It's official...I'm having an identity crisis. (It's OK, though . . . Donald Draper is, too.)
It started when we decided to re-watch Mad Men in the void of new additions to the Netflix and Amazon Prime Video shows we'd already blown through. The setting is 1960's Madison Avenue NYC, where blossoming advertising agencies scrambled to break through to new media and new generations of consumers (without today's technology). My longstanding love affair with the advertising industry made it even more entertaining and meaningful to me. And THE CLOTHES!!! Everyone dressed to the nines, always. Elegant, classy. Glorious!
When the show was originally released in 2007 on AMC (and we eagerly waited a week between each episode), I deemed it the most smartly written, well produced and intriguing television show I'd ever seen. So here's the big question to be answered this go-round...does it still warrant the same acclaim after watching dozens of digitally-streamed, well written, well produced and intriguing series since?
The answer later. First, my profound observations.
Above & Below
Although some of the characters seem shallow, the themes are most definitely not. The surface interaction in the office, at home, and in restaurants is polite, polished, and "perfect" -- men are gentlemen and women are ladies. There is plenty of subtle innuendo, yet certain words, subjects, open displays of emotion, or appearances of impropriety are not acceptable in well-mannered society. People address each other formally, especially at work. Roles are defined and things seem to operate seamlessly, for the most part. The social norm is one of decorum and respect (at least, in this Caucasian microcosm). Refreshing! Wouldn't that be a nice change of pace today??
Underneath the surface, however, there is tension. Tension when a black/divorced/disabled/Jewish person enters the scene, tension when a man realizes a woman is capable of doing his job, tension when a husband regularly comes home late from work and his wife doesn't ask where he's been. Tension among bored suburban housewives who supposedly "have it all." Tension when a gay person keeps his/her sexuality hidden or risks losing everything. Tension when a woman tolerates being seen as a sex object or she won't be seen at all. Tension when couples (or wives) are judged by their desire or ability to have children. Tension when someone is fired and he/she doesn't understand (or is not told) why. Tension when the biggest client is demanding something the agency isn't prepared to offer. Racial tension reaching a crescendo of violence and protesting. Sound familiar?
Memory Lane Has Some Bumps & Twists
Back to my identity crisis.
I inherited a number of Rubbermaid bins with my name on them when my parents began to clean out the closets and crannies in their home. (I will admit I didn't remember saving most of what they contained...I had even bragged about how little baggage exists in my urban, empty nest lifestyle! ugh) So like many of us these days, my Coronavirus Checklist included purging those bins to make more space in our one extra storage closet. FUN.
I expected to feel nostalgic, to dislodge people and events from the far corners of my memory, to find formerly beloved items in not-so-great-shape, to be pleased/displeased at my own image or style or behavior over time. (That awful '80's hair!! Was I really that fat or was it just the horizontal stripes in the dress??) What I did not expect was the residual feeling of actually knowing less about myself instead of more. This person (represented by some random items preserved for perpetuity) -- aka, me -- has evidently been several people over time. Huh?? It was almost like seeing remnants of totally different Susans on totally different paths. Who is the Real Susan? Or is she all of those people? Or perhaps none of them? And where does she go from here?
I may not have the answers to those questions, but I do know this. Although many surprises and detours show up, life is a series of paths. And unlike our 1960's sisters who paved the way for us, the paths available to women today are more varied and welcoming than ever. (Or are they? That's another blog for another day...) For personality types like mine, two driving forces are 1) aversion to boredom; and 2) fear of missed opportunities. So, I suppose the forks in my path and the winding roads could be considered natural by-products of the attributes intrinsic to my nature. In those bins, I also saw many special relationships represented -- people I would have never met if I hadn't been on that particular path, people whose paths merged with mine for a season (or a reason), people who stepped over from their own paths to get a quick snapshot of mine. Many of them are still in my life today.
Wondering & Wandering
Back to Don Draper. Who is the Real Don? Is he many people...or someone else altogether? If you've watched the show, you know his story. His past is poor and sad and even a little dark, yet he is determined not to allow it to prescribe his future (or Heaven forbid, his identity). So he seizes an opportunity to literally become someone else and lives with the subterraneous fear of being discovered. In each episode, he faces a pivotal decision of who he wants to be in the moment, and often chooses to experience something (or someone) brand new, regardless of the consequences. It's hard to tell from scene to scene if he's revealing his true colors...or if he is so tormented, curiosity wins over character. He is also intelligent, handsome and super smooth. (Which makes him super sexy...) He loves his wife and his life -- yet he is far from faithful. Which one is the real him? Is he the devoted, successful family man with a weakness for women...or a successful philanderer posing as a devoted family man? Hmmm...
It's worth noting...the female characters are also exploring who they are in the context of their circumstances and the expectations of society at the time. Peggy desires to be a modern woman and pushes through some boundaries, but not without a fight. Joan desperately desires to be recognized for her brains and contribution to the business, even though the business wants to recognize her only as a sexy secretary. Betty is dissatisfied with life, in general, even though she has the life she dreamed of. Then, when she got it (twice), it was not fulfilling.
This generates what I call "cold comfort." Strangely, I feel better! The characters on Mad Men are fictional, and the historical setting is decades gone by, yet human nature prevails. We are connected by a common desire to understand who we are, where to apply our gifts, and how we fit into the grand spectrum. Particularly as "middle age mavens," our paths may not be crystal clear in this season, or we are simply tired from the paths we've already been down. Maybe we are bored. Maybe opportunities arise or seem intriguing, but somehow don't feel worth the investment or new energy required to pursue. Maybe health conditions or finances or something/someone we're already committed to have already planted us firmly on a path. Or maybe we have an exciting new path in front of us and the stakes feel higher this time, with less life in front of us to circle back or change our minds. And it's all really good stuff! Curated over a half-lifetime of rich experiences, many of which are now symbolically reflected in the contents of a Rubbermaid bin.
The Journey vs. The Destination
In 1933, Carl Jung asserted the following:
“Wholly unprepared [we] embark upon the second half of life... But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning: for what was great in the morning will be little at the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”
I borrowed this quote from an article called "Midlife Women Need a Map" from Psychology Today. Published in 2018, but oh-so-relevant now as we face major changes in our bodies, minds, values and lives -- not to mention, in the world itself. (full article below)
Thankfully, the path is often a circle, although not necessarily a smooth, symmetrical one. We wander, we question, we study options, we explore, we encounter others along the way, we look at maps, we ignore maps, we draw our own maps. Even Don Draper (no spoilers, I promise) weaves along a crooked path, searching for who he is and how his success feeds into his identity (and vice versa) until he starts to unravel. Then, with the superlative Emmy-winning perfection of Matthew Weiner's writers and the classic flair of Don's advertising brilliance, he ultimately completes the circle. Well dressed and looking fabulous, of course. Someday, I hope to do the same.
So...as promised, the answer to the question of whether or not Mad Men has retained its top spot on my "best ever" list? No surprise here...it's a resounding YES. (Can't wait to watch three more episodes again tonight!!)
** FOOTNOTE: My thoughts above are not intended to downplay the addictions, mental health issues and substance abuse portrayed as part of the reality of this era. For commentary in follow up, please check out the articles below. **