This weekend, AMC’s Mad Men returns to TV screens for its final season, due to be shown in two halves, this year and next. In its six seasons to date the period drama has won plaudits for its writing and its visual style in depicting the 1950s and 1960s. But what has its lead character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) told us about men and masculinity?
In Democracy in America (1835) the French political thinker Alexis De Tocqueville dedicated a chapter to the Causes Of The Restless Spirit Of Americans In The Midst Of Their Prosperity. He saw “the freest and most enlightened men, placed in the happiest circumstances which the world affords,” but they appeared to have “a cloud habitually hung upon their brow”.
De Tocqueville was observing American men in the 1830s, yet his observations would seem to describe accurately Mad Men’s Don Draper:
He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.
On one reading Don Draper, and Mad Men, presents a recurring kind of American masculinity: insistent, insatiable, forward-looking. Weaned on the abundance of the 1950s, it has been challenged by the upheavals of the 1960s.
Across the six seasons already aired, the inscrutable Don roves through various work and social spaces, tangling with the women he finds (and brings) there. A “What would Don Draper do?” flowchart evinces that certain viewers envy this, both the man and the time in which it was seemingly OK to be a man like him.
At the end of season six, Don stood in front of a decrepit building, showing his kids the site of his lowly upbringing – in a brothel. From having it all – executive success, beautiful wives, kids, and homes, and an upwards social trajectory – we left him jobless, wifeless, cut adrift. It’s been a long fall to back where he began.
On another reading, Don realises the American archetype of the self-made man, such as Founding Father, and “First American” Benjamin Franklin. Dick Whitman (Don’s less alliterative but equally suggestive birth-name) was son of a prostitute who died in childbirth. He was raised poor by his imperious father and a strict Christian stepmother in Depression-era rural Pennsylvania.
Dick saw his father killed when a startled horse kicked him in the face. He joined the army and, after a shelling in the Korean War, saw his Commanding Officer, Donald Draper, killed. He stole his identity by switching their dog tags. Carpe diem or, as African-American social reformer Frederick Douglass put it in his 1872 lecture, Self-Made Men“: "opportunity is important but exertion is indispensable”.
Returning to the United States, “Don” sold used cars before being found by Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), who was searching for her husband. Somehow, they began a mutually fulfilling relationship. Anna played her part in Don’s self-making masquerade, granting him a divorce when he wished to marry advertisement model Betty Hofstadt (January Jones).
That this self-made manhood takes place in a melodrama means that this kind of masculinity is different from earlier incarnations of self-made men such as Franklin: it is social, relying on others as much, or more than, one’s self. Don’s social relations are arbitrary and excessive (hence, the plural “wives” and “homes” above, part of Don’s “having it all”).
It also coincides with the changing nature of labour in the United States since the Second World War. No longer can men strike it out on their own, as did Benjamin Franklin. Corporations become larger. Many former “free entrepreneurs” become mere employees. Managerialism reigns.
In the growth of these large bureaucracies mid-level managers report to supervisors, becoming the links in what the American sociologist C. Wright Mills identified in 1951 as the “chains of power and obedience, coordinating and supervising other occupational experiences, functions and skills”.
There is no tangible product of these men’s labour: Don’s job as an advertiser is to manufacture desire while at the same time generating the promise of that desire’s fulfilment.
Mad Men’s excess – Don’s back story, his dalliances, the fantastic plot twists (such as unexpected births and an up-and-comer getting his foot run over by a ride-on lawnmower in the office) – is at once the show’s, and Don’s, source of attraction and repulsion.
What a lucky man, indeed—chronically restless, temperamentally anxious, a man in constant motion to prove what ultimately cannot be proved: that he is a real man and that this identity is unthreatened by the action of other men.
But the arbitrariness of Mad Men has its detractors: “The writing is extremely weak,” wrote critic Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books in 2011:
[T]he plotting [is] haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations sallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug.
Mendelsohn objects to arbitrary plot movements and characterisations that lack a certain coherence and stability. But this so-called “preposterousness” (literally, placing things in the wrong order) of plot is a product of the show’s genre of melodrama and the scene of American masculinity in the 1960s.
The way the 1960s is represented – what Mendelsohn calls a smug self-positioning – is as a televisual memory weighted by an era and American identity in tumult, where the thing remembered is increasingly mediated by television itself.
Television ownership rose from just 2% of households in 1948 to more than 90% of households having one or more in 1960. Mad Men’s characters experience the signal moments of the 1960s by gathering around the television. It seems a moral act that Pete and Trudy stay home to watch the aftermath of the JFK assassination rather than attend Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) daughter’s wedding.
This frames history in a melodramatic way. A narrative of great men in control of great events wanes, and Don, like his masculinity, becomes soap operatic: gestures and bodies freeze; dialogue stilts or is swallowed on the way out of Jon Hamm’s mouth; too-long stares and silences battle before a scene is cut.
But these languors are punctuated by explosive expressions of desire: sex and violence; suicide and revenge; the revelation of traumatic and bogus pasts. The American masculinity of the 1950s, shot down with the smiling Cold War warrior, JFK, keeps trying to assert itself as an itch that fewer people want to scratch.
Where to, then, for Don Draper and the kind of man he is, in Mad Men’s final season? I’d watch California. Previous seasons have looked westward to resolve issues in old New York. Don takes off with a clique of European nomads near the end of season two. Abandoning his family, he re-connects with Anna Draper, his ready-made wife.
California is the home of television production and the place of the future: Don and Pete chase advertising accounts for the weapons and aerospace industries. In season four, Don proposed, out of the blue, to his secretary Megan (in an episode entitled Tomorrowland). A season later, Pete wants to run away with the married Beth Dawes:
Let’s go to Los Angeles. I’ve been there. It’s filled with sunshine.
The last season ended with three men jostling to go west, to get away. It would do them well to remember what author of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque, said of Los Angeles 30 years earlier in Shadows in Paradise:
It devoured everyone, and whoever was unable to save himself in time, would lose his identity, whether he thought so himself or not.