Making Sense of “Mad Men”


I’m a great admirer of Daniel Mendelsohn because he draws our attention to what we don’t notice.  In writing brilliantly about contemporary movies and plays, he reminds us of ancient, recurring, ever-insistent narrative structures and demands.  He points us backward, but his words always let us live forward.

Even so, sometimes he gets it wrong, usually because the erudition born of his classical training blinds him: he knows enough to doubt everything.  His skeptical take on “Brokeback Mountain,” for example, was a pointless exercise in debunking.

And now he’s decided that “Mad Men” is worthless.  The language he uses to press his indictment is itself extraordinary, bordering on the hysterical exhortation we remember from wounded parents and weary teachers: the show commits “the worst possible offense,” the writing is “extremely weak”—can weakness be extreme?—the acting is “bland and sometimes amateurish.”  So the adoring audience, including the critical establishment, is in the grip of “a kind of madness.”  This audience is at best “irrational,” and at worst “addicted.”  It’s childish.

Mendelsohn is no snob—he’s found plenty to praise on TV, and not just on cable.  He cites “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” as standards of dramatic excellence, of course (a gesture that is just tiresome by now, and I say this as an addict of McNulty’s Baltimore); but he also suggests that “Mad Men” suffers by comparison to “Battlestar Galactica” and “Friday Night Lights.”

The last reference is interesting in its own right, because Mendelsohn defends it by declaring that this show “offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.”  The finest?  I’m a big fan of “Friday Night Lights,” but the rest of us would probably cite “The Simpsons” or “Family Guy” if we were looking for such a representational standard; for we know, mainly from our own experience, that this odd convention—“middle-class marriage”—deserves the surreal treatment it gets in the parallel universe of cartoon politics.

But that’s the question of narrative form Mendelsohn raises without quite announcing his allegiance to Tom Wolfe’s notion of realism, or his affiliation with Jonathan Franzen’s idea of the “social novel.”  (Both manifestoes were published in Harper’s: Franzen of course accuses Wolfe of “sublime incomprehension,” “perfect ignorance,” and so forth, but they agree on the proper social purchase of the novel and the obvious threat that movies, TV, and computers—images—represent to literature.)

Mendelsohn does come right out and say that “the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic,” and goes on to explain: “By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises . . . rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination.”  He might as well be quoting Franzen, who insisted—and now, in Freedom, has demonstrated—that the unique “glory” of the social novel consists in “its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context.”

But come on, is Mendelsohn really complaining that the writing and the acting—the fictions, the characterizations—get in the way of the reality that was the 1960s?  If so, he might as well be a pompous historian, saying, “Sure, it’s entertaining, but that’s not what really happened back then.”  Still, that’s the complaint.  “The show’s style is, essentially symbolic,” Mendelsohn announces at the outset, as if this might be grounds for a literary grievance: “it represents fantasies, or memories, of significant potency.”  Or again, he claims that what “cripples the show’s ability to tell us anything of real substance about the world it depicts” is an attitude toward the 60s that is “simultaneously contemptuous and pandering”—as if he’s assessing a documentary or reading a memoir, or as if we’ve been watching what’s good for us on public television.

Oh, and “it keeps eroticizing what it’s showing us, too”—as if we’d be watching otherwise.

But herein lies the (unconscious) genius of the piece.  Mendelsohn’s blindness produces genuine insight: his specifications of weakness actually demonstrate the strengths of the show.  In an amazing feat of counter-transference, he functions as our group therapist, scolding our addiction by psychoanalyzing the show, but meanwhile squeezing himself onto the couch alongside the rest of us, where we can understand that his words have large meanings he didn’t intend.

There’s no sleight-of-hand here.  The man does this magic trick with two strokes, front and back: we love “Mad Men,” he explains, because it (1) releases us from the “endless prohibitions against pleasure” that characterize the “present era,” and—therapeutically speaking, this is the same thing—because it (2) gives the children, particularly Sally and Glen, a privileged point of view on the mysterious actions of the inexplicable adults (on Betty’s thoughtless cruelty, for example, which has the gratuitous feel of a fairy-tale stepmother, the figure who is always coded as the cause of our emotional exile from childhood because, like any mother, she divides her erotic energy between the father and the children).

In other words, the show allows and enacts a return to Oedipal scenes long since cauterized from our consciousness: “It’s only when you realize that the most important ‘eye’—and ‘I’—in Mad Men belongs to the watchful if often uncomprehending children, rather than to the badly behaved and often caricatured adults, that the show’s special appeal comes into focus.”

We understand backward: we regress, therefore we are.


“Unless ye be as little children, thou shalt not enter the Kingdom of God”: so said the rabbi who roused the rabble of the ancient world.  You can’t become a child again, otherwise you just do childish things.  But you can try to understand the world from the standpoint of the children in your midst—you can try to make it new, to see it as if you’re a child again.

But what does the child know that can help the adults, and vice versa?  Not innocence—go ask Claggart, he’ll tell you Billy Budd is no help unless you’re looking for a way to live without the constant presence of death, and that’s just another way of dying by abstaining from life: that’s blindness.  No, it’s something else.

McNulty’s buddy, The Bunk—the bulky homicide detective with the dancer’s feet—knows what that something is.  He calls it “soft eyes.”  By this he means the ability to approach the primal scene of a crime without preconceptions: nothing gets ruled out because all anomalies, even miracles, are possible, because normal forensic science doesn’t blind you to what is improbable but still possible.

Children have soft eyes.  They know what the present feels like because they don’t yet know the future as a burden or a responsibility to be shouldered and redeemed by work, by their purposeful efforts in the here and now.  They don’t want to change the world—they wouldn’t know how—so they’re more attentive than adults to its density, its details.  In this sense, they’re more knowledgeable observers than their parents, who, having already categorized the world, can’t see past their preconceptions (a.k.a. common sense).  Children are not yet “ideological.”  They’re not yet anxious about the future.

Now the adults who don’t want to change the world aren’t necessarily childish.  They come in three types.  The first is the wise cynic, the detective who’s resigned to the world as it is.  The second is the radical or the evangelist, the preacher who’s already consigned this fallen world to the flames.  The third is the optimist, the pragmatist who keeps hoping for the best even though the evidence of the worst keeps piling up.  Notice that all three don’t want to change the world because they know they can’t; notice too that all three are both ideological and anxious about the future.

Children are different.  They’re not resigned to the world, they don’t despise it, and they don’t hope for the best—they just abide—because neither the past nor the future can yet serve as a standard by which to judge the present: they inhabit a world without work as adults know it, so changing the thing can’t seem plausible.

That is the world on display in “Mad Men.”  We know going in that the “tumultuous 60s” changed everything, but the people at the primal scene of this crime—and that is how fundamental change is always perceived—don’t seem to be aware that their decisions are momentous for those of us who live in their aftermath.  And this is what makes the show so deeply realistic and dramatic, even by Mendelsohn’s Aeschylean standards: it’s only in narrative retrospect that these random moments begin to look like real—that is, meaningful—events.

The world on display in “Mad Men,” in other words, is a world made random, and thus erotic, by the absence of work—what we used to call socially necessary labor—even though the workplace is the setting that assembles and motivates all the characters, informing every scene, including the crucial flashbacks, as origin or destination.  The work the show requires is our emotional investment in the ending—the future we inhabit as adult viewers.

In this sense, what Mendelsohn offers as his most damning complaint about the show—“’Mad Men’ is much like a successful advertisement itself”—is also a great compliment to the writers and the producers and the actors, and of course to us, the audience, as well.  Blindness becomes insight.  For advertising depicts a world free of necessary labor.  It’s where we go when we want to “be as little children,” before and after work.  It’s where “Mad Men” takes us as spectators.

When Mendelsohn follows up on this protest by shifting its object from the series to the 60s, from the representation to the reality, we know that his original indictment—the show can’t “tell us anything of real substance about the world it depicts”—has been overruled by a higher court of his own invention.  Here is how the new ruling gets announced: “like advertising itself, the decade [“Mad Men”] depicts was often hypocritical, indulging certain ‘images’ and styles of behavior while knowing them to be false, even unjust.”  The representation and the reality are now the same, so the former can’t be criticized as a distortion of the latter: the original indictment is at least moot.  Insight becomes blindness.


“Like advertising itself,” that’s Mendelsohn’s emphatic declaration, whether the show or the decade is the object of the critique.  It confirms the opening move—we adore this show because it delivers us from the now ubiquitous “prohibitions against pleasure”—and it sets up the concluding gesture—we adore this show because it lets us “be as little children,” as the ad men would like us to be.  He thinks that the metaphor (show= advertising=1960s) serves as a self-evident summary of the critique.  I think he’s right to summarize in this manner, but I also think that his semaphoric reduction of these three separate moments serves as a powerful recommendation, as one very good reason to keep watching the show without guilt.

I’d put the point he can’t make this way: we gleefully watch because we already know that advertising removes us from a world defined by necessary labor, and we’ll keep watching because we know that advertising is the last utopian idiom of our time.

In the pivotal episode 6 of “Mad Men,” Year One, Rachel Mencken, a potential client of Don Draper, describes Israel as “more of an idea than a place”—she’s trying to say that it’s more of a pretext than a destination, more of a protest than a plan.  The ever-intuitive Don understands her, so without a beat he says “Utopia.”  She nods, but splits the word into the two meanings her Barnard professors had taught her: “a good place, and the place that cannot be.”

In his own erudite way, Herbert Marcuse agreed with Rachel and Don.  In Eros and Civilization (1955, paperback ed. 1961), Utopia appeared as the “sphere outside labor,” as both an elusive idea that had forever haunted the artistic imagination—the place that cannot be—and an impending stage of human development, a good place for the conduct of the good life.  I bring this book on stage now because it can remind us of the extraordinary possibilities intellectuals took for granted in the late 1950s and early 60s—the possibilities that permeate every frame of “Mad Men.”

Once upon a time, mere survival in a savage world required the deferral of gratification; once upon a time, the development of civilization required repression: less play, more work, that was the price of our exit from the state of nature, according to Freud.

But in 1961, Marcuse insisted that this price of civilization—restraint, renunciation, delay, in a word, work—was too much to bear because material scarcity no longer defined the human condition.  The good place and the place that cannot be now had the same address, because automation was about to “reduce labor time to a minimum.”  The “sphere outside labor” had become a mere fact as well as a bohemian resort.  As a result, Marcuse declared, “the very notion of utopia loses it meaning.”


But then he changed his mind—he decided, along with Norman O. Brown and Susan Sontag, that if this “sphere outside labor” came packaged as consumer culture, all dressed up in the garish colors of advertising, it was an empty promise, perhaps even a fascist threat to freedom and fulfillment: don’t take my word for it, see Life Against Death (1959), One-Dimensional Man (1964), and Against Interpretation (1965).

Marcuse, Brown, and Sontag notwithstanding, advertising has remained as the utopian publicist of the place that could be, that “sphere outside labor.”  Since the expiration of actually existing socialism, it’s only or mainly in advertising that the idea of this “good place” is still preserved—so that utopia remains as a vital part of our imaginations, constantly invading our everyday lives, urging us to violate the demands of increased “productivity” and to interrupt reality with minor misdemeanors or great refusals, whatever removes us from the realm of necessity—from work—and projects us into a world of leisure, indolence, receptivity, and consumption.

So advertising as such, but especially the moment of the “creative revolution” on display in “Mad Men,” is the perfect setting for the dramatization of our thwarted utopian desires.  The “good place” beyond work is forbidden because it’s the place that cannot be: it’s where you were as a child, unburdened by any obligation to the future.  But it’s where you go when you watch “Mad Men.”


When Don responds to his potential client’s cryptic remark about Israel with “Utopia,” you have to wonder why.  It makes no sense until you watch him later that night in the Gaslight, a Village club, listening to his downtown lover’s friend sing “By the Rivers of Babylon,” a vaguely (and anachronistically) reggae tune whose refrain is this: “And we remembered Zion.”

The refrain carries the camera through shots of a pensive Rachel, of Don’s wife and daughter sharing lipstick, of his boss zipping his lover’s red dress in a midtown hotel room, and then back to the smoky club.  As the camera moves us, giving us access to scenes Don hasn’t witnessed, his expression suggests that he’s remembering his own exile from his past, his former life—he’s reinvented himself by stealing another man’s identity—and his uneasy assimilation into this new world, this abundant, urban America.

“Zion” has always been a shorthand definition of an imagined community that feels imminent but isn’t extant: it’s an urgent idea whose time has not yet come, as in the “promised land,” but somehow it also means a journey you have to make, an inevitable return to where you’ve never been.  The word itself reminds you that the story we share about our origins is a tale of expulsion from Eden, where work was impossible.  You know it’s not a place, not now, maybe not ever, and yet it calls you home all the same.  This is the Utopia Don Draper “remembers” in the Gaslight—he remembers the principle of hope, the idea and the possibility of the “good place” he wants to sell, to himself among others.

As the American Adam in search of this irretrievable Eden, Don reminds us that what he wants, and what he sells, is the same thing, “freedom from fear.”  It’s a New Deal slogan, of course, a cliché that he casually translated in Episode 1 as “the smell of a new car” (note that it’s here, in passing references, or in broadcast words on the radio or TV, that “public context,” as Franzen calls it, is conjured, as against the flashbacks that give us the back story on Don’s private life: the nation’s past is summoned by words, the individual’s past is conveyed in images).  But it’s just that possibility of embodiment in this world, in everyday life, of the pleasure principle, that he represents.

Marcuse called on two big names, Alfred North Whitehead and Theodor Adorno, to make sense of that utopian urge—the urge to make pleasure the regulative principle of everyday life: “This Great Refusal [Whitehead] is the protest against unnecessary repression, the struggle for the ultimate form of freedom—‘to live without anxiety’ [Adorno].  But this idea could be formulated without punishment only in the language of art.  In the more realistic context of political theory and even philosophy, it was almost universally defamed as utopia.”

And now this idea is formulated without punishment, with reckless pleasure, only in the grotesque and yet idiomatic language of advertising, where commodities come alive and speak clearly, as if Walt Whitman himself—not Dick Whitman, Don Draper’s real name—had summoned them, and was begging us to live as he did, without anxiety in a world so reified that money doesn’t just talk, it smiles.  Here’s old Walt at the conclusion of Song for Occupations: “When the minted gold in the vault smiles like the night-watchman’s daughter,/ When warrantee deeds loafe in chairs opposite and are my friendly companions,/ I intend to reach them my hand, and make as much of them as I do of men and women like you.”

It’s hard to watch Dick Whitman/Don Draper reach out to us and protest against unnecessary repression when he’s all dressed up in a suit and tie, meanwhile pitching the ultimate form of freedom on the job— “to live without anxiety,” free of fear—and in his not-so-personal life.  But this unlikely agreement between him and Theodor Adorno on the essential meaning of freedom sells me on the idea of utopia as Herbert Marcuse peddled it in Eros and Civilization, and as advertising still purveys it.


Their agreement also sells me on “Mad Men,” which, according to Daniel Mendelsohn, “is much like an advertisement itself.”  He’s right, I’m irrationally addicted to this show precisely because it reduces me to a child-like state of workless reverie, where the past and the present merge, and where the future cannot matter except as the “good place” where necessary labor is incidental to real life.

He’s wrong as well, but his mistakes are more important, more useful, than his parental corrections of my affective diction—his blindness is more insightful, more productive, than his vision.  So I remain a great admirer because he continues to draw our attention to what we don’t notice.  In the case of “Mad Men,” what we hadn’t noticed is the regression the show demands of its viewers—that is, the regress to a former, or at any rate a different, stage of apprehension.  When we watch this show, we’re in the place that cannot be, the place that remains as the means and the end of every “work” of art.

Like a good psychoanalyst, Mendelsohn is returning the content of repressed memory to consciousness, and in doing so, he’s trying to cure us: he’s trying to free us from our childish attachments.  But like a stubborn analysand, he’s meanwhile convinced us that our attachment to this show is a sign of health, not merely a symptom of disease.  We watch “Mad Men” because we still need a utopian alternative to the moral idiocy of late capitalism, because we know, somehow, that this alternative thrives in the improbable precinct of advertising, and because we understand that freedom from socially necessary labor—from work—is a practical imperative, not an irredeemable promise.



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2 responses to “Making Sense of “Mad Men”

  1. Even though I’ve previously heard you express the same insight in other formulations, I received the post’s concluding sentence with the same shot of spinal electricity that I felt when I read my future philosophical heroes for the first time.

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