It's a recent Monday afternoon and I'm stuck in the dreaded middle seat on a cross-country flight. The woman next to me is a sixty-something Arizonan who seems determined to hold on to her youth. Her hair is in a ponytail, her skin is leathery and brown, her top is uncomfortably revealing, and she is wearing oversized Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and Monster Beat headphones. When the stewardess comes to take our drink order, I ask for a cup of coffee. She asks for two chardonnays.
There are four and a half hours remaining in the flight.
In desperate need of diversion, I pull out my computer and decide to watch the first and last episodes of season two of the wildly popular AMC series Mad Men. I've been an avid watcher of the show since it debuted back in 2007. I've also been in a lot of conversations with friends who don't see what all the fuss is about. But as I revisit the second season from the relative discomfort of my cramped seat in the sky -- my neighbor growing ever sloppier as she watches reruns of Friday Night Lights -- the fuss seems clearer than ever.
Mad Men is a quintessentially American show about disembodied desire and emotion. Set in the first few years of the 1960s, the show is filled with characters living in a gilded world of manicured lawns, highly prescribed social mores, and superbly cultivated capitalist longings. As befits a group of people who work in an advertising agency, the characters of Mad Men do not desire deeper meaningfulness and connections -- they desire the freedom to pursue whatever it is they cannot have.
In this sense the show is a powerful and unsettling commentary on the tenuous marriage of democracy and capitalism. In a democracy, our love of freedom ostensibly stems from our shared belief in protecting for all people the inalienable freedom of conscience. The right to say what we must say. The right to worship one God, thirty Gods or no God. The right to speak up and advocate forcefully, and peaceably, for change. In short, self-determination at its fullest.
By contrast, Mad Men unveils how the sacred goals of a democracy can become cheapened by the relentless profane efficiency of a capitalist economy. In this world, freedom simply comes to mean freedom to do whatever one wants. The desires are material, the feelings deeply submerged and unarticulated, the actions of the characters feral and reckless. In short, self-obsession at its fullest.
All of these subplots are brilliantly weaved together in the finale of season two, "Meditations in an Emergency," a title taken from the famous poet Frank O'Hara.
"Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern."
On the outside, the characters in Mad Men are beautiful, and modern. But it goes no deeper than that, and we are left to watch people skimming the surface of each other, looking for a way to dive deeper, but ricocheting off the emotional carapaces that have been built up over time.
In the season two finale, Don Draper, the show's mercurial, philandering lead and the creative genius behind his ad agency's success, is staying in a hotel after his wife Betty discovers he has been having an affair. After Betty drops off the kids for a visit, she gazes longingly at a fancy dress in a department store display before returning to the hotel bar, grabbing a drink and having random sex with a nameless man. "To not thinking about things," they toast, while the still-unresolved Cuban missile crisis looms in the background. Afterwards Betty returns to her empty family home. As she lingers at the back door, you expect her to break down in shame. Instead, she opens the refrigerator and casually devours a leftover chicken leg.
"The country is grey and / brown and white in trees / snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny / not just darker, not just grey."
It may be that critics have already mined to death the way Mad Men lays bare the tendency for our society to cultivate an ersatz culture of conspicuous consumption. But the parallels between the early 1960s and today are what has propelled the show into the zeitgeist. We know, as the characters cannot, what awaits them in the second half of the 1960s -- a whole-scale remaking of America as they know it, from the end of Jim Crow to the advent of mass student protests to the victory of landing a man on the moon. When someone makes a similar show in the future, and sets it in the early 21st century, I imagine that future audiences will view us similarly - both aware and unaware of what awaits, dissatisfied with the current state of things, and not quite certain how to imagine anything different.
"It may be the coldest day of / the year, what does he think of / that? I mean, what do I? And if I do / perhaps I am myself again."
Towards the end of the episode, a character named Peggy finally shares a closely held secret with her former paramour, a married man named Pete, immediately after he drunkenly expresses his love for her.
"I had your baby and I gave it away," she says. "I wanted other things." Then, while Pete sits stunned and silent, she tries to explain how she feels.
"One day you're there, and then all of a sudden there's less of you and you wonder what happened to that part -- is it living outside of you? And you keep thinking, 'Maybe I'll get it back.' And then you realize, it's just gone."
At the same moment these lines are delivered on my computer screen, the retiree next to me begins to bob her head animatedly to the music on her ITunes - hip hop, I think - and raises her hand to the beat, audibly singing along in a drunken bliss, lost in the dream of somewhere else.
We have begun our descent.