Updated: Sep 26
‘Problematic’ appears to be the synonym du jour for ‘challenging’ in 2020, which is challenging, sorry, problematic in its own right; especially when wanting to scratch under the surface of harrowing, uncomfortable viewing to ascertain what makes it so.
Watching early episodes of something as innocuous as Only Fools and Horses, you’d be forgiven for being taken by surprise by the abhorrent rhetoric of ‘Britain’s Favourite Comedy Character’, as bubbly barrow boy Del Trotter sends a young boy off to a ‘corner shop’ with language that would bring veils of piss to the boil all over the country were it shown today, then only to have vertical miracle Rodders breezily laugh off the prospect of a mixed race sibling. The dialogue wasn’t even the joke, just everyday language that seldom warranted notice let alone debate over its inherent racism. Watch it, if you dare. The first 30 seconds are classic John Sullivan, all the fresher for it not seeing the light of day for more than three decades.
There are dozens of these moments strewn across seven lush, intoxicating series of the AMC screen novel, Mad Men. That they were placed there, post-mortem, purposely and gloriously in context only serves to highlight the problematic nature of its subject and juxtapose with our own environ and how far we’ve come. But have we, really?
Some of the negative commentary around Mad Men has been of its sexism. Indeed, Matthew Weiner (creator and show runner) has had some #metoo allegations of his own to contend with, made via one of the show’s writers. Allegations he has vehemently denied, and ones that never saw charges…but in 2020, this is sometimes enough.
More recently, Mad Men has rightly come under the gaze of the cancel culture curators due to its use of series three, episode three's Blackface song and dance routine from Roger, used to heighten the romantic stakes when serenading his new wife, Jane. That it has escaped the death sentence and now comes with a prefix of a warning says all of the quality and audience understanding of its context, content and intention.
So, what is a Mad Men? And why is it? Let’s look first at how some find it an excuse to give good old male chauvinist masculinity one last airing. Someone smarter than I once said - “if you want to ruin the thing you love, find others that think they love it like you do.” I made that up, but it’s true. “Hell is other people”. Satre said that, so I must be on to something.
Covid’s lockdown allowed me to revisit two of my favourite shows in full: Mad Men & the Sopranos. Both not only stand up to modern eyed scrutiny, they’re all the more powerful for it. Delighted in their undiminished power, I wanted to reach out, touch it, shake hands and double kiss with actors, writers, wardrobe departments. I soaked up interviews, commentaries and documentaries, but one way traffic wasn’t enough - so I made the fatal ‘error of joining some Facebook groups’ to connect with likeminded individuals. I’ve put this in inverted commas because a universal truth becomes a cliche quicker than Betty Draper can drain a full tar tab at the breakfast table.
What I found in these groups, to my disappointment, was gaggles of irony deficient confirmation biased misanthropes. How they loved Don’s misogyny. How they loved the Soprano crew’s homophobia. Shagging! Death! Sociopathy! Alcoholism! Inequality! Hooray! They’d missed the point. I was worried that everyone had.
Mad Men is the story of an Ad Agency on New York City's Madison Avenue, 1960. We follow the travails of a haughty but brilliant Creative Director Donald Draper and his hoard of followers in Senior Partners Roger Stirling & Bert Cooper, a debutant’s ball of college graduates in Pete Campbell, Harry Kane, Paul Kinsey and Ken Cosgrove and a trio of subordinates in Joan Holloway, Peggy Olsen and Norwegian Blue, Betty Draper. It’s a snowstorm of the white, post-war middle classes battling it out for the chance to be heard, and if they’re lucky, adored. Yeuch.
But, it isn’t that at all. It’s the story of change. Of social upheaval. Of the struggle for civil and women’s rights. It’s a study in the slow death of the patriarchy. It’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s version of Borat, with Sophia Loren taking the lead role. Mad Men is a mirror to the past, held up to us all with the sole purpose of rubbing our modern sensibility up the wrong way in order to reveal a truth about ourselves that we didn’t want to see. All in the hope that we’ve made some progress.
We join the cast, not by accident, on Peggy Olsen’s first day in the office. She is every other girl in the typing pool - quiet, obedient, eager to please. Joan, the camera panning back to fit her in, walks her through her role as subservient to the top dog, Don. She’s to pick up a needle and thread on her lunch break. She may also need to drop her brain in the waste paper basket on the way. However, this is her journey, as it slowly pans across the decade. And what a decade.
Don, as befitting of his entire arc across all 92 episodes, is late. He’s in a bar talking to a black waiter about his favourite brand of snout, before snouting about in his own trough on a detour to the office. That he ends the series by talking to hippies and thinking about Coke is a marker of the full extent of his learning. A monolith to the age of men, he stands still as time passes him by. Peggy, however, ends up somewhere entirely different to where she began - independent, capable, reputable, bending time and the age to her will. This is Peggy’s story.
How Mad Men signposted the last age of man:
Midway through season one Peggy is already changing. From whippet to whopper, she’s growing into her role in ways she didn’t expect and couldn’t imagine: she was pregnant and had no idea. This tells us two key things about what a good girl in pre-Beatles 1960’s USA was expected to be. From a good family, though bereft of male role models (her father having dropped down dead in front of her as a teenager and her sister’s husband nursing a suspicious back injury and laid permanently on the couch), she was smothered by a conformist sister and religiously conservative mother who paid plenty of attention to whichever Father was coming to tea, but not enough to her girl who was preparing for a life amongst the big bad world of men, work and booze. Mercilessly seduced by a fiancéed Pete in episode one just as he went off to marry and honeymoon, she gestated her burgeoning career and their baby.
Her intelligence, and her appeal to Don, began to emerge just as her perceived beauty took a significant nose dive.
“Do I have to?” Peggy’s response to being asked to entertain Pete by Don.
In an age when, as Joan, the office matriarch and at this early stage, caricature, would point out during her induction, it wouldn’t be a crime to put a paper bag over your head “get undressed then look at your self in the mirror…evaluate where your strengths are…and be honest”, this was already unusual in the birdcage of Sterling Cooper.
Already bucking a trend, her career took a steeper upward trajectory the fatter she got. This created tension from the bullpen - Pete, having dismissed her was confused as to why she’d refused to disappear. Her wit got her noticed. Refusing to take part in a Belle Jolie lipstick focus group, she noted that a waste paper basket with used tissue samples resembled a ‘basket of kisses’. This was no secretary. Eyes were on the one part of her she wanted people to see.
Breaking from the mould of good girl-secretary-marries nice man-has babies-lives in the suburbs, she goes on to break social and professional barrier after barrier. Before giving birth to a baby she wasn't expecting, she at the hight of her weight gain and nadir of her appeal, was handed a no-win assignment as either a test from Don to prove her mettle, or something to defeat her and put her back in her box of colours - to name, brand and prepare for sale the ‘Relax-a-Cizor’; a vibration based weight loss tool for women. Already exposed to seduction, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the charged atmosphere she, after a fright or two, embraced it’s USP - she had a massive wank. And owned it.
"The Rejuvenator - you’ll love the way it makes you feel”- a relieved Peggy Olson
In the arena of male dominated sexuality, she liberated herself and presented her findings to a room full of suddenly rather sheepish men - she found herself, her space, her niche and her voice as the men lost theirs. A unique victory that earned her an immediate promotion to copy writer and mother. And then disappeared.
Conversely, we see Betty Draper at the same point in time, on an altogether different trajectory. Scornful, ice-cold Nordic beauty that she is, brilliantly played by January Jones, her character is one of all surface, no feeling. Her whole life has led up to winning a man and being his companion and mother to his children. How disappointing it must have been to get everything you want for it to leave you empty and alone. She is all the women that have come before her and many since. A portrait hanging in the gallery of martyrs that are our grandmothers, mothers, sisters and wives.
Betty’s liberation never arrives. She, discovering Don’s true identity and soul bearing lie, feels desolate and desperate in its wake, but entrenched in her strive for conformity and compliance she can’t break free from the prison she, or society, made for her. Not until she finds another man to take her on does she break away, into a similarly stifling situation. Bets hasn’t the strength or desire to be independent, and thus never finds what she’s looking for - herself. She sees liberation in her daughter, Sally. She has her parent’s shared beauty, but her father’s streak of defiance and none of her mother’s prudish regressiveness. Betty openly resents her for it. Only in her ‘don’t open ’til I’m dead’ letter to Sally does Betty express her admiration for ability to walk to ‘the beat of your own drum’. It’s one of five or six truly heartbreaking moments from the show.
So, we have Peggy shagging and frigging all over her brilliantly incisive ad copy, and Betty…the only known victim to Don’s erectile dysfunction who is reduced to fantasising about her liberation, leaning against the twin-tub washing machine thinking about the Air Con salesman she momentarily thought about seducing, but kicked out at the last minute lest she be seen to be anything other than the perfect housewife. Feminism in two parts - fantasy and actualisation. Two ages collide in these two three dimensional women of the mid-twentieth century.
The death of masculinity - what does this mean? Does it mean WOMEN ARE GREAT NOW, SHUT UP MEN, or does it mean a deliberate alteration in what it means to be a man, by a man, perceived by all? In current debate, it can sometimes feel like the former, but all over Mad Men and in real life amongst humans (not social media) it’s the latter.
Don. I’m not going to go into what Don is. He’s Pete with looks, charm and hairline, really. Ok, damnit, I did, but that’s it. However, there is one major point with Don that bears new discussion. His progressive intentions to particular areas of masculinity, and how he refuses to bend to Betty’s ideal of it…and later Megan’s.
Whilst Don is in part modelled on the ‘strong silent type’ that Tony Soprano fooled himself into thinking he was, Don was largely silent due to his hyper-awareness that a profligacy of words would deceive him. The truth was a tightrope to be walked upon slowly. Capable of profundities, he also hid a secret life, so he metered out his words with care. When, on occasion, he was coerced into talking for more than a few moments outside of the office, he’d often let slip a bit of himself that allowed you to root for him, clouding your judgement with empathy. When, foreshadowing a later scene with Megan, Bobby knocks over a drink at dinner, Betty flies into a rage and demands that Don scold him - preferably physically. The best, or worst, he’d allow himself is to throw the boy’s toy robot at the wall, killing a bit of joy but not manhandling him. A row follows the husband and wife upstairs, before Bobby, no more than five, apologises to his father. Sensing an opening, as five year olds do, he pushes him on his own parentage. He asks if his own ‘Daddy got mad?’ When Don replied in the affirmative, implying that there was violence involved, Bobby looks him square on and says:
“We have to get you a new Daddy”
Right? Jeez. Don will not be his father, he wants to feel something else. Anything. He later opens up further to Betty, ten or twelve years into their marriage:
Don: “My father beat the hell out of me. All it did was make me fantasise about the day I could murder him.”
Betty: “I didn’t know that.”
The story of what men and women were, wanted to be or what was expected of them was in direct conflict. A quick succession of wars changed not only men, but their place in the world. They came home to find home altered and their wives at work. The old way was dying, if not extinct. Don’s story is a powerful and direct allegory of this.
His empathy for those in pain, or those without, also comes into conflict with his own near sociopathic instinct to hide himself away. Isn’t this the story of modern man? In one of the most shocking reveals of the series is the root of Don’s special relationship with Peggy. In a flashback from series two’s episode five, we visit Peggy in the recovery position in a maternity ward. Hopes and dreams destroyed, all sense of self in the past, Peggy is in the grip of post-natal depression. From a mirage appears Don, dreamlike, sat as if behind his desk next to the foot of her bed. He asks her what is expected of her. She doesn’t know. He asks her what she wants. She doesn’t know. So he tells her.
“Move forward...This never happened. It’ll shock you how much it never happened.”
Don, a man who has been able to carve himself from new stone, brutally connects with a young lady who desperately needs to. It’s a moment of terrifying clarity from one isolated but independent being to another, who he sees as harbouring the same quality should she have the bravery to embrace it. Whilst not quite MAN GIVING WOMAN PERMISSION TO BE WOMAN it is a signpost of society allowing women to be free from the responsibility of motherhood. A metaphor for sexual liberation and the pill, her is a new path. Move forward, make yourself anew.
Don is still a man in his 30’s in the early 1960’s, however. He’s more than happy to mentor a likeminded, singular personality like Peggy - he sees value in her, and it’s mutually beneficial that she thrive. It doesn’t sit so comfortably when it’s his wife that wants to move forward. Megan, his former secretary (shadowing Peggy’s arc) and second wife (what could have been!) had designs beyond being his partner in copy crime. She came to New York City to do what it took to be an actress. She and Jane Segal, Roger’s second wife and Don’s former secretary (stay with me) had more than a little in common. Both Don & Roger saw each other’s new beau as an expensive folly and both thought the other wrong. This is happening all the world right now, but ‘this one will be different’.
Don, and this is us looking at you, controlling men, was happy to feed Megan’s dreams, make them tangible, until the very moment they became a reality. It did not suit him to leave his position and start again, unless he was running. And his was a race that only had room for one. Megan had her career paid for and sabotaged simultaneously - a living divorce. She was a classic second wife of a man who wouldn’t give himself completely, but by now, we were coming toward the end of the decade, and woman would woman. She carved out a quasi-successful career in LA and got a million bucks from Don. Ultimately, she got what she wanted. This was a new type of woman, and she found her home. She’d get over Don in a way that Betty never would.
I described Pete Campbell earlier as Don without the charm. He is the man we all know. He is me, and if you’re a man, he’s you too. Sorry to break it to you. He’s the man that has a lovely (too lovely) wife and child, a nice job and apartment and has an affair and immediately gets caught. Don would leave Dodge, $2bn in the bank and a nice haircut and tailored suit. Pete can’t. He’s you. He gets booted out and can’t see his daughter. Without Don’s mysticism, charm and looks you’re left with a balding middle aged chap with the same car as your neighbour, retweeting paranoid far-right rhetoric on Twitter and joining all kinds of unsavoury Facebook groups to reach out to like minded individ…shit. See? This is the man that never dies. Not without talent, but not remarkable enough to cast a seven series prime time TV show around, he’s the white male that will kind of make it in the end and, at best, win some kind of epiphany and redemption before it’s all too late.
One remarkable feature of Pete’s arc is the storyline with his father: when his father’s plane goes down, killing all occupants, it also brings down the curtains of an era of privilege and expected, inherited wealth. The common pre-war bourgeoisie. It becomes clear immediately post-mortem that Daddy Campbell had pissed his fortune up the wall - bad investments, loans, borrowing from trust funds. Pete’s on his own, the name on his back is all he inherits. What emerges from this is a new freemasonry of classless youth. An American dream - you don’t have to start with it all to make it, but it helps. Pete does ultimately make it on his own terms, and as he is me, that’s about the best I can hope for.
Mad Men has managed to escape being Cancelled, beyond its ultimate ending as a going concern. Despite its brash and violent depictions of Blackface, anti-semitism (Weiner of course, is Jewish and brilliantly handles the subject through subterfuge and overtism), sexism, homophobia, rape and more, it has become the enchanted mirror we can look into and see the past without the shock of an early ‘80s John Sullivan sitcom. We can feel surprise at ‘how it was’ whilst looking at a beautiful face. We can see black talent forcing its way in through sheer determinism, despite protestations from white business owners and we can see women - growing into a liberation of their own making, forging a new future and reshaping masculinity as it went.
Masculinity isn’t quite dead, it’s in a painful rebirth, but Mad Men documents its transition with an exhilarating lucid beauty that we’ll be lucky if we ever see again.