Mid-Season Mad Men Studies: “And would it have been worth it, after all?”
I grow old … I grow old …I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.I do not think that they will sing to me.–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
In my post on the Season Five premiere, I suggested that the between-season jumps in time were beginning to undermine the show’s narrative. Let me revise: at least in terms of this season, they seem to have a central role in creating the show’s thematic, if not narrative, arc. They keep us moving swiftly—more swiftly than we might realize—through time and the ever-changing 1960s. Less than five years have elapsed since the show’s premiere in July of 2007, but for Roger, Don, Pete et al., it’s been closer to seven. Don has turned forty, Pete is pushing thirty, Roger is upwards of fifty, and Bert Cooper sits alone in the conference room all day, forgetting and forgotten.
The show is no longer about Don’s lyrical ad pitches—but about ad men (and women, now) who, in Eliot’s words, “have measured out [their] live[s] in coffee spoons.” Maybe it’s that the Sixties knocked the glitz and glamour off their jobs and lives; maybe it’s just that the glitz and glamour couldn’t survive more than a couple seasons on-air. Don, turning forty, has turned inward from the office in an effort to shore up the fragments of his ideal American life—he’s turned, in the eyes of Pete and Roger, boring. To Pete, indeed, he’s “not feeling well.” Don has become someone other than himself—but Don Draper never has been himself. He’s always acting, and what remains unclear is whether his current iteration is just another role to play—or if this is the man the Don/Dick hybrid has become. He murders an ex-lover in his fever-dream, and is quick to remind himself that he and Charles Whitman share a name. Don, too, doesn’t seem to know which is the performance and which is the reality—but he knows there’s something in himself (in everyone?) worth fearing. Don Draper is by no means a wise man, but he increasingly possesses a kind of authorial world-weariness.
If Don slips toward Eliot’s Tiresias, then Pete is slowly transforming into a kind of Madison Avenue Prufrock. His head, one imagines, grows slightly bald; his arms and legs are thin. He realizes, in a high school classroom, leering at an eighteen year-old, that he’s no longer a boy. But a man’s life isn’t anything he wants—Roger had so much fun! Don was cool! That was a life! Back then, a man didn’t have to settle for a woman—they could have the nubile youth as well, without paying for it. But this? He has the house, wife, job, and child he wanted—he’s running laps around Roger at the office—but it’s hollow. He never was an idealist like Don or an epicurean/aesthete like Roger. Meaning doesn’t inhere in reaching the outward successes he longed for. But he doesn’t seem to know where else to look. How could meaning be other than sexualized or monetized?
There is, I suppose, much to say about Peggy and Roger. They, along with Kenny Cosgrove, have grown tired of the office. Roger looks at Bert Cooper and worries that this is what he’ll be in a few years. Peggy and Kenny have a pact (and perhaps the beginning of a plan?) to abandon ship if need be. They know they can’t be defined entirely by Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price. But here they part ways. Kenny, the sanest of the bunch, knows that not just the office, but work itself isn’t “it.” He writes, and Roger’s lecture about the need to be faithful to the office is all the confirmation he needs to know that the last thing he should be faithful to is his primary income-source. He has a family and a vocation—and in this he is unique among the show’s characters.
Being, that is, is an act always in the present-tense. Everyone has a kind of “sense” of self—but no one, except Cosgrove, knows how to center it in anything stable. Don has the beginning of a foundation—family—but it is far from clear that the concrete has set. Roger’s self-centered self is a failure (albeit highly entertaining); Pete’s and Peggy’s office-centric beings are, too. What separates them is the ability to re-orient themselves. Peggy, one feels, knows that she needs to and, more importantly, that it’s possible. Pete hasn’t a clue.
This isn’t a critique of the 1960s office life or post-war capitalism anymore than “Prufrock” was a critique of early 20th-century London. Hamlet, Prufrock knows, shared his concerns and complaints—and long before Hamlet, Telemakhos paced nervously on Ithaka. But maybe the progression shouldn’t reassure: from Telemakhos to Hamlet to Prufrock to Pete Campbell.
But I get ahead of myself. After all,
There will be time, there will be timeTo prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;There will be time to murder and create,And time for all the works and days of handsThat lift and drop a question on your plate;Time for you and time for me,And time yet for a hundred indecisions,And for a hundred visions and revisions,Before the taking of a toast and tea.