Don Draper, tussling about morality with his young, idealistic wife:
“People buy things because it makes them feel better!”
Oh my oh my oh my, yes it does:
Who cares about troubles at home when we can slink into this big, red, powerful, bullet of, ahem, happiness?
Over at Kritik, Caroline Levine wrote a lovely mediation on this episode’s “waltz” of circular repetition, replacement, and substitution. Second wives, second husbands, second careers, checks forged from an already-forged signature, and, of course, acting.
Terrifyingly, this episode of Mad Men implies a world where we endlessly repeat the roles and actions of others, fitting ourselves into vacant slots and worrying about being replaced, at any moment, by another. Each character, each act, is haunted by the constant threat of substitution. Every repetition suggests an ongoing pattern, like the third beat of the waltz named in the title of this episode: if there is a one, there is going to be a two and a three. Husband, wife, second wife; signature, repetition, forgery; chant, whisper, chant. In this context, Megan’s new choice of career seems more disturbing than ever. Acting lays bare the logic that drives everything else: the fear and the knowledge that every one of us moves through existing roles and scripts that write our very most intimate experiences into being.
Levine also reminds us that advertising works because it convinces us that, by buying the same product millions of others buy, we are uniquely ourselves. I heard that before, in David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram.” And it’s true. Advertising offers a mass, group identity in substitution for our unique identity. And makes us want it. And makes us like it.
But the show has always valorized Don for pulling this con so beautifully, so many times. We let him off for his caddishness because he’s so GOOD at his job. (And he’s nice to black people.) And critics and commentators have been sad that Don seems so disengaged with his profession. And the episode’s most rousing moment was when Don delivered his St. Crispin’s Day speech to the confused staff, whose eyes shone as they applauded the news that they’ll be working weekends before, during, and after the holidays.
Certainly the alternatives to consumerism are nowhere near as appealing or powerful as Don’s Henry V act. Let’s break it down.
- Megan: can critique consumerism from her gilded tower, to the sly mockery of her husband and the angry jealousy of her friends.
- Kinsey: gave up material possessions to embrace Lord Krishna, but he a) can’t meditate properly, b) can’t get his guru to like him, and c) really would rather write for Star Trek, get married, and have babies.
- Mother Lakshmi: wants Kinsey to stay in Lord Krishna’s embrace because he’s their best salesman. And also, WHAT?!?!?!?
- Harry: Achieved the reward of meditation but doesn’t care.
- Off-Broadway play: Really? The TV makes you want to puke? As Don said, theater isn’t always about subtlety.
- Fiscally responsible, sober, modest Lane Price: HAH!!! (Though I keep thinking of Lane’s elderly father beating him to the ground with his cane. It hurts me that Lane is unable to live with dignity. His mistakes seem so preventable.)
So it seems that this show, which we thought was about the deadening effects of manipulative, profit-driven advertising, is really saying that yes yes yes, buying things makes you feel good. And yes, the work that Don and “the creatives” do is great for society.
The only genuine happiness on the show comes from Don and Joan pretending to shop for the sportscar, their actually wistful reminiscences about adultery and promiscuity, and Don’s rousing speechification about how great it is to work hard, ignore your family during the holidays, and land a car account. For a car that looks good but doesn’t work very well.
And in this light, Levine’s words are even more frightening: the paradoxical logic of advertising (This Ikea coffee table expresses exactly who I am!), which cheats us into buying a commodified sense of self and purpose, is the only way to be happy.
Because on this show, (ooo! watch for the flip!) the grand con of advertising is also good, honest work. Worky work work. Work makes us whole. Honest labor. Without it, we cannot live with dignity or purpose. It’s where Communism and capitalism agree: Work is the best way to be a dignified human.
Shout out if you took Intro to Sociology in college!
So it’s perhaps here where Mad Men is its most compelling: the old fashioned, honest labor that gives Peggy, Ginzo, Don, and Pete such satisfaction and personal wholeness is the same work that, when they are good at it, cons everyone else into trading in their selfhood for a new car. Or a flight on a doomed airline. Or some pantyhose.
Unless it’s no con at all, and that pantyhose really does make you whole.And your selfhood wasn’t worth much to begin with.
Like, social injustice, racism and sexism make people unhappy. All that is clearly wrong on Mad Men. Yay.
But pretending to buy a car to feel better about getting served with divorce papers at work? Reminded of your personal failures at the only place you feel safe? That works just fine. And that’s OK.