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The End of Mad Men: The Compromised 1960s and Schrödinger’s Advertisement

After seven seasons on the air (or maybe eight, properly speaking, what with the yearlong gap between the two halves of the final season), Mad Men, AMC’s prestige drama about the American advertising world during the 1960s, dropped its finale episode last night. Mad Men‘s conclusion came a few years after the expiry date of its cultural currency, it must be said. Delayed along its run by writers’ strikes, contract disputes, and creator and mastermind auteur Matthew Weiner’s drawn-out serialized storytelling tendencies, the show retained its core audience and critical discourse to the end but had undoubtedly lost much of the cultural frisson that it once flirted with. Although the line-by-line, moment-by-moment quality of its writing never really dipped, the dominant themes of Mad Men were well-established and cast in stone by the end of its second season at the latest (and maybe much earlier that). Only so much elaboration and re-assertion of these themes was necessary or desirable, and the repetition of its major messages, more so than odd magic-realist touches or newly-introduced major characters, made the show feel spent more than anything other particular element.

But let’s accentuate the positive as we gaze over the still-warm body of Weiner’s magnum opus of television’s lauded new golden age. Mad Men was a sharp, intelligent, sophisticated narrative whose every scene (nearly its every line) was pregnant with signification, meaning, and social and cultural politics. It was also funny and outrage-inducing, often in the space of a single scene, capable of encapsulating and skewering the invisible cage of social expectations in the capitalist order even while it parroted the bourgeois assumptions and privileged perspective of socioeconomically-advantaged White America. Brief instances of minority outlooks were offered, but the trajectory to the vaunted Caucasian neoliberal mythos of the seismic “change” of the 1960s was firmly entrenched in the perspectives of the progenitors of that very class itself.

Mad Men zeroed in frequently on the received image of the counterculture in the 1960s and challenged our assumptions about the primacy of its social influence and the purity of its mission of fundamental cultural change. From the first season, the self-made (or self-remade) man in a suit Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) would often clash with hippies and underground types who dismissed him as a mere square. He would not dismiss them so summarily, though he would question the nature of their engagement with and investment in alternative social mentalities before, well, dismissing them. He has a more resonant final encounter with the counterculture, which we’ll get into in a minute.

Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) enter into the social justice and psychedelic hedonism segments of the counterculture, respectively, but both emerge from them a bit chastened to the abandonment of ego and ambition required to truly escape the implications of their square milieu. Each finds a measured approach preferable in the finale, “Person to Person”: Peggy sticks on at industry giant McCann-Erickson to further her rising career but finds potential romantic companionship with longtime art department co-creative Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), who exudes some limited longhaired chill and calm in the midst of the coporate environment, while Roger commits to the Quebeçois Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond), the mother of Don’s ex Megan (Jessica Paré), who takes a relatively open view to monogamy.

Other principle characters have little investment in the changing nature of American society beyond what business opportunities it can offer them. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) literally jets out west to Wichita, Kansas with his reconciled family to start anew, a big old-money fish in a small new-money pond in the New West. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) jettisons the condescension of both patriarchal office culture and controlling sugar-daddy male sexual partners to forge her own future as an independent businesswoman. Mad Men is notable as a text of 1960s America for its focus not on fundamental change but essential continuity. For this particular slice of the New York elite and counterparts from other locales that cross their paths, social shifts are felt more incrementally, if at all. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Mad Men episode recap grand champions Tom and Lorenzo have long maintained that Weiner’s basic view of human nature is that it is essentially static. People don’t change, no matter how hard they try to or hope to or pretend to. Don Draper is this truism’s ironic epitome: even though broken, unloved, sexually and emotionally and philosophically insecure Dick Whitman assumes another identity and migrates to New York City to become a leading light in Madison Avenue’s advertising epicentre, he can’t leave behind the orphan in the whorehouse, furtively eating a chocolate bar alone just to feel briefly, fleetingly normal (whatever that’s supposed to be). It surely isn’t such a stretch to extrapolate that reading onto Mad Men‘s view of social conditions, that they ultimately do not change either.

In its already-controversial closing scene, Mad Men embeds what can only be understood, however it might be read, as a critique of the promise of enlightenment and progress central to the myth of the Sixties. Mad Men has, from the very beginning, been powerfully on-point concerning the power of advertising in shaping post-war public American life. The pursuit of happiness has been enshrined in the essential character of America since the Declaration of Independence (and indeed before that), but happiness is relative, defined in different ways at different times by different people. In 1960s America, despite the objections of the counterculture, advertising defined happiness and associated it with whatever product it was convincing consumers to buy. When it suited the product and the image being projected, the corporate world of Madison Avenue would gladly co-opt the ideas and emotions of the hippie movement or any other subculture, no matter the rebellious intent of such a group, to sell those products or advance that image.

This process was in operation in concert with the hopeful upheavals of the Sixties and internalized its messages and emotional content for subsequent application, so much so that our collective memory and received impression of the era is inextricably tied up with the compromised, commodified image of it. The idea of the Sixties, the utopian dream of love and peace and collective happiness and inclusion, was compromised and tainted by monied interests from its earliest expressions, therefore.

Mad Men makes this clear in the closing sequence of its run. Don sits cross-legged next to the ocean cliffs of Big Sur, California, meditating along with the other attendees of a hippie self-actualization retreat that he did not really want to intend but has found useful in helping him in recognizing his limitations and weaknesses. As he lets out a long, un-Don-like “ommmm”, his face cracks into a smile. Weiner (who directs the episode) then cuts to the famous Coca Cola commercial “Hilltop”, produced by McCann-Erickson (for whom Don still technically works, fictionally), which marshalls the global dream of unity and happiness central to the hippie counterculture to sell millions of bottles of carbonated sugar water.

However you read this closing juxtaposition, it comes across as a canny depiction of the progress-subverting power and influence of advertising. The emerging debate over this moment has been taking the following either-or form: Did Don really find some form of fulfilment and contentment in California, with the appearance of “Hilltop” providing an ironic commentary on the terms of those concepts as defined by the consumer capitalist discourse which he helped to direct for so long? Or was his experience in this commune retreat not transcendent but merely a bit of inadvertent research leading to serendipitous inspiration? Did Don Draper conceive of the iconic “Hilltop” as a mining of his countercultural experience, co-opting the authentic emotional realization he felt to regain his stature in the creative world of advertising with a dynamite commercial?

There are compelling reasons to believe either of these readings, although much more textual material seems to have been planted to suggest the latter interpretation. Like a lot of open endings, Mad Men‘s has taken on a philosophical test dimension, a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty litmus test for positive outcomes to vie with cynical exploitation for case-by-case psychological supremacy. But I think the ending is much more compelling, because it is both an authentic emotional realization for Don and the kernel of future commercial exploitation, if not by him then by others like him.

Consumer capitalism does not preclude its subjects from true feelings or experiences, it merely channels them into specific commodifications. The experience of living within it is one of simultaneous, persistent compromised contentment; it’s set up to be that way, of course, because who’s going to buy something to make them content if they’re completely contented already? In this way, the “Hilltop” ad, and whatever association is being suggested between it and Don Draper, is both a real (The Real Thing) and fake discursive expression at the same time, forever. It is Schrödinger‘s Ad. In ending his seminal television narrative in such a position of eternal flux, Matthew Weiner makes a resonant final statement on the nature of the pursuit of happiness in American consumer capitalism.

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