My beloved ‘Mad Men’ ends in a few weeks. From the first episode, I’ve entwined myself with the characters, their stories, the nuances of a decade I never experienced but have heard praised my entire life.
That’s weird – the praise. The tale spun to me involved brave rioters and America’s realization of mistakes. ‘Mad Men’ has a different take – the drudging along of people, not willingly giving people equal rights – and maybe hiring a black secretary from goofy circumstances.
It seems that distance has allowed Americans to see the 1960s as they really happened – racism, sexism, war, rape – covered in pretty clothes with smiling people hiding miserable lives. That’s an exaggeration on the other end of the spectrum. I’m sure some were happy as some weren’t. In ‘Mad Men’ we see more of the misery. We are experiencing a post-postmodernism take on the 1960s.
But while I praise ‘Mad Men’ for an accurate portrayal, for prodding me along to Google and to examine my understandings of the 1960s, I’ve loved the show for a simpler reason. For Dick, for Don. For the man who reinvents himself as America believes people can, the man reminiscent of Jay Gatsby.
They share the same story, James Gatz and Dick Whitman, after all. Their unique time periods allowed the character creations to happen, encouraged them even. Limited by poverty, ashamed of their roots, loved by beautiful women. Those protagonists have layers of subterfuges that we’re never to fully understand. We watch as they never attain their desires.
What do they desire? Well, the audience is not sure. The characters aren’t sure. Not love, money, or status. Both have those, but Gatsby stands stoically at parties, much like Don stood at his own birthday party: surrounded by popularity, money, beauty – unnamed ‘its.’
Their blonds (who eventually leave them for men with solid pasts, open histories) are the men’s envisioned its that will best fit into their created worlds. Jay and Don, who stole their wealth and sophistications, who never really own their futures, never love Daisy or Betty. They’re incapable.
Bored and rejected, they manipulate and scrape for more of it. They never learn what it is. Neither will we. That’s what we watch though, their search, their gathering of desires and ‘its.’ Neither knows love but both glisten with their acquisitions. Sadly, they know the difference.
To possess more its, Jay and Don hide their pasts. When their exposures finally happen, it’s in dark rooms with alcohol, without the flourish we expected. An ambiance now surrounds these characters so they are almost forgiven. Their pasts are explanations, really. We understand why they want their elusive ‘its.’ Why they built clandestine presents.
The Great Gatsby has endured because audience relate to that shame, that desire to leave our past behind, to be acknowledged for what we built, not for what we were born. ‘Mad Men’ will last the same way, probably with more untied ends than Gatsby.
We know what happens to Jay, and it isn’t that his past catches him. It’s more likely that the new world he fought to create rejected him; he never wholly belonged in it. Don isn’t comfortable either. Will Don’s store end the same?
Part of me roots for the American success story – which of course has ambivalent meanings. Should Don find true love? himself? My desires for him are pronged: if he gains a true introspection, he won’t be the antihero I adore. Ultimately, ‘Mad Men’ was the great American story like The Great Gatsby is. Set in mystical time periods that show more of the realities of a time period normally glossed over, audiences root for broken men as they search for something, hide something. Their demises parallel different ends to praised American time periods: one a depression, one a confrontation of war’s realities.
We all have shame, we all reinvent ourselves and present to the world what we think our audiences should see. This common thread is why generations have loved Jay despite James, and why in future years, people will love Don, despite Dick.
Don and Jay symbolize the diversity in all of us. Their imperfections make us love and hate them, and so they have continued audiences. No matter if they end the same way or not (my bet’s on a living Don Draper) Don probably won’t be whole, fixed, or understood. I imagine loose strings, perhaps with Don drinking, alone, and just maybe, not in a world he built, but one he’s comfortable in.