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Mad Men: Not the Real Thing

Wow. I’m kind of devastated. I have been wrong about Mad Men all along. Well, since I started actually watching it, that is.

Turns out the show ISN’T essentially a critique of the conformist, sexist, and, (most essentially) deceitful (viz. the lie of Don Draper’s identity at the genetic center of the story) world of advertising and the commercial culture it generates. It’s an appreciation.

I’m sure many reading this might be saying “duh” about now. And maybe with good cause. That’s what I assumed it was when it started, and that’s why I didn’t watch the first two seasons. But, there was SO much hoopla about it, and much of it coming from good friends and others I respected, I gave it a try.

And I was really impressed. Not just by the quality of craft across the board—that stuff seldom wins me over when it’s in the service of bad content– but by the chillingly insightful critical, damning view of that world and the society it epitomized that was compelling in almost every scene.

OK, I had, from the start, no doubt that many, maybe most, maybe nearly all, of the people watching think Don Draper, though a lying, cheating scumbag in so many ways, is really COOL, since he’s such a sharp dressing hunk and especially since he’s so talented at what he does. But it was obvious to me, crystal clear that the show was really about the corruption and hollowness at the center of his soul, and, ultimately, about the evil at the heart of the enterprise of advertising. Wrong.

But in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, creator of the show, Matt Weiner makes it unmistakably clear that I understood the show better before I had watched it.

In it, he tells us the famous “I’d like to buy the world a coke” ad that closes the series, the ad that appropriated (back in the day, the term we used was “co-opted”) the generational struggle for human dignity, internationalism, and human connection in order to enhance the image of a company that privatizes water around the globe, poisoning children and adults with sugar, caffeine, and chemical additives in order to transfer massive wealth from the poor around the world to the few rich in the metropolitan centers is “the greatest ad of all time.” (that’s a good thing, to him). And the only criticism he’s heard of it is that its CORN, a charge he finds despicable. After all, he tells us, “snark” is what’s wrong with the world today.

When I saw that ad at the end of this series I was chilled to the bone. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I thought this really brings home the enduring evil power of advertising. This man (Draper) hits absolute bottom, finds the deepest truth in the utter emptiness of the lie he has been living and, finally finds, through the flakey “human potential movement,” of all things, emotional connection and empathy. And this astounding breakthrough enables him to… what? Change his life, we wonder? Turn away, finally, from the life and the lie he has been living? In that moment I hoped, “NO! That would be false, saccharine.”

But just when I thought the show would lose it’s ruthlessly clearheaded honesty, it comes up with a masterstroke of genius: He employs the “insight of self-actualization” (what was, after all, the most privileged, self regarding and self-serving tendency in the 60’s counterculture),   to create one of the most monstrous lies ever concocted by the poisonous corporate culture that exerts such a powerfully negative influence over the collective mind of humanity. “What a glorious, powerful insight and indictment!” I thought. One of the darkest, bravest conclusions ever.

Pure projection, it turns out. It’s uplifting, it turns out. The lie is the truth, it turns out. It doesn’t matter what crimes we commit, if we FEEL like we are motivated by love and connection, that’s …the Real Thing, it turns out.

The final scene, the final show, and one must conclude the entire series has always been a glorification and appreciation of all the lies, the sexism (we can discuss the great feminist triumph of the story arcs of Peggy and Joan as they heroically reach the heights of empowered corporate liberation at another time, perhaps), the venality, the avarice and greed. We lay these “imperfections” bare with such stunning insight and artistry only to better perversely savor their fetid pleasures. Suddenly, Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal don’t look so bad. Well, OK, they’re still awful.

I supposes I could take the post modern academic approach and say it’s meaning is only in the text and what I took it to mean is just as valid as the creator’s intention, but… frankly, my dear, I feel like an idiot.

Jeremy Pikser is a screenwriter (“Bulworth” “War, Inc.”) living in New York City.

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