Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

REVIEW: And Then She Became A Chair by Michelle Myers

  Michelle Myers in And Then She Became A Chair A woman emerges from the darkness, head covered, moving slowly, weighted bags are attached to her dress and drag along the ground behind her. She is in a waiting room. A doctor’s office. A hospice. Inside a commercial begging her to start a new life in Queensland. This is purgatory. Michelle Myer’s one-woman performance, And Then She Became A Chair , is an unsettling, confronting and poetic study in grief. We watch as a woman deals with the inevitable death of her mother, remembering absurd moments of her life, of their lives, in the years, weeks and days leading up to… C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed , a reflection on the passing of his wife, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” And it’s this observation that Michelle explores in this work – grief being the fear of loss, the fear of the unknown and the fear of what comes next. It’s interesting that the first work of theatre I have seen this year is focused so mu

Careful the things you say... Joe Wright’s HANNA & the combination of genres

Once upon a time... I tried to write a film script that melded noir and Grimm’s fairytales, where the femme fatale , clad in a slinky red dress, was also (in a way) Little Red Riding Hood. Where the lover of a hit man discovered his true identity from something hidden under his mattress. Evil (step)mothers, adopted children, hunters, princesses and family fortunes. Noir and fairytales have a lot in common and yet... I had real trouble finding the right tone for the piece. And, in the end, my script read too much like I was trying to get the concept to work, rather than telling a compelling story. Saoirse Ronan as Hanna Joe Wright’s film HANNA , screenplay by Seth Lockhead and David Farr, finds the perfect balance between a high tension thriller and a fairytale coming-of-age story. And travels further into the story of this mysterious girl than the trailer suggests. Going in, I was worried this might be too close to Leon or La Femme Nikita – the original films of which I t

You are far away: Agent Cooper and his troubling return to Twin Peaks

“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return , the last of many unanswered questions left as the 18-part feature film concluded a week ago. It’s far from the first time we’ve seen someone who looks like Dale Cooper lost for answers over recent months. But it might be the first time we have definitive proof that he’s in over his head. Mr C, Dale Cooper’s doppelganger, who was first seen in the original series’ finale back in 1991, returned to the town of Twin Peaks with a goal in mind. Mr C was flexible, though. He had to be; he’d set so many things in motion over twenty-five years, if he’d remained fixated, he would never have come as far as he did. Dougie, Dale Cooper’s tulpa – created by and from Mr C, wandered aimlessly through life, but slowly made every life he touched better. Plans change and Dougie changed with them. Slowly but surely, Dougie pieced together Cooper’s past life and became richer for it. Agent Cooper, th

Carrie Fisher: No More Postcards

Two Princess Leias, a medal and some broken jewellry Did I ever tell you about the time Carrie Fisher kissed me on the cheek? Stick around, I’ll tell it again soon. Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia; no getting past that. Except, of course, she did. And then she stepped right back into being her last year. She was the right person to play Leia because she was the right age at the time and she is part of Hollywood royalty. She was also the right person to have been Leia in retrospect, too. Can you imagine anyone else describing Jabba the Hutt as a “giant saliva testicle”? Anyone else who would bring an audience member up on stage to mount a Leia “sex doll” and whip it away before they get close enough to fulfil their childhood fantasy? Actors, even those of Star Wars­­­ -level fame, go in and out of the spotlight. Oh, you could spot Fisher on screen in the 1980s and 90s, but much of her hard work went on behind the scenes, as a script writer and script doctor. Hook , Sist

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: THE AVENGERS assemble on the big screen

I like superheroes. I grew up with reruns of the 1960s Batman TV series. The Superman films were released when I was really young. The Amazing Spider-Man , Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were nighttime TV shows. And one of the defining motion picture releases of my teenage years was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. I was never a big comic book reader as a kid – I’ve probably read more comic books, uh, graphic novels in the last ten years than any time before that. But superheroes were always very cool. And Burton’s Batman took my favourite superhero very seriously. Well, until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins appeared – taking it ultra-seriously and much darker than I’d ever hoped for. As a non-comic reader, I find it hard to align myself as a DC ( Batman , Superman , Wonder Woman ) or Marvel Universe ( Spider-Man , X-Men , The Avengers and its consitutent parts) person. They appeal to different parts of my brain. In effect, DC’s superheroes are often lone warrior

Colder by Lachlan Philpott - Red Stitch

Colder Photo: Teresa Noble I’m there. I’m sitting there in the dark. Sitting there in the dark watching a play by Lachlan Philpott at Red Stitch. A child has gone missing at Disneyland but nothing evokes Disneyland for me, not even the actors wearing mouse ears. Especially not the actors wearing mouse ears and affecting exaggerated American accents. I want to feel what the mother is feeling, while officious behind-the-scenes Disney workers assure her everything is going to be fine. I want a sense of her being frantic and frustrated. But I don’t get this sense because the language of the play is putting me at a distance. The expository monologues don’t paint a picture or flesh out a world beyond the very basic (“padded concrete, padded seats”) and the facile (“padded people”). This choral arrangement of voices is not singing. Eight-year-old David remains missing all day and we learn that his single mother has felt separate from him ever since. We ar

Walking out... I couldn't do it, could you?

Every so often, I think about walking out of a play, but I can't. I've never done it and I don't think I ever could. I've never walked out of a film, either. It's not in my nature. In the end, I'd rather suffer through the entire thing so I can criticise the entire play, rather than leave halfway and never know if it got any better or any worse. This has come to mind now, not because I wanted to walk out of Terence Malick's big budget experimental film The Tree of Life , but because apparently walk outs are becoming a phenomenon with that particular movie. And in a packed theatre at Cinema Nova last night, the walk outs were notable by their absense when the lights came up at the end. It certainly won't be to everyone's taste. It's very much an impressionistic film that explores grand ideas through mood and beauty, rather than telling a coherent narrative. But, even those moments in the film that were the most challenging on a "need for

REVIEW: This Genuine Moment by Jacob Parker - Midsumma

Christmas Eve. A bedroom. Two strangers, their limbs entangled; the doona cover and pillows hiding their identities just a little while longer. Riley wakes first to chimes from his mobile phone; an alarm or an early morning text message. He carefully manoeuvres himself away from last night’s hook-up and drags himself out of bed. His family are coming over for dinner and he’s got to clean up his new apartment before they arrive. But first thing is first, he’s got to get rid of “L” – the man he slept with last night, whose name escapes him right now in his early-morning, hangover fog. L doesn’t seem in a hurry to leave, though. He’s checking his messages; friends are texting photos of their Christmas Eve barbeque, trying to talk him into coming over. He’s not sure he wants to. He’s also sending messages to someone in his phone known only as FUTRE HUSBND and ignoring texts from his dad. Riley, in a haze, is trying to put the pieces together from the night before. He got wasted at

REVIEW: Stay at Home, Kasey Gambling – Melbourne Fringe

Have you ever felt trapped at home? I know, it’s 2020. If you can work from home, you must work from home. There are only four reasons to leave your house. You can only leave for one hour a day for exercise. No one can visit. But have you ever felt really trapped at home? And scared? Unable to leave. Four years ago, theatre-maker Kasey Gambling created an immersive audio experience for a single audience member on the streets of North Melbourne called The Maze . It’s still one of the most memorable pieces of art I have ever experienced, headphones in and following a woman on the street. Wearing headphones on the street can get you killed. At home, they should be a form of escape – listen to music, listen to podcasts, phone a friend. And yet, Kasey’s new show, Stay at Home , isn’t an escape. It’s another immersive audio experience, but this time you’re not following a woman, you’re in her shoes. But this is your house. How well do you know your own house? You’d think, after loc

REVIEW: Riot Stage Gets Famous - Melbourne Fringe

Early in 2020, Riot Stage – the youth theatre company – was getting ready to launch their show Everyone is Famous at the Next Wave Festival in May. They had been working on it for two years. They even got as far as appearing at the launch for the Festival. Then COVID happened. The members of Riot Stage had to wrestle with what to do next, just like theatre companies all over the world. They wanted to keep making theatre but had to think outside the box. Instead of premiering a show about persona in the age of social media, they made a documentary about trying to get famous in three weeks. Social media connects us all and every platform has its own quirks and expectations. And they all need content. The Riot Stagers launch new accounts to post art, sexually-revealing photographs, thirsty pics of Harry Styles, bad makeup tips from a learner, and reviews of pickles. The goal, of course, is to get as many followers as they can in three weeks. One Riot Stager goes the old-fashioned