Updated: Aug 29
Editor’s Note: Points prides itself on offering historically-informed analyses of modern phenomena, and there is perhaps no better phenomenon for our collective eyes than AMC’s overwhelmingly popular series Mad Men. As the show begins the second half of its last season, Points managing editors Claire Clark and myself, as well as contributing editors Mike Durfee and Kyle Bridge, offer our thoughts on how intoxicants are being used in the series, what they mean to the characters, and what modern viewers can read into their use.
We bring you the first part of our roundtable on Mad Men today, and look forward to another at the season’s close. – EBD
The ads for the last six episodes of Mad Men have billed the show’s series finale as the “end of an era.” As Don Draper’s shown us several times, a good tagline works on more than one level. Mad Men’s latest line invites personal reflection (seven years is a long time to follow a cast of fictional characters). But it’s also an intellectual teaser: part of the ad’s tension is historiographic.
At this point, I couldn’t care less whether Don Draper/Dick Whitman exorcises his demons and sticks with a twelve-step program, or goes hurtling down an elevator shaft. But I’m still very interested in show runner Matt Weiner’s interpretation of the 1960s— and since the mid-season premiere picked up in April of 1970, I’ve started to prepare for disappointment.
One of the most original elements of the show is the way Weiner intentionally tweaks the given narrative of the Sixties-with-a-capital-S. A Generation X-er congenitally skeptical of Baby Boomer mythology, Weiner has admitted that he set out to tell the story of the Sixties from the Establishment’s perspective. Boomers, according to Weiner, crafted an inaccurate and self-absorbed history in which “They invented sex. And drugs. They have a view of it that is a child’s view. So I wanted to see, what would it be like if you were an adult, and had lived through some fairly interesting things like World War II and the Great Depression and then this [youth culture] came along.”
If Weiner wanted to prove that youth culture didn’t invent substance use, his show has been a tremendous success. The daily lives of Mad Men’s advertising executives and their wives are positively psychotropic: coffee, liquor, wine, and cigarettes are daily fixtures in the home and office; doctors readily dispense Valium, LSD, and amphetamines; and marijuana use is loosely policed.
But it’s unclear whether a shift in perspective around substance use (and perhaps also sex) will alter the bigger historical picture. The trailer for the series finale, set to Diana Ross’s disco hit “Love Hangover,” introduces the 1970s as a long, escapist “hangover” from the previous decade—not exactly a creative historical insight. In Sunday’s episode, the 1970s are here, and they are a joke and a horror (the mustaches and suits worn by Roger Sterling and Ted Chaough fall somewhere on the spectrum between comical and grotesque). There was no hard drug use on Sunday’s episode, but then again, Don’s perspective on his circumstances throughout the 1960s has been consistently hallucinatory.
Will Weiner, in assessing the Sixties from the perspective of the conservative, white, and powerful brokers of mainstream culture, wind up re-telling the well-known Good Sixties/Bad Sixties story written by Todd Gitlin, a leftist professor and former leader of Students for a Democratic Society? And if so— what does that mean for alcohol and drug historians? Can we reinterpret substance use in the Sixties without disrupting our larger understanding of the era? That seems like an exercise in futility worthy of Don Draper.
The John Dos Passos-reading waitress. Does anyone else think she looks an awful lot like Midge Daniels from Season 1?
I agree with Claire. The 1970s are no less a hangover than any other moment covered by Mad Men’s sprawling period drama. The pervasive disillusionment of this new installment suggests a departure from an earlier era, thereby reifying Gitlin’s false binary and its ugly stepsister, what Timothy Tyson calls the “two movement” myth painting black power as a departure from the golden years of Civil Rights. Quasi-Noir scenes warning of looming crime, racial tension, urban riots, and roaches in the final season suggest–as Peggy Lee did–that we are watching “the whole world go up in flames.” Certainly this is how the “non-shouters” of the nation felt. The waitress toting Jon Dos Passos reinforces the same theme; Dos Passos’s trilogy has been aptly described as a “fable of America’s material success and moral decline.” Both Dos Passos and earlier seasons of Mad Men need remind us that moral decline began well before the late sixties.
“Severance” speaks to much more than the severance package Ken Cosgrove vengefully decided to forego. The title speaks to the broader dislocation and loss inherent in the spectrum of addiction. In initial seasons the glamour and style of mid-century decor, casual office cocktails, and life without consequences inebriated us all, including the shows characters on and off set. While Don looks, dresses, and behaves quite similarly to the show’s first season his dalliances and misadventures have crossed over from the archetype of cool to sad and pathetic. In a variety of ways and through a variety of characters, we are reminded of the costs of addiction.
In one way or another each of the show’s characters have been chasing their own dragons. As any good addict knows, nothing is more intoxicating than the first high. For some the spectrum of addiction leads to acceptance and rehabilitation. Perhaps Don is on his way to acceptance as he has finally begun to acknowledge his own past and see the far-reaching consequences of his dealings with others. Then again, much of Don’s behavior suggests the opposite. Sweeping an expensive comforter over his wine-stained rug with a chuckle won’t diminish the stain. Nor will turning off the lights of his Midtown apartment make his world any less lonely. It will, however, keep him from looking in the mirror.
The real question is will we make it to 1971? If so, will this New York Times headline grace Draper’s desk? Will Don watch another Nixon speech in passing? Will anyone address heroin and link rising drug use to rising crime? What will characters make of the new Public Enemy #1? Last I remember, Betty’s husband Henry was cozying up to Rockefeller to be his Attorney General. Will he and his brethren begin talking tough on drugs and crime? Will Marigold come back from the commune or will her father join her? Will scenes in California turn to the “speed freaks” of the Haight? Will anyone slay their dragon or is that all there is? My suspicion is that all parties involved will continue to borrow from the wisdom of Peggy Lee: “Let’s break out the booze and have a ball if that’s all there is.”
Wow, where to begin? Welcome back, Mad Men. Glad to have you.
But what Mad Men does so beautifully is provide another view into this supposedly “liberated” world, associating – visually, orally, aurally – women with stimulants. The show equates them, as it were, especially in “Severance,” the first episode of the second half of the show’s last season.
Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sex – Mad Men’s finest legal stimulants, dominating the first two scenes. That the song, “Is That All There Is?” continually plays is almost too ironic for words.
After forays into the realm of illegal drugs, Mad Men sticks to what it knows best – the glories and, well, not so glorious excessive use of legal drugs. Don has struggled with alcoholism badly throughout the show (him puking into a potted plant remains a favorite scene of mine). But coffee and alcohol remain specifically attached to sex throughout this episode, in ways I haven’t quite seen before.
This is even true for Peggy. The first scene we see her in, she’s walking into the break room. Her assistant asks if she wants to go out for lunch, but she says that she just wants coffee. He then sets her up on a blind date. Coffee and sex, sex and coffee.
When Don returns to the diner the following night and the older waitress (the non-sexually-viable one) gives his order to the Dos Passos-reading waitress he had met, and harassed, the night before, the older waitress tells her, “Just coffee for him.” And when Don and the waitress then move into the alley, she smokes a cigarette before they have sex, rubbing it out with her toe before she allows Don to take her, assuming it’s part of the previous night’s $100 tip. Sex and coffee, coffee and sex. The best legal stimulants money can buy.
Brown may have recommended the sexual and financial liberation of women back in 1962, but in Mad Men’s 1970, when combined with the moderate to excessive abuse of legal stimulants (in this episode at least), Peggy and Don show how damaging the forays into liberation continue to be. With a growing sense of sentient feminism peeking through the show’s cracks, however, I can’t imagine that this will last for long.
Recently I was surprised by a good friend, whose tastes in television I normally trust, when they informed me they couldn’t make it through Mad Men on Netflix since the episodes were not “binge-friendly.” I momentarily pondered the irony of a brilliant slow-boil drama fixated upon torturous self-indulgence frustrating instant-gratification types, but I for one appreciate its deliberate pacing.
But another half-season remains to unfold. Like my colleagues, I’m curious as to how Matthew Weiner and company will treat the dawning 1970s following their chronicle of the Establishment’s 1960s, and how this era will in turn treat our characters. On the political front, will Mad Men grapple with returning Vietnam vets, beyond a televised Nixon speech rationalizing a partial troop withdrawal? Alcohol and drug historians should keep their eyes open for hot-button reports of addiction among soldiers. They might also anticipate, however unlikely, any mention of the ongoing heroin use epidemic and looming drug war. Still, the primary question may be whether Don continues tempering his alcohol consumption; will he go cold turkey a la Freddy Rumsen or instead seek solace from the “hangover,” be it cultural malaise or the consequences of his own actions, at the bottom of another Old Fashioned?