Everything that happens in the Mad Men pilot is a perfect flight plan for where it ends up in the final season mid-season finale. It gives us coordinates for happiness, the safety instructions for love, and the cruising altitude for cynicism.
Mad Men is not traditional television. It’s not a plot-driven show, it’s a character/theory-driven show. When it comes down to it, Mad Men is a literary show. I always say, “it’s the greatest essay about 1960s America ever written” to which my friends respond, “Alice — please stop talking and drink your IPA.” But what I mean by literary is that it puts forward a thesis argument and aims to prove its thesis.
So what’s Mad Men’s thesis? Well, let’s look at how Don defines advertising in the pilot… because that’s what the show is about after all:
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car… It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. It’s okay. You are okay.
But. Spoiler alert: Don is not happy. He has everything that’s supposed to make him happy — a wife, a kids, and a car, but he’s still not. Why not? Because it’s 1961, not 1950. And the times, they are-a-fuckin-changin. So, at it’s very core, Mad Men is about how the 1960s forced Americans to redefine happiness by realizing tradition and ideas of normalcy were fundamentally flawed. (FYI: this is also my thesis – see what I did there? I trapped you into a critical essay! I have a cinema studies minor, bitch!)
When I say tradition and normalcy, I’m referring the fifties post-war nuclear family in relation to the suburban “American Dream.” After WWII, the U.S. tried to mass produce “The American Dream” by hermetically sealing it in tiny little boxes. “The American Dream” is a husband at work and a wife at home. “The American Dream” is little Bobby playing football and little Sally playing house. “The American Dream” was always in quotes, because the problem with dreams is that they aren’t reality.
In The Strategy, Peggy tries to figure out her pitch for the fast food chain, Burger Chef. Her initial idea is based around a happy traditional family chowing down at a kitchen table. She knows it’s too white bread. The more she and Don work on the idea in terms of the traditional family, the more frustrating it becomes.
PEGGY: Jesus, it’s feeling like 1955
DON: 1955 was a good year.
PEGGY: I don’t remember. 1965 was a good year.
DON: I got married
Already, we’re aware that Don remembers the 50s as an ideal state, and his 60s remarriage as something inferior. He’s part of the overall mindset that there was something good and wholesome and better about the previous decade.. When Peggy continues to work through different housewife tropes, she gets sick of of this idealism:
PEGGY: Mom burned the roast. She dented the fender. She backed over the dog. Little Katie’s pregnant. Jimmy got drafted, but there’s still burger and fries on the table! Does this family exist anymore? Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV? Did you ever do that with your family?
DON: I don’t remember.
As it turns out, Don’s nostalgia is actually amnesia. It’s 1969, and neither are sure if the happy family was ever real. The norm they compare their lives to is no longer reassuring. If Don was right, and advertising is based on the idea that “you are okay,” then no one should have to keep up with the Joneses.
But did The Jones ever exist?
The pilot asks this too. The episode begins with Don in the city, staying the night in the village with an artist, and then working all day. We think he’s a free-thinking bachelor until we follow him to the suburbs. The last shot basically says BAM MOTHERFUCKERS, WELCOME TO MAD MEN:
This is the American fantasy. Husband in the city/ wife in the country/ kids forever innocent. The man can do whatever he wants because he’s the man. Who created this ideal? Men. (surprise!)
And then… Somehow, 8 years later, we end up here:
This is the American reality. A place where whoever you are sitting with is family.
So how does Mad Men get us there? With characters who are in a constant struggle to find happiness. Pete, Don, and Peggy each represent a different version of 1960s America: Pete is the past, Peggy is the future, and Don is torn between the two.
Alright. Whew. How are we feeling? Take a break. Do a dance. Open a new tab. Text your friends. Stay with me.
Peter Campbell: A Small Penis in a Big Patriarchy
Pete is trapped by tradition. He defines his existence based on the family ideal. So it’s only fitting that in the pilot, he’s getting married.
Our introduction to Pete is a giddy lovestruck fiancé. But we don’t buy it. He’s a smarmy ass-kisser who thinks he’s entitled to everything. When he criticizes Peggy’s clothing, he’s also flirting with her. (see: Matt Weiner on Vincent Kartheiser).
Pete sincerely thinks he’s complimenting Peggy in this scene. It’s not just because he’s a fucker, but also because he’s so fundamentally privileged (white/wealthy/male) that he has actually zero idea that what he’s saying is wrong. When Don calls him out, he makes this face:
Pete 100% believes men can do whatever they want. So, Don decides to take him down a notch:
You’ll die in that corner office: a mid-level account executive with a little bit of hair, who women go home with out of pity. And you know why? Because no one will like you.
The rest of the episode, Pete tries to prove himself. He first undermines Don by pitching his own idea in the Lucky Strike meeting. Of course he fails miserably, causing Don to hate him more than he already does.
Then, he’s rejected by a girl at his own bachelor party.
Pete ends his last night of bachelordom at Peggy’s apartment under the belief that he can get whatever he wants. And Peggy gives that to him, because he wouldn’t be this way if he didn’t get what he wanted (at least some of the time).
But he’s playing a fifties game into a sixties world. And the rules are changing. Fast.
By 1969, Pete’s entitlement has caused him to crash and burn, ending with a do-over attempt in sunny LA. He seems ostensibly happy, talking about “vibrations” and dating a hot real estate professional. The kicker is, Pete could be happy. But, unfortunately, he’s still trapped in the old world order.
He listens to Peggy, but he’ll always refer to Don for final approval. It was his idea for Don to present to Burger Chef instead of Peggy. And he still says things like,
“you know that she’s every bit as good as any woman in this business.”
He’s also deeply uncomfortable with the fact that his girlfriend is in control of her own life. She’s the one that instigates sex, and she won’t put up with his bullshit excuses.
So. When he goes back to his suburban house, part of him still expects the happy family to be waiting for him. But, his daughter is afraid of him, and Trudy avoids him.
The moment he decides to wait for Trudy is the moment we know that Pete cannot be happy. He’s too busy defining his life in relation to tradition — to the 1950s American ideal. He looks around Trudy’s house (which he would still consider his own), he takes a beer out of the fridge. He basically says to his imaginary submissive housewife, “honey, I’m home!”
It’s almost a tragic scene when he confronts Trudy:
PETE: You picked tonight for your date. You still care about me. I know your debutante maneuvers
TRUDY: We are getting a divorce
PETE: We’re still married
TRUDY: You’re not part of this family anymore
His only response is to stick his beer into the cake.
And if anything could symbolize Pete Campbell/the patriarchy as a whole, it’s a beer-cake.
Donald Draper: Orphaned from the Feels
In the pilot, Don thinks he has everything figured out. Creatives always believe they’re above traditional forms of happiness because nothing is more fulfilling than an artistic breakthrough. We’re super annoying like that. Matt Weiner introduces Don as a progressive man who dates beatniks and shuts down sexism. He wants us to know that Don is an enlightened human being. See: Don and Midge’s morning pillow talk:
DON: We should get married
MIDGE: You think I’d make a good ex wife?
DON: I’m serious. You have your own business and you don’t care when I come over.
MIDGE: You know the rules. I don’t make plans and I don’t make breakfast
So, when Don ends up in the suburbs, we realize that he’s at war with himself — one side of him is aware of the uncertain future that exists in the art scene, the other side of him identifies with idealized past that exists in the suburbs.
Then, Rachel Menken comes into the mix. She rejects Don’s pitch for her department store, and he tells her “I’m not going to let a woman tell me what to do.” (Oops! Bad Don!) So then he has to take Rachel out to drinks to mend the relationship. This scene is so important that maybe you should watch it here. But here’s the dialogue:
DON: So you won’t get married because you think business is a thrill?
RACHEL: That, and I have never been in love.
DON: “She won’t get married because she’s never been in love.” I think I wrote that. It was to sell nylons.
RACHEL: For a lot of people, love isn’t just a slogan.
DON: Oh, “love”. You mean the big lightning bolt to the heart, where you can’t eat, can’t work, so you run off and get married and make babies.
(Don looks at Rachel and smiles. She doesn’t smile back.)
DON: The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call “love” was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.
RACHEL: Is that right?
DON: I’m pretty sure about it. You’re born alone, you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.
Don believes that he sells love. He sells happiness. They’re two intangible nouns that people like him are smart enough to know don’t exist. The only reason he has a wife and kids is because those are the rules of the world. Biologically speaking, we’re supposed to procreate. Traditionally speaking, we’re supposed to get married so we can procreate. Masculinity for centuries was defined by how and when a man could stick his penis inside a vagina. Femininity was defined by how a woman could attract a male so they could bear future humans. All the rules we made about society were a tricky side-effect of human consciousness — the desire to attach emotion and meaning to life.
So, when Rachel responds with this:
She’s realizing that it’s also difficult to men to find meaning in their lives if they aren’t all providers, and women aren’t all mothers. Men might’ve been in charge for the vast majority of history, but women spent those centuries figuring out how to interpret the world through feelings. The man’s job was to be strong, the woman’s job was to be there for him.
To which Don says:
Because #men. And also because that was the last response he was expecting. It would never occur to him that his difficulties in life are because he’s a self-aware and intelligent man. Or, as Rachel explains:
I know what it feels like to be out of place. To be disconnected. To see the world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. And there is something about you that tells me you know it too.
Don’s answer is alcohol.
He is disconnected from the versions of happiness and love that he sells. He was raised by women who sold themselves for sex. All he ever wanted was to live a normal life. He reinvented himself as “Don Draper, the army vet” so he could be the alpha male husband. He drapes a veil over the world. Weiner named him “Don Draper” for fuck’s sake.
To reduce Don Draper to a classic lothario ladies man is to not understand what Mad Men is saying about masculinity. Don never had a mother. He doesn’t have any idea what family is. He searches for women who can give him the same reassurance that his advertising gives people — that everything he is doing is okay. He marries Megan over trying to fall in love because he’s desperate to look normal. No one wants people to think they’re weird. The idea is: if you follow the rules, you’re going to be okay.
The Hershey’s speech is the first time in the show Don realizes that he’s bought into the rules of happiness that he sells.
Much like the idyllic family idea in Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch, Don gives the Hershey clients a picturesque view of America. He tells a made up personal story where his father buys him a chocolate bar as a reward for hard work. The conclusion? “His love and the chocolate were forever tied together.” It’s a great pitch, but then a million little synapses happen in Don’s brain at once. He has to end the lie. And he has to end it in this room.
He explains that he never had a father reward him for work, but instead a prostitute reward him for stealing.
The closest I got to feeling wanted was from a girl who made me go through her john’s pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar, she would buy me a Hershey bar. And I would eat it. Alone. In my room. With great ceremony — feeling like a normal kid…If you had it my way you would never advertise. You shouldn’t have someone like me tell that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows.
Don’s epiphany is that, deep down, he’s still that boy who wants to be normal. His strong emotional memory about the one girl who cared about him overpowers the fake tale of a traditional father/son. When he says “you shouldn’t have someone like me tell that boy what a Hershey bar is,” he’s directly combating when he told Rachel, “what you call love was invented by guys like me.” He remembers what the girl who gave him the Hershey bar meant to him — and it was a real feeling — and it was love.
In this final season, Don is really trying with Megan. He doesn’t have an affair, and he wants to believe there’s something to the relationship. But, it’s already too damaged. He didn’t try to move out to LA for a reboot like Pete — he couldn’t. Don had to get his job back, because working was the only solid proof for fulfillment (lol silly creatives!). He never loved Megan. She was just the right secretary at the right time.
When Meredith comes onto him in the last episode, it’s a reference to all the relationships the male characters had with their secretaries: from Peggy coming onto Don in the pilot, to Roger marrying Jane, to Don marrying Megan. And it’s hilarious.
It feels so completely out of place. And that’s how far we’ve come in 1969, where it’s silly at this point for the secretary to think she’s at her boss’s disposal so he can feel better.
But the truth is, Don is feeling vulnerable. This is the most vulnerable he’s been in the entire show. But finally, he’s aware that a woman cannot solve his problems. He no longer has to prove his manhood, he just needs to keep his job.
In the previous episode, Don told Peggy his two greatest fears:
PEGGY: What do you have to worry about?
DON: That I never did anything. That I don’t have anyone.
Don is scared. He’s scared he has nothing to show for his life, and he’s scared of dying alone. Those possibilities are very real because he structured his life around fitting a tradition, not around meaning. But now… Well… He’s living for tomorrow, because he knows there is one.
It’s hard to be a man, too.
Peggy Olson: The Voice of Non-Moms
From the very beginning of Mad Men, Peggy wants approval. She wants to do everything right, so she can be affirmed that she’s living her life right. She’s also incredibly insecure because she’s doesn’t fit in. And she doesn’t fit in because she’s smarter than most of the other girls. While Don can own his intelligence, Peggy has to hide it.
This is the first shot of Peggy. The show wastes no time in putting us in a world where sexism was blatant, socially acceptable, and vulgar. Throughout the entire episode, Peggy is told that she needs to dress better and show off her body. Joan informs her this is the path to finding a husband, which she assumes is why Peggy is there in the first place. Why would a woman work if she didn’t want to surround herself by eligible mates? The entire episode is a direct assault on her body:
(Also Kristen Schaal shout out!)
All Peggy is trying to do is learn the ropes, but the way she dresses and how she looks enters into every single conversation. Sleeping with Don is so blatantly talked about, she considers it a foregone conclusion. But she’s assigned to Don Draper, not Pete Campbell.
So when she makes her move:
Don’s rejection of Peggy is a relief to us and to her: finally someone isn’t going to evaluate Peggy only based on how she looks! But what you have to understand is that this rejection also makes Peggy feel like she did something wrong — that she looks wrong. It lowers her confidence.
So OF COURSE she lets Pete into her house at the end. She needs to feel wanted as much as he needs to feel entitled to want her.
This small response “me?” is everything. Me? You want me? Over everyone else? Peggy’s entire arc in the show is about gaining enough confidence to get over “me?” Yeah, of course you Peggy. You’re the best! (but not based on being an object. def not that.)
And that’s what Don gives her. Back to 1969: Peggy admits to Don that she’s 30, and she feels incredibly inadequate.
PEGGY: I looked in the window of so many station wagons. What did I do wrong?
DON: Don’t worry.
The thing is, Peggy didn’t do anything wrong. She knows this on a logical level, and Don tells her not to worry — but she’s struggling against the inherent structure of how she’s supposed to define happiness. She’s a 30 year old single woman at the top of her career who owns an apartment building. She should feel completely confident and content! Unfortunately, she can be reduced to tears thinking what life would be like if she had found a husband and settled — done the “right” thing.
But the 60s shifted the meaning of “right” and “normal.” Which means how we define happiness has shifted. When Peggy figures out the Burger Chef pitch, she’s figuring out how Americans are going to live their lives for the next decade and beyond.
What if there was a place…Where you could go… Where there was no TV. And you could break bread. And whoever you were sitting with was family.
And in this moment, Peggy realizes she’s figured it out. And Don knows it too. And Frank Sinatra’s My Way is playing. And Don asks her to dance. Because they’re each other’s family.
Matt Weiner explains why Peggy & Don need each other: It has the structure of a romantic relationship, but to me it was about: Don cannot give Peggy confidence and Peggy cannot give Don integrity; both of them have to earn it for themselves. Part of the reason Don gives Peggy the Burger Chef pitch is because his fear “I never did anything” would only come true if he actually never did anything. Don has done something — he’s mentored Peggy. He gives Peggy the pitch because he knows she needs it. This began when he took her hand off of his. Don makes sure Peggy knows she is more than just a woman. Because he knows that she’s internalized that fact.
And Peggy nails the pitch. She proves Pete wrong. She and Don did it together.
Because they’re entering the 70s together, having evolved.
Because they did it their way.
YOU STILL HERE? WANNA TALK ABOUT BOBBY AND JULIO?
NOPE? OKAY, LET’S KEEP GOING.
One Small Step for [a] Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind
So what’s the moon landing got to do with it? As we watch our characters connect with each other and watch something monumental together, we feel a seismic shift that the world is changing. Mad Men reminds us that the moon landing was one of the biggest collective events in history. If we’re no longer insulated within the traditional family, all we have is each other. Where were you when Obama was inaugurated? Where were you when the Red Wedding happened?
The television set replaced the hearth, one-hour dramas replaced campfire tales, and twitter replaced making eye contact through the flames. It is human nature to hear stories and talk about them with each other. It’s in our fucking DNA.
Everyone is so confused and alone all the time, but when a show or movie really speaks to you and you can’t wait to talk to others about it — well, that’s what it must’ve felt like to hear that there was a big guy in the sky looking out for you. It’s probably not a coincidence television is on Sunday night. (Am I saying storytelling is replacing religion? AM I????)
We are social creatures. We find meaning based on talking to others. We experience life better when we’re with someone else.
Peggy looks at Don immediately when mankind steps on the moon, because she knows this moment means more to him than it does to her. When you understand someone, when you really, really get someone, the human brain allows you to experience life through their eyes as much as yours. And that feeling — when you both interact with the world in the same way — that’s where happiness and love really exist.
And that’s what the Burger Chef pitch is about. Peggy sees a future where everything we do is based on connecting with each other. The nuclear family is too insulated for social animals.
1961 was the year everything started to change. 1969 is the year we landed on the moon. A lot of our nation’s worst tragedies happened between them, but we evolved as a society.
And Mad Men shows us what it’s done for Don’s kids. After the moon landing, Don calls home in hopes of hearing an eager child feeling excited about the future. What he gets is a teenage Sally who wants to disconnect. She parrots the apathetic jock, saying that the moon landing was a waste of money. But Don won’t have it.
Don tells her not to be cynical because he already went down that road, and Rachel Menken recognized it in him. He has to make sure his daughter doesn’t detach like he did. The worst thing we can do is cut ourselves off from feeling. It’s so easy to be apathetic. It’s so easy to see the world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. But no one is above existing, or optimism, or feeling like everything going to be okay. We’re just one species on one planet together. And that’s why Sally looks to the stars.
Sally connects with the smart brother because he cares about something instead of rolling his eyes. She chooses brains over braun. The best thing about human evolution is that it allowed our minds to love people with similar minds, and not base our attraction on optimal mating attributes.
That’s the end of gender norms. That’s the beginning of a new America. One where Pete Campbell is obsolete. One where Peggy Olson is as good as any man. One where Don Draper isn’t just a boy wishing he was normal.
One where we can fall in love with an idea,
or a person who understand us,
or a beautiful story.
And here to tell that story is Mad Men.
Because we’re starved for it.