The pain of Mad Men

Mad Men speaks to me in a way that no other show speaks to me. It deals with the 1960’s ad men of Madison avenue. Its central character is Don Draper the enigmatic and extremely talented ad man who has taken for himself a false identity. Born to a prostitute and with a miserable upbringing he chooses a better life for himself when he adopts the life of another man who died in the Korean war.

It is a show that is concerning itself more and more with themes such as the death drive, transference, symbolization and the underlying death and meaningless that pervades life. In some sense it is this background static of the universe that is the only thing that Don, or anyone for that matter, can depend upon. In Jan Campbell’s paper on ‘Transference Streams of affects and representations’ references to Lacan and Adam Phillips are made that capture something of this idea. The article contains Adam Phillips’ suggestion that ‘we always want to substitute demand for desire, because demand says we know what we want, whereas desire is terrifying in that we can’t have it and we can’t know it – ‘the only object one can depend upon – is what one is lacking’. (Phillips, 2006) This description seems to perfectly fit Don Draper and Roger Sterling in the 5th and 6th Series of Mad Men at the very least.

One instance of this underlying lack can be seen in the Series 5 Episode -’Lady Lazarus’. In this episode Don’s new wife lets him down. Megan, having breezed into the ad world breezes out. She was naturally talented at the creative work but was unsatisfying for her, she saw it as essentially meaningless and wanted instead to work as an actress. In that episode there is a scene where Megan is leaving the office in the elevator for the last time and Don feels the pain of both her letting him down and the rejection of his lifestyle. He then approaches the other elevator and looks down the empty shaft which is meant to symbolize the abyss that underlies all of the substance in the world. It is in a sense the only constant for him – this emptiness upon which he builds a world of artifice.

For the entire 5th season he remains faithful but after his wife turns out not to be what he expected he returns to the regressive activities and emptiness that have always brought him a kind of troubled and poignant comfort.

Another idea which resonates with me that I see in madmen is an idea I will call the transference blanket or parachute. First of all a little recap on what I mean by transference. It is the psychological process whereby there is an unconscious tendency to assign to others the emotions associated with another person such as a parent. In Mad Men Roger Sterling another of the top ad men in the firm talks to his therapist about the death of his mother.

He says that his ‘mother loved him in some totally pointless way and now that is gone.’ After the death of his mother he notes that he has problems with his ex-wife and that his daughter is trying to exploit him for money in order to get her husband’s business going. Back when he had that transference blanket he did not need to see that affection but just knowing that it was there and that it was within reach was enough for him. In it’s absence he sees only an anguish as the irrational support gives way to the reality.

In Don’s case it is an idealized version of Megan and, later, the end of an affair with a neighbour that collapses this irrational support. In a 6th series episode called ‘The Crash’ Don is recovering from the end of the affair with his neighbour and also preparing to work through the weekend on creative work for Chevy. The new firm that Sterling Cooper merged with has its own version of Roger Sterling and he proposes that he brings in his own special doctor to look after all of the employees. The doctor comes in an gives employees shots containing vitamins and what he describes as a ‘mild stimulant’ which is likely some form of amphetamine.

It has all of the employees running around frantically and talking gibberish and that includes Don. Don uses this time to get over his ended affair by finding an old ad which would help him to sublimate this trauma as it helped him in its initial creation to get over earlier traumas.

The old ad contains a woman with a child giving him his favourite food. The copy reads ‘Because you knows what he needs.’ It appeals to this desire to be cared or a more general transference theory of advertizing that Don seems to be talking about while on drugs. The ad is ultimately a lie though. The woman has the same beauty mark on her face that the prostitute who took his virginity had on her face. The clothes of the woman in the ad, on the other hand, evoke his mother when she beat him with a wooden spoon upon finding out that he had slept with this prostitute. Out of these two opposing and, on balance negative experiences, he is able to manufacture some comfort and it allows him to be cool as a cucumber the next time he meets the woman who ended their affair together.

Just to conclude this post it seems fitting to talk a little bit more broadly about symbolization within the sixth series. Doors as symbols come up again and again. The first two episodes are called The Doorway Part 1 and Part 2, in another episode two doors literally close on Peggy when she is at her most vulnerable, in Roger’s therapy he describes the experiences of life as just a meaningless series of doors, etc. Whereas doors traditionally symbolize entrances and endings as well as beginnings in this show the doors seem to tie into the idea of meaninglessness.

As mentioned earlier in the paragraph Roger explicitly says this in his therapy that the doors and going through them is meaningless. Before Don cheats on his new wife with his old wife a door is left open inviting him to be with his wife. The open door usually would symbolize a new opportunity in this case but here it represents a regressive activity and the closing off of opportunity. His old wife is not really available to him in any sense and he is forced to confront his distance from his new wife. All of the shows new beginnings and promises are betrayed in the end. Even the underlying currents of the death drive are ultimately let down when Don Draper is told by one of his hallucinations, after a quasi-suicide attempt, ‘that dying will not make you whole’. Before that suicide attempt he met with a hallucinated version of his new wife as he had expected he to be in fantasy. It will be entertaining to see where the show goes from here because the ultimate fantasy goals and inclinations towards death and regression have not delivered in spectacular form. The undercurrent of death has formed the escape of Hawaii at the start of the series for Don. So enthralled was he with this escape and its connection to death for him that he put together some suicidal creative work to go along with his suicidal thinking.

But all of that is gone now and it is hard to know where Don will go next but I presume that there will have to be an increase in outer turmoil to match or at least approach Don’s inner turmoil.


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