I’ve always been skeptical of historical fiction, or in this context ‘period dramas.’ I mean what is the actual point besides a fun nostalgic interlude? Our descendants will surely be much more interested in how we interpret and present the world in which we live than how we imagine what was left for us. However, Mad Men has always given us something extra beyond its stunning visual presentation and attention to detail (excluding the trivial minute anachronisms pointed out by what I assume is a collective of pedantic weirdos).
What Mad Men offers through the it’s exploration of Madison Avenue’s ‘Golden Age’ is a glimpse into the unspoken social structures and ideas which continue to govern the way in which is our contemporary world is assembled through the images that define ‘today.’ Granted the situation of Women, People of Colour, Homosexuals and those born of limited means has improved considerably and society has generally progressed but many traits of this era persist in our world. The gender pay-gap remains a hot topic in the corporate world and debates about the portrayal of women in popular culture are still being had, as gay marriage enjoys widespread support there is still a considerable minority which opposes it on stated moral grounds- many of whom are in positions of power and influence. Race relations continue to be a divisive subject in the US and the western world as a whole with last year’s police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice being notable examples as well as the recent n-word filled frat-boy chants at the University of Oklahoma and those Chelsea fans refusing to let a Black man on the Paris Metro. Whilst progress has been tangible, the statistics continue favour the Straight White Male (1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, 4% are women and none of them are gay).
The point of the above is to emphasise how Mad Men’s blunt portrayal of the ideas which lay the unequal foundations of our societies is vital to its transcendence of the ‘period drama’ genre. We’ve seen Bert Cooper discreetly raise concerns about having a Black secretary greeting clients, followed Peggy as she navigates her personal ambitions as a woman around a hostile belittling environment and watched Sal Romano being booted out of the agency for failing to ‘limit his exposure.’ However there is one idea which I’ve yet to see thoroughly explored which is the socio-economic shift between the unspoken paternalistic consensus that previously existed between old-money masters of industry and the political class to a vehemently individualistic understanding of capitalism that centred around the advent of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thacher at the end of the 1970s. The intricate interplay between psychoanalysis, Advertising & PR, mass production and late-century political malaise is covered much more eloquently in Adam Curtis’ brilliant documentary ‘The Century of The Self‘ where it is demonstrated how the deeply individualistic roots of the post-war counterculture paved the way for today’s neo-liberal economics.
Whilst we get a brief glimpse into the emerging theory of ‘rational self-interest’ through Bert Cooper’s pro-market sound-bytes and unambiguous praise for Ayn Rand, we never really get to see this monumental shift of orthodoxies play out in a show which as a whole does an excellent job with cultural paradigm shifts. This is not to say that Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell are not presented to us as committed advocates of the capitalist system- Don is a Nixon supporter and clearly values his comfortable financial standing, Roger takes immense pride for founding his own agency and Pete’s ruthless ambition is only slightly mitigated by occasional moments of empathy. There is however a sense of social order present which the leading male power-brokers abide by. Don’s humble beginnings, when he partially reveales them at a client meeting- are not applauded as evidence of his strong character in the familiar bootstrap trope but treated as a grossly inappropriate and uncomfortable interlude. Michael Ginsburg, the bright working-class Jewish copywriter remains an outsider due to his heritage and can only really find social purpose in a superficial alignment with the concerns of the left wing conterculture movement (someting for which we see him duly ridiculed for by Jim Cutler) before he loses his mind in a fit of intense nipple-slashing paranoia at the thought that this socio-economic overlords might replace him with a machine (taking the form of one of the early computers).
There are hints of this phenomenon. Roger’s foray into LSD and the seeming ease with which he briefly fits into the commune that his daughter had abandoned her young family to join, Don’s reluctant but persistent (mostly sexual) association with hippies, hard drug users, artists etc and Bert Cooper’s enthusiasm for Abstract Expressionist art all begin to point us towards an emerging current of individualist sentiment. However, the association is distant and there is a lot of interpretive gap-filling to be done. Whilst I realise that it’s no easy feat to cram this unintroduced undercurrent into the remaining eight hours of television that we have left, I believe that the seeds have been planted and can now begin to sprout towards a logical conclusion.