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 Part 6 in an ongoing essay on Mad Men. For Part 1, see here: Everything’s Exactly the Same. If you missed part 5, see here: This Hazardous Business. Yes, there will be spoilers about earlier seasons, if that sort of thing bothers you.)
“Criticism is not bookkeeping,” says Samuel Beckett.
He means you can’t match directly symbols or images in a work of art each to a fixed corresponding meaning, the way you would balance entries for income and expenditures on a ledger. There’s no way, he says, to make a whole out of a “handful of abstractions … for the satisfaction of analogy-mongers.”
We have tried anyway to explore meanings in Mad Men, for example how the show is often about power. Super powers? Maybe. Male power, wealth as power, historical powers, surely. Whether the show works by reviving these powers, like animating a dead body, or reveling in their decay, is up for interpretation. We understand already how the show’s style makes sure meanings resurrected by recurring language in the series stay nimble and undefined. But go ahead and try to assign defined meanings. “Donald,” from the Gaelic, means ruler of the world. “Draper,” means one who produces cloth, and cloths—drapes—can be used to conceal. So here also is a mystical power, hidden behind the curtain. Mad Men as a body, all 80+ episodes or whatever, resists demystification: It warns like Beckett against “danger in the neatness of identifications.”
So let’s look away from these written concepts of the fiction, its overriding structures and underlying questions, and see that there are other bodies at work here. I mean the real human bodies of the actors, or at least their forms, their images. Their moving arms and legs and eyelids making behaviors we perceive both genuine and insincere, their throats and tongues giving voice to those crafted ideas.
This is true of every TV show, yes, yet Mad Men can at times draw especial attention to these performances as bodies—not as “performances” in a metafictional sense, or even always the Don Draper sense of masked presentation. I mean the other way around. The bodies as hosts of gestures and expressions and steps (as in choices at crossroads) that gathered together make lives lived. Also the shapes of bodies that generate desire.
As Whitman says, (Walt not Dick), “Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are;/You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul;/About my body for me, and your body for you.” This is the opposite of the way we typically interpret Mad Men, in which we expect appearances will be deceiving. But of course appearances are also all we get. All the show “is” is indicated by the actions of these bodies, this series of appearances; this necessary film. Then Whitman, who in this poem is riding a ferry between the dockyards of Brooklyn and Manhattan, goes on: “Thrive, cities! Bring your freight”—the freight being what makes up the substance of the city, its building materials, even the substance of its inhabitants’ lives, their goods and food—“than which none else is perhaps more spiritual; … objects than which none else is more lasting.”
There is a moment in Season 6, when Don Draper has returned to Sterling Cooper from a visit to Hawaii. He was vacationing sort of, but also sampling the stay at a luxury hotel belonging to a prospective advertising client. All the creatives vulture around him to hear about his voyage, what new gem of an idea he will pitch. “I had an experience. I don’t know how to put it into words,” Don says, to the crew’s disappointment. Don Draper has powerful words for everything, right?
So he secludes himself in his office to let it sink in, stands at his corner window looking out. The camera floats in toward his back, then his shoulders, boxing out the rest of the office, hovering behind his view of the window. It could be the old power trip, the man in the tower surveying his domain (he has been at the Royal Hawaiian resort). But he doesn’t really have a view, it’s just blinds and another building across the way, plus the camera close behind him foreshortens the angle even more so that there’s no sense of street or sky. Anyway it’s grey, raining in Manhattan. But you start to hear ocean waves, crashing, dragging away, returning, echoing as if down a beach; it feels restoring, replenishing. You can tell it’s his imagination or memory, but the camera doesn’t go all the way in making you feel like you’re simply in his head. It stays behind his shoulders letting you feel his body. You feel like Don Draper standing there, feeling the waves. Maybe even feel like Dick Whitman feeling like Don Draper. Like anybody can be Don Draper, when you have an awareness of yourself together with a body in this way.
Only awareness can make reality. And only reality can become a dream. And only from a dream can you awake to the light. But we know Don Draper does not always feel this reality. When Don goes to California in Season 2, after Betty kicks him out the first time, he’s at a crossroads considering whether to try to reconcile with his wife and resume living as the version of Don Draper he’s created. He tells Anna Draper, “I have been watching my life. It’s right there. I keep scratching at it trying to get into it. I can’t.”
A couple years later, he gets this advice from Faye Miller, the marketing psychologist consulting with Sterling Cooper in Season 4, who briefly becomes his girlfriend and for a short time one of the few people to whom Don reveals his true identity: “Take your head out of the sand about the past.” She recommends psychotherapy but suggests simply being honest would relieve some of his stress and confusion. Don asks, “And then what happens?” Dr. Miller says, “Then you’re stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us.”
It reminds me of Plato’s famous story about the cave. He says accessing reality with our ordinary bodily senses is like living chained in a cave, only able to see shadows on a wall made by a fire around the tunnel bend. The point is that by thinking philosophically you can escape the chains, see more directly the fire causing the shadows, maybe even climb all the way up to sunlight. But it always struck me as a double bummer for the guy in the cave, who makes his great getaway only to live up here with his hands and feet in the sunlight like the rest of us—who Plato diagnoses might as well be living in the cave.
Among the jokes here is Dr. Miller engages in one of Don’s only relationships we see taking place without the deceit of an extramarital affair, since he’s between wives, but they still can’t be open about it because they work together. So can he ever escape dishonesty, or is lying a fundamental part of connecting with other people? He ultimately dumps Faye for Megan, to whom he next tells the truth about Dick Whitman, but also can’t stay honest with even while being romantically faithful in Season 5. But I’m drifting into interpreting the series’ story. Let me get back to that spiritual freight, the man in the room. After Pete Campbell goes backdoor against Don in Season 1 by announcing his false identity to Bert Cooper, Cooper shatters the backboard of Pete’s crisis with a swish: “The Japanese have a saying: ‘A man is whatever room he is in.’ And right now Donald Draper is in this room, I assure you.” This is a relief for Don for now. The lie becomes the truth. But as we can see, being Don Draper cuts both ways.
Being in the room is indeed Don’s special arena. “Just get me in a room with them,” he says in Season 4 while trying to recover a lost tobacco account. It’s where the Draper magic flies. “In all great deceivers,” says Nietzsche, “one thing is noteworthy, to which they owe their power. In the actual act of deception, with all their preparations, the thrilling voice, expression, and manner, in the midst of their effective scenery, they are overcome by their belief in themselves; it is this, then, which speaks so wonderfully and persuasively to the spectator.” The emphasis is mine, but it’s a crucial element that engenders Don’s power, his voice bouncing like fire off walls, that gives him this belief so he’s not just scratching and watching but effectively present. His bodily figure, his form, in its container, the room. Being—persuasively—Don Draper.
Probably Don’s most notorious pitch is his first-season presentation for the Kodak carousel-loaded slide projector. “It’s not a spaceship it’s a time machine,” and so on. Instead of the customary advertisement mockups hand-drawn on posterboard, he uses the projector in the speech. So the room is dark, like a cave, with the only light thrown on a wall taking form around shadows made by the necessary film (the shape of Harry Crane’s body on the illuminated screen as he leaves the room at the end, choked with tears, drives this harder). There’s lots going on in this scene, most especially Don’s use of pictures of his own family in the machine. The beautiful bodies of his kids and wife. Their appearance of idealism, happiness, comfort clashes with what we know about his situation at home, showing how fragile may be any fidelity between our presentation and our living of our lives (after all, we don’t select snapshots for slide projectors anymore, we post on Facebook and Instagram). But the reality doesn’t matter. Don’s voice in the darkness shapes interpretation of the pictures. Even the sounds of his words overshadow their meanings. (“Get me in a room,” he says in Season 6, canceling plans for a phoned meeting with Chevrolet. “The tambour of my voice is as important as the content.”) Everything conforms to the vessel of Don’s deception. The contents of his life transform into the content of the presentation. The inert product forms the pitch itself.
This same dynamic gets more succinctly expressed in words and demonstrated in body by Joan Holloway when she assigns Peggy Olson her first break writing ad copy. Rather, Joan drops the anvil of paperwork on Peggy. Peggy, then just Don’s secretary, asks Joan if she should go say thank you to Freddy Rumsen and the creative staff. Joan claims there’s no need. She specifically was instructed to give the news; “You know what they say, the medium is the message.” This line is famously anachronistic, because if Joan’s citing Marshall McLuhan’s phrase in 1960 she’s about four years too early. It’s possible this coinage existed in professional circles like Sterling Cooper earlier than that but it doesn’t make a difference for the sake of the fiction.
As Joan says the words she starts to turn, a brilliant half-pirouette showing both the snobbishness of walking away while talking to someone, because what she’s indicating is that the full-time copywriters don’t want to hear from Peggy, that she, Joan, because she roams the office like a cobra, swaggering her hips past the desks and file cabinets, will remain the go-between sheltering Peggy’s supervisors from her straitlaced pep, at once with Joan’s light shame at filling this somewhat demeaning role and even jealousy at Peggy’s improved opportunity. And Joan folds this complicated communication into a single movement by gesturing with her hand at herself, or rather her body. Not her face—but toward her chest, her notable bosom, contained and given shape in the bodice of her dress and amplified, broadcast even, by its red color. The medium is the message. But this sounds like Joyce! “Who in his hearts doubts either that the facts of feminine clothiering are there all the time or that the feminine fiction, stranger than the facts, is there also at the same time, only a little to the rere?” Form meets content. Content meets form. Indeed, a later episode titled “Maidenform” starts with each of the featured females on the show, Betty Draper, Peggy and Joan, fastening and tugging their restrictive old-timey undergarments onto their bodies. Speaking of anachronisms, this montage gets surprisingly and interestingly soundtracked by a pounding rhythm of The Decemberists’ “The Infanta” off the 2005 album Picaresque, an instance so rare it can only be deliberate* of Mad Men using music contemporary to our time rather than its typically careful choices among tunes available to the period.
There is much, much more you can do with the play of outfits in the series and what freights they conduct, but for our purposes it’s enough that wardrobe provides this fabric nature, this plexus of being, holding, and being able to be beheld without an extra map to read (as Beckett’s critical identifications require). It’s the union of sight with substance, appearance with essence. Or the reunion actually, when we think of how Plato parted them.
Asked by an interviewer what kind of comment he was making about consumer society by infusing his fiction with advertisements and the encroachment of advertising, David Foster Wallace once said it wasn’t commentary at all. He said he wrote about ads the way a 19th-century author might write about going down to the stream to fetch water. Ads just happen to be a feature, part of the sight and substance, of life now. Foster Wallace may be simply being coy here; he has plenty critical to say about advertising elsewhere, but the point holds. Not only how ads exist in our environment, but they perform this work of reality-making.
Because it is work. It is a process. So while we’re talking about what happens at the surface before separating layers to find derivative meaning, it’s not enough to say things are what they are and close the snap. Like the camera moving behind Don to put us in his place, or his needing to get into a room with a client, these circular processes of form and content require a making so, hence the readying montage. Just as much does Joan’s shape perform in her daily activities the seduction upon her male audience: Her sexualized appearance is not a passive status even though it pretends to substitute for her agency.
That seductive nature is why it’s not quite right to talk of advertising as deception, any more than the fitting of bodies within a desired physique or Dick Whitman living as Don Draper. I mean, it is and it isn’t; each involves a controverting of reality and perhaps invisible motives. But remember, life is time. Some things used to be true, some will be true. Laces tighten the corset or loosen it, frames shift around us. We can challenge its motive but seduction isn’t always a game of holding up falsehoods to hide your agenda, no matter what the donkeys on the message boards tell you. We don’t have to accept every nasty seduction, obviously. But it can also be a devotional act, an investiture, of realizing intentions. A mystic interpersonal alchemy actually changes unstable harmonies—form, faith—into living reality. Nietzsche called it deceiving but what he describes is actually a spiritual converting: “They are overcome by their belief in themselves; it is this, then, which speaks so wonderfully and persuasively to the spectator.” It’s a stress analysis of a strapless evening gown. A precarious belief balances by stretching and rooting itself—in this case to the desired audience.
You might otherwise call any creativity an act of lying. You use imagination to make up something that isn’t real, but the same fabricating makes something new, something that in the making becomes real. Peggy shows the nuns a flier for the CYO dance which hints (very, very chastely) at sex: “A Night to Remember.” Peggy sells it by skipping over the key part: “It holds the wholesome promise of the kind of hand-holding that leads to marriage.” You make the lie. You invent want. But if an advertisement tells you you want something, and then you do want it, which part is the lie? We don’t usually think of invention as lying, any more than giving birth is lying. The seductive performance that works in advertising is equally crucial to revolution; it’s not simply dispensing with the past, it’s a delivery of the future into the present. You have to work on making the world ready.
Call it forgery if you want, but it’s no secret, silent forgery of another’s name. It’s a forgery with an anvil’s ding.
Have a listen to another of Don’s classic speeches. After suffering a deadly and highly public crash, American Airlines seeks a new campaign to overcome this tragedy to its brand. Sterling Cooper wants to win the business and, because this requires jettisoning its conflicting airline client before securing the new account, the stakes are high. So the whole agency assembles to work through a holiday weekend preparing for the pitch meeting. It’s not clear why all the secretaries and account executives have to be there, but that contributes to the sense of urgency and gives Don a greater audience when he rushes to the center of the office floor with his breakthrough: “American Airlines is not about the past any more than America is. Ask not about Cuba, ask not about the Bomb. We’re going to the moon. … There is no such thing as American history, only a frontier. … Let’s pretend we know what 1963 looks like!”
On one hand this is all Nietzsche’s noteworthy deceiver, “the thrilling voice, expression, and manner.” It certainly exhibits the forgetful self-determination that makes Don a successful seducer, his ability to convert denial into a license to have his way. Later in the same episode, Peggy’s sister communicates the cost of this attitude: “She does whatever she feels like with no regard at all.” That’s the broad wake of Don’s American contradiction. In another way, this speech is spectacularly honest: It expresses Don’s whole life laid bare. With these applications to Don in mind, indulge me in some more interpretations, if only for the satisfaction of analogy-mongers.
“Do I contradict myself?” says Walt Whitman again. “Very well then I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” One widely-held conception about Mad Men is that Don Draper symbolizes America. Certainly that reading is present here, in the name of the airline and reference to American history. But what would that significance mean?
The dramatic irony with which Don says this about America without recognizing its reflection of him might suggest critical satire, that Don’s life offers a caution about American hubris. The period of Mad Men’s development overlapped with a series of costly wars and the expansion of reckless economies leading to yet another market collapse. And that’s leaving out the rest of U.S. history, slavery and genocide and the like, which, despite Don’s frontier swashbuckling, actually happened (like Don’s secretary Allison reminds him about their drunken sex in Season 4). America as flawed and disturbed, maybe even a little ashamed.
Then again, the words might celebrate America’s liberties, its resourcefulness in the versatility of its configuration and reconfiguration as multitudes of provinces and principles. Maybe Don Draper glorifies American opportunity of class mobility and the will to pull yourself up from poverty or other social limitations. Don seems therefore to represent a figure out of Ayn Rand’s novels, exemplifying the propulsion of one’s own outlook without compromising to inquiry. The dynamic power of the individual to change the world. Bert Cooper recommends Rand frequently enough to Don that it sometimes seems like the show advances this hypothesis.
It can be a combination of these things too, like Whitman’s self-contradiction. Maybe Don is just supposed to be America in the 1960s, bridging the transition from economic expansion and dominant hierarchy to crumbling infrastructure, disillusionment and social atomizing. Or is it more specifically about America’s role as vehicle for advertising? Marx’s Communist Manifesto says, “The discovery of America was the first step towards the formation of a colossal market, embracing the whole world; whereby an immense development was given to commerce, and to the means of communication by sea and land.” Marx tracks this development past the rise of an urban middle class together with greater production, trade and communication to keep pace with its emergence, until “modern governments are merely committees for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Marx’s interest in the middle class rests on its “extremely revolutionary position in history.” That seems to us like a pretty radical way of looking at things specifically because, after Marx’s time, entering the scramble for this middle class’s attention and budget in the 20th century came the new communicative technology of advertising. We are accustomed to this great mass already seduced into stability. Perhaps Mad Men describes how the mechanisms of capitalist influence divert this manifest American mode from its emancipating course back into cultural and consumer bondage? 1963 and the rest of the turbulence of that decade didn’t look like what Don Draper and the team could have pretended to see, true, but dependence on goods and integrated commerce ended up correcting a lot of those fraying, liberalizing strands as if they didn’t happen. American Airlines still flies Flight 1. We went to the moon! And everyone watched it together on television.
All these symbolisms crash into the Draper house immediately after the presentation fails because Sterling Cooper’s liaison at American Airlines gets fired. Don couldn’t get the right guy in the room. When he comes home, Betty wants Don to discipline Bobby for lying (heh). She tries to appeal to Don as a classic figure of American authority, but he refuses because he hated his own father’s violence. “You take no responsibility for anything that goes on in this house,” Betty says, carving him like Peggy’s sister does Peggy as the ruthless individualist. “I pay the bills, the clothes on your back, the damn stables,” says Don (because this is the season when Betty rides horses). All this communicates that 1960s American identity crisis: one direction claiming responsibility owned by mere financial efforts, the other pointing out how the home cooking suffers. Ironically, Betty says she’s alone all day with the kids, “outnumbered,” like some scandalized conservative complaining about being surrounded in a country with hippies and bums. Don makes a swerve too from representing blind power to his other solidarity, as a courier for the downtrodden, an ally of outsiders, with civil-rights style consideration for their black maid, “What about Carla? Doesn’t she count?” So he joins the 1 Percent and the counterculture. Betty must be the petty bourgeoisie.
This is a game that can go on endlessly with Mad Men, but you can see why Beckett saw danger in such neatness. Is Don Draper secretly a black man? Is he Batman? Is Batman a black man? There apparently was a time when serious commentators in the American press could get away with claiming Don Draper as the devil himself. Perhaps in response, Matthew Weiner started littering the series with satanic innuendo and devil jokes. In several scenes, the number 666 is visible on a skyscraper outside the Sterling Cooper offices (this is a real building in Manhattan, across Fifth Avenue from where the fictional agency is located). After being injected with amphetamine-vitamin cocktails in Season 6, Stan Rizzo and the rest of the creative staff turn particularly nutty and hyper. “I did it! I’ve got six hundred and sixty six ideas!” Stan announces. Don reads Dante’s Inferno on the beach in Hawaii. After snooping in Michael Ginsberg’s files, Don tries to upstage the young copywriter with an idea about a devil character endorsing a snow cone. He plays with some copy indicating the devil’s approval—then demonstrates it to his creative team by actually impersonating the devil, speaking in a silly, deep-pitched voice: “Even me-e-e.”
But let’s not forget that STERLing cOOPer could theoretically be abbreviated STERLOOP. In Dutch sterloop means “star walk” but in Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 novel Mason & Dixon it is the term for a rifle, featuring an upside down five-point star on its stock, used by Dutch settlers in South Africa. That inverted, “horns up,” pentagram makes the sign of the devil, and in Mason & Dixon this gun is a symbol associated with slavery and genocide. “No one would adorn a Firearm with it, who was not wittingly in the service of that Prince,” Pynchon writes.
Maybe Sterling Cooper really stands for Strange Loops. “The shape-shifting mind pesters the distinction between accident and essence and remakes this world out of whatever happens,” says Lewis Hyde in Trickster Makes This World. “At its obsessive extremes such attention is the beginning of paranoia (all coincidence makes ‘too much sense’), but in a more capacious mind it is a kind of happy genius, ready to make music out of other people’s noise.” Don is a changeling, a chameleon, Don is whatever you want him to be, a vessel for countless meanings, but it also suits the structure of a story that’s constantly changing shape and extending or breaking boundaries.
There is a tradition in literature, the rambling picaresque, borrowed from an even earlier sort of tale, the mythological trickster legend, of which the hallmark is its episodic nature. That’s because it comes from the oral custom relying on versatility in the telling, the freedom to leave out or embellish parts or mix up the order to suit different recitals, different audiences, or different time constraints. Or take on new exploits. That’s why these sorts of narratives are called cycles. They turn over and over and roll on. Just so, trickster figures in folklore, for example Raven, Coyote, Br’er Rabbit, Signifying Monkey, or the Yoruba god of crossroads Eshu-Elegba, are elusive: they move through portals or on the boundaries, disguise their tracks—often disguise themselves, changing shape or wearing another skin. They are known for their appetites and their skilled communication (Hermes, the Greek messenger god, “invented lying when he was a hungry child with a hankering for meat” according to Hyde); they are frequent seducers—Don Juan is an example of picaresque—although any talent can fail them if it suits the shape of the story. Tricksters are expert at setting traps but their native curiosity and hunger also makes them prone to falling into them, and thus crafty at escaping once caught. Don’s whole identity is formed in an escape from the trap of Dick Whitman’s life, but again and again we see him excelling at avoiding getting snagged by lies or worse fates in his personal life. Nearly every season involves the firm in some fateful bind from which Don has to scheme to remove himself (or the whole company) or a different kind of threat he must block to preserve the business.
Lying is of course a primary feature of Don’s life, and in these narratives that’s often a valuable asset rather than a vice. “In Homer, it is the famous cleverness,” says Clancy Martin, author of Love & Lies, (which could be, I don’t know, the title of a Mad Men movie), “the virtue of Odysseus when it comes to lying—especially, in social situations.” In Season 4 it’s revealed how Don got his first job at Sterling Cooper by tricking Roger Sterling into getting drunk at lunch and then showing up the next day pretending to be hired.
The folklorist Paul Radin says, “Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social … yet through his actions all values come into being.” We know that Don Draper is becoming in that he’s handsome, but he’s also becoming, in that he’s always reinventing himself. “With some polytropic characters it is possible that there is no real self behind the shifting masks,” says Hyde, “or that the real self lies exactly there, in the moving surfaces and not beneath.” Hyde draws a comparison to Melville’s “The Confidence Man,” another story about a character sometimes mistakenly read as the devil. Of course, the devil is himself an example of such a figure in most traditions—a mere deceiver rather than any supreme evil or antithesis of God that we see in later Christianity.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn often gets cited as a modern example of the picaresque, and like Huck Don is a motherless child with a nasty alcoholic for a father. Note the Wikipedia entry for picaresque, “a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society,” could be lifted directly as a studio pitch for a series featuring Don Draper. Don Quixote is another classic picaresque, although a kind of parody of one in the Spanish romantic tradition. Don Draper is a kind of Quixote too, a rogue pretending to be a knight, a product of his own self-deception, but an unusually successful one, making real the fantasy because of the fertile territory of the American landscape-as-imagination found in advertising. Don Quixote took on a whole second volume of adventures, just like Huck is the sequel to Tom Sawyer, that’s how adaptive these styles are to changing shape
This versatility of contents also collapses any search for meaning, as compared to morality tales that have finite endings. The same rogue can play the hero or the foil from one episode to the next; the figure’s survival is never proof of his honor or worthiness, just a device for living to tell more tales. In a sense it’s as if there’s no consistent character but just a form modeling many roles, smoothing over the gaps the way Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny always play themselves but at the same time isolated characters with totally different settings and continuities, and frequently a change of tailoring. Yes, we can tell Don Draper contains multitudes, which in the New Testament is a sign of demonic possession. But he’s not the devil, and he’s not a superhero and he’s not a spy. If Don Draper is a secret agent he’s not an agent for either countercultural jamming or counterintelligence programming. He’s purely an agent of storytelling. It’s not clear yet if Mad Men is a comedy or a tragedy; it’s neither. It’s part of a hero cycle yet unfinished.
These figures don’t stand for anything special outside their feats and failures: They exhibit a unity of their shapeshifting appearance and their content of character. The medium is the message. And “myth,” Samuel Beckett cites the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico to remind us, “is neither an allegorical expression of general philosophical axioms … nor yet the work of isolated poets, but an historical statement of fact, of actual contemporary phenomena, actual in the sense that they were created out of necessity by primitive minds, and firmly believed.”
This necessary self-deception sounds a lot like Nietzsche’s belief required for convincing others. But the confusion of stories for actual events is not limited to primitive minds. It has plenty of modern contexts; for example, in Hawaii Megan encounters a fan who mistakes her for the character she plays on a television soap opera. The woman apologizes, seems to acknowledge the difference, but then starts questioning Megan about the character’s plotlines and choices as if they happened in Megan’s life. This is of course yet another case of Mad Men having fun with double identities, but it simultaneously shows the seductive influence form—Megan’s appearance as herself blending with her character—has over belief
Don too experiences a doubling in Hawaii. Restless in the middle of the night he drinks at the hotel bar and meets a young GI, on leave from Vietnam so he can get married. The man, Pfc. Dinkins, invites Don to give away the bride. Naturally Don sees in Dinkins an eerie reminder of his younger self at war, which you know is when Dick Whitman fatefully took the place of Don Draper—and Dinkins unwittingly explains his request according to a reciprocal succession of souls. “I believe in what goes around comes around,” Dinkins says. “One day I’ll be the veteran in paradise. One day I’ll be the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.”
What goes around comes around. It’s not a spaceship, it’s a time machine. In the same season, after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Megan challenges Don for sitting drunk in his bedroom instead of helping soothe his children’s anxieties about the tragedy and consequent riots engulfing the city. Megan’s own father, a French-Canadian dissident philosopher, has said something rude about cheering the riots as a signal of capitalism’s decay. “You don’t have Marx, you’ve got a bottle,” Megan scolds. But Don, who already spent the day with Bobby avoiding melancholy at the movies, together in a dark room with a projector, is moved to drink for a different reason than she suspects. He’s overcome indeed because he recognizes a revolution of a kind, the transforming figure finding (if only for a moment) its desired shape. “I only ever wanted to be the man who loves children,” Don says. “But from the moment they’re born, that baby comes out and you act… proud and excited, hand out cigars…. But you don’t feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you …don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. Then one day they get older. And you see them do something, and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.”
It’s like that other great scholar on Apollonian-Dionysian duality, Michael Jackson, once said, “Be careful who you love/Be careful what you do/Because a lie becomes a truth.” If only Don Draper’s mother had lived to tell him not to go around breaking young girls’ hearts.
*I thought this was the only one, but the Atlantic found two more (I don’t count the opening theme, and Beethoven’s obviously did exist already in the 1960s.)
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.