The silhouette of a man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase steps into an office and pauses. Then the office starts to fall apart: the floor, the furnishings, everything drops away. In the next shot, the silhouetted figure, too, is falling--through an abyss crowded with skyscrapers and images implying sex, images generated and disseminated by the advertising industry.
This terrifying free fall is taking place in the mind of the man: This becomes obvious when the falling figure hurtles into the camera, filling the entire frame, only to resolve into the shape of the same man reclining calmly in an armchair with a cigarette between his fingers. Urbane and anonymous as he is, the man in silhouette is universal. So are his barely hidden feelings of panic and desperation. The silhouette nominally belongs to Don Draper, the central character in Matt Weiner’s comedy-laced drama "Mad Men," but he could be anybody.
That Draper (played by the iconically handsome Jon Hamm) exists in a dapper environment of high 1960s style is only the cherry on the sundae; "Mad Men" recognizes the fact that anxiety and existential terror pervades modern life deeply and persistently, but it also tweaks another catholic sensation--that of nostalgia or, better still, false nostalgia of the sort of which Douglas Coupland wrote in the 1980s when he observed in his debut novel, "Generation X," that people far too young to recall the Eisenhower era--"when there was more"--yearned for it nonetheless, imagining a time far more simple in every way, including ease of success and financial enrichment.
There is certainly an element of that in "Mad Men," but if that were all there were to the show’s appeal it would be a creative failure (like the lame 1960s glitzfest "Pam Am"). Draper, an advertising executive who has made good, is not simply a stand-in for the typical viewer who might well pine for a time of tasteful style just coming under siege by the loud and raucous cultural challenges posed by a younger generation. Draper is, in fact, a cipher: The man calling himself by that name is actually an imposter, a deserter from the Korean war who stole the dog tags and the identity of a comrade in arms killed just before he was due for discharge. Buried under Draper’s veneer of success is a searing self-knowledge. The man is a coward and a fake. His entire life is a sham. What’s more, it could all blow up at any time. The series draws its most sustained tension from the dilemma Draper faces: He’s an ambitious man, but the higher his profile, the greater his acclaim and accomplishment, the greater the danger that someone is going to figure out he’s really Dick Whitman, a guy who grew up dirt poor and mostly unloved. The thrill of success is only sharpened by the sick dread of being exposed for the liar and the phony that he is.
The specifics of Draper’s biography (genuine and appropriated) aside, who doesn’t feel pretty much the same? Who doesn’t accept accolades with an uneasy sense that the praise and admiration one has garnered, or even the good will of family, friends, and colleagues, is somehow misplaced and mistaken? Who doesn’t have a tiny voice whispering, "If only they knew? If only they saw me as a I really am..."
Or, as singer-songwriter Neil Finn put it in one of his darker and more incisive tunes, "They have showered me with riches / and they say that I am worthy of their love and their attention / but they still don’t know the truth." (The song is "Truth," from Finn’s great 1998 album "Try Whistling This.")
That sense of hollowness and impending exposure--the feeling that someone is about to yank the veil aside and point and scream, like a pod person from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or, more horrifyingly, like a ranting head from Fox News (itself the biggest sham on the airwaves) is not, I think, simply a personal one. It’s also cultural.
In Craig Wright’s play "Recent Tragic Events," a small group gathers in the apartment of an advertising executive named Waverly on September 12, 2001. They shelter in the flickering glow of CNN, they play cards and drink beer and eat pizza. They share a growing fear that Waverly’s sister might have been caught up in the destruction, and they touch upon a terror that the America they knew has, like the Twin Towers, come crashing down. And yet, there’s also a weary sense of inevitability about it all--not that religious fanatics would annihilate themselves and several thousand others in a single day of audacious terrorism, but that America itself has grown hollow, stale, and unable to support its own grandiose self-envisionment.
Ten years after 9/11, that nagging sense that ours is a country past its prime--that it is literally a shell of what it once was, no longer able to make good on the promise of a better life, and yet still loudly proclaiming itself to be the Land of Opportunity--that nagging sense lingers, and has been driven deeper into our collective consciousness by another spectacular collapse: That of the entire economy, in 2008. The gulf between rich and poor is wider and starker than ever before, with the richest having moved from inordinate to stupendous wealth and the middle class sinking from a state of hanging-on-by-the-nails to scratching-the-walls-of-the-well. It’s getting harder to hold on to our prestige as a modern land of milk and honey, and as a result we cling all the more ferociously to glitz and glamor. Television itself tells the tale: We’ve become a nation obsessed by bickering, but well-dressed, people, whether on reality shows or cable news channels. Our expectations, our entitlement, and our disappointment have all, in their intertwined embrace, become wildly inflated, soaring skyward like the hot air balloon our culture has more or less become.
But "Mad Men," like a naughty kid seeking a peek up the supermodel’s skirt, skulks around at ground level. The show is a purveyor of nasty little truths, and its mood is one of dizziness ("What could possibly come next?") threaded with melancholy. The show’s pacing and rhythm are leisurely and subdued; the fifth-season opener was a two-hour double episode, and yet it felt as though almost nothing had happened. That’s an illusion, of course, because plenty of story development took place; it’s just that so much of the story is about internalized struggle (in the soul of an individual; in the offices of a Madison Avenue business; and, increasingly--the show is set in the ’60s, after all--in the very air of a nation lurching toward profound transformation).
Which illuminates another crucial point about the series. Where other shows set in that period have focused on the counter-culture, the rock music, the psychedelic styles, "Mad Men" has persisted in keeping its lens on people who are too busy with work and with their own flawed relationships to rush out and try to re-invent sex, the economy, and consciousness itself.
Season Five commences around Memorial Day of--what? 1966? 1967? The show can’t ignore the cultural earthquake of the decade forever. Vietnam looms (the husband of one major character is in uniform and, fans speculate, destined for battle overseas), Don’s oldest daughter is approaching adolescence and all the rebellion that entails (so how long before she becomes a flower child or a hippie chick?), and in the first episode of the new season Don’s firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, inadvertently put itself in the forefront of color-blind hiring practices (with a public dig at another firm that had embarrassed itself by harassing civil rights demonstrators). These are people who, despite themselves, are headed right into the era’s political and cultural storms.
If the America of the 1960s and America now share anything, it’s optimism. "Mad Men" may be a historical fiction, but it comments on modernity, perhaps by balancing so deftly on the cusp between an old order and the tidal wave of youthful idealism that reshaped the culture and, though it dissipated quickly, still reverberates today. (Birth control! Why, it’s practically communism! Just as any extreme right-wing Republican. Rick Santorum, for example.) A few weeks ago I was reading a lament that America no longer innovates; our culture has lapsed into recycling old styles, which, according to the article, was a symptom of a populace scared of the future and comforting itself with nostalgic visions of a golden, and largely imaginary, past.
This assessment strikes me as premature. New styles frequently smolder underground and largely out of sight before they flare up with an intensity that is often seen as dangerous and precipitous--rap music, "sagging" jeans, Bart Simpson, they all sent thrills of terror and provoked reactions ranging from amusement to renewed predictions of (or calls for) The End of the World. "Mad Men" may yet prove to be one of the cleverest jokes pulled by television writers; a show about a time of superficial order, a show that tickles our most unacceptable fantasies ("Remember when women knew their place?") while also turning that nostalgia upside down. (How will Don Draper adapt to the sexual revolution--especially given that he’s a horndog, but a horndog of a very conservative stripe--"Remember when men were expected to have affairs and, if they divorced, to marry younger and prettier women?")
So far, "Mad Men" has shown us only a few flickers of the cultural forest fire that helped renew and reinvent America and the Western World as a whole. Reactionary forces are still trying to drag us back into the 1950s, but could it be that all our retro-envy is one last gasp before something truly new emerges to challenge and reinvigorate us once more?
We may feel hollowness and dread that Don Draper would recognize as his own. But it’s also possible that we’re inching, almost without noticing it, toward tumultuous, confusing, and, ultimately, culturally refreshing times of our own. The mad men of "Mad Men" may be mad simply because they lack the sense or sanity to acknowledge that the world around them is mad, and getting madder by the day.