Like the dark-suited figure tumbling through a forest of skyscrapers in the show’s opening sequence, the characters of Mad Men seem both entrapped and possessed with endless possibility. As they career toward an uncertain future, they are nostalgic for their past, sometimes haunted by it. It is a future that, as advertisers, they have a disproportionate hand in creating. But, like most Americans in the 1960s, they also find their lives shaped by historical forces beyond their control.
It is no surprise that historians are among the biggest fans of the show, not only for its famed, almost neurotic, attention to period detail, but because Mad Men uses its characters to explore the impact of historical developments on a human scale. Mobility, both physical and figurative, has always been a core theme of the show – and it is one that speaks directly to the mood of postwar America.
The people in Mad Men are constantly on the move, whether it’s Don peeling off in his Cadillac or Peggy stepping up the corporate ladder. The head-spinning pace of social and cultural change in the 1960s is often reflected in the show’s fixation on travel and transportation, which appear to offer a means of autonomy for the inhabitants of Mad Men’s world. These are characters attempting to harness historical motion to their own wills.
On the move
They live in an era that promised Americans, especially white men, that they could decide their geographical and economic destinies. Federal investment in education and housing allowed millions of Americans to go to college and purchase their homes. With such incentives, Americans in the post-World War II period splayed out across the nation in search of economic opportunity.
Southerners continued their massive migration north and west while northerners moved down to the Sun Belt, with its lucrative jobs in the booming defense industry. Amplifying this movement, the construction of the federal highway system in the 1950s carved some 41,000 miles of asphalt into the American landscape, linking previously remote areas to a national network. At the same time, jet airliners made it possible to transverse the continent, and even cross the oceans, in a matter of hours instead of weeks.
In season one, we learnt the lengths to which Don has gone to seize this postwar mobility to write his own narrative. The charismatic, eloquent Don Draper started life as Dick Whitman – the son of a teenage prostitute who grew up in a rural Pennsylvania cathouse before stealing a dead officer’s identity during the Korean War.
Don passes on the ethos of self-invention to Peggy, his protégé, when he visits her at the hospital after she has unexpectedly given birth. “Peggy, listen to me, get out of here and move forward,” Don tells her. “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” Don relates to Peggy, not only due to her smarts, but because, as a working-class girl from Brooklyn with no college education, she too comes to Madison Avenue without the usual breeding.
Don and Peggy can never psychologically escape their pasts, as the last season drove home. Peggy lives every day with the memory of the child she gave up for adoption while Don has nightmares about state authorities discovering his real identity. Others on the show – especially women and people of colour – live within proscribed limits in an industry that, as one character says, “isn’t comfortable for everyone” just before another is forced out of a job because she refuses a boss’s sexual advances.
Have we regressed?
Still, I can’t help thinking that the world of mobility Mad Men captured, however ambivalently, is a far cry from our current era. In some ways, of course, Americans are more mobile than ever before. Much of the globe has been opened to air travel. Social media has given people new means for self-fashioning. Like Dick Whitman inventing Don Draper, we can curate our online identities to reflect our idealised selves.
But in more material ways, Americans have fewer avenues for advancement. No woman or man could possibly get a copy job at a New York advertising firm without a college degree. Children whose parents with limited resources to pay for higher education are not only less likely to go to college, they are less likely to graduate if they enroll. The cost of an undergraduate diploma, now a basic requirement for a financially comfortable life—but no guarantee of a job after graduation—is soaring. As we watched the drama of Mad Men unspool on our televisions during a time of spiraling income inequality, it has become clear that the era of middle class affluence we were gazing back on was a historical anomaly.
Meanwhile, the US transportation infrastructure that served as the stage for so many of Mad Men’s plotlines is in decline due to lack of federal investment. Bridges collapse and trains derail from their tracks after decades of disrepair. The roads that enabled Don’s wanderings are, quite literally, crumbling under our wheels.