Before Mad Men solidifies, at the close of its fifth season, as the signature of the '60s, a cultural marker of the era (see here, here, and here), a dissent:
Not all of us wanted the "glam" life of Madison Avenue; in fact, I'd guess very few did. We wanted instead a purposeful life -- to "change the world" -- and we looked hard to find it.
America in the aftermath of victory in World War II grew increasingly prosperous, phenomenally so by world standards, enabling a middle class to come into its own -- and to buy. Gone were the deprivations of the Great Depression; now came plenty, and Madison Avenue was there to promote it. If you came of age in the '50s and '60s and were puzzling which path among a multitude of new possibilities to take for your future, Madison Avenue was part of the landscape to be considered, promising money and glamour. For some of us, though, it was suspect; it represented a sell-out to consumerism. We were after something...higher.
As it turns out, at least as portrayed on Mad Men, while the money is good on this Madison Avenue, the glamour is actually tinsel-thin. And consider the characters' miserable lives: unhappy and self-loathing, spectacularly so, leading to serial adultery, alcoholism, suicide. The ache coursing throughout is palpable. You have only to watch a few episodes to understand why these men (and a few women) are characterized as "mad." Were the charmingly acerbic Roger Sterling to wise up, he'd say, "You didn't miss much, really."
Meanwhile, hardly noticed by the staff at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the Vietnam War was embroiling the country in serious civic unrest, rupturing families and tearing at the social fabric. And the civil rights movement literally laps at the agency's front door: This season kicked off with a protest taking place in front of the building housing SCDP; can portents be any clearer? But little of History's powerful forces seems to impinge.
For myself, I found purpose in that civil rights protest, down in the streets. It took some questing, though: Stunned in high school by images of Bull Connor's dogs and fire hoses mowing down protesting black people in Birmingham -- I knew what I saw was evil and that it had to be combatted -- it took me another decade and a personal crisis (divorce) to figure out how I could participate in the cause. A deeply fulfilling career followed, which, while not glamorous, had heart-in-throat excitement. And while often exhausting, it got me up every day ready to carry the banner. Purpose exhilarates.
Many other friends engaged in the same questing for purpose, rejecting Madison Avenue commercialism, choosing paths that led to a variety of worthy vocations -- international aid and development, the Foreign Service, the civil service (becoming a "bureaucrat"), law and politics, medicine, scientific research, social work, news reporting and producing, book writing, documentary filmmaking, teaching (from kindergarten to college level). There's even a philosopher among their number. Some found their purpose in Vietnam, working when they returned home to prevent their sons from repeating their experience of fighting a senseless war.
To be sure, all these grand plans didn't always play out as expected -- to "change the world" turns out to be a taller order than can always be delivered. But almost always the quester kept questing for purpose, in a more personal, achievable form.
I wonder when that need for purpose will pulse -- or to use a more commercial idiom, when the penny will drop -- for one of the Mad Men. It's the dog not barking -- loudly -- in this glittering series. I had hopes for partner Lane Pryce, the proper Brit, until he began embezzling, a self-made trap which had to end in suicide. I also had hopes for Peggy Olson, slaving into the evenings writing copy to sell -- what: baked beans? But no; this season ends with her jumping to another agency, thrilled to be sent to Richmond, Va., "on a plane" (still hungry for glamour), to scout the new slim cigarette for women -- the women who are everywhere liberating themselves.
And how much longer can Don Draper, a smart man, buy his own sales pitch about the satisfactions of identifying and quenching America's myriad desires? It's the emptiest, most ephemeral of quests. Perhaps his black secretary Dawn, a new (and obligatory) hire, will provide the spark. On the other hand, the rewards of his Madison Avenue career may continue to be so lucrative that he solves the purpose problem later in life with philanthropy, "giving back."
But I'm hoping for this turn during the lifetime of this compulsively watchable, well-written and acted series. So, Mad Men: Somebody, anybody, instead of churning more pathology, have your epiphany about needing a higher purpose.
I can already hear the reaction from the office snark, Pete Campbell: "Oh, something 'higher,' huh?"
Game on -- at far higher, metaphysical stakes.
For a brief history of black Americans on Madison Avenue, see the two-part essay by Tanner Colby in "Slate," here and here.
Carla Seaquist was Equal Opportunity Officer for the City of San Diego 1977-80 and member of the Governor's Task Force on Civil Rights; earlier she helped organize the women's caucus of the Brookings Institution. She is author of "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of "Two Plays of Life and Death" (forthcoming) and is working on a play titled "Prodigal."