Mad Men, which recently returned for its sort-of final season (sort of because while the network calls it one season split between two years, it sure feels like two seasons), belongs to a long and proud tradition: stories about people who seemingly have it all, but are still depressed. Don Draper is an affluent man, a well-dressed man, a man who lives in swell apartments and goes on equally swell vacations. Even now, after he’s been kicked out of his company, his worries seem more about his dignity than his finances. Most of the characters around him are either better off than he is, or tolerably well-off themselves. It is, in other words, a drama about the problems of affluent people, as most TV dramas tend to be, unless they’re about cops or something. Hardship exists mostly on the sidelines of the series; the main characters have spiritual hardship, as they become more broken or—in the case of Peggy—angrier and more nervous than they were when they had less.
But apart from this being a typical and traditional TV perspective on life—money can’t buy happiness and all that—it’s been occurring to me that Mad Men has a specifically 1960s perspective on life. One of the recurring themes of commentary in the ’60s was the idea that we were very close to solving all the old problems that used to plague people: lack of money, lack of food, lack of free time. America in particular had been in a seemingly never-ending boom since the end of the Second World War, and there was much talk of the fact that ordinary people had more disposable income and leisure time than at any time in history. And yet, the commentators said, prosperity wasn’t making people happy. The tremendous social discontent and unease among prosperous people, not to mention their children’s tendency to wave protest signs, fascinated some and disturbed others. In 1968, the year before this last season of Mad Men takes place, Lyndon Johnson put it this way in his State of the Union address:
Tonight our Nation is accomplishing more for its people than has ever been accomplished before. Americans are prosperous as men have never been in recorded history. Yet there is in the land a certain restlessness – a questioning.
“Restlessness and questioning” among prosperous people is what we’re seeing on Mad Men.
One of the explanations for this restlessness, especially among people who were old enough to remember the Depression or the war, was insecurity: not necessarily job insecurity in the literal sense, but insecurity about their positions in life, thanks to the still-fresh memory of how easily everything could change. On Mad Men, this type of insecurity seems especially a part of the two main female characters, Peggy and Joan (I don’t think Betty counts at this point, though I actually kind of like her). These are people who are afraid that one slip might send them crashing down, losing them all the power and respect they’ve accumulated. Peggy and Joan are both very insecure and very sensitive about getting the respect their jobs deserve; having (in different ways) managed to gain some power in a man’s world, they know how easily they can lose it, and they are constantly on guard. This remains relevant today, of course; someone who has broken through a barrier may never feel completely accepted, completely at ease, because they’re not. But in the ’60s, it gains special resonance from the very newness of women having power in an office at all, and the fragility of power that is only real if the male boss acknowledges it.
Then there’s Don. Don, being the main character, sort of represents everyone who ever put on a facade to get ahead. Everything about him is fake, and he’s almost a universal stand-in for the idea that people in the ’50s and ’60s were putting on masks, playing roles, to get ahead in this prosperous but conformist society. He’s always afraid that if he lets the real him slip out, he will be exposed as the fraud he is. Which in fact turns out to be sort of true: as he told his daughter in the last episode, he lost his job because he told the truth about himself at the wrong time. Yes, these people are doing well by economic yardsticks, but they’ll never feel secure, and their insecurity isn’t so much economic as personal: they’re always on guard, waiting to be turned on by society and sent back where they came from.
All of this makes the show richer when we think about it in the ’60s context. But I suspect the show was originally supposed to stand in for our own time a little more than it does now. Weiner had the idea long before it aired, and it finally made it to TV in 2007—right at the end of an era, just before the worldwide economic collapse and the seemingly unending economic pessimism it created. Before the big recession, it was more common to see dramatic stories about people who are unfulfilled despite their superficial prosperity and promotions. The recession shifted the worldwide conversation from economic insecurity to sheer economic survival, from power struggles in an office to the sheer desperate need to hang on to a job at all costs.
Today, we might identify more with Peggy’s subordinates, whom she accuses of just keeping their heads down, not making trouble, and trying to keep their jobs. That represents the post-2008 economic reality more than Peggy’s story does; people still do follow Peggy’s arc, but many more people are just too busy trying to stay afloat economically to worry about respect or power. Don’s belief that what’s important at work is making enough money, and nothing else matters, seems to make a lot more sense than it did in the ’60s or even the ’00s.
This is not to say that Peggy’s story, or Don’s, or the stories of all these well-off but insecure people, are not relevant today. Any compelling story is relevant. But I wonder if the change in our attitudes, our core fears and concerns, might explain why Mad Men didn’t manage to break out and reach a much larger audience the way its network mate, Breaking Bad, eventually did. I don’t want to make too much of the comparison; Breaking Bad found a bigger audience mostly because, as a violent crime drama, it had more upside potential. But at some point, it also seemed to speak more to the times than Mad Men did, with its story of what economic desperation and the unequal, winner-take-all economic system can do to people. Mad Men doesn’t seem quite as timely, and it’s not because it’s a ’60s period piece; it is, to some extent, a ’00s period piece as well.