Mad Men is accurate portrait of the 1960s
This is part 2 of a series. Read Part 1 HERE
When Mad Men first aired viewers, or at least television critics, wanted to know if the show was an accurate portrayal of the advertising business, at least back in the 1960s. I imagine the answer was (is) “Yes … and no.”
Would one ad agency encompass everything that is portrayed in Mad Men? I wouldn’t know, but what’s probably true is that the creator of the show, Matthew Weiner, through years of research (it took six years to get from his original pilot script to the show’s debut), found everything, from the vast whiteness of the industry to the constant drinking, infidelity and back-stabbing viciousness of office politics and then wrapped it into one made-for-TV agency.
Years ago when the movie Full Metal Jacket was released, someone asked me if Marine Corps boot camp drill instructors were like the one portrayed in the movie by R. Lee Ermey.
“Yes … and no.”
“Gunny” Ermey actually had been a Marine Corps drill instructor during the Vietnam War and when he deployed to Vietnam he was injured. He became a technical advisor to school an actual actor on how to be a drill instructor. The producers and directors decided to cut the actor out and just use the Gunny. Everything he knew to be true about boot camp during Vietnam was wrapped up in those scenes of the movie. It was an over-the-top performance.
Everything that came out of his mouth in that role would have been heard by the average Marine Corps recruit during the 1960’s and 70’s — but not likely as constantly as it was portrayed, not even from the same drill instructor. But, Ermey’s portrayal of Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman brought to the screen the urgency of boot camp and training boys to go fight a war.
The same can be said of Mad Men. Was there one agency like Sterling Cooper (and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Sterling Cooper and Partners) on Madison Avenue in the 1960’s? Yes … and no. But Madison Avenue has a lot of stories to tell from its past. Some of those stories are not pretty either. And it should be no surprise the Vietnam War becomes an underlying theme throughout the series. Young men were being drafted and shipped off to fight a war few people wanted and fewer still supported.
Ironically, Matthew Weiner was born in 1965 so he has no recollection of the period, except that of a toddler at best. He was four years old when the Eagle landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong made one giant leap for mankind on July 20, 1969. What could he possibly remember about the decade?
From the dead-on accuracy of the show, one would get the impression Weiner was 20 years older than he is (at least). He did his research, with a team of interns and assistants.
For those with a cognizant memory of the 1960’s, Mad Men is a not so pleasant look at our past, bringing up our own memories of the fear and insecurities of living through the greatest social upheaval in American society since the Great Depression.
The part of the 1960’s most people talk about consists of the counter-culture, anti-war protest and hippie scene. Or people remember the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle of minorities to attain the same liberties and rights as White America.
While that was primarily a Black struggle, out here in California Hispanics were beginning to push for legal rights as well, especially the right to organize into a union for migrant farm workers.
The genius of Matthew Weiner is that he decided to take a look at the 1960’s from a completely different angle — the corporate boardrooms of an advertising agency, one of the establishment pillars derided by the counter-culture hippie movement. True to the history of the times, encounters with the counter-culture have mixed results; from Don Draper’s trips to Los Angeles to Roger Sterling’s daughter dropping out, turning on and tuning in.
Spoiler alert: Sterling, played by John Slattery, actually drops acid — LSD — and finds it a very illuminating experience that leads to the divorce from his second wife.
Then his daughter runs off to a New York commune, abandoning her husband and child. This was a big deal in the ’60’s as mostly young people took to Dr. Timothy Leary’s mantra, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” and did just that, leaving their homes and families behind to start anew with a new commitment to simply living simply. Many families in the ’60’s had a member that dropped out to turn on and tune in and it was a source of pain and shame.
The final scene between the two, Roger and Margaret, is the best reason to watch that episode over and over again.
As for Don Draper: he’s a son of a bitch. He chain smokes, drinks all day long and cheats on his wife as often as the opportunity presents itself. He can do it with two or more women a day and his only “friend,” Roger Sterling, one of the firm’s partners, eggs him on and applauds his exploits.
As Draper cakewalks through life, the people he tramples while doing so begin to turn on him one after another. His life is either contradiction or hypocrisy, with an increasing amount of shame.
He can’t have sex with his neighbor until he turns her crucifix around to her back. Another character, Peggy, calls him a monster after Draper sabotages a commercial. His own daughter won’t speak to him and starts drinking and smoking at the age of 14 — after walking in on him while he is having sex with the neighbor.
Don Draper is a coward of the worst sort, but he is the firm’s star … and he really isn’t “Don Draper.”
His past is a closed book that no one, not even his wife, has bothered to open. Not that Draper would let anyone expose him and his past. Someone tried exposing Draper at the firm, but was rebuffed.
It takes the hammer and anvil of uncontrollable events to do that. By the end of Season Six, Don is faced with the reality that his life of lies has spun out of control and his only way to escape the impending doom is to admit the truth. It’s fitting Season Six ends with the song “Both Sides Now.” It’s Don Draper’s conscience singing, with the voice of Joni Mitchell, “I really don’t know life at all.”
How many people can relate to having their life spinning out of control, primarily through their own actions, yet feeling powerless to stop it?
Now we’re in the middle of Season Seven. AMC has pulled a “Heisenberg” on us by splitting the final season in two. Breaking Bad fans remember how AMC teased us as we waited … and waited … for the final episodes of the craziest show on TV since The Wire. Network execs saw how well it worked then so what the hell, let’s do it again.
The last two episodes have yet to be filmed, but the cast is talking about the end of the era.
Don Draper comes back in Season Seven a changed man. His third wife, the lovely Megan Draper, played by Jessica Paré, has moved to L.A. for her acting career. His daughter has gone over the edge with her behavior and his oldest son is showing signs of cracking. His ex-wife Betty, played by January Jones, now married to a politician, is left with the feeling that her children don’t love her. After watching this cold-hearted woman for six seasons it’s not difficult to understand why.
This is one of the more interesting bits from the show; the development of Betty Draper-Francis as a character reminds me of my mother. Not really talking out of turn here, my mother’s been gone over 23 years, but she died with much bitterness in her heart and watching Betty was at times like watching my own mother.
A mother’s love isn’t the same from woman to woman and Mad Men reminded me that although our mother loved us, she often fell short in expressing that love to her eight children.
Towards her end she lightened up a bit, but she was who she was and I’m grateful to have had a mother that on occasion applauded my efforts as a journalist. It really became cool for Mom when I took her to see and meet Henry Mancini.
Matthew Weiner and January Jones really nailed the character of Betty. I can’t help but feel sorry for her at times while simultaneously feeling repulsed by her demeanor. Betty Francis is the antithesis of June Cleaver. Beaver’s Mother didn’t chain smoke or act like a high school girl, as Betty does whenever she gets angry.
And Don Draper is definitely no Ward Cleaver.
If Betty Francis is the anti-June Cleaver, then Peggy Olsen, played by Elizabeth Moss, is the working class hero. In the first season Peggy is hired as a secretary. Asked to give her opinion on an ad campaign, the firm uses her idea and she pushes her way into becoming a copywriter, invading the male bastion of advertising. Peggy faces hurdles and opposition every season, but she does the work, puts in the hours and learns what it means to sacrifice.
By the beginning of Season Seven, she has Don Draper’s old job as one of the creative directors of the firm. But it wasn’t easy and she had to absorb or put aside all the humiliation her male colleagues fling in her direction, including what today would be felony sexual assault.
Peggy Olsen — and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) — represent the real tip of the spear for women’s liberation and equal rights in the ’60’s; women who pushed beyond their traditional roles without a feminist manifesto.
For those who haven’t seen Mad Men or remember life in the ’60’s, this is as close as it gets to how Middle America lived in the decade that brought us the Beatles, hippies, the drug culture and Space Race, Woodstock and Charlie Manson. All of which is featured at some point in the six and half season we’ve witnessed so far. Even the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Young Sally Draper won’t appreciate the experience until about the middle of 1970 when it is absolutely clear the Beatles are no longer a band and there will never be another chance to see them in concert. And if she survives to the 1980’s she’ll start bragging about the experience.
For everything it says about the 1960’s, the success of Mad Men rests on one thing: it’s still damn good television.
Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative college newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment issues, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the business of government and business was so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that reality.