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'Mad Men' and the California Dream

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“Let’s go to Los Angeles. I’ve been there. It’s filled with sunshine.” —Pete Campbell, 1967.

“I thought I was really changing my life when I went out to California. Of course, now it sort of feels like a dream. But at the time, it felt so real.” —Pete Campbell, 1970.

A sunny day in California. Pool, palm trees, sunlight. It’s Mad Men, “The Jet Set,” season 2, episode 11. It’s the first time we see Don Draper in Los Angeles. He’s in town for an aeronautics convention. He stands over a pool, his back to the camera, smoking a cigarette. The plane lost his luggage. Air travel, cigarettes, water, suitcases, the back of Don’s head: Mad Men‘s first sighting of the West Coast is a veritable Greatest Hits album of the show’s favorite symbols, Now That’s What I Call Matthew Weiner Motifs!

But before we see Los Angeles, we see the sunshine. It’s the end of “The Inheritance,” season 2, episode 10. Don’s on a plane out west, next to a sleeping Pete. (Typical: Pete will always be three seasons behind Don, moving to the suburbs right as Don moves back to the city, divorcing his first wife right as Don starts cheating on his second.) “We’re expecting clear skies en route to Los Angeles today,” says the pilot. “It should be a pleasant day. 82 degrees and clear, with a light Santa Ana wind.” Don’s life on the show has never been more precarious: Betty kicked him out, maybe doesn’t want him back. But out west, it’s pleasant, clear. Don looks out the window. The sunlight crawls up his face.

The shot directly recalls the end of Igby Goes Down, for anyone who remembers Igby Goes Down. Think Catcher in the Rye crossed with Gossip GirlIgby Goes Down earned good reviews back in 2002, and it’s an important geo-chronological midpoint between nasty Manhattan pre-Giuliani and luxury Manhattan post-Bloomberg.

The movie’s focus is on Igby, a poor little rich kid played by best-Culkin-ever Kieran, who longs to escape from his blue blood family. Long story short: It’s the movie Wes Anderson would make if Wes Anderson had a sex drive, and it ends with Igby on a plane out to Los Angeles. The context here is the context in Mad Men: Escape your family problems. Go west, young man! The sunlight is there. The song is “The Weight” by the Band, the kind of music cue Matthew Weiner might’ve loved—although it’s performed by Travis, right when they transformed from the lamer Radiohead to the cooler Coldplay.

Did Mad Men get that scene from Igby Goes Down? More likely it’s just an easy shorthand. The divide between New York and Los Angeles looms large in cultural history—or anyhow, the cultural history of creative-class media types, who generally have to pick one and are therefore prone to dislike the other. For the lucky ones, there’s option 3: Both. (“We’ll be bicoastal!” Don tells one wife, sending her out the door.) New York can always score the easy points against LA: vapid people, kale, no public transportation, turn right on red. But when one steps off the plane from New York, and one walks outside, one invariably has to admit: There is more sunshine.

Mad Men is a New York show. And it tracks the rise and fall of various eras of New York cool. It begins in the Bob Dylan days, and simultaneously the Breakfast at Tiffany’s days: bohemian rockers composing the music of a generation, young independent women paying for their own apartments with their own jobs. Don starts season 1 living the mid-century suburban ideal; by season 5, he’s got the coolest Manhattan apartment this side of Hannah and Her Sisters. In season 6, the police sirens echo through the streets, and young independent women fearfully stab their boyfriends with knife-brooms.

You could argue, in some loop-de-loop way, that Mad Men‘s nostalgic vision of old New York influenced the last decade of Manhattan. Barring a wild flashforward, Mad Men‘s story will end right around the moment when Johnny Carson moved The Tonight Show west—and Mad Men itself ends with The Tonight Show back in New York. Back when she was just starting out at Sterling Cooper, Peggy was always a bit embarrassed about coming from Brooklyn; now, everywhere is the Brooklyn of somewhere.

But Mad Men, and Don, always looked west. By my rough estimate, with just one episode left to go, Mad Men has visited Los Angeles in ten episodes, plus or minus the occasional standalone scene with a telephone check-in with the LA office. That’s one whole whole Game of Thrones season; it’s like someone embedded a failed spinoff inside of a long-running series. (Mad Men: Sterling Cooper West.)

The show initially used the West Coast for Don’s season 2 spirit quest, in “The Jet Set” and “The Mountain King.” “Jet Set” is one of the show’s weirdest episodes, and one of my favorites. It plunges right into the esteemed iconography of California-as-Sunsoaked-Dreamscape. Don meets a girl named Joy (!) who drives him out to the desert. He meets her family. They’re traveling Europeans, homeless, wealthy, vaguely incesty—well-dressed hobos. It’s a heaven of wish-fulfillment. (When Don has sex with Joy, she doesn’t just say the sex is good. She says it’s better than William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.) The family is moving on, to the Bahamas; maybe Don could join them.

Instead, Don goes to visit an old friend. One Mrs. Draper kicked him out, so Don flew west to see the original model. Anna Draper only appeared a few times, but she looms large. She sees Don clearly; she knows all his secrets. You imagine that, from Don’s perspective, she is the only person who loves him completely.

You could tease out some lingering skepticism in their idealized soul-friendship. She loves Don completely; all she asks in return is payment for her entire life. (“That’s what the money’s for!” Don yells, in the same episode that coincidentally sees Anna die.)

But it’s clear that Anna—and, by extension, this whole strange California adventure—has given Don precisely what he needed. Clarity, maybe. Or maybe just the illusion of clarity, the reassurance that whatever he’s doing is okay.

When Don arrives in Los Angeles, he’s standing next to a pool, looking incredibly out of place in his New York Suit Uniform. Two episodes later, our last first view of Mad Men‘s California is Don, standing in the ocean, looking exultant. So you could also argue that the West Coast sequences are Mad Men at its most indulgent, its most symbolically overloaded. Here Now Is Man, Baptized Backwards Into Innocence.

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California looked like paradise in season 2, a place that Don could visit and just be himself, without any lame wife or annoying kids or responsibilities. Cut to “The Good News,” season 4, episode 3. Don’s divorced. No wife, no kids… and he’s on a drunken tear. Season 4 was the first time Don started to look old, the first time he made drinking look uncool. (Right before he flew out to California, he awkwardly one-night-standed with his secretary, a radically un-suave coupling that only took place because Don was too drunk to remember his apartment key. Problem #4578 with being a divorced man: Nobody’s home to unlock the door.)

So Don visits Anna. He smokes a little pot; he helps her paint. He meets Anna’s niece, and thinks: “Why not?” But reality invades. Anna is very sick. And Anna doesn’t know it: Her sister refuses to tell her, wants Anna to live out her final days with bliss, happiness, and Joy. Don tells the sister she’s wrong. But Anna’s sister has his number. “You have no say in the affairs of this family. You’re just a man, in a room, with a checkbook.” He signs his true name on the wall. At least he owns that wall. (That’s what the money’s for.)

Don returns to California in the fourth season finale. Anna’s dead, but maybe the past doesn’t matter: The episode is called “Tomorrowland.” It’s in “Tomorrowland” that Don starts, ever so gradually, to reveal his true self to his kids. But it’s also in “Tomorrowland” that Don proposes to Megan. When does he decide to do this? Is it when he finds her playing with his kids in the pool—another sunny day, Don wearing another completely out-of-place suit—and imagines that they’re all one big happy family? Never underestimate Don’s capacity for sentimentality: This is also the episode where he proposes to somebody right after they go to Disneyland.

So Los Angeles is where Don goes to start his life all over again. By season 5, that notion of California seemed to penetrate the collective psyche of the whole Sterling Cooper oversoul. In season 5, Harry Crane sends poor lost Paul Kinsey out to Los Angeles with five hundred dollars, a plane ticket, and a Star Trek spec script. He tells Paul: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure? This life? It’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” The same season, Pete begs his adulterous lover Rory Gilmore to run away with him. “Let’s go to Los Angeles,” says Pete. “I’ve been there. It’s filled with sunshine.”

In this case, Pete’s four seasons behind Don. Cut to Don, at the end of season one, saying “Let’s go away!” to Rachel Menken. “How about Los Angeles?” he continues. “We’ll start over like Adam and Eve.” It’s the last time they’re ever alone together; it’s the scene when Rachel says: “What kind of man are you? Go away, drop everything, leave your life? You don’t want to run away with me. You just want to run away.”

Maybe heaven isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Los Angeles didn’t appear much in Mad Men‘s middle era, but the city had a designated onscreen representative: Harry Crane, Mister Television, always returning from a business trip to the West Coast. Harry Crane, with all the cool stories about going to cool parties where cool famous people ignored him; Harry Crane, with the kind of tan that just makes you realize how pale he really is.

Some people think Harry is Mad Men‘s clown. That’s true to a certain extent: His fumbling attempts at cool-dude adultery and business-bro aggressive corporate moves are treated like a joke. (Harry Crane makes Pete Campbell look like Don Draper.) But Mad Men can take Harry seriously when it wants to. He saw television coming. And computers, too—which weirdly enough makes him an avatar for Hollywood and Silicon Valley, California’s twin centers of post-industrial industry. Harry’s rising importance at the ad agency underscores the fading importance of pretty much everyone else. By season 7, Harry Crane is the future, and Roger Sterling is the past. The show isn’t happy about that fact, but it recognizes why it had to happen.

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Which leads us to “A Tale of Two Cities,” season 6, episode 10. Season 6 is the darkest season of Mad Men—and the worst, I think, although it has a couple of the best episodes, and also I could happily just watch Mad Men in its entirety over and over on loop forever. (IMHO: Season 4 > Season 5 > Season 1 > Season 7 > Season 3 > Season 2 > Season 6.) “A Tale of Two Cities” isn’t the darkest episode, but it’s a deep wound for Don’s self-image—and for the show’s portrayal of the New York/Los Angeles power dynamic. Don flies out to Los Angeles with Roger, who prophesizes that they’ll be greeted with open arms. “We are big New York ad men!” Roger proclaims.

Calamity 1: The executives at Carnation aren’t impressed by New York ad men. Vision of the future: Nixon’s not even elected yet, and the Carnation executives are already looking ahead to the Reagan era.

Calamity 2: Don and Roger look painfully out of place, Roger in his old-man ascot, Don in his leisure-wear tan jacket. The party they go to is filled with hippies, facial hair, drugs they haven’t tried yet.

Calamity 3: Roger runs into little Danny Siegel, a failed ad man-turned-successful producer. (A failure reborn out west: Maybe Danny Siegel is just Paul Kinsey with a better agent.) Roger verbally jabs Danny, and Danny jabs Roger right in his manhood.

Calamity 4: In season 2, Don baptized himself in California. In season 4, Don watched Megan take care of his children in the pool. Water = redemption. Now, in season 6, Don nearly drowns in the pool at the party, undone by whatever was in that pipe he smoked. Don can hold his liquor, but he can’t handle the hash: It’s like watching John Wayne get out-manned by some hippie stoner from an Easy Rider knockoff.  “You’re a terrible swimmer,” Roger tells Don. (He didn’t used to be.)

They’re back on the airplane, heading East. “I don’t know what happened,” Don says. “I usually feel better out there.” He turns his head, and you might think he’s looking dreamily out the window again…

…but there’s no sun on his face this time. Because the window’s half-closed.

The California sun was supposed to make him feel better. Instead, by season 6, all Don gets from Los Angeles is a cold. (The Santa Ana wind was blowing too hard.)

In season 6’s finale, “In Care Of,” the firm makes plans for a West Coast office. (They have a big new account in Los Angeles. Do you think I’m talking too much about all the sunshine? The big new account is freaking Sunkist.) Stan asks Don if he can take over the account: He thinks it’s a great opportunity. Don body-snatches Stan’s ambitions and decides he wants to go to Los Angeles. He knows he’s a drunken wreck; he knows his marriage is in trouble. He promises Megan everything will be different out in Los Angeles.

What if it stopped there? What if Don and Megan went to Los Angeles? Would they still be married? Probably not. Ted raced out to Los Angeles in Don’s place, with a shockingly identical game plan. (Step One: Put entire country between myself and mistress. Step Two: Save marriage.) Ted wound up suicidal; he moved back to New York, and left his wife behind in Los Angeles.

Then again, maybe Don didn’t really want to run away to Los Angeles with Megan. Maybe he just wanted to run away. Instead, season 6 ends with Don revealing some element of his true self: A story about young Dick Whitman, in the bordello, with a Hershey’s Bar. This “true-self” revelation doesn’t take place in some faraway, sun-kissed bungalow, the Pacific waves lapping in the background. It’s in the Sterling Cooper & Partners boardroom.

In this context, going to Los Angeles would’ve been faking it somehow, running away from the truth. Instead, Don tells the truth. This is a man who drank and lied and cuckolded his way across an entire decade of American history—and the single most ruinous act of his professional career is telling an honest story about his youth to a room full of men in suits.

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How do we treat Mad Men‘s seventh season, released in two seven-episode halves? Is it one part? Two different parts? Double-sided mirror images? Initially, it felt like a cavalier play by AMC to overstretch its prestige player. (AMC’s big plan for its second act: Spin off everything from its first act.) But season 7A feels very, very different from season 7B. 7A is the story of a fallen man rising. 7B is the inverse, or maybe the extrapolation: Don ascending from one plane of reality to the next one. (“The next one” = purgatorial motels and highway dreamscapes.) And, of course, season 7A is the point when Mad Men stopped dancing around its West Coast fixation and became its own Los Angeles spinoff.

Of course, Mad Men has always been a Los Angeles show—in real life, to the extent that reality matters. The pilot shot in New York, but essentially everything since then has shot in Los Angeles, in studios and in various locations throughout Downtown Los Angeles. (GQ recently declared Downtown Los Angeles “America’s Next Great City!” Maybe it is; maybe downtown is the ideal corner of Los Angeles, for New Yorkers trying to find a place where the sun doesn’t shine.)

So season 7A could feature location shooting around Los Angeles, and Los Angeles could play itself. The first day of shooting was in LAX. (We know this, because a shooting—actual shooting, like the kind with guns—delayed filming.) Mad Men had gone bicoastal. Don arrived in Los Angeles in the season premiere with a shot that paid homage to The Graduate, which is either one of the great works of West Coast self-discovery or one of the signal examples of West Coast navel-gazing narcissism. (The Graduate is like Igby Goes Down, except there’s no California to escape to.)

Early in “Time Zones,” Don meets up with Pete Campbell, who’s gone Los Angeles. We know, because this is how he says hello:

Pete initially looks like a killer app for the Los Angeles lifestyle: Hot blonde bombshell real estate girlfriend, whole new outlook on life, wide smile, sunglasses. This is the Los Angeles Don first saw way back in season 2—a place to escape from failed marriages and professional disappointments. Was Mad Men going LA? The timing would’ve been auspicious; The New York Times just now reported that a whole flock of vaguely creative New York media types aged 25-35 are just now moving to Los Angeles. (ASIDE: I would dismiss that article outright as an example of goofy Times hip-youth trendspotting, were I not a vaguely creative New York media type aged 25-35 who just now moved to Los Angeles. END OF ASIDE.)

This time, though, the illusion doesn’t hold. By the second episode, Pete’s already complaining: “Sometimes I think maybe I died, and I’m in some kind of…I don’t know if it’s heaven or hell or limbo. But I don’t seem to exist.”

Heaven, hell, or limbo: What is Los Angeles for Mad Men, in its final year? Pete and Ted both went out there seeking a new beginning. They both come back to New York. Megan went out to Los Angeles seeking further advancement in her career. That plan failed, apparently. Harry Crane, who knows as much about television as he doesn’t know about women: “She quit her soap and left New York. That was a really dumb idea.” Remember Stephanie, Anna’s angelic-cool niece? Now she’s pregnant, heading north to free her drug dealer boyfriend. She accepts a handout from Megan. (That’s what the money’s etc.)

So much of the first half of Mad Men was about conjuring up beautiful illusions—about the ’60s, about Don, about the whole ideal of the advertising man spinning American culture out of pitches in a boardroom. The back half of Mad Men is all about confronting those illusions. And if Los Angeles has been one of the show’s primary symbols, its precise meaning has shifted. It used to be the unattainable, the light on the horizon, over the rainbow. But by season 7, it’s another place where people can be miserable. The last time we saw Los Angeles in season 7A, Don was on the phone with Megan. He proposed marriage to her in Los Angeles; they propose divorce to each other, and she’s all alone out there.

Did she leave him behind? Was that really the end of Megan and Don and California? Reply hazy; ask again Monday. Jessica Paré has a credit on every episode this half-season, but she’s only appeared once so far, in the episode that finalized their divorce. Maybe that’s her ending: Young and rich and newly single. (There must always be some former Mrs. Draper living in California. Live well, Megan: It’s the best revenge, and that’s what the money’s for.)

Season 7B hasn’t visited the West Coast. Maybe that’s a larger symbol. Season 7A seemed to argue that Don’s dreams had shifted again. He didn’t want to escape anymore; he wanted to go back to the way things used to be, with himself installed as the Great Mind of Sterling Cooper. (Don wants what Don cannot have.) Season 7A ended with those dreams achieved. What now? What next? Season 7B argues: More of the same. Or just entropy. Or a future that only belongs to Harry Crane.

With one exception. The only notable Los Angeles arc in season 7B was Lou Avery, banished into obscurity, still struggling towards his beautiful cartoon dream. At a moment of absolute crisis for the firm, Lou Avery called Don to gloat: Scout’s Honor was getting turned into a TV show! Not in Hollywood, mind you—but Tatsunoko Productions is the big time! They made Speed Racer, Don!

Maybe Lou’s the lucky one. Maybe, in Mad Men‘s universe, forty years later, the Wachowskis adapted Scout’s Honor into a boldly visual, utterly unloved movie. Maybe there’s an embedded requiem for modern-day Los Angeles in that story. (How many movies today are based on cartoons? Isn’t all the money in Asia anyway?) Maybe the only people who can truly succeed in Mad Men‘s Los Angeles are the people who don’t deserve it: Danny, Lou, Harry.

“I thought I was really changing my life when I went out to California,” says Pete in season 7. “Now it sort of feels like a dream. But at the time, it felt so real.” Mad Men is a show about selling dreams, or escape, or Joy: Convincing people that they can achieve intangible satisfaction via concrete consumerism. It’s a show about symbols, and Los Angeles has always been the most potent. Go out there and become a new man, or become the person you used to be, or just escape from personhood entirely. Los Angeles is where celebrities are. Have a threesome—maybe it’ll save your marriage!

Everyone has their prediction for the series finale. Everyone is probably wrong. I know I am. But: We know Don has been aiming westward on his climactic season 7 spirit quest; “Don in California” has just about caught “Don on an airplane” in the Mad Men Final Shot Sweepstakes. The last time Don got divorced, he took up swimming as a personal cleansing ritual. And in the season 6 premiere, Don gave maybe his first bad pitch ever: A suit left behind on a beach, foosteps in the sand leading into the water. “The Jumping Off Point,” Don called it: A reference to the falling man in the Mad Men opening titles.

Maybe Mad Men ends with that: A recreation of the climactic moment in “The Mountain King.” Dick Whitman, alone, naked, swimming into the Pacific Ocean. The camera cuts to black. We don’t see him swim back to shore. Maybe he never does.

Or maybe Don doesn’t go back to California. Maybe he really doesn’t need illusions anymore. (Pete used to love New York, briefly loved Los Angeles, and now he appears to be splitting the geographic difference in Wichita.) Or maybe Don does go to California. But this time it’s not because he’s looking for an escape, or a rebirth, or Joy, or yesterday, or tomorrow(land). Maybe he just likes the sunshine. Maybe that’s all California ever had for Don.

And water. California used to have that, too.

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