Return of the King: “Mad Men” and the Greatest Story Ever Sold

"Mad Men" has something unsettling (and historically accurate) to tell us about the way that white male power works.

April 2, 2015

    Mad Men still has a half-season to go, but Don Draper’s obituary has already been written. We don’t know exactly how it will end for Don, but the critical consensus is that his fate is sealed: for the past seven years, we’ve watched him follow the same downward trajectory his silhouetted likeness traces in the opening credits, so that all that’s left is for him to land. In a piece lamenting the “death of adulthood in American culture,” A. O. Scott says that Mad Men is one of several recent pop cultural narratives — among them The Sopranos and Breaking Bad — that chart the “final, exhausted collapse” of white men and their regimes, but I’m not convinced. Don has a way of bouncing back. Where one episode opens with him on an examination table, lying to his doctor about how much he drinks and smokes as if his bloodshot eyes and smoker’s cough didn’t give him away (even bets on cirrhosis and emphysema), another finds him swimming laps, cutting down on his drinking, and keeping a journal in an effort to “gain a modicum of control.” Over the course of the past six and a half seasons, Don has been on the brink of personal and professional destruction too many times to count, and yet when we last saw him at the conclusion of “Waterloo,” the final episode of the last half-season, which aired last May, he was fresh-faced and back on top. The truth is that Mad Men has something far more unsettling (and historically accurate) to tell us about the way that white male power works to protect its own interests, precisely by staging and restaging its own death.

    In fact, a closer look at “Waterloo” in particular makes clear that the show does not chronicle the last gasp of the white male, as Scott would have it, but outlines the way that a wily old guard has followed the advice of E. Digby Baltzell (who coined the acronym WASP in 1964) by “absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks” in order to maintain its grip on power. After several episodes of unrelenting humiliation for Don, this installment was so thoroughly upbeat that it had critics wondering just whose Waterloo it was, anyway. Unlike Napoleon, Don doesn’t defiantly march into a futile, fatal battle to save his job, but instead surprises everyone by stepping graciously aside, handing a big pitch for Burger Chef to his protégé, Peggy Olson. Peggy protests she can’t, because she’s a woman; it seems a clear sign that the times are indeed a-changing that Don concludes, “Maybe that’s better. Maybe that’s the way it always should have been.” Peggy has absorbed Don’s motto that “every great ad tells a story,” and she weaves one that builds beautifully off of what was arguably Don’s best pitch, delivered at the end of the first season for Kodak’s circular slide projector, a wistful paean to an idyllic past we long to recover. That version of home and family is gone forever, Peggy asserts now, if it ever existed at all, but the future she conjures sounds even better: “What if,” she asks her awestruck audience, “there was another table where everyone gets what they want when they want it?”

    It’s tempting to read both the ad and Peggy’s triumphant performance as harbingers of our own more enlightened, inclusive era, where women and people of color have a seat and a voice at the clean well-lit table that Peggy describes. There are plenty of indications that we are witnessing the small steps that will ultimately amount to real progress (not least of which, the moon landing that provides the episode’s symbolic framework). Remember at the beginning of this season (in “A Day’s Work”), when senior partner Bertram Cooper, a member of the old guard if ever there was one, insists that a black secretary be moved from her post as receptionist at the front of the office? (“I’m all for the national advancement of colored people,” he says, “but I don’t believe people should advance all the way to the front.”) Now Joan Holloway obliges by promoting her to office manager, and it is she — her name is Dawn, naturally — who is not just front but center at the end of “Waterloo” when she calls to order the meeting at which Cooper’s death and a fresh start for the agency are announced.

    But as exhilarating as it is to watch Peggy nail the presentation, and to watch Dawn command the room if just for a moment, the big winner in this episode is the status quo, which puts a new face on the same old model. Peggy’s pitch for Burger Chef promises that everyone will get a seat at the table, but if we’ve learned anything over the course of six and a half seasons, it’s that it is actually an invitation-only affair for an exceptional few. Yes, Mad Men narrates the crisis of white masculinity, but as this episode makes clear, that crisis is not about who gets a piece of pie, but about who controls the pie; as Bert tautologically instructs his younger partner Roger Sterling, “Whoever is in control is in charge.”

    Bert has appeared rarely over the course of the series, and when he has, it has usually been behind the closed door of his own office, where he presides shoeless; control, in his view of things, is best maintained behind the scenes and quietly. In an episode from the first season, for instance (“New Amsterdam”), he explains to Don why they can’t fire Pete Campbell: they don’t want to offend any of his family’s important connections. When Don bristles, Bert wryly chides, “You’re going to need a stronger stomach if you’re going to be back in the kitchen, seeing how the sausage is made.” “Back in the kitchen” may be a homely metaphor for “Trinity, Deke, the Maidstone Club, the Century Club, Dartmouth, Gracie Mansion” — the exclusive places Bert lists where deals are discreetly brokered — but “making sausage” is a fine way to describe the nonchalant brutality with which the powers-that-be go about that business.

    Much as it would be nice to think that Don handing the presentation to Peggy is an act of unadulterated generosity, it also illustrates that he finally understands what Bert has known all along: that real leaders let other people fight their battles for them. It is Don’s Waterloo, all right, but he’s not Napoleon in this story, he’s the exiled king Louis XVIII, who was restored to the throne after that battle thanks to a powerful coalition of foreign allies. Don, too, has been in exile, and he’s formed his own coalition; holed up in his apartment, he’s had Dawn gather paperwork and intel from the office; he’s had the recovering alcoholic Freddy Rumsen spoon-feed campaign ideas to Peggy; and of course he’s had Peggy herself, who throws the winning pitch. Peggy may present the ad; she may even have been instrumental in writing the ad; but it is Don who has been restored to his position at the top, in a deal germinated in the steam room of an exclusive men’s club and sealed behind the closed door of Roger’s office. It’s not, finally, a new story Peggy is selling but an old one gussied up for a new demographic.

    And hey — it’s Burger Chef she’s selling. In the long run, it’s really not very good for us, is it? Recalling those heady days in the late 1960s and early ’70s when “the world seemed to lie before” her and her talented college classmates, novelist Jane Smiley muses in the essay “Feminism Meets the Free Market” that the fight for civil rights, feminism, and environmental preservation might have turned out differently, leading to a genuinely equitable society collectively concerned with preserving the planet. Instead, she and her cohort learned that if they were going to succeed, it would be “one at a time” and “according to the individualistic American model.” Smiley came to understand that success meant “surviving change and adversity, being adaptable and tough, and understanding and possibly making use of the perquisites of power.” She learned to act like a man, in other words. Likewise, in a moment of exasperation, Peggy implores Don, “You really want to help me, show me how you think!” For her part, the newest partner Joan is learning quickly to be as ruthless as her male counterparts — voting Don out because he cost her a million dollars when he opted not to take the company public.

    “Waterloo” shows us how we got where we are now. Mark Fisher has applied the term “capitalist realism” to describe the widespread sense that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Mad Men at least reminds us that our current situation — which is to say rising economic inequality across the globe and declining environmental resources — is not the inevitable outcome of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, but the result of the well-executed backroom deals made by the Bert Coopers of this world, and their cronies.

    We know that the last half-season is entitled “The End of An Era,” evidence for some who believe as A. O. Scott does that the series shows “an old order collapsing under the weight of internal contradiction and external pressure.” I’m not buying it. Don may or may not meet his end at the end of this last half-season, but I guarantee that if the show were to continue in perpetuity, it would feature Don’s son Bobby, all grown up into a Sensitive New Age Guy. Bobby’s willingness to share the household chores and get out the vote for Obama might trick us into thinking we have overcome — 76 cents to the dollar and Ferguson notwithstanding. A kinder, gentler version of the same old, same old.

    My guess is that “The End of the Era,” like “Waterloo,” doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey points out that among the groups to mobilize alongside the various protest movements of the 1960s were the very wealthy, who were able to wed their agenda to the basic values of human dignity and individual freedom that informed the demands of disenfranchised minorities, protesting students, humanitarians, and environmentalists. (Think of Roger, dropping acid and getting his free love on with a collection of nubile hippies in a swank Upper East Side hotel room in “Time Zones.”) This next half-season, as it slouches toward the 1970s, may signal among other things the final death knell for the idealism of the New Deal era and the resurgence of capitalist class interests. Which might explain the joie de vivre with which Bert makes his final exit. True, he’s met his own end in “Waterloo,” but not without naming his successor in one final behind-the-scenes accord: in the episode’s whimsical song-and-dance finale, Bert’s ghost charms us all with the promise that the moon belongs to everyone. But it’s a claim he makes with a wink and a nod to Don, whom he hails as his successor when he calls out: “Don, my boy! The stars in the sky, the moon on high, they’re great for you and me!” A bevy of office girls scamper around him, making offerings of their instruments of labor — steno pads, rolodexes, files — as he retreats to his inner sanctum with one last salute. The king is dead. Long live the king!


    Kathy Knapp is the author of American Unexceptionalism: The Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (University of Iowa Press 2014).


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