Taking Advertising Seriously: On the Last Shot of MAD MEN

1. I hope that this is not a hot take. If any subject deserves cool, thoughtful consideration, it’s Matthew Weiner’s study of 1960s haute-bourgeois New Yorkers, Mad Men—a show far more cerebral than the cable dramas (Breaking BadThe Wire) to which it is often compared, if only for lack of competition.

2. One can read the final shot of last night’s final episode any number of ways. The most obvious is that Don, having abandoned his usual personality and habits so thoroughly as to find himself at an Esalen retreat, hugging strangers and meditating, finds himself, on the far side of his own self, suddenly inspired to write ad copy again: the classic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. (Some arguments that we are not meant to infer said authorship are ably examined here. Still, I think Aisha Harris’s argument that he did is pretty definitive.) When we adopt this reading, the next step in the argument, at least in the recaps I’ve seen, is some version of: Oh, Matthew Weiner, you twisted genius. You’ve shown us once again how the counterculture is always coopted, betrayed, and twisted by capitalism. Don’s beatific smile, his seeming escape from the cycle of ambition and self-hatred that drove him through seven seasons, will now be turned into more grist for capitalism’s dark, satanic mill. Mad Men has always examined the ways that bohemia, marginality, or wildness intersect with The System, and this finale just puts the exclamation point on that. “Flower Power protest, experimentation and consciousness-raising didn’t amount to much: In the end, all it wrought was a new way to sell products.” Or, put another way, “Yes, everything, even our personal moments of clarity, can be co-opted by industry and turned for profit.”

3. I think this reading gets the details right but the big picture wrong.

4. One of the things Mad Men has always done well is that it’s a great workplace show. It gets us interested in the process by which Peggy, Don, and the others develop a campaign: a subject in which I, for one, would have thought I had no interest whatsoever. The main way in which it does this is to apply many of the tropes of the tortured, suffering artist of kunstlerroman and literary biography to a field not generally considered one of the fine arts. To put it simply, this is a show about suits who often found themselves creatively blocked by suits. Again and again, we saw Don or Peggy’s brilliant pitches misunderstood by executives who lack vision. Or we saw Don or Peggy so ravaged by a creative block that we could have been watching a Beethoven biopic. In fact, Don’s most recent West Coast sojourn was exactly such a block: again and again since the first season we’ve seen him attempt, or propose (to poor Rachel Mencken, among others), or consider, a similar self-abandonment, and he always came back with a great new pitch, something better than his best previous work. (Like the credits: He always looks like he’s falling, and he always lands safe.) This show made us interested in ad copywriting, in other words, by proposing that good advertisers go through the same sort of drama in executing their work that the “fine artists,” generally understood to be operating somehow outside capitalism, are known to go through (the benders, the shouting, the rooms littered with false starts, etc.).

5. You could take this as Matthew Weiner clowning on the fine arts in the same way that Don’s final plot arc is supposed to be clowning the counterculture: You think you’re outside it, but capitalism gets you in the end. I think it’s more likely, though, that Weiner is arguing that we should take advertising seriously as an art. This doesn’t mean that I think the show is saying we must embrace advertising or admire it or treat it as the art form de nos jours, but keep in mind that Matthew Weiner himself is a television writer. In other words, he has pursued, with all the intelligence, perseverance, imagination, and sensitivity at his disposal, an art form that, like advertising, literally exists to sell products. (Public TV has always been marginal in America. The day advertisers give up on television is the day we stop having prestige cable dramas.) I don’t want to be reductive: ad money is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the Golden Age of Series TV that we’re living through. Ad money alone doesn’t give us Mad Men any more than DNA in a test tube gives us a person. But it is the foundation. And just as we have learned to take this art seriously, Matthew Weiner has spent seven seasons proposing to us that what Peggy does, what Don does, is at least some kind of art.

6. Further—and I say this as a fully-paid-up mass-culture skeptic—I think he’s right. One of the things you learn, if you watch John Berger’s classic documentary series Ways of Seeing, is that it’s frighteningly easy to make the argument that much classic Western art was, in its time, little more than advertising, or pornography: a thing for rich men to masturbate to, or a thing by which they showed off the sumptuousness of their lifestyles. I think Berger massively overstates this argument, but I also partly take his point. And yet as a result, one of the effects on me of watching Ways of Seeing—an effect that I think Berger never intended—was that I started to notice, and appreciate, the aesthetics of good advertisements, even as I continued to resent their attempts to manipulate me psychologically. If nothing else, a good ad is more honest about what it’s doing than is the entire post-Warhol tradition of gallery art that frames itself as a commentary on advertising. Just as I’d rather read a real comic book than look at a Roy Lichtenstein…

7. Environmentalists go back and forth over the notion of “wilderness.” Is it better to mark certain parts of the world as “wild places,” untouched by humanity, and fight to preserve them as such, or to admit that we’re well into the anthropocene, that humans have always been part of nature, and that we need to think about how to be a better part, rather than trying to keep ourselves aloof from some of it entirely? I tend toward the latter view. We can’t save nature by pretending we’re not in it or that it’s not in us.

8. The way some people talk about capitalism has some of the same pitfalls, in my view, as does the concept of wilderness. Many intellectuals, on all sides of all sorts of culture wars, have described capitalism as if it were an alien imposition on humanity. Max Weber’s thesis is only one of the more famous versions of this argument—it was that narrow-faced race of Calvinists who made us all so hateful of the poor and obsessed with work! They put us in the iron cage! Traditionalist conservatives have their versions of this idea; so did the battier, more essentialist forms of second-wave feminism (which posited that women were too holistic, or pantheist, or goddess-identified, or whatever, to subordinate so much of human life to buying and selling), or the battier, more essentialist forms of cultural nationalism (Europeans are “ice people” and therefore like to reduce everything to transactions; the white man is intrinsically incapable of caring about anything but money; etc.). It’s ultimately, I think, what “Lizard People”-style conspiracy theories are about. Those of us who hate one or more or all aspects of life under capitalism don’t want to think that it could be an expression of anything indigenous to ourselves. It must have come from some group of irreparably bad people over there: WASPs, the rich, somebody. But I think we have to entertain the other option—that capitalism could have happened to anybody; that it’s an expression of some of the things that are in us. (Not all of them, thank God. But some.) We have to entertain that, or else posit some form of biological or spiritual essentialism that, at least, doesn’t correspond to my experience of human beings.

9. This is why I’m increasingly skeptical of any paradigm for thinking about culture in which we try, as Don Draper repeatedly tries, to find some aesthetic or sexual or psychological wild place, declare it off-limits to capitalism, and then, when it’s inevitably “coopted,” debate whether it was “always already” part of “the system” or whether it could have been protected better. If our test for whether something is real, or valid, or important is its uncooptability, we had better give up now. Anything human can be coopted by capitalism because capitalism is, however destructive, just another one of the things humans do.

10. This leads me to the other most-debated moment in the finale: Peggy and Stan hooking up. People have argued that Peggy finding love “undoes her character development” (I have never felt that marrying Ashley undid everything I’d learned up to that point, and we’re later given graphic evidence that Peggy doesn’t betray herself into some kind of seen-not-heard housewifedom, but whatever). But most of all, the critics of this scene were put off by the romantic-comedy dialogue, the meet-cutesiness, the goofy sweetness of it all: Peggy realizing she’s still talking on a dead line and, just as you start to wonder whether Weiner has cynically given Stan a heart attack, he appears in Peggy’s doorway. Their whole story, it turns out, has been a screwball comedy; it unfolds using conventions from the movies in which Hollywood is held to have coopted and corrupted romantic love. But for Weiner, cooptation isn’t the horror-laden process of the Evil Alien Intelligence taking over the Authentic Human Thing. It doesn’t have that finality. Goofy-sweet love affairs don’t stop happening just because Hollywood turns them into cliches. We all know couples whose stories really did unfold in a way that seems eerily like a movie. (I, for example, really did marry the one who got away.) If that weren’t the case, I don’t think those conventions would have half the power they do. Stories that get coopted by capitalism, whether in the form of Hollywood or Madison Avenue, don’t therefore become lies; they don’t curdle. What capitalism takes, it doesn’t take forever. A screwball comedy may only be a screwball comedy, but Peggy and Stan may really have a good thing here. An ad may be only an ad, but Don Draper still knows himself better than he once did (as his wretched phone call to Peggy shows). That moment of peace on the mountaintop isn’t undone simply because, like any artist, he plows it back into his art the best way he knows how.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s