldier, inadvertently bequeaths his identity upon Dick, leading to a convoluted amalgamation wherein falsehood supplants truth. Despite the inherent deceit permeating his existence, Don successfully perpetuates this illusion to the extent that it becomes indistinguishable from reality.

In what emerges as a seminal moment within the narrative arc of Don, his pivotal presentation to Kodak in the season one finale, wherein he rechristens the photo projector from The Wheel to The Carousel, epitomizes his adeptness at superimposing his narrative over past events. Don elucidates the etymology of “nostalgia,” articulating its profound resonance as “the pain from an old wound,” transcending mere recollection to evoke a visceral yearning. He metaphorically portrays the Carousel not as a mere technological contrivance but as a temporal conduit, traversing the realms of past and future, imbued with a poignant longing for moments once cherished.

Amidst the seemingly idyllic portrayal of familial bliss encapsulated within the projected photographs, a dissonance emerges upon closer scrutiny. Despite the ostensibly harmonious imagery, the preceding scene reveals Don’s reluctance to spend Thanksgiving weekend with his family, laying bare his infidelity, dismissiveness, and neglect. This disjunction underscores the multi-layered complexity inherent within the Carousel, wherein the curated narrative belies the underlying discord and dysfunction permeating Don’s personal life.

At first glance, Don’s utilization of his narrative prowess to pitch a campaign to a client appears as a strategic endeavor to secure business opportunities. However, beneath the surface lies a more profound dynamic wherein Don becomes ensnared in his presentation. He becomes emotionally invested, treating the pitch as a means not only to persuade the client but also to reassure himself regarding the state of affairs within his own home. At this moment, he seeks solace in the semblance of marital harmony depicted within the old photographs—a semblance reminiscent of a bygone era before the onset of extramarital affairs and domestic discord. Through his persuasive rhetoric, Don momentarily convinces himself that the past remains within his grasp, offering a fleeting respite from the tumult of his present reality.

The Carousel, as metaphorically evoked by Don, symbolizes a nostalgic journey imbued with childlike innocence, a cyclical odyssey that culminates in the comforting embrace of home—a realm suffused with love and familiarity. The projected images, meticulously curated by Don, depict scenes of matrimonial bliss and familial joy, evoking a sense of nostalgia and contentment within the confines of the conference room. Don’s eyes shimmer with emotion as he orchestrates the portrayal of his own life, reveling in the illusion of happiness and fulfillment he has crafted. It is through his meticulous manipulation of imagery and narrative that the semblance of familial bliss materializes, albeit fleetingly, within the sterile confines of the corporate setting.

Setback with Lucky Strike

In the fourth season of the series, Don’s advertising agency experiences an abrupt setback with the loss of Lucky Strike, a client that had hitherto constituted the predominant source of the firm’s business. The ramifications of this loss reverberate throughout the company, casting a pall over morale and instigating a palpable sense of unease. In response to this adversity, Don takes proactive measures to assert control over the narrative by publishing a letter in The New York Times, wherein he ostensibly presents himself as “relieved.”

Within the letter, Don articulates a narrative wherein he assumes the guise of a conscientious steward, purporting to have liberated himself from the moral quagmire inherent in peddling a product deleterious to public health and well-being. He candidly acknowledges the ethical transgressions intrinsic to the advertising industry, wherein profitability often supersedes concerns for consumer welfare. By framing the termination of the partnership with Lucky Strike as an opportunity for moral redemption, Don strategically imbues the situation with a sense of righteousness, albeit one belied by his continued indulgence in smoking—a behavior incongruous with his purported moral rectitude.

Weiner identifies a poignant fault line within American public life—a susceptibility to exploitation by adept manipulators who possess an acute understanding of public sentiment and an adeptness at manipulating it to their advantage. Despite Don’s hypothetical disdain for the perceived vulgarity of Donald Trump, Weiner suggests that the allure of financial gain would likely prompt Don to align himself with Trump’s endeavors, underscoring the prevailing ethos of “business is business.”

Don’s response to the unraveling of his identity is characterized by a resolute determination to press forward without dwelling on the past. From Don’s perspective, there exists no alternative but to forge ahead, thereby allowing him to assume authorship of the forthcoming narrative. By adopting this approach, he endeavors to bury the past beneath a veneer of his contrivance, thereby asserting his agency in shaping his destiny.

To Don, the concept of identity is malleable, capable of being manipulated to align with whichever narrative he chooses to propagate. This perspective posits that the transformation of falsehoods into perceived truths and guiding principles is not inherently objectionable. Throughout the initial stages of the series, Don assumes the mantle of a protagonist who perceives himself as uniquely suited to satisfy the needs of others, chart his desired course of life, and dictate the perception of events—provided he can articulate the appropriate narrative.


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