Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Pain from an old wound: MAD MEN, nostalgia and the end of an era

No spoilers.


In the first season finale of Mad Men, Don Draper – an ad man in 1960s New York – defines nostalgia, from the Greek, as “pain from an old wound”. He’s pitching a campaign to Kodak, who are trying to sell their slide projector wheel.

Nostalgia is delicate and potent, Don says. The carousel is about evoking memories, eliciting emotion. Nostalgia and the wheel arouse “a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone”.

Throughout the presentation, we see photographs of Don and his family – telling us more about their lives and their history, arousing emotions for a family at the centre of the series. A family we know that is slowly breaking apart.

The wheel "isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved."

Mad Men is like the Carousel. It’s a time machine. And it’s made me nostalgic for a time before my time. It’s a glimpse into the quickly changing society of America in the 1960s, told by people who are mostly don’t witness history. History happens around them, barely noticed, scarcely glimpsed.

The 60s is a well-documented era, especially when it comes to nostalgia. One of my favourite TV series as a kid was The Wonder Years, which was set between 1968 and 1973. Before my time, but also of my time. I was Kevin Arnold’s age as I watched that show. Nostalgic for an era I didn’t live through.

That decade, because of its political turmoil, its turning points in social change and epic moments of history like the Apollo missions and Woodstock, is always fascinating to me. Setting a TV series around an advertising agency in those years seems like a smart choice, but when it premiered in 2007, Mad Men was a risk on a small-time cable network.

And I didn’t stick with it, not the first time. I stopped watching halfway through the first season and I can’t tell you why. Honestly, even rewatching the first season, I cannot imagine how I could have stopped. The first episode is really strong, still one of the series’ best episodes. Don Draper is so clearly defined – he’s at the top of his game, but he’s also mysterious.

And the supporting characters are all great, even if the pilot only gives hints of their future greatness. It’s hard to imagine a show without Joan, who was originally only meant to be in the pilot. But we do get to meet Peggy, who is there to garner our sympathies, while Don Draper is difficult to like or love.

I tried the series again after the first three seasons had aired and I tore through those first thirty-nine episodes in pretty quick succession. Even rewatching the first season episodes didn’t feel taxing at all; it’s an imminently rewatchable show. Which is odd, because the style of the show is slow-paced and nothing too dramatic happens from scene to scene.

Somehow, though, over episodes and seasons, the depth of the characters and the complexities of their lives bring a greater weight and dimension to stories that could, on the surface, seem quite inconsequential.

In a show set when and where it is, with so much change happening – and these characters only peripherally aware of society shifting, one of the big questions of the series is, “Can people change?” Will Don Draper remain the eternally damaged boy with a secret? Will Peggy remain the put-upon secretary who always seems so lost? Will Joan continue to make poor choices in men? Will Roger ever find something more than hedonism? Can Pete learn to approximate an actual human being?

These questions are slight and reductive. None of these characters are easily pigeon-holed. None of their stories are so easily summed up. But, like the Kodak wheel, they are stuck on a carousel, travelling around and around, looking for a place to be themselves. Looking for themselves, even when most of the time they are just desperate to make the best of their time in advertising.

One of the most remarkable things about Mad Men’s seven seasons is its commitment to making you feel the passage of time. It might have been seven seasons for us, spread out over eight years. In the show itself, more than a decade passes – and you feel it in how they change and how the world changes. A lot of series last five to seven years, but many of them are eager for you to forget time is passing – or, at least, they don’t want you to dwell so much.

Breaking Bad ran for six seasons, but is set over only two years. Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons, but Patrick Stewart looks the same at the end as he did at the beginning. Sure, actors age and kids grow up, but Mad Men ran with that – marking time and ageing its characters believably and sometimes quite dramatically.

For most of the first two seasons of the show, it’s hard to get a grip on when the episode takes place. There’s a March 1960 calendar in the first episode, but pinpointing exactly where in time you are is almost a game. Snatches of news heard on the radio. TV footage in the background. The march of time moves on, but you might not recognise it. Martin Luther King Jnr makes his “I Have a Dream” speech and these middle class white characters barely notice.

But as the series continues on, the weight of history starts to press down. Subtly at first and then harder and harder as the 60s progress. These characters, as oblivious as they are to the civil rights movement or first wave feminism, can’t help but notice when the country is at war and losing its grip by 1968. They might have missed King’s speech, but when he’s assassinated, they see. And when the American military gets bogged down in Vietnam, these advertising execs finding themselves pitching for work from Dow Chemical – makers of napalm.

Just as the country and the times change, creator Matthew Weiner is happy for the circumstances of the characters to change. They might all work together, fertile grounds for a lot of TV series, but that doesn’t mean some regulars can’t get fired or the business itself can’t be threatened with a hostile takeover or two. Characters divorce and remarry. Some disappear, never to be heard from again. Circumstances change, but do these characters?

Are their fundamental virtues and flaws the same at the end as they are at the beginning? You’d hope, from a dramatic point of view, that the entire cast of characters doesn’t tread water for a decade. You’d hope that one or more of them might see the light, change their circumstances. Or, as Don Draper once spouted, “If you don’t like what they are saying about you, change the conversation.”

Don talks about change, but is resistant to it. He’s still wearing a hat, while the rest of the characters embrace louder colours – and the women start wearing pants. It’s a long way from the first episode when Don doesn’t want to deal with a woman as an equal at work, and slowly, over a decade, that facade is cracked in numerous ways. But Don remains that hurt little boy, who has grown up to be a depressive and an alcoholic. Always on that carousel. Going around and around, trying to find a place he will be loved.

Don is a consumate ad man. He knows how to tell a story and how to spin a yarn. That’s what his whole life is, a story, a secret. He has to keep pitching to keep that lie going. And that narrative thread lasts longer and less time than you might expect. The truth comes out several times. Don must admit who and what he is over and over again, while trying to maintain the life he has built for himself and his kids. But the consequences of that first lie endure from first episode to last. Just as all our lies and doubts and insecurities endure. So do we change or do we figure out ways to deal with those insecurities? And is that enough?

I’ve talked a lot about Don Draper. He’s the main character, the spine of the story. He’s the first and last person we see on screen in the series. His fall (spiritual and emotional) is animated in the opening credits each and every week. But he’s not my favourite character. He’s not why I stayed watching the show. He’s a good introduction, but the show is so well populated by fascinating people across the decade – both at Don’s work and outside of it. Friends, family, colleagues.

Come for Don, but stay for Peggy and Joan and Roger and Pete and Betty and Sally. Meet Duck and Sal and Bob and Megan and Ken and Anna and Lane and... the list goes on and on. Mad Men is deeply populated with fascinating characters with complex inner lives. You want to know all about them, but sometimes you just scratch the surface before they are gone.

It’s hard to compare this show to any other. It’s almost like Six Feet Under, but not quite. I think both series were most interested in exploring how people live and work and love, without being too worried about where they go or where they end up. In both shows, each episode feels like a short story. Connected, sure. Adding up to something greater, definitely. But each week, in Mad Men’s New York and Six Feet Under’s Los Angeles, you just get to spend time with these people. Six Feet Under might have dealt directly with life and death, but Mad Men makes you feel like advertising has similar stakes.

Mad Men has just finished airing. Its final episode is a fitting end to ninety-two hours of television told over eight years set over a decade that was half a century ago. The characters might have been on a carousel, but the show kept moving in one direction. Forward. Another Don-ism.


The series is one of my all-time favourites, along with Six Feet Under and Twin Peaks and... on and on that list could go. Mad Men made me nostalgic for a time I never lived through and for a life I never lived. And as Don told us, nostalgia is pain from an old wound. Sometimes losing a TV series feels a little like that. But just like that carousel, at least I can hop on again. Not just because I want to go around again, but because it’s a time machine.

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