Editor’s Note: Points prides itself on offering historically-informed analyses of modern phenomena, and there is perhaps no better phenomenon for our collective eyes than AMC’s overwhelmingly popular series Mad Men. As the show begins the second half of its last season, Points managing editors Claire Clark and myself, as well as contributing editors Mike Durfee and Kyle Bridge, offer our thoughts on how intoxicants are being used in the series, what they mean to the characters, and what modern viewers can read into their use.
We bring you the first part of our roundtable on Mad Men today, and look forward to another at the season’s close. – EBD
The ads for the last six episodes of Mad Men have billed the show’s series finale as the “end of an era.” As Don Draper’s shown us several times, a good tagline works on more than one level. Mad Men’s latest line invites personal reflection (seven years is a long time to follow a cast of fictional characters). But it’s also an intellectual teaser: part of the ad’s tension is historiographic.
At this point, I couldn’t care less whether Don Draper/Dick Whitman exorcises his demons and sticks with a twelve-step program, or goes hurtling down an elevator shaft. But I’m still very interested in show runner Matt Weiner’s interpretation of the 1960s— and since the mid-season premiere picked up in April of 1970, I’ve started to prepare for disappointment.
One of the most original elements of the show is the way Weiner intentionally tweaks the given narrative of the Sixties-with-a-capital-S. A Generation X-er congenitally skeptical of Baby Boomer mythology, Weiner has admitted that he set out to tell the story of the Sixties from the Establishment’s perspective. Boomers, according to Weiner, crafted an inaccurate and self-absorbed history in which “They invented sex. And drugs. They have a view of it that is a child’s view. So I wanted to see, what would it be like if you were an adult, and had lived through some fairly interesting things like World War II and the Great Depression and then this [youth culture] came along.”
If Weiner wanted to prove that youth culture didn’t invent substance use, his show has been a tremendous success. The daily lives of Mad Men’s advertising executives and their wives are positively psychotropic: coffee, liquor, wine, and cigarettes are daily fixtures in the home and office; doctors readily dispense Valium, LSD, and amphetamines; and marijuana use is loosely policed.
But it’s unclear whether a shift in perspective around substance use (and perhaps also sex) will alter the bigger historical picture. The trailer for the series finale, set to Diana Ross’s disco hit “Love Hangover,” introduces the 1970s as a long, escapist “hangover” from the previous decade—not exactly a creative historical insight. In Sunday’s episode, the 1970s are here, and they are a joke and a horror (the mustaches and suits worn by Roger Sterling and Ted Chaough fall somewhere on the spectrum between comical and grotesque). There was no hard drug use on Sunday’s episode, but then again, Don’s perspective on his circumstances throughout the 1960s has been consistently hallucinatory.
Will Weiner, in assessing the Sixties from the perspective of the conservative, white, and powerful brokers of mainstream culture, wind up re-telling the well-known Good Sixties/Bad Sixties story written by Todd Gitlin, a leftist professor and former leader of Students for a Democratic Society? And if so— what does that mean for alcohol and drug historians? Can we reinterpret substance use in the Sixties without disrupting our larger understanding of the era? That seems like an exercise in futility worthy of Don Draper.
“Is that all there is?” So muses Peggy Lee in her 1969 #1 Billboard Hit behind the opening and closing scenes of Sunday night’s debut episode entitled “Severance.” Sitting by his loathsome self in a stodgy diner, Don Draper likely mulled over the same question about his own Sysiphean quest for fulfillment and approval at episode’s end. Searching for answers at the bottom of a bottle, the top of the corporate ladder, or up an eager flight attendant’s skirt proves futile time and time again. By April 30, 1970, many folks were asking the same question of themselves, their government, and the fluid world they inhabited.
I agree with Claire. The 1970s are no less a hangover than any other moment covered by Mad Men’s sprawling period drama. The pervasive disillusionment of this new installment suggests a departure from an earlier era, thereby reifying Gitlin’s false binary and its ugly stepsister, what Timothy Tyson calls the “two movement” myth painting black power as a departure from the golden years of Civil Rights. Quasi-Noir scenes warning of looming crime, racial tension, urban riots, and roaches in the final season suggest–as Peggy Lee did–that we are watching “the whole world go up in flames.” Certainly this is how the “non-shouters” of the nation felt. The waitress toting Jon Dos Passos reinforces the same theme; Dos Passos’s trilogy has been aptly described as a “fable of America’s material success and moral decline.” Both Dos Passos and earlier seasons of Mad Men need remind us that moral decline began well before the late sixties.
“Severance” speaks to much more than the severance package Ken Cosgrove vengefully decided to forego. The title speaks to the broader dislocation and loss inherent in the spectrum of addiction. In initial seasons the glamour and style of mid-century decor, casual office cocktails, and life without consequences inebriated us all, including the shows characters on and off set. While Don looks, dresses, and behaves quite similarly to the show’s first season his dalliances and misadventures have crossed over from the archetype of cool to sad and pathetic. In a variety of ways and through a variety of characters, we are reminded of the costs of addiction.
If we look closely, we are also reminded that addiction takes many forms. After a humiliating experience with male executives Joan finds comfort in Oscar de la Renta. Pete Campbell, still chasing respect and power of any kind complains about the tax burden of his newfound wealth. He seems less concerned about his estranged wife and daughter, the unintended consequences of his own demons. Don’s pursuit of approval and adoration from women nets empty moments with women that adore Don’s façade and disdain from the waitress and mourning sister that see beyond the veil.
In one way or another each of the show’s characters have been chasing their own dragons. As any good addict knows, nothing is more intoxicating than the first high. For some the spectrum of addiction leads to acceptance and rehabilitation. Perhaps Don is on his way to acceptance as he has finally begun to acknowledge his own past and see the far-reaching consequences of his dealings with others. Then again, much of Don’s behavior suggests the opposite. Sweeping an expensive comforter over his wine-stained rug with a chuckle won’t diminish the stain. Nor will turning off the lights of his Midtown apartment make his world any less lonely. It will, however, keep him from looking in the mirror.
The real question is will we make it to 1971? If so, will this New York Times headline grace Draper’s desk? Will Don watch another Nixon speech in passing? Will anyone address heroin and link rising drug use to rising crime? What will characters make of the new Public Enemy #1? Last I remember, Betty’s husband Henry was cozying up to Rockefeller to be his Attorney General. Will he and his brethren begin talking tough on drugs and crime? Will Marigold come back from the commune or will her father join her? Will scenes in California turn to the “speed freaks” of the Haight? Will anyone slay their dragon or is that all there is? My suspicion is that all parties involved will continue to borrow from the wisdom of Peggy Lee: “Let’s break out the booze and have a ball if that’s all there is.”
Wow, where to begin? Welcome back, Mad Men. Glad to have you.
As I watched this episode, I couldn’t stop thinking of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl, except with Mad Men, it is, as it always is, “Sex and the Stimulant Girl.” Brown wrote an analysis and, perhaps more appropriately, an exegesis of the financial and sexual independence that (some) women were experiencing as they broke into the new world of the 1960s and ‘70s – a world that Matthew Weiner and Mad Men specifically explore. (I love the moment when, after their fight over the abject objectification Joan experienced during her and Peggy’s meeting with the department store heads, Peggy tells Joan,“You’re rich and can do whatever you want,” the perfect combination of Brown’s ideals. As if that were actually an option for her!)
But what Mad Men does so beautifully is provide another view into this supposedly “liberated” world, associating – visually, orally, aurally – women with stimulants. The show equates them, as it were, especially in “Severance,” the first episode of the second half of the show’s last season.
The first scene is especially telling. There’s Don, being all Don, with his hooded bedroom eyes, ogling a not-quite-naked woman wearing a $15,000 chinchilla coat. In his hands are gripped two legal stimulants – a cigarette, and the infamous “We Are Happy to Serve You” cup of coffee, available at any fine corner coffee retailer in New York. The first scene is him directing the woman to “Show me how you feel.” Don grips the cigarette and coffee like life preservers as she runs her hand over her smooth leg, tossing the butt into the cup when the feigned coitus is complete.
And the next scene? Surprise – it’s coffee again. Don and Roger, surrounded by three women, all of them in tuxedos and fine dress, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee at a quiet diner, late at night. Don even pours some kind of booze from a flask into their cups of coffee. After all, two stimulants are better than one.
Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sex – Mad Men’s finest legal stimulants, dominating the first two scenes. That the song, “Is That All There Is?” continually plays is almost too ironic for words.
After forays into the realm of illegal drugs, Mad Men sticks to what it knows best – the glories and, well, not so glorious excessive use of legal drugs. Don has struggled with alcoholism badly throughout the show (him puking into a potted plant remains a favorite scene of mine). But coffee and alcohol remain specifically attached to sex throughout this episode, in ways I haven’t quite seen before.
This is even true for Peggy. The first scene we see her in, she’s walking into the break room. Her assistant asks if she wants to go out for lunch, but she says that she just wants coffee. He then sets her up on a blind date. Coffee and sex, sex and coffee.
When Don returns to the diner the following night and the older waitress (the non-sexually-viable one) gives his order to the Dos Passos-reading waitress he had met, and harassed, the night before, the older waitress tells her, “Just coffee for him.” And when Don and the waitress then move into the alley, she smokes a cigarette before they have sex, rubbing it out with her toe before she allows Don to take her, assuming it’s part of the previous night’s $100 tip. Sex and coffee, coffee and sex. The best legal stimulants money can buy.
But who suffers from all of this legal stimulant abuse? It doesn’t seem to be Don these days. Despite the loneliness of his empty apartment and the cheap thrills of his meaningless trysts, he’s still there after seven seasons, boozing and carousing. And while Don is obviously napping a lot at work, in this episode it’s only Peggy who, after a long first date drinking with [OMG IT’S BRIAN KRAKOW FROM “MY SO-CALLED LIFE,” BACK AFTER 20+ YEARS OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT SO EXCITING BRIAN KRAKOW!!!], needs the Alka-Seltzer and hushed voices. And she doesn’t even have sex with her date; only Don has the meaningless affair in the alley. So poor Peggy, right? She’s the one who has to suffer after drinking too much wine. But her relationship is already different: in Brian Krakow (okay, his name in the episode is actually Stevie), Peggy has found someone whom she alternatively needs to mother (eating his veal because he’s too chicken to return it) and then about whom she feels so strongly that she wants to be “old-fashioned” and take it slow. Despite the rather obvious reversal showing how clearly men and women, through Don and Peggy, can navigate sex and stimulants, I still like where Peggy and Brian Krakow are going. I really hope Brian Krakow sticks around. Can I type that again? BRIAN KRAKOW. So good to have you back, Brian Krakow.
Brown may have recommended the sexual and financial liberation of women back in 1962, but in Mad Men’s 1970, when combined with the moderate to excessive abuse of legal stimulants (in this episode at least), Peggy and Don show how damaging the forays into liberation continue to be. With a growing sense of sentient feminism peeking through the show’s cracks, however, I can’t imagine that this will last for long.
Recently I was surprised by a good friend, whose tastes in television I normally trust, when they informed me they couldn’t make it through Mad Men on Netflix since the episodes were not “binge-friendly.” I momentarily pondered the irony of a brilliant slow-boil drama fixated upon torturous self-indulgence frustrating instant-gratification types, but I for one appreciate its deliberate pacing.
That said, the concluding half of season seven has been a long time coming. We’ve witnessed a decade’s worth of characters survive, thrive, or die trying (sometimes literally) in what seems to be their natural habitat: the agency. And there, among most of those left standing, things are looking pretty swell. Don/Dick’s true identity was a central tension in the first few seasons, before Pete Campbell unceremoniously spilled the beans to Bert Cooper and, more spectacularly, Don/Dick outed himself during an inebriated pitch to Hershey’s. Peggy Olson continues to consolidate her well-earned position at Sterling Cooper & Partners. Joan Holloway is still combating systemic misogyny and Pete is still complaining about everything, but at least they are compensated for their troubles. (Pete’s gleeful exclamation, “I’ve got ten percent!” is already something of a meme in relevant forums.) And, of course, Roger Sterling must be commended for his mature decision-making—mustache excepted—at the helm of SCP.
But another half-season remains to unfold. Like my colleagues, I’m curious as to how Matthew Weiner and company will treat the dawning 1970s following their chronicle of the Establishment’s 1960s, and how this era will in turn treat our characters. On the political front, will Mad Men grapple with returning Vietnam vets, beyond a televised Nixon speech rationalizing a partial troop withdrawal? Alcohol and drug historians should keep their eyes open for hot-button reports of addiction among soldiers. They might also anticipate, however unlikely, any mention of the ongoing heroin use epidemic and looming drug war. Still, the primary question may be whether Don continues tempering his alcohol consumption; will he go cold turkey a la Freddy Rumsen or instead seek solace from the “hangover,” be it cultural malaise or the consequences of his own actions, at the bottom of another Old Fashioned?
For now, at least, Don is content as a chronically relapsing workaholic. I think Michael Durfee put it best when he wrote that each character is chasing their own dragon. Like Don, most are maintaining but, if my research has taught me anything, nobody quits when things are going great. I eagerly await the remaining episodes to find out whether Weiner will orchestrate a fall to the rockiest of bottoms, perhaps with some non-corny redemptive potential, or maintain an insidious, quotidian grind with little personal fulfillment. Like so many meetings at the agency, will the last words of the series amount Don ordering (or inviting) us all “back to work”?