Jean-Paul came in. They kissed, and he watched as the younger man unpacked the market sack. He thought what he always thought, though it wasn’t really a thought, just the words from a radio sermon he’d heard as a boy flooding his brain and erasing the possibility of any spontaneous emotion, any actual idea, as automatically as flicking a light switch: This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.
Whether Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s AMC series about an advertising agency in Manhattan in 1960 (first season, 2007) and 1962 (second season, this year) will follow its hero, creative director Don Draper, that far, is an open question. But it’s one direction Jon Hamm’s character might take–or one last stop. It’s not simply the hints of another life that flitter in and out of Draper’s milieu–the Frank O’Hara book he sees a guy at a bar reading and takes up himself, the foreign films he sneaks off to in the afternoons, the true creative spark that flares up in the brainstorming sessions he leads at the Sterling Cooper agency. It’s not the truth of another life already lived–the miserable life as little Dick Whitman on a farm in Pennsylvania during the Depression, that strange day in Korea with the original Lieutenant Don Draper, when Draper was killed next to him, burned beyond recognition, giving Whitman the chance to throw off his identity forever and drape himself in a new one, to become a new man, a new Don Draper. It’s not the sneering over women, Jews, blacks, elevator operators, anyone society deems beneath a white businessman’s contempt, or the empathy that can come from him when he’s-to-face with the very same people, the self-recognition of a man who strides through his office like a bully and hunches down in a theater as a fugitive from himself. Rather, it’s Hamm’s face, that thing that makes him a doppelganger of a figure who, as Mad Men unfolds, had already lived a mythic American life. That is, Jon Hamm as Don Draper might fit a reader’s fantasy of the steel magnate Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged, he might remind you of Bryan Ferry, but he looks like no one so much as Jack Kerouac.
As Don Draper works to keep up with changing times, to make sense of the Port Huron Statement a younger adman brings in as a guide to the new audience advertising will have to reach, On the Road, the book that from that time to this time would trumpet a proud and preening negation of everything Draper supposedly is, had already made its mark. It was one of the big books of 1959. But as you look at the curve of Draper’s jaw, his black hair, his dark eyes, his all-day five o’clock shadow, you can also see someone that Kerouac, himself a hustler, a self-promoter, a fabulist, an identity merchant, could have become himself.
Who is Don Draper, and what is he? If that drama is to play itself out, Mad Men will have to generate its own drama. Almost every episode gives up new detail and nuance on a second or third viewing, but in a second or third viewing of a “Law & Order” rerun a sense of high stakes remains and with Mad Men it’s barely present, smothered by exaggerated period affectations, mannerisms, costumes. (“I like Joan Holloway a lot,” the writer Michele Anna Jordan says of the Sterling Cooper office manager played by Christina Hendricks, “but she’s not with the Playtex program, is she? She wears the wrong bra for her clothing and it drives me nuts. Right girdle, though; she nails that look. A number of characters wear the wrong bra.”) The question of whether Sterling Cooper can land this account or keep that one is not that gripping, and since ongoing ad campaigns are not part of the show’s structure, each crisis vanishes as soon as another appears. Vincent Kartheiser’s young account executive Pete Campbell has slithered his way through the better part of two seasons as a shiftless misogynist blackmailer without justifying his presence in the office or on the show. January Jones–Don Draper’s wife, Betty, who began as a cross between Angle Dickinson and Grace Kelly and is turning into Tuesday Weld–is the only person on the show who can convey more than one emotion at a time, but she never has enough to do. As copywriter Peggy Olson, Elisabeth Moss has gone as far as anyone can looking frumpy, acting needy, and suppressing rage with ambition. John Slattery and Robert Morse–as headmen Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper–are dull actors; Mark Moses, who plays account manager Duck Phillips, is a dull face. The various copywriters and account agents struggling to get the bosses’ attention seem to be struggling even more to get ours.
The premise of Mad Men is that the world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s is interesting in and of itself, but the premise isn’t sustaining. Mad magazine–Sterling Cooper copywriter Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) keeps a secret stash in his office–pretty much caught the game in 1961, with “How Madison Avenue Could Sell American to the World”:
With Russia waging an all-out “anti-America” campaign to win new countries to their side, we figure it’s time for action! Mainly, what better way to sell America around the world than to let Madison Avenue handle the problem. Then they could treat “democracy and freedom” as they would the commercial products they push.
So you get a knockoff of a “Move Up to Schlitz” ad–“Move Up to Equality–Move Up to America”–with Frank Sinatra knocking back a tall one with JFK:
That’s American democracy for you! The only nation in the world where a President from Harvard and a Singer from Hoboken can sit down together, side-by-side, and talk about old times over a cold glass of beer… Try refreshing democracy yourself!
Sterling Cooper isn’t going to beat that–except when the product at issue is Don Draper himself.
“That was your singular act of invention,” Philip Roth writes in The Human Stain of his hero Coleman Silk, an African American who has passed as a Jew his entire adult life: “Every day you woke up to be what you had made yourself.” The sentence promises liberation, but another casts a shadow: “He’s set himself up like the moon to be only half visible”–not only to his wife, his bosses, but more than anyone to himself. “Americans were to start over again,” Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman declares in American Pastoral, in “the speech I didn’t give at my forty-fifth high school reunion,” to the class that graduated in 1950, with the war won and the Depression over: “The clock of history reset and a whole people’s aims limited no longer by the past”–anything was possible, including joining that great drama of starting over not as a common adventure but as a detective story in which the private eye and the culprit were one and the same. It was in the postwar air, this sense of the free man as fugitive, history’s open door as a chance to escape history altogether–for, among other stories it tells, Mad Men retells the story of another man who went through life in disguise. Nineteen-sixty was the year Ferdinand Demara, “The Great Impostor,” sold his story to Life magazine: After assuming the first of many aliases by taking the name of an army friend, he set out across America and beyond it, finding work and respect as an engineer, a monk, a prison warden, a psychologist, a lawyer, an editor, a medical researcher, a teacher, and, most brilliantly and most hideously, as a surgeon in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Korean War, operating on the most desperately wounded men. Demara lived his life as a series of disappearances, each new identity negating the one before it, until what he erased was not simply himself, but every place he reached and left. We follow Don Draper’s imposture in a single place and time; it’s more intense for that, and the erasure is more complete. “There is no such thing as American history,” he says so weirdly in 1962, at a meeting called to work up a slogan for American Airlines–to give the company a new image after a disastrous crash: “Only a frontier.” In 1960 Sterling Cooper has the Nixon account and it’s trying to counter vapid but irresistible Kennedy ads with more than a grim-faced Nixon in a dark room muttering about policy. “Kennedy? Nouveau riche,” says Draper, “a recent immigrant who bought his way into Harvard. Nixon is from nothing. Abe Lincoln of California, a self-made man. Kennedy, I see a silver spoon. Nixon, I see myself”–and for all you know he sees the future. If anyone can be president, why not no one?
Thus his attraction to Rachel Menken, “the head of Menken’s, a major Jewish department store” (so says the Mad Men website, leaving “Jewish department store”–Jewish owned? Jewish clientele? Jewish merchandise?–undefined). Draper is a compulsive adulterer, but with Maggie Siff’s Rachel–a tall, dark woman whose movements convey a caution that in her eyes borders on terror–he seems to want less to prove that he exists than to prove that his life as he lives it doesn’t.
He doesn’t seduce Rachel because he wants to have sex with her; he seduces her because he wants to talk to her. She is that different, that foreign (“I’m the only Jew you know in New York City?” she says when he asks her for advice on how to handle the Israeli Ministry of Tourism account), that unlikely, that forbidden–he can imagine that what she can’t tell is equal to what he can’t. “Do you really want this?” he asks her. “Yes, please,” she says like a child accepting ice cream, as if she’s certain she doesn’t deserve it.
In the next scene, they lie naked together; oddly, for someone who lights up every time he enters a room or leaves one, he turns down her offer of a cigarette. “You told me your mother died in childbirth,” he says. “Mine did, too. She was a prostitute. I don’t know what my father paid her, but when she died, he brought me to him and his wife. And when I was ten years old, he died. He was a drunk who got kicked in the face by a horse. She–buried him and took up with some other man and”–and he pauses, drawing on the invisible cigarette–“I was raised by those two”–and he takes another drag out of the air–“sorry people.” The old expression “sorry people,” a euphemism for “poor, worthless people” that comes out as the opposite of euphemism, cracks the scene, and you can almost see him struggling not to be dragged back into the past by his effort to kill it.
The scene is retraced an episode later, when Rachel is having lunch with her sister, Barbara Katz. “Are you seeing that goy?” asks the wonderfully demure Rebecca Creskoff. “Little bit,” says Rachel. “I told you,” Barbara says, “I wouldn’t let that stop me.” “What if he were married?” “My goodness. Jesus!” “I have been thinking about it,” Rachel says, denying she’s already slept with him. “Feels so natural. I feel so close to him.” “All I know is what I see in the movies,” Barbara says–and the scene is compelling because you don’t know whether to believe her naivete or not. “It’s magical, and then they start talking about him leaving his wife, and then he doesn’t. I saw this one where the husband gets the woman pregnant and he kills her. You don’t want to be that woman.” It’s a scary moment; Barbara’s leaps from her matinee to real life make you realize you have no idea what Don Draper might do to save his life, or end it.
Two years later, he runs into Rachel and a man in a restaurant. “Mr. Draper,” she says. “Miss Menken.” “Actually, it’s Mrs. Katz,” she says, introducing the nondescript man at her side as her husband, Tilden Katz. Not too long after, Draper stands with Roger Sterling and copywriter Freddy Rumsen as they try to talk their way into a gambling club. They don’t want to give out their real names to the elevator operator blocking their path. “I’m Dick Dollars,” says Sterling, laughing drunkenly, “this is Mike Moneybags, and this,” he says, gesturing to Draper–“Tilden Katz,” Draper says, sniggering under his hat. Doors slam closed as the name hangs in the air, as Draper walks past it, into the elevator; other doors crack open. In that moment, you can feel a trap door open up beneath him, sending him to oblivion; you can believe that the character might truly write the history of his times, simply by moving through them to that point where he might look back.
Artforum, November 2008