Image Credit: Mike Yarish/AMCYou know the old saying: Those who forget history… something something something. Damn! I forget! Mad Men asked its viewers to remember a lot of history in last week’s episode, “Christmas Comes but Once a Year.” We had conservative white guys grousing about civil rights and socialism at the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Christmas bash of 1964 — a flick at the recently elected Lyndon B. Johnson, who a few months earlier had signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was a few weeks away from outlining his Great Society vision in his 1965 State of the Union speech. (Said Great Society will ultimately include the Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965, discussed here last week.)
We had Don Draper and Roger Sterling likening the Christmas party to Hitler’s birthday — a reference, most likely, to Hitler’s infamous 50th birthday in 1939, noteworthy for its parade of military might that was designed to spook the world. The reference becomes fitting — and even more ominous — in light of how Lee Garner, scion of Lucky Strike, SCDP’s biggest client, used the agency’s holiday shindig to remind everyone who was the Fuhrer. Even though Lee humiliated Roger in particular (making him dress as Santa; pawing Roger’s wife), I think his real target was Don. I thought it was telling of Lee’s mindset and motives when he and Don exchanged snarky barbs about the acclaimed Glo-Coat tile wax commercial. Lee wondered why Don had never made anything that cool for Lucky Strike. Don replied that Lucky Strike had never asked him to. Lee’s response? “I didn’t think I had to.” Read the warning label, Don: Your clients pay attention to your press clippings. And unless you want to open up Advertising Age and read how Lucky Strike is putting its $25 million account into review, you might want to think about being brilliant about selling cigarettes. Because Lucky Strike is soon going to need it.
Of course, the most important history that Mad Men asked its fans to recall last week was its own. “Christmas Comes but Once a Year” brought back Glen Bishop, the gloomy Eddie Munster from down the street with the inappropriate hair-snipping crush on Betty. Now he’s set his sights on Sally, and he tried to impress her in a way only Lee Garner might find sexy — by crashing and trashing the Draper house (sorry: “Francis residence”) except for Sally’s bedroom, where he left behind a bracelet called a scoubidou. (Yep, you pronounced it right: Scooby-Doo. Zoinks!) I suspect Glen’s real target was Betty; I think he’s still sweet on her and is jealous she took up with Henry Francis. You mean you dumped up your husband and you didn’t even give me a call! Seriously, what does Henry have that I don’t have?
And then we had the scene where drunken Don had sex with his smitten secretary Allison. A soused Sterling Cooper exec has a sad, ill-considered hook-up with one of Don’s secretaries — where have we seen that before? Why, that would be in the very first episode of Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” when drunken Pete knocked on smitten Peggy’s door after a night of revelry — and then knocked her up. Cut to: Don and Allison going “Uh-oh.”
“Christmas Comes but Once a Year” contained another, even more meaningful call-back to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Mad Men’s pilot gave us a scene in which Don Draper took aim at the concept of market research. Sterling Cooper had been tasked with fixing a problem facing Lucky Strike that presaged the company’s looming challenge. The cigarette make — along with the entire tobacco industry — could no longer make good-for-you health claims thanks to medical studies conducted by the Federal Trade Commission. As the agency brainstormed alternative ideas, the head of research, a strong-willed woman with a thick German accent named Greta Guttman, argued that smokers liked smoking because they had a death wish. Don dismissed the idea as psychobabble and dumped Greta’s report in the trash. “Dr. Guttman, psychology is terrific at a cocktail party, but it happens people were buying cigarettes before Freud was born,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I find your whole approach perverse.” But others were less appalled. Desperate to muscle his way into the creative side of the business, Pete tried to pitch Lucky Strikes on a campaign based on Greta’s work. Silly Pete. His ideas flamed out big time, nearly costing Sterling Cooper the account. Just as Lucky Strike was about to walk out the door, Don peered into the ether and pulled an inspired idea out of the air. Behold, Don Draper, creative genius. His powers as an advertising superman seemed to have no bounds.
Three seasons later, we get “Christmas Comes but Once a Year,” another episode giving Don the opportunity to sneer at the tricky science of knowing the consumer — and knowing thyself. The staff of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce took a meeting with Motivational Research Group, which was offering the promise of improving the agency’s work by offering insights into consumer psychology. (Apparently, Greta didn’t make the transition to Don’s upstart start-up.) Lead researcher Dr. Faye Miller asked SCDP folks to fill out a psyche-probing survey with questions about their childhood. Draper balked. He excused himself and walked out. Later, Don explained to Miller that he didn’t understand the relevancy of excavating his (extremely painful) childhood (that he desperately wants to suppress both to himself and everyone else) to his work. Miller found that had to believe. She had seen Draper’s celebrated Glo-Coat spot, with its haunting image of a young boy trapped under a kitchen table. “I saw that ad,” she said. “It’s all about somebody’s childhood.” Don: No comment.
If Greta set up an opportunity for Don to prove his intuitive brilliance back in season 1, then what is Faye telling us about Don here in season 4? The answer is in the advertising. Don’s moody spot for Glo-Coat shows us that he’s been influenced by the creative revolution that was taking place on Madison Avenue during this period. At the forefront of this transformation was an agency called Doyle Dane Bernbach, whose ironic ads for Volkswagen (“Lemon,” “Think Small”) have been referenced and discussed in previous Mad Men episodes. DDB partner Bill Bernbach was an inspiring figure to his contemporaries and future generations of “mad men” (and women) because he dared to aspire to art. Some of his famous maxims: “Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art and good writing can be good selling.” “Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.” “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” (For even more insights into the Mad Men/DDB/1960s creative advertising revolution convergence, bookmark Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s Mad Men Unbuttoned blog.)
Other historians will tell you that the creative revolution in advertising during the 1960s helped bring the postmodern mindset into mainstream culture. Postmodernism in art is marked by the use of irony, self-awareness, mixed media, and pop culture imagery, among many other qualities. (One very distinctive branch of postmodern art has been conspicuously featured in Mad Men this season, hanging from the walls of Roger Sterling’s office: Op art, abstract black and white compositions that create the illusion of movement and warping or contain hidden messages. Wikipedia tells me that the term “Op art” was coined in the October 23, 1964 issue of Time, so just a couple months prior to the start of the current season, and a major exhibition of Op art at the Museum of Modern Art looms ahead in the season 4 year of 1965.) Postmodern art complemented the emergence of postmodern philosophy, which explores—and subverts—the idea of intrinsic meaning, or what thinkers in this school would call “presence.” Postmodernists like talking about “authenticity.” They reject “meta-narrative,” the idea that we can organize history into a story that encompasses and explains all human experience. Postmodernism says there are no universals. Everything is subjective and relative. Which itself is something of a universal statement, right? But there you go: irony! (Kids, if you think this is thick and pretentious, just be glad I’m not deconstructing last week’s Christmas-themed episode to show how “Presence” = “Presents” = Santa Claus = Don Draper. That theory is a real snoozer!)
Don Draper is nothing if not a postmodern construction. His identity is pure artifice. Could we weave an elaborate analogy likening him to a work of Op art? We could! (But not today.) Don denies his origins and the identity that evolved from his origins — he denies his “presence,” to use the term a little loosely — and he believes that values are relative or manufactured. In Mad Men’s pilot, Rachel Menken tells Don she’s never been in love. Don replies: “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” But Don’s most Postmodern trait is that he rejects his own meta-narrative. He likes to believe his past is irrelevant, and he claims to have no care about the future. As he told Rachel in the pilot: “You’re born alone, 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, because there isn’t one.”
Do you agree with Don? Do you find his philosophy reasonable or repelling? These are interesting questions to discuss, but the one that galvanizes me is this: Do you believe him? I don’t. I think Don’s full of s—. I don’t think he really buys his own pomo horsepucky, and the proof is in the Glo-Coat. As Don has become more “artistic,” his work — his art — has become increasingly personal. That shameful, painful Dick Whitman history he keeps locked up inside his glistening, waxy Don Draper shell is starting to seep into his creativity. His acclaimed commercial, so much like a movie (or so Don says, and proudly), is notable for having narrative, for having story — something Don would seem to disavow, but actually really yearns for. Does Don himself recognize this conflict? Is he in control of this transformation? The answer, I think, is no, and that was the significance of the Motivational Research Group/Dr. Faye Miller storyline: To alert us — and Don — that he has set loose something powerful, and that there could be consequences should he fail to get on top of it. Take it from Hannah Montana: The schizoid life can be fun, but it only leads to trouble.
What kind of consequences could come from Don’s failure to “Know thyself” and, like, deal? The season premiere offered some foreshadowing, I think, in the subplot that had Don’s failing to land the Jantzen bikini account. His edgy pitch featured a woman with a blacked-out bust and a tagline that read: “So well built, we can’t show you the second floor.” The ad is a fuzzy metaphor for Don himself — for his creative arrogance, for his fear of exposure, for his self-negation. But as a piece of marketing? I don’t know. It was certainly clever. Too clever, I think. (Bernbach, I think, would have asked for a simpler tagline.) Like his TV commercial, which Don proudly likened to a movie, the Jantzen ad knowingly subverts advertising conventions, including the biggest: It hides the product. That’s a pretty risky move, and you need a daring client to back the play. Don didn’t. The Jantzen men were conservative, yes, and possibly a prudish as Don deemed them to be. But their confused reaction was more that of someone who feels really, really misunderstood — like a teenager stung by a parents’ lack of empathy.
Do you even get me? As Don’s ads become more self-involved, he runs the risk of losing his marketing mojo — his uncanny ability to connect with clients and their consumers. And obviously, that could spell ruin for the agency, especially as they scramble to add more accounts and decrease their dependence on Lucky Strike.
The Catch-22 of Don’s plight is that he can’t really afford to do anything that would effectively deconstruct the “Don Draper” he has become; too many people count on him for their very survival. Still, it appears that Don’s disassembly is inevitable, whether he wants it or not, and the only choice he has in the matter is in managing the collapse — assuming he wants to manage the collapse at all. I often wonder if Don actually wants to self-destruct, and more, inflict some collateral damage upon his mad culture as he blows up. The season 3 promo pic of Don sitting in a flooded office, the water rising, sums him up for me. Don is drowning in his circumstances — and he’s letting it happen. And if it warps the trendy Swedish furniture and ruins Roger’s fancy art in the process, well, even better. (Seriously: Do you really think Don actually likes his job, his culture, his life?) If he ever did submit to psychological evaluation, I think both Dr. Greta and Dr. Miller would agree: “Don Draper” has a death wish.
I do hope Don can be saved. And in fact, my hope for Don would be that he recover and reconcile with his inner Dick Whitman, but without demolishing all of Don Draper. Because Don Draper has brought him some good things, including, I think, the epiphany of his true calling. The man’s an artist. He got a great eye, he’s got a wealth of story ideas, and he has an uncanny knack for knowing how to move an audience. Here’s hoping he can reconcile his warring identities, become a cohesive, well-realized, creative whole, and claim his true destiny: a Hollywood studio chief.
Send Email to: email@example.com Follow me on Twitter: @ewdocjensen