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‘Mad Men,’ Week 1: Welcome to Disneyland

It’s only when things go from bad to worse that you feel a belated romantic appreciation for the crappy old days, no matter how awful they really were. Hindsight doesn’t always lend clarity and insight; it can often just filter prior events through a soft focus lens.

“How can people be so heartless? / How can people be so cruel? / Easy to be hard, easy to be cold” — “Easy to Be Hard” (Three Dog Night version of the song from the Hair soundtrack, 1969)

It’s only when things go from bad to worse that you feel a belated romantic appreciation for the crappy old days, no matter how awful they really were. Hindsight doesn’t always lend clarity and insight; it can often just filter prior events through a soft-focus lens. Don may have tortured Peggy, but he fed her ambition and appreciated her genius. The new boss, Lou Avery, has no love for Peggy’s gumption or work ethic, and he makes no apologies for it. The girlish enthusiasm that originally got Peggy in the door has transformed into something harder. She is more durable and less amiable, which is sad but inevitable. She has built up her high-walled defenses out of pure necessity, since being openhearted has only gotten her stabbed in the emotional guts. Ted’s long, slowly drawn-out rejection of her potentially infinite love was the last straw, vindicating a secret fear of Peggy’s that her professional success was incompatible with personal happiness.

Peggy’s coldness is a bluff, and when she curses out a tenant’s son or collapses to the floor in exhaustion, it’s obvious that what she really needs is love and affection. Most of her male coworkers have always had wives and/or other women to feed and comfort them when they get home from work. Without a shoulder to hang on for support, be it Abe’s or Ted’s or someone else like Stan’s, Peggy is forced back into being self-reliant to a fault. It’s tolerable, but it’ll never feel cozy. What she really needs is that cat! What happened to her cat? Maybe ask Llewyn Davis to look? Like a lot of dysfunctional couples, Peggy and Don might have been constantly aggravated by each other, but they’re much more miserable alone. As they slunk through separate coasts in parallel isolation, you could still feel the magnetic pull between their lives. Peggy knows how she’d prioritize the choices she offers her boss, but she’s not allowed to offer him only her true choice. Instead she has to lead the mark into picking the card she wants him to, something Don has always been a master at.

Mad Men is a show that defies easy categorization, because it qualifies for so many: suspense, melodrama, farce, comedy, tragedy. At its core it is existential horror, like Waiting for Godot or reality. There’s nothing as easy as a supernatural component or thematic metaphor to tie it up with a bow. Like real life, Mad Men is littered with false doors and loose threads. There’s no hero’s quest for vengeance, no big crime to be unraveled, no zombies to kill. There are no manipulative plot twists or their cousin, deus ex machina, no easy ways out, and maybe no way out at all. This might frustrate a viewer looking for traditional clues and obvious arcs, but it’s satisfying on a much deeper level. The show’s big mysteries might be subtler, but they are richer, more universal questions. Who are we? What are we doing here? Why do we fall in love or out of it? Why do we grow old and die?

Mad Men isn’t built around cliff-hangers or climactic deaths, and that is why it will age so well. The first seasons were structured around the mystery of Don’s identity. Having more or less resolved that story line, the onetime Dick Whitman must still soldier on, losing the superficial sex appeal of his former mysteriousness but gaining an entirely new level of resonance to explore. It’s now about what happens after you get found out and you have to live with it. In less ambitious televisual narratives, events act as obvious signposts, leading us around the trail bend to the waterfall of a finale that resolves most of the season’s big questions, leaving some open if it’s especially smart. But Mad Men’s events rarely cause any permanent resolutions, just promises that crumble into silt like New Year’s resolutions in an ashtray. Mad Men sits comfortably in the same gray zone as The Wire, where the impacted filth of institutional problems overpowers the efforts of both well-intentioned enforcers and dangerously obsessed vigilantes alike. There’s only one truly evil character on Mad Men: time, a filthy bearded druid who eventually robs us all.

Lou Avery is no Lou Grant. He doesn’t even care whether the work at the firm is any good, just that it gets done on time. And what does it really matter if the ads are good? The clients often like the bad ones best. There’s no accounting for other people’s terrible taste. Nobody wants to be sold the truth about a product; they want the fantasy full-on. Specifically, the fantasy that a product will transform their lives for the better, no matter how many times before they have bought old new products and seen life remain exactly the same. There’s always a new product formula, a new style of design, a new faux-innovation to shill, and there’s a sucker born (or reborn) every minute. Peggy and Freddy’s pitch for the watches would have been great about five years ago, but they’ll have a hard time selling “conversation piece” watches to flower children whose own conversation pieces are love beads and fringed vests. The late-’60s kids don’t lust after that kind of implied permanence. The kids still want shit to buy. They just want products that pretend to reject products. It’s consumerism cloaked in a gypsy dress instead of a gray suit. It’s the same idea, that you can become interesting through purchasing a product. Fancy watches and dress shoes remind them of their dads, guys who work too hard, smoke too much, and keep things in; guys like Don Draper.

Last season Peggy tried to trade in perennial absentee father figure Don for Ted’s brand of Up With People–ism, but she forgot to watch for the hook until it was too late. Don is blunt to a fault while Ted tends to sugarcoat unattractive truths, but they’re both selling the same thing: bullshit. There isn’t a man left in Peggy’s life who respects her enough to give it to her straight all the time, although Stan comes the closest. While she once saw the avoidance to face facts as condescension to her gender and young age, with maturity it’s morphed into something else. Now they’re scared of her. Intimidation was a strength for the old guard at Sterling Cooper but it’s less effective as a professional tool for Peggy, rarely working in her favor and sometimes working against her completely. When Peggy is stubborn or overbearing, channeling peak Don’s intensity and power, she opens herself up to being labeled as a bitch. Don never had this problem, nor did he have to navigate Joan’s issues with differentiating work advances from plain old come-ons.

Characters lose spiritual limbs and corporeal abilities, while the years toddle on without sympathy. The only choice is to adapt to each new circumstance, otherwise you’ll get trampled by hippies in sandals before you know it. Nothing will bring back Ken’s eye. He’s beyond miracles and his old aim is never coming back. He’ll have to start practicing from scratch. Long-running established hierarchies flip without any kind of warning. Who knew the day would come when Pete Campbell would be way more chill than Ken Cosgrove? Pete loves L.A.! (HE LOVES IT! STAN, DO YOU WANT ANY COFFEE?) New vistas can embiggen even the smallest man. Pete, it turns out, makes an excellent Californian. He is tan as can be and his terrible comb-over from recent seasons has become a less terrible shag. Just when you thought he was doomed to suburban divorced dad misery, he follows the trail of the pioneers to a new life and reinvents himself. Like so many once-angry dudes before him, his West Coast identity takes its shape through a wardrobe of shorts and a girl who would once have been totally out of his league. He’s not dumb. He knows exactly what her game is, and luckily for him their hustles are entirely compatible.

Megan also enjoys California, no longer cooped up in an awkward game of house with Don and his kids. Youthful-ish naïveté and actressy narcissism allow her to buy into her agent’s B.S. while Don side-eyes the agent up and down, seeing him for what he is: a swindler like Don. California suits almost everyone, it seems, except for Don. He is unsettled by the coyotes howling in the hills, and uncomfortable with all the empty space surrounding Megan’s canyon shag pad. Deep down, Don is still a creature of New York. He has always been malleable, but even he gets tired of running and is aware that his knees will eventually give out. He’s a 20th-century schizoid man, trapped among the present, the past, and the future, never able to relax in any one skin or settle in any singular decade. He ought to sign up for Apollo 11.

The image of Don as a hippie poseur would be embarrassing, something along the lines of Robert Culp’s middle-aged would-be swinger in Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, from 1969. Sensing that a generational shift in power would leave them behind, plenty of middle-aged men and women climbed aboard the magic bus. What do you do when you’ve organized your life around one kind of hierarchy, only to find once you’ve finally reached the top that it no longer applies? Faced with the vastness of Los Angeles, he retreats into a familiar Manhattanite position: curled up indoors. He has been to the weird pool parties and tried the hashish and found that he remained a creature of old habits, comforted by cigarettes and bourbon bottles. Megan has moved on ahead into the mod late ’60s with white nails, showing so much side boob that she invents Coachella.

Despite his thirst for ceremony, Don avoids falling into the most obvious trap: a widow played by Neve Campbell who is conveniently seated next to Don on his flight home. She is intense, dark-haired, around his age, intelligent, and possibly damaged or unhinged. In other words, total Don-bait. Why doesn’t Don opt to join the mile-high club? You’d have to ask Don. We can speculate, of course. Maybe he’s trying to stay faithful to Megan even in their bohemian long-distance arrangement. Maybe the fallout from his affair with Sylvia finally made him look before he leaps. Or maybe he has realized from repeated failed attempts that the solution to the gaping hole in his spirit might not be sex. Following the compass in his dick has only ever made things temporarily better for Don, but ultimately worse. The hunt is more fulfilling for him than the kill, and the disconnect between his desires and their completion is disconcerting. In the milliseconds following a longed-for climax, all of his same mishegoss always floods right back in. But knowing Don, there’s a decent chance he’ll just constantly fantasize about this woman for the next few weeks and then try to track her down somewhere. Being able to elucidate the psychology behind your bad decisions and inappropriate lust doesn’t enable you to master them, far from it. It just proves what animals we are.

Don and the widow still manage to share a few moments of emotional intimacy, which is all Don ever really wants anyway. He seemingly mines more erotic heat out of a strange woman falling asleep on his shoulder than a full-on seduction routine from his young and beautiful estranged wife. The widow’s story about scattering her husband’s ashes at Disneyland is a callout to an event that takes place in the near distant future: a 1970 incident when Yippies attempted to take over Disneyland, planting a flag on Tom Sawyer Island and generally causing chaos until the riot police moved in. There was a time when Peggy believed that if she could just nail that perfect pitch she could transcend the dragging mendacity of everyday life. Watching Don catch air in the conference room in front of the clients, Peggy bought into the pitches and the self-made myth of Don more than anyone. She saw through the image instantly and still wanted to attain it for herself. She couldn’t help but ignore the truth of the image when the image itself looked so good. She envisioned herself doing Don’s job, but without all the bullshit and baggage Don brought to it. Now that she finally does, she has accumulated just as much bullshit and baggage of her own.

There is still the odd faction of Mad Men viewers who want Don Draper to jump off a building, simply because it would release the tension the show has been building up for years in one glorious burst of steam. But that would be too easy, a tidy ending rather than a realistically messy one. Mad Men deals in complications that mirror the ugly underbellies and dead ends of genuine human lives. The show is an open text, in which the viewer is complicit in their own interpretation of the presented facts. You are forced to draw on your own personal experiences in order to read those offered to you by the show. If you want to remain an optimist about the world, then the show’s inherent cynicism may strike you as a fault, but if you’re a pessimist you might just view it as pragmatic realism. The ad might be perfect, the orgy might be massive, and maybe you’ll be seated next to a beautiful woman on the plane. They’re all just false endings. There’s always another day to conquer, and it never really gets any easier or more fun. There are peaks and valleys, wins and losses, but mostly there’s a lot of flat, ugly middle. The victories that you spend forever building end up being as ephemeral as fireworks, sparkling briefly before quickly fading back into the endless blackness of the nighttime sky.