JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Peggy Olsen's first day of work at Sterling Cooper.

Peggy alone at her apartment.

Draper promotes Peggy to Copywriter.

Peggy keeps Pete's illegitimate child secret from him until the end of the second season, when she reveals that she gave the baby away. She rejected the creation of a potential family with him, preemptively destroying another possible home for Campbell.

In pursuit of the Nixon campaign, the executives at Sterling Cooper screen a Kennedy ad. Campbell comments, "The president is a product; don't forget that."

Jackie Kennedy's televised 1962 tour of the White House is featured prominently in one of the episodes of Mad Men.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is the backdrop for the last episode of the second season.

 

Don takes out a home movie camera to drunkenly capture his daughter's birthday party.

Draper's daughter in her party dress.

Draper captures the moment when one married guest is rebuffed after making an inappropriate pass at the divorcee who has just moved in down the block.

Even though we know that Draper's personal life is coming apart, he fills the slide projector with family photos. He renames the invention, "It's not called the wheel. It's called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved."

Peggy is pregnant, though nobody knows it, with Pete Campbell's child. She has the ability to generate more than images and ideas; she is potentially producing a family and a home. At the end of the first season, much to her own surprise and indicative of how alienated she has become from her own body, Peggy gives birth and goes into shock. The state declares her incompetent and contacts her family, resulting in her sister's adoption of the child. For most of season two, Peggy struggles with family obligations. Instead of following the traditional path for a young woman from her neighborhood, she has decided to become a professional, but her family resents her for the decision and continuously seeks to put her back into her rightful place. Peggy rejects this path, ignoring her son and redoubling her efforts inside the workplace, which is more of a home to her than the one her family inhabits.

After his bachelor party, Pete Campbell spends the night with Peggy Olsen. Peggy and Pete have a second tryst in the office.
Peggy continues to work even as the others throw an impromptu office party to watch the 1960 election returns. Peggy presents her ideas for copy on a product called "the rejuvinator."

During the show's second season, Peggy's mother and sister force her to become active with their church. They accept Peggy when she knuckles under and conforms to the image they have of her. Whenever she asserts her independence, whenever she strives to live up to her full potential, she is opposed and rejected. She can be at home as long as she reaffirms her family's worldview, which is working class. Having discovered another way of seeing, Peggy cannot return to her home. Perhaps this is why, in the second season, Peggy's storyline is so closely aligned with the church. The forbidden fruit comes from the tree of knowledge. Peggy's eyes are opened and she wants more out of life, even presumptuously expects more, but her mother and sister are determined to hold her back, to teach her to accept her rightful place in life alongside and not beyond them.

Additionally, Peggy keeps Pete's illegitimate child secret from him until the end of the second season, when she reveals that she gave the baby away. She rejected the creation of a potential family with him, preemptively destroying another possible home for Campbell. Peggy's character is socially mobile, moving between classes and beyond traditional sex roles. She casts off her childhood home along with the one she has accidentally made (with the baby) in favor of one she has yet to create. Her storyline emphasizes the challenges women face in the workplace. She is forced to deny all things homely, her mother, sister, church and child, in order to thrive in the office and to move away from her working class roots.

Much to her own surprise and indicative of how alienated she has become from her own body, Peggy gives birth and goes into shock. Draper visits Peggy in the hospital. He says, "Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened."
Peggy's mother pressures her into attending church. The mother and sister are determined ... ... to hold Peggy back, to teach her to accept her rightful place in life alongside and not beyond them.

Perhaps it is our perspective, but even the smallest actions seem to carry tectonic implications. We know the upheavals the characters of Mad Men have to look forward to: assassinations, Vietnam, race riots, culture wars, Watergate, the Reagan Revolution, 9/11 and the current financial meltdown. So when something apparently small happens, we can project the consequences and either hope or despair.

In season 2, episode 8 (A Night to Remember), when Office Manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), temporarily takes on the job of script reader for the newly formed TV sales department, the opening may be in part due to Peggy's earlier successes. It's easy to project some proto-feminist movement, even as the harsh sexist environment reasserts its dominance through the hiring of an inexperienced man to permanently take over the new position. The department has become successful because of Joan's insight into how to sell soap to women and when interest will be piqued on daytime TV. When Joan discovers that she has been unceremoniously replaced — the torpedo bra torpedoed — and is expected to train her replacement, her disappointment is overwhelming. (Or is that our disappointment?) The emotion is allowed only the briefest moment of escape before Joan's façade reasserts control.

When Office Manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), temporarily takes on the job of script reader for the newly formed TV sales department, the opening may be in part due to Peggy's earlier successes. When Joan discovers that she has been unceremoniously replaced and is expected to train her replacement, her disappointment is overwhelming.

The program's richest moments are ruptures like these, brief moments when the characters experience confusion or disappointment but then struggle not to let it show, when their real selves and the images they have constructed come into conflict. These are moments of vulnerability, of reality asserting itself briefly into the world of the image. Our clean, colorful 60s fantasy is interrupted by such casual brutality. We are reminded of the real constraints under the binding clothing, the actual challenges and limitations of the period.

Mad Men's producers reanimate 60s iconography in order to level it. Most scenes are shot from a low angle, which gives the impression the characters are rising up and looming over. It is the shot usually reserved for the heroic, but in this case it is used so democratically that the device is disabled. The style elevates the characters while tearing down the larger-than-life, making the heroic ordinary, but somehow still iconic.

Mad Men is set firmly against the backdrop of nearly mythic events from our own recent history. Much of the first season is taken up by the agency's pursuit to represent Richard Nixon in his 1960 bid for the White House against John Kennedy. Later, Jackie Kennedy's televised 1962 tour of the newly refurbished White House plays in the background throughout one episode (For Those Who Think Young). TV news reportage of the Cuban missile crisis is foregrounded in another (Meditations in an Emergency), pointing out the real hopes and real risks of a turbulent history we wish to romanticize.

In season 1, episode 6 (Babylon), Sterling Cooper executives have a meeting with the Isreali Tourism Bureau, which seeks to capitalize on the popularity of Leon Uris's recent bestseller, Exodus in order to improve the country's image. In the meeting, one of the clients remarks that the word "utopia" comes from utopos, meaning the good place and útopos, meaning the place that cannot be. Don contacts Rachel Menken, his other Jewish client, and also a woman he is sexually pursuing, to get some advice on the campaign. Her response, "Jews have lived in exile for a long time." As a Jew, she says, "I don't have to live there. It just has to be." This strikes a chord with Don, because he, too, is an exile, from his own past.

In Mad Men, homeland and home are fragile concepts. Israel is a struggle, but it must exist. The Cuban missile crisis reminds us of a world on the brink of self-annihilation; the characters react with the proper amount of uncertainty and fear.

Even though the people of Mad Men understand the power of the image to create new realities, and endeavor to make over reality using these images, they also understand that images are real. In season 1, episode 11 (Indian Summer), Peggy's family sets her up on a blind date with a deliveryman from her old neighborhood. When he claims that advertising doesn't work on him, she replies that when advertising is good, you don't know it's working. Later, after Peggy's date disparages her job and insults her by pointing out that she may pretend to be from Manhattan but doesn't look like the women who live there, Peggy leaves in a huff, saying, "Those people in Manhattan… are better than us. They want things they haven't seen." They want an illusion and are working toward its creation.

In season 1, episode 8 (The Hobo Code), Don takes a Polaroid of his bohemian girlfriend, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her beatnik friend, Roy (Ian Bohen). After the image develops, Don remarks that Midge and Roy are in love. He spends every day faking such images and knows when he sees the real thing. Realizing that he doesn't belong in the West Village, that Midge is not his home, Don ends the relationship. The Polaroid has shown him the truth; it's an image he cannot ignore.

"Every day I make pictures where people appear to be in love. I know what it looks like." Don says after taking a Polaroid of ... ... his mistress Midge and her beatnik friend Roy. "You make the lie. You invent want." Draper is expelled from Greenwich Village.

In the first season finale (The Wheel), Draper is charged with selling a new Kodak slide projector, which the company refers to as "the wheel." Even though we know that Draper's personal life is coming apart, he fills the slide projector with family photos. During the meeting, Draper describes nostalgia (quoted above) as "the pain from an old wound," and he tells his clients that they are not selling technology but memory.

"This device isn't a spaceship; it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel. It's called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved."

Draper transforms the object into an idea, filled with fantasy images of a life well lived. The images represent something that is not there and never really was; they are only a representation of a wished-for reality. This is what Mad Men is all about. It’s an unfaded memory of a time gone by.

The Kodak Carousel might mimic the childhood conveyance, family photos rising and dropping as it advances. But the images tell half-truths of idealized moments, birthday candles about to go dark and smoke. It's not a time machine after all, because it's not possible to go back. The wheel is a closed system that keeps replaying the same scenes over and over. It's just another set of images, a selection of those moments we have chosen to remember and to share, that were documented for the purpose of remembrance.

We don't photograph the parts of our lives we know we will want to forget. We are already in the process of choosing when we take out the camera, and of editing as we depress the shutter. We are constructing a vision of the wished-for life when we shoot, but the camera is a machine that only partially submits to our control. It sees what it will, capturing that something in the background we failed to notice, waiting to come into focus, to take over and become what really happened, after we have put the camera down. This is illustrated in season 1, episode 4 (The Marriage of Figaro), when Don takes out a home movie camera to drunkenly capture his daughter's birthday party. The scenes the camera captures are intercut with the action. Draper not only films children charging about in party dress and an intimate kiss between a husband and wife, but also the moment when one married guest is rebuffed after making an inappropriate pass at the divorcee who has just moved in down the block.

Mad Men captures those gleaming images of a perfect place and an idealized time, but also turns to reveal the specter in the background that is waiting to come into focus. In it we find the source of our unease.

Perhaps this is why the series is set in the early 1960s, the "golden age" of advertising. Perhaps it is an attempt to explore the tenuousness of modern existence. It's fun to think of these characters as naïve or even as sleek but primitive versions of our much more sophisticated selves, to think of their world and their time as "simpler" than ours. Much political discourse is centered on the wish to return to a "simpler time," but there are no simpler times. The wish to return to the past is a wish to stop time, to use the "time machine" of the Kodak Carousel to go back to a place where the living was "easy." As Foucault describes this way of thinking,

"In this hatred of the present or the immediate past, [there is] a dangerous tendency to invoke a completely mythical past."[8] [open endnotes in new window]

The 60s, a decade that culminated with a man setting foot on the moon, will forever be identified with progress in the U.S. imagination. Change was rapid and inevitable, but slow in coming. When we think of that decade, we remember the hope of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the non-violent protests of the Free Speech and Civil Rights movements; the Summer of Love, Woodstock, a youth explosion. We remember the good, choosing not to remember that all of these "good fights" were in reaction to war, discrimination and oppression. It is the folly of memory and part of the pain of nostalgia, the pain of the thing we wish to return to vanishing in a mist, irretrievable because memory is faulty, memory fades. Mad Men undoes the relation between wholesomeness and the past, and in so doing, the fiction reveals the true nature of our home, the real resistance inside the heroic struggle.

Looking back on these characters and this era, one can see the excesses wrought by the desire to ignore history, the desire to pretend that the problems we now face came out of nowhere and haven't been with us all along. The men and women of Mad Men are the architects of the world we now inhabit. Their activity is to modify reality, to create a desire so strong it becomes a social force. We watch them develop our world and fabricate our dreams, but we must also recognize that these people and these dreams are flawed. This is the birthplace of the information age, when we learned to reach and lost our grip. The men and women of Mad Men cannot be shielded from the turmoil to come, because they are the people who will make it happen out of the materials of their own turmoil. They inhabit the pictures in our family album, resplendent in their gorgeous youth, captured in frozen smile at the office party — the cheating husband crushing the soul of his doormat wife, the aunt whose nephew is actually her son, the casual bigot, the bachelor uncle, the scheming social climber — tragic heroes all. We would like to believe they were otherwise, but they were just people. History is littered with them, our history — the story of our home.

Each week Mad Men begins with a silhouetted figure of a man stepping into an office and putting down his briefcase to the sound of slowly descending violins. As he contemplates the far wall, the office dissolves ... ... and the man begins to fall through a cityscape of gleaming skyscrapers. Animated billboards dominate the landscape, featuring mostly images of women, or various parts of women. The man is reflected in them as he falls.
The ad man continues to fall. The buildings dissipate, leaving a sea of floating advertisements that rush forward. Is it a representation of ... ... a splintered reality dominated by images, a world which briefly dissolves into just advertising and nothing more, no character, no landscape, just image?

Go to Notes page


To topPrint versionJC 51 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.