We are all Mad Men
For the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on what I loved about Mad Men. It wasn’t the acting or period accuracy or cinematography. There are plenty of shows that have those, but that never pull me in. Only after processing a run of five seasons in the lull until the sixth did I realize the true reason the show attracted me.
Mad Men is an honest portrayal of the themes of modern work in all its glory and pain.
I once described the show to someone who hadn’t seen it as a long, detailed and deliberate character study of one person: Don Draper. Now I realize it is more than that.
The lens through which that character study is done is his work. The main stage of the show is the office, with home filling in the interstices. The primary way in which characters relate to each other is through their work.
Along the way, Mad Men starkly reveals truth after truth about the nature of modern work. They are part of our daily life, but still so hard to see. We’re blind to them, just like a fish would be at a loss if asked about the nature of water.
From building the physical to creating the imaginary
Look at your hands – they’re as soft as a woman’s…What do you do? What do you make? You grow bullshit. – Don’s father, to Don.
Modern work deals largely with imaginary, sometimes ephemeral artifacts. Even where the final output is a physical object (a chip, a phone, or a car), the physical object is but the last link in a long chain of platonic objects. Often, that last link is not even thought of as “work”, but as “assembly”, ideally handled by robots.
3D printers now make it so that we can think of that last step as “compiling”. Just like you compile source code to get an executable, you compile your 3D design to manifest it into the world of atoms. The compiler is just another piece of automation.
Roy: Perpetuating the lie. How do you sleep at night?
Don Draper: On a bed made of money.
We use our hands not to move and arrange physical objects, but to command the manipulation of bits. At the beginning of this transformation, it was understandable for the real makers, the movers and arrangers of physical things, to look down upon people pushing around paper in an office and wonder, just like Don’s father did, ”What do you do? What do you make?” Don is condescended to even by the “true creatives”, the starving bourgeois artists.
Some might still wonder, but the derision is gone (or at least, veiled), after the complete shift of power and wealth and attention from the old physical makers to the new bit-wranglers.
The War for Talent
Don Draper: It’s your job. I give you money, you give me ideas.
Peggy Olson: And you never say thank you.
Don: That’s what the money is for!
Each factory worker was more or less like every other factory worker. But a star creative director or copywriter or programmer is irreplaceable, and hence, valuable. If you lose them, you might, after much effort, get another great one to fill their position, but they will not be the same. They will have a different creative signature. Like a uniquely shaped diamond, each demands their own custom-made setting.
Don picked Peggy from the ranks of the secretaries and made her a copywriter. He challenged her, and forced her to grow. He was mean to her. He was tender and protective towards her. In the entire cast of characters, she is the one who understands (or comes closest to) what makes Don Draper tick. But while Don was a great grower of talent, he was not a great retainer of talent. Don eventually loses Peggy to a rival ad agency.
The overt reason is that she got a much better financial offer. But that is not the true reason. It’s not (only) about the money. It’s about what the money signals. Peggy doesn’t live a lavish life. She’s only in her apartment to sleep. She doesn’t have plans to spend all that money. But she does want to be perceived as valuable. She wants to be wooed. And Don did not give her that. The head of the other agency, a long-time rival of Don, spent time and effort trying to win her over. It was that treatment she fell for.
The Primacy of Work
I know what I’m supposed to want, but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office. – Peggy Olson
All the characters in the show derive their self-worth through their work. All of them. There is not a single character that has any significant source of meaning outside their work. Those that have families are cast as providers and protectors rather than lovers and nurturers.
Peggy goes through a string of half-hearted relationships, each of them sacrificed to work. But the sacrifice is a willing one, not forced. There is a brief twinge of… what? Remorse? Regret?… before diving eagerly head-first back into work, into the comfortable rhythm and embrace of it.
Work is exciting. The office is a dynamic place. It is a place where you can reinvent yourself. New projects. New titles. New responsibilities. It is a place that always looks towards the future. It is sterile enough to be a place where you can regularly be born again. Home, on the other hand, is an anchor, a place where you are tied to your past, where you can never run away from the old you.
This is why Don’s relationship with Megan is an outlier, the curveball of the entire show. He does truly love her, more than any other woman in his life. More importantly, he respects her. While he didn’t think twice before cheating on his first wife, he actively shuns overtures from other women to remain faithful to Megan. Megan might be approaching, or even surpassing, the meaning and fulfilment he gets from work. And he has no compass to deal with that. It is uncharted territory for him. Which is why flashpoints with Megan leave Don (and the viewer) confused, but always end up reinforcing how much she means to him.
But at the end of it all, it is not enough. Whatever satisfaction and sense of worth work gives them leaves them searching for something else. They are anchorless, tumbling through dark waters, guided by faint and distant lighthouses. Whether they see a light or not, we will eagerly follow, if only to get clues for ourselves.