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 4 in an ongoing essay on Mad Men. For Part 1, see here: Everything’s Exactly the Same. If you missed part 3, see here: I Walked Backward All the Way from the Living Room. Yes, there will be spoilers about earlier seasons, if that sort of thing bothers you.)
In a sense any fiction or theatrical writing already involves a double meaning. I don’t usually like to treat fiction the same as lying. There’s something more empathetic or hypothetical about it than dishonesty. Like jokes or songs. You might as well call your imagination a liar—and it may be. But there is surely a difference between the made-up material in a story and any truth of its creation or performance in reality.
The best liars avoid just plain fabrication anyway. They deploy words in ways that craft extra meanings beyond this simplicity of true and false, so they can manage to say one thing—even a true thing—but mean another and stay ahead of inquiring audiences. This is of course the basis of persuasive suggestion in advertising. When it is done in storytelling, it’s called style.
“Style is above all a way of saying three or four things in one,” says Jean-Paul Sartre. “There is the simple sentence, with its immediate meaning, and then at the same time, below this immediate meaning, other meanings are organized.” These interpretations Sartre’s talking about take language way past the ordinary forks of relative truth and also unconscious or quite intended subtext, the way we think of double entendre and innuendo stacking impolite or sexual reference behind cleverness. Style becomes a prism sorting varieties of shades of meaning from the single stream of speech. Dialog on Mad Men excels at this.
For example, there is the time Don Draper accompanies Betty on a visit with her family in Philadelphia. Betty’s already stressed because her father has had a serious stroke and her brother’s bickering about inheritance stuff—all while she and Don are temporarily split but appearing together to keep their private trouble from further disturbing the in-laws. Left alone with her at the dinner table, Don shows concern for his wife, encourages her to eat, even calls her her pet name, “Birdie.” Betty says, “Stop it, Don. Nobody’s watching.”
That’s what she says, and indeed it’s a fact that everyone else has exited the room. But she’s obviously also accusing him of acting kindly toward her just for the benefit of the others. This carries the second, broader connotation that he’s always acting, always putting on a show for the company he’s in. And Betty doesn’t yet guess nearly the breadth of Don’s secrets! It likewise tells us the degree of Betty’s fear and distrust at this point. Instead of considering that since nobody’s watching he might be behaving genuinely, or otherwise performing for her sake, she turns his tenderness against him. Even though he’s using their private language, she flips it inside out to imply that all of Don’s intimacy is rather part of some public exploit than something actually between them. She’s also letting Don know here that her apparent solidarity with him for the purpose of the trip is only a performance of her own, not any reverting of her feelings. She affirms this later, after a seemingly more bonded reconciliation again despite nobody watching when they make love that night in her childhood bedroom: “Nothing’s changed. We were only pretending.”
Two words. And also a pair of jokes. Because after all we are watching. The viewers watching the television show. And yet, a subtle sarcasm. Mad Men for all its praise and cultural currency has never been a ratings smash. Tra-la: Just between the two of us, nobody’s watching.
So extra meanings spill outside the story, more often applying moral or rhetorical significance than metafictional gags, but also slosh back and forth within the narrative domain. For sure, the only way to grant such multiplication of meanings is with the support of the surrounding drama. “A purely objective kind of sentence necessarily leaves out many things,” Sartre says, “but this sentence contains within itself all the others and thus holds a totality of meanings that the author must have constantly in mind for them all to emerge.” A close cousin, or annoying neighbor if you like, of the double meaning is the doubled phrase, a specific wording or similar wording that keeps coming back and persists like themes repeating in a musical canon.
In one case, toward the end of Season 1, Betty runs into the child Glen Bishop sitting in his mother’s station wagon in a grocery store parking lot. Betty knows Glen’s infatuation with her is inappropriate but they have a shared loneliness that ties them together, so she holds his hand through the rolled-down window. Betty asks Glen to say, “It’ll be okay,” for her own reassurance as much as his, which is eerie because that’s what Don always tells her. Glen says he doesn’t know. “I wish I was older,” Glen says. “Adults don’t know anything,” Betty enlightens him. This could even be the caption to the entire series. Adults don’t know anything. But then Glen, still holding her hand in his mitten, says, “I don’t really know how long 20 minutes is.” He means his mom might come back any time, and won’t approve of Betty’s intimacy with him. Of course that’s what adults do know, too well. The feeling of counting time.
Skip ahead to Season 2, when Don Draper is in his office hearing about clients pressuring Sterling Cooper to hire younger copywriters. The idea is for better addressing young consumers. “Young people don’t know anything,” Don says. This is manifestly counterpoint to Betty’s claim, but it doesn’t necessarily contradict it. William Goldman or Big Pussy could each tell them, nobody knows anything. But then Don adds, “—especially that they’re young.” Now we know this can’t be true, because Glen has demonstrated precisely otherwise with his comment about time. He didn’t just say he’s young: He proved he knows how little he knows. Sure, Don’s talking about young adults, not children. Maybe this is a humility lost in exchange for certain rites of passage, or maybe the arrogance is only Don’s. Either way, the resonance of the phrase places these unrelated instances of dialog in conversation with each other across however many episodes. The new usage holds up a prism to the earlier one, that the earlier usage reciprocates.
These arcing words, carefully arranged to highlight their verbal affinity, their felicity amidst the weighlifting of character development and plot exposition, run along high like telephone wires transmitting the series themes. Like a code you heard on the radio. Don has his particular catchphrases, “It’s going to be okay” among them, but one that rings over and over is his insistence, when asked how he lives with himself while conducting his various indiscretions and compromises (the inquirers rarely know more than a fraction of it), that he handles it like a mosquito bite: “I don’t think about it.” This willful denial allows him a kind of proprioception to move without hesitating through his acrobatics as a social outsider. And it’s a handy trick for certain daunting enterprises in real life. Faking or Dunning-Krugering an effortless confidence can help overcome real doubts that hold you back. As the Zen exponent Shunryu Suzuki says, “If you try to expel the delusion it will only persist the more. Just say, ‘Oh, this is just delusion,’ and do not be bothered by it.”
This is fine for Don, whose world organizes itself in complicit ignorance most of the time. His coworkers and concubines call him by Don Draper, and the industry awards and trade publications redound with this name. But the show never lets us forget Don’s name is not his name. When the junior executives make fun of Freddy Rumsen for pissing his pants drunk before a meeting, Don upbraids them. Pete Campbell insists they’re only fucking around. “Sure,” Don scolds, “it’s just a man’s name,” reminding us ironically that Don every day trifles with another man’s name. What about a name can Don find so hallowed when it can be taken off and on like a pair of dog tags? On the other hand, who better knows the worth of a good name than Don Draper? And who better than Dick Whitman to tell how a name might be tarnished beyond use? He readily understands the dilemma when a dog food company seeks help from Sterling Cooper after getting exposed using horse meat in its product. But he can’t relate to its heiress’s refusal to change the recipe or the name. Such fixed traditions lack the transformational idea Don Draper holds for names. It’s not a name’s legacy he finds literally significant (Don doesn’t think about that); he values the opportunity in it.
One of the few colleagues at the agency who knows Don’s secret is his boss Bert Cooper, who values opportunity in a different sort of way. Cooper’s patronage of Mark Rothko in 1962 shows he doesn’t care how many multiple meanings a work of media accumulates, so long as it also multiplies his own financial interests. His feelings about Don’s obscure identity are about the same, which leads him to speak (confidentially) of Don’s double name in the same transformational sense.
When Don resists committing to a contract with the firm even if it risks losing Hilton’s business, Cooper uses his extra knowledge as a lever. “Would you say I know something about you?” This sounds like he’s bullying Don Draper, but Cooper said nearly the same thing the year before, in the same episode with the Rothko actually, while flattering Don with news that a wealthy client invited Don onto a museum board, a position of influence. That time Don matched Cooper’s flirtation, “A little,” but now he concedes to the pressure: “I would.” But here Cooper swerves, “After all, when you think about it, who’s really signing this contract anyway?” It sort of echoes Betty’s disdainful reference to Don’s transience when she learns about his reluctance to sign: “You don’t know where you’ll be in three years?” Yet Cooper convinces him to do the deed by reminding him of the opportunity that lets him off the hook.
Cooper plays a different hand later still, but with the same hole cards, after Don takes out a full page New York Times ad announcing Sterling Cooper’s new policy to refuse tobacco clients (also a fine example of Don’s readiness to leap into new arrangements without looking back). “Someone used your name to end our business in the newspaper,” Cooper says, as if Don can undo this move somehow by claiming mistaken identity. Sure, it’s just a man’s name. “Wasn’t you, was it?”
This arc surfaces again in Season 5 when Cooper brings Don evidence of Lane Pryce’s embezzlement. Lane used the agency’s light boards to copy Don Draper’s signature off another check (Don in Season 2, when Betty wants him to punish their son for plagiarizing a drawing at school: “Our art department runs on tracing paper. Why reinvent the wheel?”). Don is smooth in responding to Cooper, as if in consideration for further facts. But it’s rather more like recognizing a type. After all, when you think about it, Don has been forging his own name for years.
Don ends up giving Lane Pryce a chance to resign. “I’ve started over a lot, Lane, and this is the worst part.” But whatever happened to poor Freddy Rumsen? For wetting his pants at work, he gets a permanent “leave of absence” and a scholarly night on the town for a sendoff. During this carousing we learn Freddy killed 15 Germans in the war. That is quite a name to folks in those days, but it’s not Don Draper’s kind of name. Roger Sterling brings Don and Freddy to an underground gambling parlor, but Roger can’t remember the password or the name of the right man to tell the bouncer. “How about our names? Dick Dollars, Mike Moneybags and…” Roger turns to Don. Don gives the drunkest, most personally-amused smirk and says, “Tilden Katz!”
They all break up laughing. This is indeed a hilarious name to invent off the top of your head. It sounds somewhat ribald perhaps, like some obscure verb being done to pussycats, and also undeniably an example of a wealthy-sounding name. So it’s a parody of a double entendre, and once again indicates Don Draper’s resourcefulness, his quick thinking. His ease in the traffic of false names. But the clever viewer knows this is not a spontaneous invention on the spot—it’s the name of Don’s ex-mistress Rachel Menken’s new husband, whom Don met once, by chance, while at dinner with Bobbie Barrett months earlier. The fact that Don harbored that name all this time reveals how much it bothered him to see Rachel married and, more marvelously, how long Don had wanted to make fun of the man’s name after controlling himself in the moment out of politeness to Rachel, and to conceal the former relationship from Bobbie. Plus of course married Don’s web of secrets means he can’t share these circumstances with anyone else. (The correct password was Milwaukee.)
Peggy gets promoted in Freddy’s spot. “I wish it hadn’t happened this way,” she frets. “Sometimes this is the way it happens,” Don says, hinting after a fashion also at the way he took the dead Don Draper’s place.
I think of Roger’s LSD guide saying, “Some things used to be true, some will be true,” all these examples of the series calling back and projecting forward returning variations of words and shadows of events. It’s less a process of reiterating consistent ideas over and over than reorienting thoughts, bringing new results from them and observing those changes to meaning and consequence—especially when disagreements arise in those comparisons over time. Fresh understandings take over for established ones, which fall hidden again ready to be rediscovered. Secret memories sprout. Tilden Katz springs up! It’s like how Samuel Beckett describes Finnegans Wake as “endless verbal germination, maturation, putrefaction, the cyclic dynamism” of style. Joyce’s experiment, Beckett says, produces “this reduction of various expressive media to their primitive economic directness”—which sounds in fact a lot like advertising.
Yes, even advertising, the land of “brand new” forever, features putrefaction of style. In one critical sequence in Season 6, a grumpy Don Draper reviews a series of mockups for a new oven cleaner chemical. “Why do they all have love in them?” he says. Peggy tells him the client asked for it.
“Let’s try to trade on the word love as something substantial.”
“I don’t think that’s possible in this context,” Peggy says.
“So why are we contributing to the trivialization of the word?” Don moans. “It doesn’t belong in the kitchen. ‘I love this.’ ‘I love my oven.’ ‘You know what I’d love?’ ‘I’d love a hamburger.’ We’re wearing it out. Let’s leave it where we want it. We want that electric jolt to the body. We want Eros.”
Don makes a good point; even if he might be worn out on love for reasons of his own, he’s really talking about the style problem. And he’s keyed in on the real problem word. Advertising doesn’t need to sell love. Love is just the convenient shorthand for something once removed from want. But you can’t sell want because it’s not indirect enough to be persuasive. Instead you have to arrange the words to make new meanings, to make a story, a spell, like Henry Smart. To make a circular motion distracting from that primitive directness. You reach inside a person and take what they already know—the skin you love to touch—and transform it into something to want.
You make the lie. You invent want. Not surprisingly, in its cyclical dynamic way, Mad Men plays frequently with talk about wanting, and the size of it, and the timing of it.
In Season 2, Roger Sterling meets a prostitute whose knack for simulation impresses him. He offers to pay far beyond her rates for the off-menu opportunity to kiss her. “I want everything I want,” Roger says. “Isn’t that the perfect thing to say?” the lady remarks. A year later Peggy tells her secretary Olive, “I’m going to get to do everything you want for me. I’m going to be fine.” Later in Season 3, Conrad Hilton describes an ad campaign encompassing the Americanist spirit driving the lunar space race. When Sterling Cooper presents a pitch highlighting the merely international reach of Hilton’s hotels, the billionaire rejects the campaign. “What do you want from me? Love? Your work is good, but when I say I want the moon, I expect the moon!” That same season, Don’s lover Suzanne regrets how the circumstances of their affair limit the possibilities for public romance. “I wanted more than I thought I would want,” Suzanne says. In a flashback, Anna Draper obliges Don’s wish to divorce her so he can use her husband’s name to marry Betty: “I want you to do everything you want to do.” It’s the first time we’ve heard this recurring hyperbolic desire expressed as generosity. In Season 5, Peggy tries to reassure a client, “We want you to have everything you asked for.” The response: “Well stop writing down what I ask for and try to figure out what I want!” At a glamorous ball, Marie Calvet, Megan’s mother, initiates a sexual liaison with Roger by saying, “Of course we should have everything we want.”
This is far from the complete complicated discussion of want on Mad Men. (Take Peggy’s total destruction of Pete’s advances in the throes of the Cuban missile scare, “I could have had you forever, if I wanted you. …I had your baby and I gave it away.”) It’s just another representative example of the threads arcing in and out of the show’s writing, a clear case of one idiom drifting, fragmenting, recombining, maturing, contradicting. And it’s not even the end of that chain.
Finally, there’s Don combusting in a client meeting with Hershey at the end of the sixth season. He ends up overthrowing this whole crafted recital with a frank story about how a whore used to give him a candy bar if he managed to pickpocket more than a dollar from her marks—back when Dick Whitman lived in a brothel as a boy—but before that he presents a different nostalgic vision. Don describes a kind father bringing him to the candy store after he mowed the lawn. “He told me I could have anything I want—and it was a lot.” (Because when Don Draper is being halfheartedly glib he talks like Drake).
“My father tousled my hair and forever his love and the chocolate were tied together,” Don summarizes, “—the currency of affection, the childhood symbol of love.” The formulaic artificiality of this image together with Don’s tone of voice tips his momentary sabotage, the misappropriated word “love” mistaken for the bind of product desire. We recognize this figment as so loathsome to Don it suggests he might have scuttled the pitch not by candid accident but by design. But this blunder puts Don on the verge of losing his career. So it begs the question, what does Don Draper actually want?
The series gives clues from time to time. Bobbie Barrett even asks a variation of this question at the same dinner after they cross paths with Tilden and Rachel Katz. Bobbie talks about her business for a bit, but Don admits negotiations bore him. “What do you like?” Don thinks silently. She challenges him to answer. “It’s so huge,” Don says. “I don’t think so,” Bobbie says. “Do you like the ocean?” The ocean! This is like Melville. But isn’t the ocean huge? It doesn’t matter. She’s only trying to get him to come to her beach house.
Don wants something so huge, it’s why in the first season he puts aside boredom to negotiate terms of his partnership with Bert Cooper. Foremost, no contract to tether him. But why? “If I leave this place one day, it will not be for more advertising.” What else is there? Cooper asks. “I don’t know, life being lived. I’d like to stop talking about it and get back to it.” The implication is he has grander designs, some purpose whose limit is not defined. “I want to do something else.”
Yet when Conrad Hilton asks Don what he wants in Season 3, Don says, “Your business.” Sure, it’s supposed to be a business meeting, but Hilton invites Don to think bigger. He lays out a broad vision. The moon! But also ambassadorship, the fight against Communism. “I’m no expert,” Don says. So it’s not politics that fire Don’s ambition. For the first time, he seems empty-handed. It’s possible that already Don’s grand dreams have looped back to earth, whether because of the challenges with new leadership at Sterling Cooper, the recent birth of his third child after the near loss of his marriage, or it’s possible the opportunity in Conrad Hilton’s name so wrong-foots Don that he’s too eager to keep equanimity and preserve the lifeline to the stars. Paradoxically, it’s Hilton’s insistence on a contract that ties the loop into a noose fastening Don down again. When he later launches a rebellion to rid himself of this restraint, he does so by reorganizing his resources to found another agency. Roger says, “So you do want to be in advertising after all.”
Continually at this new firm, the firm of his own creation, Don fights to save and strengthen the company. But what about his broader desires? In Season 4, the accounts team is desperate enough to resort to attending a competitor’s funeral looking to vulture business. The eulogies at this fellow’s service are all by his ad men friends, telling stories from the office. Anna Draper didn’t even have a funeral. By the aftermath of the Hershey presentation, in Season 7, Don is just an ordinary man battling to save his job, his second failed marriage, et c. His name isn’t even that much of a magic curtain anymore. What happened to that aspirational Don Draper? “I want you to do everything you want to do.” Something so huge.
“For, after all, you do grow up,” like Dostoyevsky says, “you do outgrow your ideals, which turn to dust and ashes, which are shattered into fragments; …”
…and if you have no other life, you just have to build one up out of these fragments. And all the time your soul is craving and longing for something else. And in vain does the dreamer rummage about in his old dreams, raking them over as if they were a heap of cinders, looking in these cinders for some spark, however tiny, to fan into a flame so as to warm his chilled blood by it and revive in it all that he had held so dear before, all that touched his heart, that made his blood course through his veins, that drew tears from his eyes, and that splendidly deceived him.
The process of living, then, is not just the part in which Don is indeed expert, not just assembling yourself whole out of the crest of your imagination. It also requires re-creating yourself out of the remnants of the past in the flux of new currents, like the cyclical dynamism and germination that Mad Men makes with its repeated, revising meanings. Life doesn’t heal like a mosquito bite. You have to think about it. And life has style. It usually says three or four things in one. They aren’t what you want them be and you better listen because nobody’s watching. Life isn’t what you want, it’s everything.
Life is time. It’s losing what you have to get what you can’t.
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.