“In Mad Men, as in modern American politics, the past is a pre-lapsarian paradise to which it is imperative to return, and the fantasy is of those exiled from history itself.”
Nostalgia: a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time, from the Greek nostos, a return home + algia, pain
Regret: to remember with distress or longing, from the Old French regreter, to long after, bewail, or lament, as in someone’s death
The lights go down, and in the projector’s glow you can still make out the sheen of Brylcreem in his hair, still see, as he launches into the meat of his pitch, the easy confidence of a man who knows what he’s doing. But there’s something else here, too, some intimation of failure beneath the gleam of success. When he talks about Teddy, an aging Greek who mentored him in the long-ago days of copywriting for a fur company, his frequent pauses create the staccato rhythm of a man trying to catch his breath:
Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound” . . . It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device 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 we know we are loved.
Images of a family idyll — children climbing trees on some sunny weekend afternoon, husband and wife laughing over a shared hot dog — click on and off the conference room’s vinyl projection screen. And so Don Draper’s life flits gently past, like sand through the gaps in his fingers.
Set between the first wide distribution of the Pill and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the first three seasons of Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner) feel like an adaptation of The Tempest set before the characters wash ashore, except that we viewers already know the names of the rocky shoals ahead — Cuba, Oswald, Selma, Tet, Chicago — and watch for them as though still trying to steer clear. Unaware, Don (played with two parts sex appeal and one part menace by Jon Hamm) and his wife Betty (January Jones, at times so fragile and pale she seems on the point of vanishing), a picture-perfect suburban couple, find themselves up to their necks in anomie. Don’s troubling grasp of just how painful the past can be is matched only by his wife’s own grief, which she burrows into so deeply that she can only express it to a neighbor’s 10-year-old son, holding his mittened hand. “Glen, I can’t talk to anyone,” she says, beginning to cry. “It’s so horrible. I’m so sad . . . Please tell me I’ll be okay.” “I don’t know,” he replies. “I wish I was older.”
For Don and Betty and Glen, as for secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and the other victims of the Eisenhower Snooze who roam the halls of ad agency Sterling Cooper, what one wants soundly trounces what one already has, despite/because of the fact that what each wants is far more difficult to get, and less easily explained. This is, as Betty Friedan famously termed it, “the problem that has no name.” It arises not from poverty but from immense, unyielding comfort, like a bed from which you cannot get up. It is, in short, a feeling that life itself, amid luxuries unimaginable to one’s parents, loses some vital part of its value. “I look at you and I think, ‘I want what he has,'” Peggy tells Don. “You have everything, and so much of it.”
What “everything” might entail is left unexplored, and maybe that’s the point: modern America is a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side proposition, full of evidence that we’re not making what we can out of what we’ve been given. The characters’ struggle to move beyond the ennui of afternoon cocktails and idle affairs, to rediscover a better past, mirrors our own struggle to move forward with all that baggage on our back. In this country, fifty years on, we’re still waiting for the time machine to bring the imagined idyll around again, desperately seeking something, anything, to salve the old wounds. And as goes the country, so goes its television: Mad Men‘s emotional thermostat seems to be set permanently at longing — longing for what we had (or believe we had) and lost, longing for what we hope to gain, longing sentimentally and longing with distress, longing stuck in the uncomfortable place between nostalgia and regret, where it becomes hard to tell whether the pain we feel stems from having once been happier than we are now, or from never having been happy at all.
“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia.’ The Greeks had two meanings for it:
‘eu-topos’, meaning ‘the good place,’ and ‘u-topos,’ meaning ‘the place that cannot be.'”
— Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), “Babylon”
Rachel Menken, the Jewish department store heiress carrying on with Don throughout much of the first season of Mad Men, is a no-nonsense woman with a head for business. She wants to turn her father’s outdated palace of bargain-hunting old ladies into a modern attraction, a place where shiksas on Daddy’s credit card will feel comfortable spending the afternoon. But in her there lies a romantic streak, the fantasy of an exile — Jews, she says, “thrive at doing business with people that hate us.” She calls Israel, which Don is researching for a new tourism campaign, “more an idea than a place,” something imagined but not much understood. The same notion applies to the American psyche: in the series, as in modern American politics, the past is a pre-lapsarian paradise to which it is imperative to return, and the fantasy is of those exiled from history itself.
Not that Mad Men depicts a time or place of unalloyed perfection — far from it. Its world is one constantly disrupted by sharp evidence of the off-kilter, from the Cuban missile crisis to the death of Marilyn Monroe, not to mention the innumerable instances of racism, sexism and homophobia (to wit, copywriter Freddy Rumsen on Peggy, then a secretary, coming up with a few kicker slogans for a lipstick campaign: “It was like watching a dog play the piano!”). But the show does speak incisively about what it means that today’s pundits often recall the past as a glorious moment before the fiercest battles of the so-called culture wars, a period seemingly so divisive that the fact that Barack Obama did not participate in them kept getting mentioned on MSNBC as evidence of his “electability.” Mad Men suggests that Americans have been searching for Eden’s gate at least since Jack and Jackie moved into the White House. As Roger Sterling (John Slattery), the agency’s silver-haired founding partner, says to Don, “your kind with your gloomy thoughts and your worries, you’re all busy licking some imaginary wound.” We didn’t do that back when I was in the service is his unspoken meaning: it didn’t used to be like this, those were the days, things were better back then.
This is upsetting, because the fact that such unthinking language continues to inform most aspects of our national policy speaks to a half century of collective amnesia, a fatal misreading (misremembering? dismembering?) of history. But I wonder if it is also in some way instructive, because it shows just how naïve we’ve been. In other words, if we say our parents and grandparents were the ones who fucked everything up, it becomes a little too easy to wipe our hands clean after leaving the scene of the crime. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” did not begin with Obama, so what pressure is there to repeal it? Little proxy wars in far-off lands started under Reagan, or Nixon, or Johnson, depending on whom you ask, so the little proxy wars of Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II have something akin to a justifying precedent. “Identity politics,” whatever that means, began with a pitched battle between the culture and the counterculture, so why should I, a 23-year-old white, affluent male, care enough to think anything of it? Isn’t history just that? Over, old news, a pale doppelganger of whatever last night’s Law & Order episode ripped from the headlines?
Our memories, so trained on the ticker at the bottom of the screen, have little space left for the complexity of “maybe, maybe not.” It’s much simpler to say the incantations, hope for the best, and forget that our histories, personal and political, are minefields filled with maybes and maybe nots. The historical utopia we have come to believe in is merely an idea, and an unoriginal one at that — “the good place” in our minds, perhaps, but also “the place that cannot be.” We aren’t going to ride the carousel back to 1960 anytime soon, and that is why nostalgia and regret are so central to Mad Men, which more and more seems to be a show set on re-conceptualizing the era it portrays. Nostalgia creates and inhabits “the place that cannot be,” a place so seductive, so stultifying, that we end up regretting it — lamenting its passing — even though it never existed in the first place. Mad Men steeps us in nostalgia so we feel revived when it pulls back the veil, and we finally see what we have long overlooked: that a few brave people have always denied that the country’s best days were behind it, and tried to make a good place that still could be.
“What is going on?” — Betty Draper, “The Grown Ups”
“There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone.” — Don Draper, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”
A few police officers with stoic, emotionless faces lead the man through the gauntlet of reporters. The camera captures them clearly, first in a wide shot and then a medium close-up. The shot rings out. Voices rise and bodies scramble. The picture goes out of focus. You can’t tell who’s who, not that it much matters now: there will be no coherent narrative here, no nostalgic tale to tell. This is not a place we ache to go. This is blunt trauma, the kind that breaks up illusions into minute shards.
The dramatic event — Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, mere days after Oswald murdered the president — arrives in the Draper home on live TV, as Don mixes a Bloody Mary and Betty watches intently in a white bathrobe, her hair still damp from the shower. It is, in some ways, the happening most crucial to understanding Mad Men‘s view of nostalgia, which is after all an illusory emotion. In moments of crisis, the willing suspension of disbelief is a lot harder to maintain, and shared narratives make less sense than they once did. Indeed, the series is perhaps best described as a series of wake-up calls, moments in which the skein falls away: Don finding out his brother committed suicide; Betty discovering Don’s secret identity; Peggy giving away her baby. In Mad Men, where characters read titles like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Meditations in an Emergency, crises come to form a kind of counter-narrative, one in which the world is a frightening, chaotic place, full of mistakes and maybe nots.
Don’s message to Peggy about what it means to “buy” things, as he tries to persuade her to join his new agency at the end of season three, brings the story to the point of shipwreck, when a narrative that made sense began to break up. Betty’s cry of “What is going on?” is just the beginning of a period in which the country finally acknowledged that the way it saw itself was gone, irrevocable in the face of empirical evidence. But when illusions are broken, change arrives: “One day you’re there and all of a sudden there’s less of you,” Peggy tells Pete Campbell. “And you wonder where that part went, if it’s living somewhere outside of you and you keep thinking maybe you’ll get it back and then you realize it’s just gone.” When the characters stop trying to reclaim or elide the past, the sense of constraint they carry around with them begins to melt away — not in some idealized, fantastical sense, but in the sense of being alive to the possibility (and it is only that, a possibility) that the unknown may be just the salve they need.
The same could be said of the American memory. What lies ahead is always scary, the less-chosen half of the “Devil you know, devil you don’t” conundrum, but in fear there is also awakening, strong feeling, a rush of energy. “Someday you’re going to want something, and I won’t be able to give it to you,” Betty tells her daughter: in other words, it’s up to you to get it for yourself. When we decide to stop being seduced by the past, we can begin to grapple with it, to guide its meandering course, and realize that history is not a story of inevitabilities but of chances taken and not taken, victories won and defeats endured. I don’t mean that in a jingoistic sense, but I suppose I do mean it in a hopeful one. When the way we see ourselves in gone, it can mean reinvention rather than emptiness, progress rather than stagnation. Roy Orbison’s song “Shahdaroba,” which ends season three, is not without ambivalence, but it is emblematic of what Mad Men is about at heart, and of the only way to change the shape of the narrative: Shahadaroba, Shahadaroba / Means the future / Is much better than the past / Shahadaroba, Shahadaroba / In the future / You will find a love that lasts.