'Mad Men' and When America Is Shocked How Much This Never Happened

05/18/2015 11:57 am ET | Updated May 18, 2016

In a television show that depicts a lawnmower severing a key executive's foot in a busy Madison Avenue office and a forlorn co-worker delivering one of the key female employees his severed nipple in a box -- and dozens of other memorable moments in more than 80 hours of densely layered drama -- there is one key scene that truly defines the ethos of Mad Men.

It comes at unlikely juncture, midway through the second season. At the end of 1960, the rising secretary-turned-copy-writer Peggy Olson has seen her journey at the Sterling Cooper agency all but thwarted by a childbirth that wasn't just unwanted, but unforeseen, triggering a breakdown -- making Peggy an extreme case even among the show's united states of denial. Her boss, Don Draper, is the only co-worker to visit Peg during her long recovery in the psych ward -- empathy tinged with the knowledge of finding a kindred spirit. Don's buried past -- he isn't even Don Draper but a Korean War vet and identity thief named Dick Whitman -- dwarf Peggy's new secret, and so his hospital bedside pep talk is layered with irony.

"Get out of here and move forward," Don says. "This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened."

Last night, AMC's Mad Men wrapped up a remarkable 92-episode story arc for a show in which viewers came (like I did) to re-live the 1960s, or for the fashions, or simply to luxuriate in a boozy fog of Lucky Strike smoke, Old Fashioned cocktails and blood-red sirloin... and stayed to ponder the human condition. The best television show ever? It was for my money, but don't listen to me (does anyone?) Catch up the way I did two years ago, staying up to 1 a.m. every night on Netflix.

If you watched, you're surely pondering the meaning of Draper/Whitman's latest and greatest incarnation as New Age pitchman of killer soft drinks. But I've also given a lot of thought to something else: What was Mad Men trying to tell us about America? Give credit to show-runner Matthew Weiner, he made that a difficult task. Part of the brilliance of Mad Men was that it was never about the 1960s in a way that any nostalgic fanboy would recognize. Epic moments like 1967's "Summer of Love," the riots in Newark and Detroit, Woodstock and Kent State happen off-stage; the only middling character who's sent to Vietnam doesn't die, but re-enlists. Weiner's personal thoughts on the decade are neither patchouli-scented or especially kind.

The Mad Men creator famously complained to Stephen Colbert that Baby Boomers "think they invented sex and drugs...They have a view of it that is a child's view of it." He's much more interested in the timeless search for our identity and for meaning. But what gives those eternal questions their narrative drive is how the men in the grey flannel suits who survived the Depression, World War II and Korea coped with a time of sudden and unexpected uncertainty, triggered by three or more shots in Dealey Plaza. What happens when men (yes, men) who think they not only figured it out the world but conquered it in 1945 have to confronted with the just and righteous demand of women, of African-Americans, of the young?

History, in Weiner's hands, does a complicated dance with reality, often in the background of a muffled TV set -- much as your Monday will be driven less by events in the Persian Gulf than by some jerky thing your boss said. And yet, the 1960s backdrop also gave Mad Men its power, because we watch the myths of Don Draper and the myths of American unravel in tandem.

When JFK is assassinated in November 1963, it becomes a moment for questioning everything... including Don's marriage. Five years later, an episode set against the killing of Martin Luther King and the ensuing riots is propelled by a soundtrack of ever-louder sirens echoing on the streets of New York -- powerfully signifying alarm for both the characters and the nation. A short time later, a drunken Don (is there any other kind?) sees an ad for the "law and order" candidate Richard Nixon, and almost immediately launches into a barroom brawl. I'm still haunted by a Draper family parkway picnic in which the all-American family pulls away with all its trash on the side of the road. Part of the shock is that, yeah, some people did that in 1962, but the ugly beauty of that scene is the modern viewer's knowledge that that sense of entitlement and no consequences will be quite ephemeral, for the Drapers and for the America they lived in.

And so the defining show about America in the 1960s would turn out to be a show about advertising. Of course it is. In the booming economy created by vanquishing the Great Depression and Nazis, consumerism was a more potent high than anything the bartender was pouring at Sardi's. And Don Draper was the best on Madison Avenue at selling things because he'd become so good at selling himself -- even when that was a total lie. As were many of the products they he hawked, from cigarettes to soda pop.

The very first episode of Man Men is called "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" -- a song, a dream, a not-yet-purple haze of illusion. Draper and his cohorts at Sterling Cooper truly believed that could deny the obvious with a clever slogan. "Everybody else's tobacco is poisonous," he tells a meeting with cigarette executives in 1960, as cancer concerns are hitting the public. "Lucky Strike is toasted." But to paraphrase Chekhov, never light a cigarette in the opening scene of Season 1 unless someone gets lung cancer by Season 7.

In the end, even Don Draper couldn't keep writing his fictions. Maybe it's a coincidence that something clicks inside Don in November 1968 -- in the time after the Tet Offensive and the murders of King and Robert Kennedy. Maybe it isn't. But his nostalgia flavored pitch for Hershey's collapses when he feels an almost unnatural urge to tell the truth -- that a candy bar was his reward for luring customers to the family's house of prostitution. This begins a quest to unburden himself -- of his lies, but also his consumer possessions, even his beloved Cadillac. But he still confronts the question that so many of us do: When is it too late for redemption?

Mad Men made me realize it's a lot easier for a person to stop believing its own myth than it is for a nation. The period that's depicted in the waning days of the show -- the early 1970s -- was a rare and all too-brief moment of introspection for the nation, when the Pentagon Papers, the Church Committee, even a break-in at an FBI office in Media, Penn., near my home, caused America to consider coming clean. But a national plotline doesn't have a scripted ending, and over time it was the myths that looked better in the mirror, especially with the help of a good-looking master pitchman named Ronald Reagan.

No, it was other nations, other adversaries that were poisonous. America is toasted.

Today, in 2015, it's striking that the prevailing winds in our national politics are simply to move forward, that we can still be shocked at how much things never happened. Indeed, President Obama said a couple of years ago that there was no need to look into torture or other abuses of the Bush years because of "a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards." Indeed, the architects of our modern-day Vietnam in Iraq are highly sought pundits and highly compensated authors. Even a leading candidate for president in 2016 seemed oblivious to the fact that a war authorized by his own brother was an unmitigated disaster. Gitmo, waterboarding, untold number of dead civilians? You'll be shocked how those never happened.

Early in the run of Mad Men, Don reveals to department store executive Rachel Menken, who will become one of the lost loves of his life, that he is struggling with the concept of "utopia." "The Greeks had two meanings for it," she tells him. "Eu-topos," meaning "the good place" and "ou-topos", meaning "the place that cannot be." This is Don's dilemma... and ours. But finding "the good place" requires being honest about our past. Otherwise, America won't be "toasted." We'll be toast.

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