SPOILER ALERT: Detailed discussion of the Mad Men series finale ahead.
Once, “nostalgia” was not a common term used to sell consumers the pleasures of the past, but a diagnosis peculiar to physicians to describe the pain of loss. Veteran soldiers, orphaned children and others, who had brutally learned that you can never go back home, were treated until the late 19th century for a disorder that Mad Men’s hero, Donald Draper, addresses in season two with a modern-era approach. He finds his protege Peggy Olson in a hospital, choked by the despair of giving an untimely child to adoption. He says, “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
Having grieved the past, Peggy moves on never to suffer the old disease of nostalgia again. But her mentor is afflicted with its symptoms and, for seven seasons, Don’s near-fatal refusal to address the past drives him to drink, scandal, and, eventually, the return of the repressed at an ad pitch for Hershey’s Chocolate.
Don invents (another) high-fructose family fiction to feed the needs of his corporate audience and speaks of those idyllic afternoons he spent with a father who would buy him a Hershey bar, “the currency of childhood affection”. Usually, this kind of bullshit moves the client to tears but on this occasion, the orphaned Draper moves himself to tears and his ad agency to the brink of bankruptcy as he upchucks his true past in the boardroom. “I grew up in a whorehouse”, he says, where the real currency of affection was the American dollar.
The revelation does not make Don whole. Don is not, despite today’s tsunami of sentiment applauding the “hope” of yesterday’s series finale, redeemed by his confrontation of the past. Over 92 episodes, showrunner and creator Matthew Weiner has implicitly and explicitly offered the view that the past has a single function. It is not to bring us pleasure. It is not to be manfully overcome. It is simply to be addressed and, if it has anything at all to teach us, it’s that we haven’t really improved that much. And, actually, our outfits are much worse.
It’s in the look of the show that we were permitted nostalgia of the pleasurable, modern sort. This series that launched a thousand Eames knock-offs looked a-mazing. Weiner’s visual attention to period was evident to anyone who saw it and the subject of a TV industry fable, which has its creator diving into a bowl of fruit in the Drapers’ kitchen and removing an inauthentically shiny apple. His stars’ silhouettes were formed in high-carb diets and their costumes were sourced from eBay or original patterns. From whisky bottles to Xerox machines to the smoke respired into the faces of children, this work offered joy only in the look of the past, not its substance.
There may be some viewers who took a little covert pleasure in the racism, homophobia and sexual abuse of Mad Men, even if it were just to say, “Well, thank goodness we’re not like that anymore”. But, I venture that it’s impossible to truly engage with this show and not see Weiner’s suspicion of the idea of progress and its false premise that the present is better than the past.
In this last half of season seven, we see Joan Harris and Peggy subject to a salvo of ‘70s sexism in a meeting at McCann Erickson. The women, both former secretaries who have wheedled but mostly worked their way up to executive positions, encounter a new kind of hostility unleavened by the older and arguably better idea that women should be a civilising presence.
We see African-American secretary Shirley leave advertising because “it’s not a comfortable place for everyone”. It’s not just that progress is slow for Shirley. It’s that it is a falsehood. Meet the new boss. He’s the same as the old boss. Although, these days, you might find him wearing love beads and saying “om” to the beat of a mindfulness bell at a tasteful New Age hell-hole in California.
The last moments of the show are held in Big Sur at a place of crystal-idiocy likely modelled on the Esalan Institute. These are extraordinary for their dark critique of progress and if you’ve not endured them yet, please immediately stop reading because I shouldn’t want to deny you the true pain of nostalgia. The old disease and not the new pleasure.
For the fan who has admired Weiner’s irresolute approach, not everything was perfect about the series finale. Art director Stan Rizzo’s declaration of love to Peggy felt as faithful to the ugly truths of Mad Men as Don’s Hershey bar story had to those of us who knew him as Dick Whitman. We can only suppose that Weiner had fallen for Elizabeth Moss’s Olson so hard, he wanted to make her happy.
Fortunately, Don remains as incomplete and deluded as our ideology of progress.
In a group therapy session for divorcees which Draper has not willingly attended, and whose founding principles he earlier compared to evangelical Christianity, we briefly see a meek man called Leonard. Leonard talks about how he felt largely invisible to his wife and others, even when he was being seen.
“I had a dream,” says Leonard, “I was on a shelf in a refrigerator.” Like a product of the sort that Don has spent his adult life advertising, Leonard is a thing whose use-value is turned to nothing by the created, fetishistic gaze of the consumer. (If Weiner, whose references in his show to both Marx and Freud have been regular, is not at least an occasional psychoanalytic materialist, then I’m Baby Gene’s true father.)
“Sometimes, they’re happy to see you,” says Leonard. “Maybe they don’t look right at you … maybe they don’t pick you.”
“The door closes and the light goes off,” says Leonard, and Don embraces him and cries more copiously at the thought of the candy bar alone in the dark than he did at the Hershey meeting.
This has been read as a “breakthrough” moment by critics eager to believe both in the progress of a culture that, apparently, became more candid in the ’70s and of the universality and timelessness of love. I could see it as nothing less than a powerfully depressing reminder that the mechanism of the market is now the mechanism of the self. Our failure or our success to become love-objects for others has devolved with every published advertisement for Hershey or for Kodak. Our apparent “openness” is a more elaborated form of repression. Just as sexism and racism have mutated into more covert aggressions, the “I’m OK, You’re OK” approach to expression offers us the illusion of freedom. This is not psychoanalysis here at Big Sur. This is its reverse.
The illusion of freedom serves the market with its illusion of choice. When Don has embraced the overlooked, refrigerated candy bar of a man, the “breakthrough” he has with his past does not serve him. It serves the market. Don will make Coca-Cola whole.
We see Don on a cliff against the Pacific. For a second, the cynic seems to be giving himself over to the elite high of transcendental meditation. The camera dollies and we see his face transform from its usual sceptical repose into a smile. It’s indistinguishable from the look of enlightenment. The mindfulness bell rings and the last minute of Mad Men is given over to the well known “I’d Like to Buy The World a Coke” television commercial.
Whether it is Don or it is Peggy or a team of McCann Erickson demons responsible for the commercial is not the point; although TV sleuths have upturned striking visual similarities between the happy, One World hippies that appear in the ad with those who people the five-star commune. The point is that everything is commoditised, that moments from our past will be misremembered, imbued with the artificial light of television and stolen from us so that we cannot even feel the pain of the old nostalgia.
One can say, and many commentators have, that this is a beautiful moment and that advertising is a significant art form that offers a rousing record of the era. And, in the sense that Coca Cola managed very successfully to depict the cultural posturing of its time to the market, it did. Here, we have One World liberal humanism in carbonated form and all the lies about freedom and self-awareness on which this crap depends.
To believe that Don has had a legitimate breakthrough is to believe that Coke is the “real thing” and not just something that we are “free” to look at first when we open the refrigerator.
The door has closed. The light has gone off. And, without Mad Men, nostalgia will never again be what once it was. I expect to be shocked very soon by how much Weiner’s critique never happened.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review.