The Lives of Phantoms: Mad Men

‘It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so,’ writes Frank O’Hara in his seminal poem ‘Meditations in an Emergency’. But for adman Don Draper appearing beautiful is the easy part. He’s characterised by discreet wealth, immaculate suits, a rich basso voice and perfect hair. Although through the ten years of Mad Men time frame, Don becomes a lot more vulnerable and compromised, physically he barely seems to age or change – he’s like a Comte de Saint Germain for the K-Mart era. Also like the legendary Count, he’s a great wanderer. While his firm negotiate a life-altering buyout, he takes off on an impromptu tour of the west coast, the itinerary including a bizarre sybaritic revel with some European aristocrats.

TV critics tied themselves in knots trying to explain who Don is and what motivates him. Like the narrator of ‘Meditations’, Don is indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal. He’s not a legacy builder like Frank Underwood or Walter White – Don knows that all empires fall. He knows impermanence, and it’s the only thing he really commits to. ‘I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one,’ he says. When a beatnik acquaintance slags his corporate lifestyle, Don replies that ‘I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.’ He claims to have never written anything over 250 words – you hope he lived long enough for Twitter. He has to be strong armed into signing even an extended employment contract, so acute is his determination not to be pinned down. He lives only by the ‘hobo code’ – siguls scratched by wandering men on barns and gateposts to advise and communicate: beware of the dog, this farmer will give you work, a dishonest man lives here. When Don Callahan failed to kill the vampire in Salem’s Lot, Stephen King sent him roaming down strange roads – the ‘highways in hiding’, in King’s lovely phrase – into dozens of alternate Americas, different in subtle fractures and gradations. Don Draper would have loved Callahan, and called him father.

Pascal said that all human evil comes from an inability to sit still in a room. ‘I am always looking away,’ Frank O’Hara writes, ‘Or again at something after it has given me up. It makes me restless and that makes me unhappy, but I cannot keep them still.’ If Don Draper is evil – ‘a pretty dismal, despicable guy’ as actor Jon Hamm put it – he’s that kind of evil, the evil that comes from a reluctance to take responsibility for anything. (‘You only like the beginnings of things,’ a furious ex declares.) After accidentally killing his CO during the Korean war, Draper steals both the officer’s identity and his Purple Heart. A dustbowl farm boy who spent his childhood in a bordello, Don confiscates the life of a respectable American male.

And he assumes that what works for him works for everyone. Tracked down by his true half-brother Adam, Don simply pays the kid to go away: the brother is broken by the rejection and hangs himself. When his colleague Lane Pryce is caught out in a cheque fraud, Don counsels him to plan an ‘elegant exit’. The exit is not so elegant: Pryce’s bloated corpse is found the next day, swaying from the office doorframe, again death by hanging. Still Don believes that the only way is to ‘get out of here and move forward.’ When his protégé Peggy has a breakdown he visits her and says: ‘This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.’ As my Twitter pal Jason Lee Sandford pointed out, she’s the only one to survive his advice.

Among many other things Don Draper is a family man, which means that while he’s off screwing and wandering, someone has to watch the house and kids. For most of the series that’s just what Betty Draper ends up doing, and I don’t recall a female lead so frustrating and pitiful to watch. Her loneliness, her isolation, her thwarted dreams and desire – the show’s writers and actor January Jones spare us nothing. In the late 1950s, the feminist writer Betty Friedan went knocking on doors in the suburbs. She was trying to get to the root of ‘the problem that has no name’ – the terror, the boredom, the inability to sit still in a room that afflicted so many smart and lively college friends in their new lives as full time homemakers. Most women Friedan knocked up were happy to talk – they were happy for the company and had nothing on their hands but time. Interviewing a random sample of upscale suburban moms, Friedan found that:

Sixteen out of the twenty-eight were in analysis or analytical psychotherapy. Eighteen were taking tranquillisers; several had tried suicide and some had been hospitalised for varying periods, for depression or vaguely diagnosed psychotic states. (‘You’d be surprised at the number of these happy suburban wives who simply go beserk one night, and run shrieking through the street without any clothes on,’ said the local doctor, not psychiatrist, who had been called in, in such emergencies.) Of the women who breastfed their babies, one had continued desperately until the child was so undernourished that her doctor had intervened by force. Twelve were engaged in extramarital affairs in fact or in fantasy.

Betty Draper’s is the life of people who don’t get to run away. Showrunner Matt Weiner doesn’t give her a break even in the final season, where she is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In a final cruel irony, the doctor addresses her husband throughout when he gives this evil prognosis, even though Betty’s in the room at the time. (Even Walter White’s doctor gave his death sentence to his face.) Having given the impression throughout of a mother who is continually irritated and embarrassed by her children, Betty writes to her college daughter Sally to tell her that ‘I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good. Because your life will be an adventure.’ It’s a scene that reminded me of Wee-Bey handing over guardianship of his son, in The Wire – the caged bird setting free its young – and it strikes me how much of Mad Men is about chronology, and how it impacts on our lives, as the UK’s jilted generation know.

Advertising is an association game. People associate their childhoods with homespun branded products that weren’t even around when they were young. Advertising works on an idea of happiness – ‘the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK.’  Or, from Don’s Kodak pitch, accompanied by wedding and family photos:

This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place, where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel’. Its called ‘The Carousel’. It lets us travel in a way a child travels. Round and round, and then back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.

The company laureate of impermanence, who knows permanence, and how to sell it. But it’s an ideal – there’s enough reality in there to give it resonance, but as O’Hara said, it’s ‘like a hyacinth, ‘to keep the filth of life away,’ yes, there, even in the heart, where the filth is pumped in and courses and slanders and pollutes and determines.’

That, I think, it’s why there’s not much discussion of the civil rights movements in the show James Meek complains that ‘The Mad Men writers raise the ghost of racism without giving it the substance to kick us in the gut.’ There’s truth in what he says. But history is not personal stories constructed around a series of headlines. People are active in their personal dramas far more than they are witnesses to wider change. When Dr King comes on the car radio, Don turns him over not because he’s racist but because he’s not interested and wants to chat up the woman he’s giving a lift to.

Much has been made of the glamour of the show, perhaps because critics of the 2010s envy characters of a world without so much ludicrous moralising around drinking and smoking. But the glamour of Mad Men is also spectral – after all, most of these characters would be dead by now. Everyone has ghosts. The ghosts of the past. The ghosts of the roads not taken and the ghosts of lives that could have been lived. The ending to series two, set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, has a special eeriness because we came so close to making a phantom of the planet. Under the dentist’s anaesthesia, Don sees a ghost of his younger brother Adam: at the end of another drinking session he has a vision of his best female friend, Anna Draper, at the moment of her death. In this vision she picks up a suitcase and walks, smiling, into whatever comes next – perhaps into those highways in hiding.

In a 2001 forward to The Shining, Stephen King asks: ‘For aren’t memories the true ghosts of our lives?’ and truly they are like ghosts – unquiet, unreliable, indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal.

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