Mad Men’s Hidden Beats: Don Draper, the virus power and the destruction of love

keywords: advertising, Mad Men, Don Draper, beat writers, beatniks, Matthew Weiner, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, capitalism, socialism

          Matthew Weiner’s famous cable television creation Mad Men debuted ten years ago (2007) and became an instant hit. It was the perfect nostalgia piece for its time, as it struck a chord with people of a certain age who could relate to the cast living through the peak Cold War years of 1960s America. This novel for television also managed to be about much more than a nostalgia trip. It served as a gateway to a solid education in social history and psychology, and it served up some wicked critiques of capitalism, but this went mostly unnoticed by a large part of the audience.
As the popularity of the show grew, much of the public attention was focused the superficial aspects of the story, on the sex appeal of the actors and the details of the technology, fashion and interior design of the period. The male characters were all recognizable as sexist rogues, but the more outrageously they trolled the audience, the larger the female fan base grew. The audience found them sympathetic and complex rather than black-hat villains. In fact, this seems to be the formula for success in this genre. One critic wrote that the pillars of the television drama, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, all indicted America “but refused to condemn the complex, emotionally crippled men” at the center of the stories.[i]
In contrast to the popular conception of Mad Men as a high-quality period soap opera, it seemed to me that Matthew Weiner always had a darker view of the world, one in which the ad men of Madison Avenue were on the same level as the gangsters in The Sopranos, which Weiner helped write before his success with Mad Men. After all, it is obvious that he chose to heighten reality by depicting a degree of loutish behavior that wouldn’t have been found in most offices in 1960. He seemed to be working on a theme that many filmmakers have mined since The Godfather: capitalism is gangsterism writ large. Behind their fashions and the pretty faces, the cast of Mad Men can be seen as both the victims and vectors of a malicious plague on society. In Mad Men one can often see an indictment of mid-century America that is as strong as what came out of the counter-cultural movement of the time, which was dismissively labelled “beatnik” so that the Russian suffix would lend an inference of anti-Americanism.
Don Draper actually bears a striking resemblance to Jack Kerouac, author of the 1957 counter-culture classic On the Road. They both fit the image of the 1950s archetypical man. One could wonder whether the writers consciously or unconsciously cast the role for this resemblance so that Don would look like Jack’s evil twin. One took God’s command to go forth in rags to moan and roll his bones for man, while the other decided to “make something out of himself” by selling dreams on Madison Avenue.

Jack Kerouac                                     Don Draper (Jon Hamm)

In one episode (The Hobo Code, S1E8) Don encounters his lover unannounced and finds himself sharing the evening with a rival who is a stereotyped 1950s beatnik. They clash in predictable ways, with the beatnik telling Don he “sells the lie,” and Don telling him to quit blaming the non-existent “system” and go “make something out of himself.”
Another hint of the cultural influence of the beats is a minor character is named “Ginsberg,” a name which is an obvious allusion to the poet Allen Ginsberg, who worked briefly on Madison Avenue. The Ginsberg character is portrayed cartoonishly as a gifted creative talent but too mad to fit in with his colleagues. Allen Ginsberg remained remarkably sane and grounded throughout his life, but the Ginsberg in Mad Men goes truly mad when he decries the evil forces he perceives to be devouring souls in the agency where he works.
In the final season (Lost Horizon, S7E12) Kerouac’s On the Road finally makes an appearance, as if the writers had decided to make a belated essential mention of one of great cultural influences of the late 1950s. At the peak of his success, after he has made it as an assured millionaire partner in a large firm, Don finally hits the road to go discover America. The ghost of Bert Cooper, his mentor, appears beside him in the passenger seat. He’s the man who once gave Don a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Saying he never read On the Road, he nonetheless quotes a line from it: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
For Don the road trip will ring hollow. He is devoid of the innocence, naiveté, poverty and love for America with which Kerouac journeyed in his late twenties. All he finds at the end of the road is the inspiration for the next ad campaign that will sweep the nation as the new decade begins, and that was, after all, the reason he hit the road. He was stuck for an idea for the Coca Cola account, just as he had been stuck for an idea for Lucky Strike in episode one. Some viewers believe Don went through a spiritual transformation at a meditation retreat, but there is no way to know whether it was authentic or faked. It’s easy to forget you’re watching Jon Hamm act, so what you see is by definition contrived. There is no way to know it is not a performance of Don Draper faking satori.
In making the comparison to The Sopranos, one must recall that even Tony’s band of sociopathic gangsters charmed American audiences. David Chase, Matthew Weiner and the other writers must have found it darkly amusing that no matter how hard they tried to make their characters reprehensible, the audience still forgave them and rooted for them. They must have shrugged as they asked themselves, “What do we have to do to make you hate these guys? You want it darker?”[ii]
The audience cheered for Tony right to the end, even after they saw his psychologist finally wake up to the fact that she had been manipulated for years by a sociopath. The audience felt cheated when his survival could not be confirmed in the finale. This is why the blank-screen ambiguous ending of the show was brilliant. It forced the viewers to finally confront their own wish to see Tony and his family escape the punishment that awaited them.
There are many acts of violence and betrayal in Mad Men that equal those of The Sopranos for their chilling horror. They are more psychological and don’t involve the same finality and “wetness” of gangland murders, but they are equal in their odiousness. Murder is done through killing someone’s career or driving a person to suicide or prostitution. A colleague loses his foot in an accident with a riding lawn mower, on company property, and he is quickly tossed out of the firm because it wouldn’t look right to have a partner hobbling around with a cane. In another episode, a woman is finally allowed to become a partner, but only if she submits, under pressure from her male colleagues, to a client’s demand for a sexual favor. She agrees. I found all of this just as horrific as Tony Soprano’s conspiracy to send his nephew’s fiancée to “long-term parking.”
What was Matthew Weiner trying to say with all this? Was it his intent to engage in a serious critique of capitalism hidden in a light soap opera, loaded up, ironically, with product placement for dozens of top American corporations? If he had wanted to say something generous about advertising, he could have referred to the standard defense of advertising that states it enables innovation and creates intangible value which is a “... fine substitute for using up labor or limited resources in the creation of things.” The advertising business and the desires it creates are ways of keeping otherwise useless people occupied while minimizing consumption of resources.[iii] However, Mad Men makes no attempt at such an argument. It never misses an opportunity to show characters being harassed, insulted, abused, seduced and betrayed, and the American public being sold Nixon, agent orange, alcohol, and tobacco. The cast remains committed to the pursuit of wealth and acceptance of money from these toxic causes.
In the Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar, a group of communist Hollywood writers abduct and blackmail a Hollywood star and explain their motives to him thus:

We concentrated on getting communist content into motion pictures. Always in a sub rosa way, of course. And we were pretty darn successful... Our understanding of the true workings of history gives us access to the levers of power. Your studio, for instance, is a pure instrument of capitalism. As such, it expresses the contradictions of capitalism and can be enlisted to finance its own destruction. Which is exciting. It can be made to help the little guy... even though its purpose is to exploit the little guy.[iv]

The authors seem to want to ridicule these communists for their hypocrisy, but at the same time the Coen Brothers are saying something serious about the seeds of subversion always being present in art that is owned and sponsored by the powerful. It would be difficult to imagine another way artists could insert a lesson about Marxism in a modern film without it needing to be mocked as a quaint historical throwback. It is a very meta technique that simultaneously treats the topic with seriousness and ridicule.
It is well known that Hollywood was infiltrated by communists in the mid-20th century, but what about now? Are the Coen Brothers and Matthew Weiner subversives, or are they just kidding here? 
     Hail, Caesar is, in fact, loaded with scathing commentary on the contradictions of capitalism, communism, empire and religion, and it is centered on a protagonist who must find his way through them while he finds a Joseph for a Mary, leads a flock of lost simpletons, and fathoms the implications of the secret he has been told and tempted to work for--America’s recent deployment of the hydrogen bomb. But don’t worry. It means nothing. It’s just another wacky comedy from the Coen Brothers. 
     In the same way, the creators of Mad Men laid an anti-capitalist narrative on the American mind in a very "sub rosa way." While the audience enjoyed the mid-century fashions and inter-personal intrigue, while they thought they were watching a celebration of American culture, they were in fact being shown a nightmare of cold war existential dread, alienation, sexual discrimination, post-war traumatic stress, class warfare, consumerism and addiction, to mention just a few of the themes covered.
They say that the secret of a television series is that the characters never change. A well-conceived pilot episode lays out everything that will follow for as long as the show may run. A look back at episode one of Mad Men shows that Matthew Weiner demonstrated this rule perfectly. If you want to understand what Don Draper was in the finale, just look at what he was in the pilot: an adult survivor of a lonely traumatic childhood, a shell-shocked war veteran, living as an imposter with a dead man’s name. He has consciously made himself a new identity. He is a walking advertisement for and embodiment of the great Gatsbyesque American notion of self-re-invention, that you can repeat the past and create a new you, even though doing so involves total alienation from self and others.
We could “refuse to condemn complex, emotionally crippled men,” but then we miss the point that Don Draper represents a pure, malevolent force. He is the dark angel. In one episode he mockingly accuses an IBM computer salesman of bringing the evil of automation to the office. "You are not my friend," he says, "I know who you are. You go by many names." Yet it is Don who goes by many names, who knows this biblical reference and is ready to deflect the accusation onto someone else. He ruins everything he touches, from the first episode to the last, betraying everyone he brings into his life. He accidentally kills the real Don Draper on the battlefield in Korea. He rejects his step brother's attempt to re-establish a bond, which pushes him to suicide. Lane, his business partner hung himself partly because of Don's betrayal. His wife Betty, his platonic friend Anna Draper, and lover Rachel Katz all die in middle age of cancer, and his lover Midge becomes a heroin addict. Most of the people who get emotionally embroiled with him are destroyed in some way. Even Megan, his second wife, went terribly neurotic at the end. He is basically a vampire, and youre watching Twilight for grownups. 
          Don Draper starts off selling cigarettes and ends by selling high-fructose corn syrup. In the finale, his “enlightenment” at a meditation retreat at the end of his road trip consists of no more than the realization that the peace and love scene of the 60s will be mainstream in the 70s. He is then written into reality as creator of the non-fictitious famous treacle to world peace and racial tolerance: I’d like to buy the world a Coke—a reassuring bromide of a “balming campaign” that was dropped on the world at the height of President Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia.
In episode one we see him spend a night with his lover, a fellow traveler in the advertising business who appears later as the friend of the beatniks, then much later as a destitute heroin addict. Don tells her he is struggling to find a way to market cigarettes now that it is illegal to make health claims about them. He rejects the idea proposed by a colleague that they should develop a campaign on the notion that people smoke because of a Freudian death wish. His rude dismissal of the colleague is a comical demonstration of the sort of denial Freud would love to observe. Every character in the story is hell-bent on reckless, self-destructive behavior, but a death wish? Naaah.
Instead of focusing on the death wish, which couldn’t be consciously acknowledged in an advertisement, Don finally hits on the idea of gaslighting the consumer, a propaganda technique used in marketing and politics for all manner of nefarious deception. If no one can tell the truth about tobacco, it is better to focus attention on anything else. He tells his clients that everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous, but “yours is toasted.” All that is necessary is to reassure the consumer and make him or her feel good. The technique is familiar in President GW Bush, in 2001 after the terror attacks, telling Americans to resume shopping, or in Japan’s prime minister wanting to host the Olympics to take the nation’s eyes off tsunami devastation and radioactive fallout northeast of Tokyo. Don pitches to his clients:

Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s OK. You are OK.

Yet who is not OK here? In the next scene he has drinks with a female client, Rachel, whom he needs to apologize to, but he manages to insult her further by asking why she is not married. She answers frankly that she has never been in love, and Don responds, “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” Repeating the alienated, dead-in-the-midst-of-life misery of Tony Soprano’s mother, he adds, “You live alone and you die alone.” Rachel reacts with a subdued dismay, and this is a turn which reveals the subversive heart and power of Matthew Weiner’s tale. She is reacting with proper horror against Madison Avenue’s “destruction of love in social reality,” a notion which is straight out of textbooks on socialism, as elaborated in this passage by Eric Fromm:

Quite clearly the aim of socialism is man. It is to create a form of production and an organization of society in which man can overcome alienation from his product, from his work, from his fellow man, from himself and from nature; in which he can return to himself and grasp the world with his own powers, thus becoming one with the world. Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, “a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality.”[v]

Rachel’s determined defense of love allows her to see through Don. She unmasks him by saying:

“I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you, the way other people live it. There is something about you that tells me you know it, too.”

She’s got him. All he can do is avert his eyes nervously and reply, “I don’t know if that’s true.” She has taken down that billboard at the side of the road telling him he’s OK. After this meeting he goes home to his wife and family in the suburbs, and before he can sleep he goes to his children’s room to watch them sleeping. He just said love doesn’t exist, so what is he feeling here, or what is he trying to feel or fake here, with his wife standing behind him?
Mad Men and the other pillars of television drama are much easier to understand if we get over being charmed by their sociopathic anti-heroes. If we are going to indict America, then we must also condemn those who eagerly participate in what is indictable. One of the writers of Don Draper’s generation, William Burroughs, described the problem of the age as the “virus power”:

The virus power manifests itself in many ways: in the construction of nuclear weapons, in practically all existing political systems which are aimed at curtailing inner freedom, that is, at control. It manifests itself in the extreme drabness of everyday life in Western countries. It manifests itself in the ugliness and vulgarity we see on every hand, and of course, it manifests itself in the actual virus illnesses. On the other hand, the partisans are everywhere, of all races and nations. A partisan may simply be defined as any individual who is aware of the enemy, of their methods of operations, and who is actively engaged in combating the enemy. You must learn who and what the enemy is, their weapons and methods of operation. The enemy is in you.[vi]

We don’t condemn the partisan because, although he is infected and participates in the manifestations of ugliness which inevitably entrap him, he knows the enemy and is trying to mount a resistance. Don Draper is not a partisan. He is the unapologetic purveyor of the enemy’s weapons and methods of operation. The audience could move beyond fetishizing the gadgets, fashions and seductive charms of such entertainment and learn who and what the enemy is.


[ii] The title track on Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want it Darker (it’s a declaration, not a question) seems to be making this same point about our culture’s tolerance of evil: A million candles burning for the love that never came. You want it darker.

[iv] Joel and Ethan Coen (Directors), Hail, Caesar (Universal Pictures, 2016).

[v] Eric Fromm, Marx’s Concept Of Socialism (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1961), chapter six,

[vi] Allen Hibbard (Editor), Conversations with William S. Burroughs (University of Mississippi Press, 2000), 12.

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