Here’s a trick: Find a person you love and offer them something no one has ever seen, that no one will ever see again. Admire their astonishment. Then, produce a peanut. It could be anything in a shell—an oyster, say, but that’s messier to share. Crack it open, and each eat one of the nuts. Now you have a secret, a little conspiracy locked forever between the two of you.
Lies make secrets too. And every secret doubles the world. Something shared, something hidden. It works the same even when you are alone. Just crack the peanut and keep it for yourself. No matter if that lie is horrid, helpful, harmless, or forgotten. Something told, something held back. Large features of our lives, fantasies and shames and unbidden memories, remain secret only because no one ever asked. In that case what gets doubled is loneliness turned on itself. But spoken or held all alone, a lie becomes a twin, an image of truth, or a shadow, like a ghost. A phantom.
(This is the epilogue in an ongoing essay on Mad Men. For Part 1, see here: Everything’s Exactly the Same. If you missed part 6, see here: How One Becomes What One Is. Yes, there will be spoilers about earlier seasons, if that sort of thing bothers you.)
I wanted to disapprove of Mad Men. I really did.
When the series arrived in 2007 I was freshly back in New York, still in the process of integrating myself into functional life after a year and a half spent writing a book manuscript; I had no patience at all for peers gushing about a new television show. And those people didn’t help their cause by explaining how it was about fucked up patterns of behavior in the 1950s, all cigarettes and martinis and repression and business suits. Maybe it’s because the extent of Don’s secrets weren’t revealed yet, but that’s all they described.
(This is something I remember quite distinctly—everyone back then said the events of Mad Men happened in the 1950s. In a sense they were right: One of the things the series does is upsets our sense that history follows the convenient packaging of decades. The 1950s are present throughout the early seasons of Mad Men, like when in 1963 Peggy comes up with the idea for a rum drink called “Bacar-D. Eisenhower.”)
Later I ran across a summary on Wikipedia mentioning identity theft and expository flashbacks. It sounded like the corniest shit I ever heard. I even shared an apartment in San Francisco for a few years with a guy who worked in advertising. It was the first time in a long time I’d lived with a TV in the house, but I continued to view the show—or rather, not view it—with eye-rolling, skeptical disdain.
Then I finally caught an episode. It was the fourth season premiere, in 2010; once again I was in New York, and a group of friends gathered to watch it. Knowing nothing about the characters, having no background to thrill with my friends at the suddenly-updated office setting, I found nothing remarkable, just like the newspaper reporter in that episode who finds Don Draper, reticent to discuss himself, a “cipher.” On the way home, my longtime girlfriend broke up with me, kicked me stone out of the house. I saw no further reason to watch Mad Men.
Rather singlemindedly in that attitude, considering it was a thing I ostensibly didn’t care about in a medium I paid little attention, I relished backlash to the show when it emerged. Critiques scourged the writers and producers for underrepresenting minorities, and for sensationalizing empty wealth and womanizing. Or for satirizing these inherent problems with a period distance that lets us in the present off the hook. Or just for bad liberalism or pretentious melodrama or phony symbolism. I silently savored these takes.
How I got over this aversion and into the show itself, in a weeks-long chain of Netflix streams in May 2014, is too boring to explain in detail. It involved an overnight visit with a friend during which I happened to glimpse out the corner of my eye the entrancing-transcendent end to the episode “Babylon,” and a coincident conspiracy of podcast references that aroused my intrigue.
By the time I got around to rewatching that Season 4 premiere, my nose was opened. And I don’t mean by Mad Men as a work of art. You see, back in 2010 my girlfriend had spent the weekend in advance of that viewing party catching herself up on the series. She had told me she was with one of her female coworkers—I later learned it was her now-husband, but that hardly matters today. What struck me watching what she must have watched, at the same episode-after-episode clip, was the way Betty Draper’s awakening to Don’s betrayal and perfidy, the push and pull of Seasons 2 and 3, mirrored so closely our own relationship at the end. Maybe she was only watching from the corner of her eye (who knows?) but in breaking up with me she had even repeated some of the same words Betty tells Don at the end of Season 3, when in the flicker of Kennedy assassination news reports Betty resolutely finishes their marriage. Remember, this happened the day after my girlfriend watched this bit. She had quoted a TV show to end our 7-year relationship in real life!
Rather than driven (or I might say returned) to madness by this discovery, I was amused. On one face it seemed to undermine the legacy of her position, her complaint. All the grief and wreckage that came afterward, inspired by something so trifling. But I was in a far more generous place in my heart four years later, and I could see also how she found in this fictional reflection of our lives—depending how you look at it I was either a better partner than Don Draper (my treachery not nearly so deep) or (compared to his contributions as a provider and, well, Jon Hamm’s other offerings) much, much worse—the courage to take the same self-determining action that Betty did. It’s like how Betty kicks Don out the first time after seeing Jimmy Barrett’s potato chips commercial on TV in Season 2: “Am I crazy? I don’t think so! … Utz are better than nuts!” It could be the reminder of Barrett, who clued Betty to Don’s affair with Jimmy’s own wife, or maybe she just doesn’t want to go nuts. Or be made to think she’s crazy for knowing a hidden truth nobody around her will admit. It’s not the television imprinting ideas on Betty. It’s Betty finding a voice that she can seize.
Of course the series has plenty to recommend itself on its own. I fell in love with the writers’ willingness to get generally weird. Some of that weirdness is subtle: Don checking his children’s hands for dirt so they won’t soil his new car, then shaking out a picnic blanket leaving all their trash behind in the roadside wilderness. Some is coarse: the tractor that runs over the usurping British boss’s foot in Season 3. Or the coarse operating as the subtle, like the use of the picture window in the conference room for the lengthy slapstick sight gag of rolling Mrs. Blankenship’s dead body in rugs and removing her from the office, in the background beyond the backs of the clueless auto parts clients. Then there’s the empty elevator shaft in Season 5, and the wells of blue-bottomed misery that are Vincent Kartheiser’s eyes—never better than when Pete Campbell’s snuggling Don’s box of Dick Whitman memorabilia in Season 1, in his pajamas on his couch, trying to decide whether or how to use these unfathomable relics stored within. Although many of the critiques mentioned above are valid enough, the most deadly accurate ones address the phenomena of approval surrounding the show: our culture that receives it sometimes irresponsibly, lazily appreciating its thrills and even nodding at its challenges rather than using it as my ex did—as itself a critical tool or box of evidence for understanding the weaknesses of its characters as our own weaknesses, and with that understanding changing our lives.
I don’t watch enough TV to be a fair judge, but the fact that few other television shows stir these kinds of considerations from critics, including analysis from other disciplines, should be enough to tell us what Mad Men unsettles makes it a useful project, even as it also usefully and paradoxically demands such sharpened response from us. What I’m getting at is different from the mere self-justifying “getting people talking,” as many shows with controversial themes aim for and do, or even being elite enough to attract haters. Not every contemporary American buzz show gets the Mark Grief treatment in the London Review of Books, after all. Mad Men seems to raise our standards for what we expect from ensemble art. The series’ most spiteful hecklers love to say the show is too like an advertisement, as if all that means is its purpose is shallower than its beauty. But that dismissal avoids the true purpose of advertising, which is never merely to attract but to activate the audience even in whatever banal way. And so does Mad Men prove itself a provoking artifact, drawing those challengers to try to undo its spell like some kind of critical Sword in the Stone.
Anyway these Big Issues the show fails to address or addresses only sideways, however important though they are, may not in fact be as big as the fundamental questions about who we pretend to be and most particularly how we deploy our lesser dishonesties.
I read a book in middle school called The Moves Make the Man, by Bruce Brooks. Like Mad Men the story begins in the early 1960s, the time of early school integration. That was how the book was presented to my class at the time: as a lesson about race relations. A young black student named Jerome, good at basketball, has recently been required to bus to a formerly all-white school. Jerome is alienated, obviously, but makes friends with another athlete, a white kid named Bix. Bix is a little oddball; he seems like he’s on what we would now call the autism spectrum, maybe has Asperger’s. Bix refuses to tell a lie, or it doesn’t even really seem to occur to him how. Bix likes baseball because it’s such an honest game: You just hit the ball and run after it and so on. But when Jerome tries to teach Bix basketball, Bix can’t deal with any of the indirection necessary, the head fakes and ball fakes and steals. Bix’s absolute honesty costs him dearly when his already unstable mother goes on a psychotic break and gets confined to a psychiatric institution after Bix, while somewhat scared by her creeping into his bedroom at night, admits to her that he doesn’t love her. At the moment, he tells Jerome, he really did not. But when Bix starts lying, at Jerome’s instruction, hoping to correct this mistake, he also gets in trouble.
This book made a big impression on me. I remember even at age 11 finding its presentation of the moral conundrum of honesty complex and satisfyingly ambiguous. And yet I’ve never quite managed to learn Bix’s lesson: Again and again as an adult I’ve found myself hurting people with the truth, with unnecessarily raw appraisals instead of flattering politeness, or speaking my honest opinion at inappropriate times. I’ve poisoned friendships by being straightforward about my needs or demanding the truth from others when it made them uncomfortable. To present myself as virtuous while imposing these unpleasant disciplines would be itself a lie. And I’ve also lied countless times for my own benefit. I have opened emails I shouldn’t on my lover’s computer, cheated and lied to preserve my standing to both parties, gone behind friends’ backs, used drugs without sharing, stolen alcohol and money from work. But it is worth remembering that truth alone does not qualify as goodness, and that lies can be quite pleasant things, even the best things, and needed—especially when we consider the way we treat ones we love.
As Clancy Martin, the author of Love & Lies, points out, much of the Kama Sutra involves the skill of deception. (Contrary to popular belief, Martin reminds us, only 20 pages out of 500 deal with actual sex; the rest is about practicing love.) He says traditionally women study that sacred manual (Vatsyayana’s not Martin’s) “in secret because part of the art of winning and keeping a husband is tricking him into thinking he’s doing all the work.” “Among the sixty-four arts a woman must learn are … No. 32, ‘the art of telling stories’ … No. 57, ‘the art of cheating’; and No. 58, ‘the art of disguise.’”
“Love,” Martin says, “requires not only truthfulness but also deception and self-deception.” Mad Men demonstrates for us again and again the difficulty of trying to outrun the tangle of our most vicious lies, but it also shows us the complicated meshwork of lies we can’t do without. “To love is to try to transcend the boundaries of our own minds,” says Martin. “It seems like an impossible project, and yet we manage to accomplish it over and over again.”
Lies, as I mention in the preamble, can bring us across this threshold. Sometimes because they are openly lies, that bind the hearer in an oath of secrecy to preserve. Sometimes because the secret itself is a lie invented exclusively for this desired bond. Something shared, something hidden. When Roger Sterling advises Lane Pryce about how to court the Jaguar client over dinner, he says to tell him a lie if necessary to help the client think they’re in the same boat. “Let him know you’ve got the same problem he has,” Roger says, “and then you’re in a conspiracy. The basis of a, quote, friendship.”
These techniques as social and professional tools go way back. “When we think of the most ‘sophisticated’ social discourse—in 19th-century French salons, for example, or in the dinner parties Proust shows us,” Martin says in an interview with Vice, “we see the most refined forms of dexterity in deception, in guise and manipulation, in navigating the waters of popularity and prestige through the deftness of one’s ability to control what is being said, quite independently of its truthfulness.” Martin in Love & Lies uses Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to illustrate how dissembly as seduction can actually initiate trust among lovers by bypassing their emotional defensiveness, and traces the harmonizing virtues of dishonesty to Confucius, and Homer.
Don Draper forms such fellowship with his daughter Sally, whose lies swirl in minor tracing of her father’s greater lies until the two are bound by shared secrets as much as by blood. “I’m so many people,” Sally says (rather like Walt Whitman), after Don proposes dining and dashing at a rest stop while he drives her back to her boarding school. She has recognized how his ploy awakens her mischievous imagination in a way that so jousts with her surface disgust for his adultery and disingenuousness, which had recently ruled her defiance of him, that when he drops her off she says, “I love you.” Don earlier makes a similar lasting conspiracy with Peggy Olson, whose hidden pregnancy Don is the only one to know about for a very long time, while of course she learns some of his private business during her year as his secretary—and then he calls her for bail and discretion when he lands in a Long Island jail after a drunken car accident in Season 2. These shared secrets engender an affinity beyond their public relationship as master and protégé copywriters—causing Peggy some consternation because everyone else reads their unusual intimacy as if it were the fruit of an affair, which like an anastomotic stream leads again to renewed conciliations between the wayward pair during late night brainstorming sessions in Seasons 4 (listening to Ali-Liston II) and 7 (dancing to Sinatra in the office).
That’s not to say the show denies how awful lying can be. Pervasively, quite thoroughly, it presents the costs of Don’s double life—although these consequences are never fully wrought for Don, who nonetheless does lose two wives and daily contact with his children over it, plus suffers endless misery and shame and hangovers due to his internal struggle with both his past and ongoing endeavors to contain it—in the trail of damage he strews like picnic garbage in Betty, Megan, his dead brother Adam, Sally, Bobby, Peggy and handfuls of lovers all over Manhattan and Ossining, and you have to think in some cases of those women’s husbands and kids, and so on.
Probably the vilest lies on the whole show, however, are Ted Chaough’s promises to Peggy in Season 6 (“I’m going to leave my wife. I love you.”) the very day before he begs Don to let him go to California so he can save his marriage by getting away from Peggy. Obviously, this is a mirror reversal of Don’s resultant breaking his plan with Megan to move to Los Angeles after she’s quit her New York job. But unlike most of Don’s deception which he at least usually attempts to preserve and conceal, Ted’s lies here are not a slow knife but a total throat cut. Especially because like so many terrible lies he presents them as the most vulnerable honesty: “I don’t want to sneak around.”
So what Mad Men does is displays lying itself honestly—not as honesty like Ted, but with a fullness of flavor that lets you recognize its sources and sometimes benefits, so if we’re paying attention it’s harder for us to manage to keep lying to ourselves by pretending dishonesty is some distinct vice that can be completely tempered or expelled.
Peggy starts her affair with Ted, her boss, after she’s made her move for autonomy by breaking out for a new advertising agency with her prestige already intact. Of course the reason Peggy so dislikes the rumors about her possibly sleeping with Don, her once and future boss, is it challenges her personal agency, meaning her freedom and power to develop her choices on her own creative merits. Martin’s book borrows from Kant to remind us that one of the reasons we tend to condemn lying is how it confines the freedoms of others—this agency to make choices with the cards fully flopped. None of us will ever know all it’s possible to know, but like a cheating gambler lying ensures an uneven distribution of truth.
But lying can also control someone by giving a kind freedom. It will be a limited freedom, and may be welcome or unwelcome depending on the lie and resulting choice. For example, at the end of the TV series The Wire, Michael pretends to be rugged and indifferent to his friend and ward, Dukie, while depositing him at the arabbers’ camp. He says he doesn’t recall Dukie’s fond reminiscence about eating ice cream together a year ago. He’s acting like a cruel child, bottom lip out—and they are still children: basically orphans, both the children of drug addicts. But Michael is also making a very adult choice, trying to protect Dukie by being rid of him, because Michael is about to go on the run from very deadly criminals, so he doesn’t want to compromise their parting with sentimentality. He’s trying to free Dukie to continue living outside Michael’s own fraught underworld. Michael even tries to discourage Dukie from living with Baltimore’s street arabbers, who Michael knows are mostly junkies, but he also knows he can’t take him with him. The lie doesn’t change Duke’s options; it only frees him to proceed with the unhappy choice rather than lingering and regretting. This to me is a sadder scene than anyone in that series getting a bullet in their head, probably the saddest scene in this history of television. Although murder surely deprives someone of their freedom, Michael’s lie that preserves Dukie’s agency to possibly destroy himself makes a much sadder destiny. I’m curious what Kant would say about it.
In Mad Men Don makes a similar tragic lie to Adam to get rid of him, although he’s only protecting himself. A slightly happier comparison might be when Betty covers for Sally’s friend Sandy in Season 6 after Sally says the girl left early to go to Juilliard. Since Betty knows Sandy didn’t get into the conservatory school, that Sandy in fact sold her violin to some squatters in the West Village, she’s protecting Sandy’s freedom (helplessly; she’s already tried and failed to retrieve the runaway) while at once preserving Sally from worrying about the young girl—or maybe freeing her from likewise dangerous ideas.
Clancy Martin quotes Montaigne concerning birds and marriage, and then adds this comment: “There is something noble, if frightening, about living outside the cage, secure but slavish within.” He could be talking as well about the victims of this kind of lie. Or maybe it’s the other way around: Maybe it’s the liar who is slave to the truth, in these cases of lying as paternalistic duty. Like Matthew Arnold says, “Not only to find oneself tyrannized over and outraged is a defeat of [the instinct for liberty and self-expansion]; but in general, to feel oneself over-tutored, over governed, sate upon.” So you rebel, you seek your own agency, like Peggy or Betty, or my ex-girlfriend.
Perhaps ironically, the advertising agencies in Mad Men are typically representative of the cages, such limiting security. A form of entrenchment, like Michael’s stubborn lip. Though not always. When Ted Chaough finds Don Draper in a hotel bar in Detroit on the eve of both firms’ proposals to Chevrolet, they realize they’ve been set up. The car company has pitted the boutique ad firms against each other to produce exciting proposals, with a plan to use the proprietary materials with a more expansive corporate agency. “I should just let Chevy buy my brain and put it in a jar,” Don says. Realizing they’re not competing against each other, Ted and Don each demo their respective pitches. “Both of us have the creative,” Don concedes, “but neither of us have an agency to match.” It suggests Don’s concerned about a lack of agency, his lack of freedom in a game that seems rigged against him. He feels for the moment like Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, with her hands chopped off and her tongue cut out. Neither of us have an agency.
This is maybe one of the more tenuous double meanings in the series. He’s definitely not making an innuendo; he means the smaller staffs at Sterling Cooper and CGC probably lack enough resources to service such a huge client. (“It’s the size of the team. It’s opening an office in Detroit. This is General Motors: They fight the war with bodies on the ground.”) But in an effort to seize such an agency—in both senses—Don offers to throw in with Ted Chaough and combine their firms to lure Chevy. Afterward, he surprises Peggy in Ted’s office: “They wanted our ideas and a big agency, so we gave them both.” Seeing how crestfallen she looks to be back under his thumb, Don appeals to her own desire for creative agency. He tells her to write the press release announcing the merger: “Make it sound like the agency you want to work for.”
In any case this all makes clear that, though the gathering of others into institutions can be restrictive of opportunities, this corral of individual agencies can also bring greater freedoms—as resources for collective agency. In a sense this is why people enter into marriages, or into the “conspiracies” of friendships. Maybe it’s because they share the same problem like Roger says (maybe not always a good thing to compound in marriage), or because the pooling of resources offers mutual solutions to other limits. Altogether this interplay between agency, as freedom for the spirit and imagination, and institutions of power or contracts of human love, provide the source for compromises and catalyst for action on the show. Including the root of almost all its lies.
Lies are often bandages over wounds. The continual instinct for agency when these joint entanglements yield conflicts can feel like living in your own wound. When Don arrives in the Draper house fresh from his failed effort to land American Airlines in Season 2, Betty picks a fight with him. She wants him to take more control of the household. She physically pushes him, he shoves her harder. This is very troublesome to watch, even though we know in 1962 some men were far more abusive with their wives (and this whole scene might be an allegory for justice agitation in America in the ’60s), because we’re trained (or should be) by 2015 or by 2008 when this first aired that no woman is ever asking for violence—no human, indeed, is ever “cruising for a bruising,” really—any more than a woman asks to be raped by displaying her sexiness in public. But Don has just said, “You want me to bring home what I got at the office today? I’ll put you through that window.” His threat might be a lie, like a test, yet Betty’s minor violence in answer can only be an escalation: either calling his bluff or begging to use any further response against him. She wants push to come to shove. She may not want the window, but his hands on her are, in this fictional scene, definitely what she wants. Only not really. It’s what she chooses, but Don’s lies are making her crazy. And remember she doesn’t want to go crazy. Remember Lavinia’s hands. Those resources of agency. Betty wants Don to be a physical body, a complete body, there in front of her, instead of some phantasm she can’t reach with her own hands or her voice. She’s so deep in that wound. It’s devastating for contemporary sensibilities to witness, but it is handy in order to check for revulsion in ourselves. In order to activate ourselves to revolt from these crazy-making patterns when they confine our own lives, and overthrow them.
Truth can be devastating. Most especially when couples touch it in this way, with the approach of physical or emotional violence. We can become confused by the primal intensity in these emergencies into believing whatever truths get revealed there are realer than others—realer than, say, a more fundamental truth of love like how Bix loves his mother, just not at the emergency moment. So such fundamental truths can be true even when carried in a lie, or related lies meant to protect that feeling.
What am I talking about? We’ve gotten used to Mad Men offering a study of how things are true or false. Some things used to be true, some will be true. When Megan finds out early in Season 7 that Don has been suspended from Sterling Cooper, she’s quite sensibly upset. He’s been lying to her about why he stayed in New York after she moved to Los Angeles. Don says, “I shouldn’t have lied to you. I’m sorry and I want everything to be okay.” It’s a pretty minimal apology. He sounds dumb and empty handed. But it’s also a complicated apology. Don’s tongue seems tied because he’s trapped by a paradox: He wants everything to be okay now, even though he lied, but he also lied because he wanted everything to be okay. It’s not clear if he’s saying it with irony, half-denial, his usual aptitude for moving on, or admitting it as an explanation. Whatever the case it’s not enough to overcome the betrayal, for Megan anyway.
We can agree that Don’s done something terribly wrong. If the marriage was his priority, he probably should have never split from his plan to move with Megan—especially with the second chance his leave of absence made. But he believes he loves Megan, and it at least used to be true, in a more fundamental way. Don lies to Megan in an effort to avoid Bix’s mistake, to advance that living truth instead of a contrary truth (communicated by the facts of his behavior) that maybe he doesn’t love her enough—which is what Megan concludes when she learns the full details. Again, this is how lies limit her agency to make a free choice among competing truths. But the emergence of this second truth, the conflict and distrust it creates, also limits her prospect of seeing through these paradoxes to any fundamental truth of his love. His inadequate apology tries to strip things down to this filament and make it clearer.
In other cases an outside emergency provides the spark of clarity, even urgency for revealing truth. In the throes of the Cuban missile scare, Pete pulls Peggy aside in the office: “Can I tell you the truth?” he says. Peggy asks, “Why wouldn’t you?” Her candid inquiry leads Pete to question his own sincerity. So he blames her: “You make it so hard.” But he does end up telling her he loves her. Some things are possibly true; some are necessarily true. It’s possible Pete’s telling the truth, but since they think it’s the end of the world he might also be searching for any nearby comfort and contact. However, when Peggy lets him know she gave birth to Pete’s baby, that she gave it away years ago rather than snare him with it, it not only tells him she doesn’t love him—it’s also clear this is something true under any circumstances. Maybe she’s only telling him now because there’s a chance of no tomorrow—or to fend him off or because he’s shared something so vulnerable himself—but no matter, the necessary clarity of this truth, with all the loss to his agency inherent in it, leaves Pete confined by the truth and devastated.
But let’s stick with marriages. What’s incredible is how Don began his marriage with Megan by telling her about the secrets that ruined his marriage to Betty, his real identity as Dick Whitman. But in later distancing himself from his second wife and making these foolish lies about it, he put himself in exactly the same position he had been when living a deeper lie with Betty, and for the same reasons: to protect a love he considered truer, or at least more worthy, than the truth he was hiding. Of course this is also called denial.
In the Season 2 episode “A Night to Remember,” Betty confronts Don after a dinner party with her awareness of his affair with Bobbie Barrett. Don reaches for plausible deniability, denies, denies. He tosses at her the dubious motives for Jimmy Barrett telling her the information, who might after all have only been trying to sleep with Betty. Don refuses to concede any truth to the accusation, as if challenging her for proof. But what safety is there in his position, really? He retreats to the bedroom, officially victorious in his logical denial but knowing her faith in him is shaken if not intently destroyed. He may have preserved some shadow of doubt but not any trust, conditional or otherwise. And so he lies there, on the bed; lies, pretending to be asleep (who would be more calm, the lying denier or the falsely accused?) as she opens the door and closes it. Don is the double man again, as always but more consciously here: He must sense the precariousness of his perch in this narrow space, his denial.
What’s the point of maintaining his shield of lies if it’s not protecting anymore his family’s stability? Only a faith that Betty will forget can sustain that, and that’s not under the direct power of Don’s will the way his own acrobatic memory commands it so well.
The next day they tiptoe around one another. Still wearing her party dress, Betty has searched all day through his belongings and not found any evidence of infidelity. He says it’s because he didn’t do anything. But he retreats again, to the couch, as if knowing it does no good to fight her like this. Later still Betty comes down, in a nightgown and clearly showered and sobered. Don again asserts his innocence, but she abandons pursuing the adultery and strips it down to the basis of their connection. She says he never looks her in the eye like that. “Yes I do.” And she says Don never says he loves her. “Yes I do. I say it all the time.” Betty asks, “Do you hate me?” Don says of course not. He loves her, and the children. And, “I don’t want to lose all this.” But it’s clear the conversation is about two different realities. He remembers their life one way and she another. What Don doesn’t want to lose is not a necessary truth, and it’s not a situation that makes Betty happy or healthy. Even if she were wrong about the cheating, it doesn’t sound like the agency she wants to work for. Some things used to be true.
It’s weird how we think of things that aren’t true anymore as if they were lies. That is what makes the ends of relationships so difficult. We pass across thresholds in our identities, from one phase of loving and knowing to another of not loving (or, longing, or again, loving another) and unfamiliarity—and consider our former feelings as if we were lying to ourselves. We certainly tend to treat people who don’t love us anymore as if they lied to us. In this sense we are all Betties.
But pair this occurrence with an awareness that it happens and you get a recipe for gratitude and loving again. Feelings of despair and betrayal, even a senselessness of living following lost love, can seem like the end of all the lines. But this is no epitome of life. It’s only the latest episode in a series of truths and shouldn’t be confused with something more fundamental. Most of us learn to recognize such undoing of our firmament as part of a journey that will feel still richer when reconciled with new truths. Indeed loving again makes a miraculous sense of immortality that, when remembered, can ferry us across the next gap of dread and doubt. Gives us a new, almost bulletproof identity. A supernatural identity.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke explains it: “This is the reason the sadness passes: the something new within us, the thing that has joined us, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer there either—it is already in the blood. … One could easily make us believe that nothing happened; and yet we have been changed, as a house is changed when a guest has entered it.”
The organizing and recombining of different entanglements of love and lying on Mad Men allows for a series that doesn’t develop toward catharsis, dawning morality, transcendence, solving a puzzle or any other dramatic end. It excludes culmination. It accumulates instead, like the “maturation, putrefaction” Samuel Beckett describes in Joyce, in this case of different forms of truth and falsehood—different agencies and different ways of loving. “It is the play between deception and truthfulness that we should acknowledge,” says Clancy Martin, “rather than the privileging of one over the other.”
Don Draper isn’t who he says he is. He doesn’t seem either like who he wants to be. But he’s looking for an agency, and using all his tricks to expand it.
What Mad Men does is double the world. Watching the series makes me think of the prismatic ways my honesty and lying contributes to or undermines my intimate and public relationships, on the daily. My togetherness in the community and my loneliness. When I consider who I want to be really, all the grand injustices to overthrow, all the secrets to discover and share? Some things will be true. These many faces of mine, the dream of honesty and the little lies horrid, helpful, harmless and forgotten, are tools in my hands.
But it’s not just a solitary project, a man with a mirror, or the pursuit of happiness. This is how you build a community, even change a civilization. You might have to blow up some mutual institutions, kick out your longtime husband or boyfriend. The search to love again, to love better, is always a search to expand agency, our creative and rebellious endeavor. Make it sound like the agency you want to work for.
Because this will to join a guest to our house and change the room, this desire to change the world, or overthrow our limits—get outside the boundaries of our minds, why folks throw in together in the first place—passes through the heart and is already in the blood. It makes a possibility for life without end.
“On this earth that is Purgatory,” says Beckett, “Vice and Virtue—which you may take to mean any pair of large contrary human factors—must in turn be purged down to spirits of rebelliousness. Then the dominant crust of the Vicious or Virtuous sets, resistance is provided, the explosion duly takes place and the machine proceeds. And no more than this; neither prize nor penalty; simply a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail. And the partially purgatorial agent? The partially purged.”
Lars Russell lives in the middle ground between magic markers and permanent ones. He has written for SPIN, the Stranger, the Onion and Eyeshot. He is the editor of Beat Valley.