The small tender heart of Mad Men isn’t obvious in the plot lines. It’s not in the divorces or the hasty marriages, the mergers or fledgling reinvented firms—as fun an amuse-bouche as those tasty tangents are.
It’s in this moment:
Ginsberg at his dark office window, typing. Peggy watching him in the reflection of a glass frame, as he chooses ten or fifteen precise words from a coin purse of millions in his mind, and spends them on the Holocaust and outer space. It’s in Peggy listening without breathing or moving or demanding explanation, as he speaks with frustrating, unfulfilling eloquence, ofthe absurd futility of assimilation. It’s in us glimpsing two percent of Ginsberg and blowing apart in wonder at the unreachable remainder.
It’s in a dozen twilight office conversations like this, patiently garlanded out over five years. So small and telling, you want to lean forward and cup your hands around them. Protect them from the wind and eat them before they blow away.
I’ve never had a good memory. Put less endearingly: I forget almost everything. Not because none of it matters. It’s just that the communal experience does not stitch into me. I value it less than the isolated moments, less than the space I protect in my head for lines of books that call themselves up off a page like an echo and the particular shade of navy blue that a Malaysian mountain sky might be at 3 am. The smell of the feet of cats who have died. (Popcorn, incidentally. That’s what the feet of cats I have put down used to smell like.)
I remember how you used to clean your bathtub for me, when I would come to stay in your studio apartment. And the light that shone down from the open window above the brick wall, above the water where I sat and read while you were at work. But I do not remember the date of our anniversary or all the movies we have seen together. For so long, I kept forgetting your middle name. But I remember the sound of your voice, the first time we spoke, going an octave lower and quieter when I told you your mean joke hurt my feelings. I remember that you were never so casually rough with me again.
“What hooks my mind on a stringer for days is the utter subtlety of the show. The literal restraint of the characters—their buttoned-up loneliness. The moments of elegant non-response and suffocated reaction. “
At a work retreat, once, we were instructed to write thank you letters to our favorite teachers. Everyone else addressed theirs confidently, but I hid mine in a purse and spent weeks mouthing variations of her possible surname in the middle of the night, on line at the grocery store, browsing rental videos. Trying to recall. Blenquist? Blumkush? I have used up the space that held her name, but I remember that she introduced me to Anne Sexton to bookmark my Plath, and lent me a book of poems from her personal library, which I never gave back—too enthralled with this implication of equality and the last line of a verse about divorce. I recall her blond bob and the clergy husband and that she told me I could write and she was too smart for me not to believe her. But I can’t find her name.
The collective data and synopsis of life is mostly lost to me. People who fling out movie quotes and historic dates like streamers, like something flimsy and whimsical that they’ve not worked at all to retain, amaze me.
If I hadn’t cheated and read episode guides, I would have forgotten that Peggy actually had the baby. That Kinsey had an African-American girlfriend and once dated Joan, and that Pete’s father died in the airplane crash. That he remained so wholly unflapped that they asked him to attend the airline pitch meeting anyway.
I have forgotten all the major stories, and yet I could carve in bone my memory of a dozen tiny, quiet scenes:
Betty, sitting in a late-day Roman glow, her hair whipped and molded into a European chignon. Looking so modern it was as if she alone dragged in the backdrop change, inventing the ’60s. As if she’d finally shed the kids like a dead skin or a fire and emerged, victoriously golden. Reborn. How the Italian men hit on her and insulted Don when he approached, as a stranger. Which was perfect, right? Because how long had it been since they’d known each other at all? I’d etch in how he fell back in love, madly so, with Betty for two days. With this restored, empowered version of her. All cold upper class beauty, all superiority, all linguistic-flexing power. Too good for him, which is the key to everything.
I’d etch the repose of Roger’s tired face when he calls Joan late at night, with Jane, the regrettable wife, passed out beside him.
Peggy’s hand on Don’s after Anna dies. This single brief touch a complete swelling orchestra composed to explain the depth of their bond and its tenuousness. How vital and still wildly vulnerable this tie is in the possession of a man so accustomed to scorching any tenderness entrusted to him.
Everything encompassed in the moments Don calls Betty “birdie.” The whole rattling film projection of their courtship and marriage and children and infidelities and lies and second tries and reheated dinners. And the end that Betty pretends comes with the bang of Dick Whitman’s betrayal, and not years of whimpers. Every aching sweetness remains in “birdie,” somehow fossilized and surviving but useless as a mate-less bull.
The moments of elegant non-response and suffocated reaction. The things they do not tell each other, the fights they don’t finish, the slaps that aren’t delivered.
I would like to sit down across from Matthew Weiner and tell him he gets a few thing wrong, just to keep him humble (Don furiously chasing Megan through their apartment to represent “passion” and the embarrassing, unsustainable silliness of Fat Betty), but then declare to him that he may be the world’s greatest master of conveying so much through a nearly wordless dance.
Sometimes, I find myself watching Mad Men through a sort of fantasy lens, as if it were an underwater ballet. A cold, slow-floating drift of Asian dance and sad, silent theater.
Leaves me captured and confused, weekly. Not by the chuckle-worthy, antiquated nods to bourbons at noon or unused seatbelts and ashtrays in the boardroom. Not by the adultery or sexism or racism or nepotism or homophobia.
What hooks my mind on a stringer for days is the utter subtlety of the show. The literal restraint of the characters—their buttoned-up loneliness. The moments of elegant non-response and suffocated reaction. The things they do not tell each other, the fights they don’t finish, the slaps that aren’t delivered. The communicative release they never allow themselves (even as it might be their salvation).
And the writers’ unrivaled ability to tell so many stories while saying so little.
Look at Don Draper. Look at how we understand that the desire that surged in Don for the unbaggaged Betty in Rome is the same spark that went out when Megan quit the ad game years later. Everything we needed to know was never even hinted at, let alone verbalized. It was stuccoed in Don’s disenchanted face when he walked into their Manhattan kitchen and found Megan barefoot and happily cooking.
Mad Men has inherent respect for the intelligence of its audience; no ham-handed narrator barges in to explain that Don loves women masquerading as men. Don himself doesn’t know it—even as he chases an endless line of females with an edge of masculine power. Ambitious, accomplished, smart and clever women who are driven by careers. Midge the bohemian, unrepentant painter. Rachel Menken the retail tycoon. Dr. Faye, triumphant at the top of her innovative industry and mired too deep in the logic of psychology to be beholden to emotions. (Until she isn’t, and then she is cast aside.) Teacher Suzanne, curt and unwanting—a disciplined athlete. Betty, before or away from the kids. Betty, when she is the calculating, educated, un-needing thoroughbred he first bet on. Megan when she aptly finesses and charms Heinz and thinks like Don thinks, before he can. When she is a better version of him. I have known men like this, though it took a therapist to name them. The way Weiner deftly—almost nonchalantly—illustrates Don’s penchant in a dozen separate plot points of light across a five-year sky is extraordinary.
If Weiner is the master of delicacy, his characters are obedient disciples. I could sooner breathe water than relate to their starched self-possession.
Do you remember the scene where Lane Pryce kisses Joan? And she so gently opens the door with her measured movements and perfect posture; as if the cause and effect had no correlation at all. Pivots and resumes their conversation, unacknowledging. Remember Joan—when her fiancé rapes her and she marries him anyway. When Roger disappoints her yet again and she has his baby because it is her own, more so. How she never berates him, how she simply steps right up and over everything he can’t be, and carries on.
If we were establishing a monument to Joan (not the worst idea ever), I’d demand it be two-fold. Half to honor whatever fantastical genetic engineering delivered her impossible physique. And the other half to her strength. There is an inexorable calm and mettle to Joan that makes me want to cry. I am petrified by her unflinching judgment and intoxicated by her ability to graciously deflect everything in which she does not wish to become entangled.
I am confused by her grace, so foreign to my brash, clumsy earnestness. By her ability to lead without recognition and keep afloat on the delicate crust of tactful, unceasingly appropriate professionalism I’ve smashed through always, despite every attempt to be above gossip and provocation and injustice. How she manages the office and the men who pursue her and the women who begrudge her and the husband who fails her and does it all without stooping to tears but once.
“I want to line up every character and demand that they tell me how to be satisfied. Or how to live your whole life without satisfaction.”
For my part, I’ve almost never felt something I did not verbalize. Every emotion has gushed through me in loud roiling riptides and tsunamis. Erupting in howling wails at lovers and tears at work. In depthless anger and longing at parents and in wild, reckless joy at kindred spirits.
And anything I have not yelled, I have written and shared and over-shared. I own absolutely none of Don’s acumen for compartmentalization, none of Joan’s elegant ability to brush aside that which might be uncomfortable to hear. No share of Roger’s almost total irreverence, Anna Draper’s easy forgiveness, Sally’s preternatural calm.
As loudly and plainly as possible, I have presented my laments and talked through them laboriously. After all of which, you can assume: When I am devastated, you will know it. My comfort zone is the cacophony of modern desperation. When we are unhappy—incidentally or profoundly—there are an unbearable number of mediums to broadcast it and no expectation to hide it.
So this is the aspect of Mad Men that scares me most: the implication that every single character is so discreetly and quietly unhappy. Am I the only one that feels almost every last character is (to varying degrees and levels of awareness) desperately, wildly, deeply, paralyzingly unhappy? So unhappy they grapple and tear at and stampede and betray and smother each other in some savage effort to salvage their own lives.
Or maybe I am projecting. It’s impossible to tell if they’re happy, because they speak of the concept so infrequently it’s as though it has never even occurred to them. But I know I have never burned down a version of my life in which I was actually happy. Dumb and selfish and impulsive and impetuous as I have been in my youth, every single time I did the wrongest thing, it was not in an effort to hurt anyone else but solely to save myself (whether I realized it then or later).
And this crew? They are the most proficient of emotional arsons.
Before our talk is done, I want to beg Matthew Weiner, impulsively, not to stop. To write and plot out a dozen more shows, or continue this one forever. To spy on into the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s so that I can remember it all. See it again from people too destroyed or tired or self-centered to belabor it. I want to know how Kennedy’s assassination is something that happens to you, around you, on a Tuesday afternoon in between your kids being brats and your extramarital affairs.
But like the show’s namesakes, I’d still be greedy for more.
I want to line up every character and demand that they tell me how to be satisfied. Or how to live your whole life without satisfaction. I want to know if what they are doing is working. What their back-up plan is.
Let’s be clear: Though I love it, Mad Men is not a show that makes me feel good. I marvel at the artistry and the foreign oddity. Understand that the numbness of three afternoon cocktails was imperative, not luxurious. I judge and begrudge and find grace, but I hardly ever end the show smiling.
When I was a little kid, I watched all the James Bond movies with my father. It seemed some tricky death was always befalling villains in an under-lit nighttime swimming pool. Sharks, inexplicably. Or a simple gunshot to the chest, the victim spinning and dropping backward into the water. Drifting downward in a watercolor blur of blood.
But the death that stuck in my mind for years was the suffocation of a pool-cover sliding across, trapping and drowning its occupants.
More or less, that’s what we’re gathering to watch every Sunday evening on AMC: a beautiful, terrible, slow-motion, desperate rendering of the things people will do to each other when they realize they are fatally trapped and voiceless.