Rewatching 'Mad Men''s Season One: Taking Us To A Place 'We Ache To Go Again'

With the final seven episodes of “Mad Men” about to launch on April 5, I recently went back to rewatch the first season of the series, on the theory that Matt Weiner might have planted some clues about where he wanted to take the series in the early episodes. 

I wasn’t binge-watching, which is what so many people did in the lead-up to the end of AMC’s other critical smash “Breaking Bad.”  Instead, I was savoring and noticing how much the series had evolved in seven seasons.

The experience of watching Season One is as disorienting today as it was when it debuted in 2007.  It’s a testament to the profound changes the 1960s brought -- and the show’s ability to depict them -- that jumping back to 1960 still seems like visiting a world exponentially more foreign than the world of 1969 where we last met Don Draper and friends.

It only takes about five minutes of the first episode to understand why “Mad Men” was such a sensation when it first hit the screen. It depicts a sleek, polished social system of cocktails, classic fashion and beautiful interior design. Everyone seems to be smoking all the time, which immediately distances us from this period but adds a forbidding allure. And the drinking is so pervasive that life back then initially seems to have been a nonstop party.

Having set a scene of apparent glamour, Matt Weiner proceeds to knock it down. The characters are neither physically or emotionally healthy. There’s a sickness at the core of the late Eisenhower era that requires the self-medication of consumerism: a consumerism that is driven by the very ads produced by our heroes. We see that men are pigs, women are enslaved, blacks are nearly invisible, Jews are barely tolerated, and gays are deep in the closet. No one is really happy.

Born in 1965, Matt Weiner didn’t live through the 1960s as I did, so he gets some things wrong in emphasis, occasionally sliding into didacticism. His depiction of women seems particularly off. It’s as if he’s gotten his insight from books -- two books in particular. Betty Draper’s frustrated, bored, and infantilized suburban housewife is a caricature straight out of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique “(1963), while Peggy Olson’s mousy secretary and Joan Holloway’s voluptuous office manager are the yin and yang from Helen Gurley Brown’s “Sex And The Single Girl.”

With all due respect to the two Bettys, I have to stand up for my mother and the mothers of my childhood friends, none of whom were as incapacitated by affluence as seems to be the case on “Mad Men.” And while we’re at it, my father and the fathers of my friends would never have treated their wives with the casual contempt that we see from the “Mad Men” husbands.

If the women are stereotypes, at least Don Draper is more nuanced.  I’ve always thought that the Korean War/Dick Whitman switcheroo was more than a little farfetched, but at least it gives Don an interesting backstory. Don falls into that long American tradition of self-invented men, starting with Ben Franklin and running through Horatio Alger and Jay Gatsby to Bill Clinton (whose birth name, after all, was William Jefferson Blythe). It’s not surprising that Don prefers the self-made Dick Nixon to the rich playboy Jack Kennedy.

Looking back now, some of Matt Weiner’s preoccupations in Season One are surprising. The anti-Semitism of the era was real, but seems like a Weiner fixation -- particularly since the issue of race (more pervasive at this time) is completely absent. Furthermore, the season-long plot line about the agency’s attempt to get a role in the Nixon presidential campaign never seems to go anywhere, and doesn’t contribute much to our understanding of the 1960 race.

Much has been written about how Don and Peggy are the two main protagonists on the show -- and their character arcs over seven seasons have indeed been central. But less has been said about the importance of Pete Campbell, although it’s clear from a review of season one that he’s the third most important character. Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete, gets third billing in the credits and has just as much screen time as Elizabeth Moss as Peggy.

Pete stands in for all those entitled young-men-in-a-hurry from the post-War era. He’s never satisfied -- not with the progress of his career, nor the state of his marriage -- and is always looking for ego gratification. It’s bad enough that he has sex with Peggy on the night before his wedding, but it’s horrifying that he tries to pimp out his wife to get one of his short stories published in The New Yorker (and how hilarious it is when it ends up in Boys’ Life magazine instead?) Critics don’t often write about Pete, and the rest of us don’t really like to think about him, since he’s an uncomfortable reminder our own dissatisfactions and neediness.  But anyone who doesn’t think deeply about the meaning of Pete Campbell is missing one of Weiner’s main themes.

To the extent there’s an overarching theme, however, it has been hiding in plain sight all along -- or not even hiding at all.  The trailer for the last half of the show's final season is called “Nostalgia,” and reprises perhaps the most famous scene of all: the pitch for the Kodak Carousel. Nostalgia, Don claims, is a “twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.” It’s a time machine that “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” That place is home -- and every TV show, movie or book set in the past mixes memory and desire and trades in this ache to go home. 

To the extent that “Mad Men” has been about anything, it’s been about our conflicting feelings for a world that is both idealized and scorned: the past. Whether Don Draper lives or dies by the end is a plot point; the important thing is that we’ve stared at our past and come to terms with how it’s shaped our today.

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