Forget Every 'Mad Men' Conspiracy Theory You've Ever Read
Mad Men is just two episodes away from wrapping up this half-season, which is flying by faster than Pete Campbell's hair recedes. Fortunately Mad Men is the type of television show that stays with viewers long after they see an episode or season—giving us time to think about the characters, the overarching story of America, and our personal reactions to the themes. After all, Don Draper is nothing if not a construct that helps us look at our culture in general, our parents in context, and our own development in relationship to both. That's why we don't leave him even though he's almost impossible to love.
Miles of recaps are written about Mad Men each episode, and I used to read them like it was my job. If Don is the ultimate carousel, taking us round and round back to the places we long to go, what is he telling us this season? Where will we end up? Part of the pleasure of the nuanced show has been reliving each episode in detail through the lenses of recappers.
But I've stopped. Something happened to me, a combination of being burnt out by complex Sharon Tate/Manson murder and D. B. Cooper theories coupled with the madness of True Detective recap theories. I'm watching television differently. No recaps needed.
I'm still puzzling through rich symbolism, exploring the point of the narratives and guessing about where the story is going. If we were to go out for a three-martini lunch, I'd adore hearing your ideas about Sally as Don's best and worst self.
I'd have a lot to say about Season 7 in particular, as the show is hitting us over the head with work. "Work" as a verb, and Work, capital W, as the monolith organizations, workplaces and establishments that define our days, careers and lifetimes. Don was forced out of his agency because of his alcoholism, but his workaholism is his primary addiction—always has been. He defines his self and his worth via his success, and his every other relationship occurs in the shadows of his work. Like a single-minded addict, he avoided every competing interest until he could work again, didn't let them take it away cold turkey, figured out ways to secretly feed information in and out via his secretary/dealer, and eventually wormed his way back in at the grunt level. Don threw a typewriter, and we've seen him lovingly roll paper onto a platen. The installation of the IBM computer threatens the creative soul of the agency and the mental health of at least one worker. The women of Mad Men are in flux and struggling with work, too. Peggy's life is stunted because of work; Betty's because of the lack of it.
This is not new, of course. Technology, changing workplaces, and the perils and joys of workaholism are the heart of Mad Men. The Draper-defining carousel pitch from Season 1 was a meditation on technology, nostalgia, and time traveling in a circle, with the wheel being a breakthrough technology itself. Don's primal memory of a Hershey's bar as ersatz maternal love was the reward for his shakedown work. The tension between creativity and the work required to bring it to life is played out at every level, from interpersonal to inter-agency to Individuals vs. Establishment.
But recaps don't do the work of really watching the show by taking it in. Taking the show away from text and into personal reflection lets Mad Men shine at its brightest.
Following the season's lead, I'm finding myself thinking a lot about my own relationship with work and with workaholism. Workaholism is such a culturally supported addiction, supported by technologies that put us on 24/7 call. How can one discern the difference between a healthy relationship with committed work, and with work levels that are unhealthy? How do creatives draw the line between dedication to their open-ended work and absorption by it? How do women, in particular, answer that omnipresent "balance" question, and find a relationship with work that nurtures development instead of stunting it?
Mad Men, I can count on you for the madness. But I'm watching the show now without following winding, conspiracy-laden recaps. If I miss a Kubrick tribute here or a bit of foreshadowing there, I'll have the joy of being surprised, and I'll have the pleasure of watching the season again. More importantly I'll see what I need to see right now, without being disappointed in a theory that didn't pan out.
I think this way of viewing is truer to the intent of Mad Men, anyway. We don't need to analyze foreshadowing because we can count on the same answer, every time, because we have been repeatedly told that Mad Men is a wheel. Circle back to where the true longing is, that's what Matthew Weiner invariably says. We can count on Don to circle back to Dick Whitman and to the work of reinvention, to the necessary action of perpetually burning through complexities only to end up at simple beginnings. The same pangs, the same longings and addictions, the same home. The inevitability of the need to do the work, again.
Mad Man viewers love complex conspiracy theories, but the show always answers big questions with simple nouns. Wheels. House. Milk. Candy. The body: hot teeth, broken noses, missing feet and torn nipples. Planes. Trains. Cars. Mom. A small boy's vocabulary, really. Two more episodes, then one more half-season, but we can watch Season 1 and see it all very well defined for us.Mad Men is not about conspiracies, it's about us. "Round and around and then back home again, to a place where we know we are loved." Daddy is back at work, and Mad Men is getting ready to take us home again. I'm pretty happy about where it's headed.
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