May 15, 2015

"Mad Men" and the Loneliness of Success in Manhattan, NY


The AMC series Mad Men is the tale of one man and the two cities he inhabits. For Don Draper, he has made a career working for Sterling Cooper where he pitches ads all day long. He is a professional with a moral code. Where some ogle secretaries and embrace debauchery, Draper is a refined presence. He is masculine with the prose of a poet. He is the golden boy of the agency, envied by everyone. His work is just the beginning of how the show depicts Manhattan, NY. The series is named for the Madison Avenue complex where Sterling Cooper is located. While the story of Draper unfolds to include a laborious back story full of identity theft and whorehouses, the series is dishonest whenever we see the New York skyline. While portions of the first episode "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" were filmed around the east coast state, the rest is predominantly shot on sound stages at Los Angeles Center Studios in California. For a show that has been prided on being too accurate, this feels like a bigger deceit than Draper's back story. Unlike every other lie that is told, the show never fesses up to it.

Over the course of seven seasons, the series has become a wonderful mixture of characters as they discuss major events including the Cuban Missile Crisis, Beatlemania and the assassination of political figures like John F. Kennedy. It was a time when women were objectified, homosexuals were pariahs, and things were transitioning from the conservative 50's to the late 60's youth movements. The only issue is that our protagonist falls heavily into the former camp.
Sterling Cooper is behind the times even in the first episode set in 1960. Dressed in business suits, the employees are rarely seen out of their uniforms or without a drink/cigarette in their hand. Their job is to appeal to the masses and be on the cutting edge of trends. Yet by their office politics, they don't know a thing. They are able to cooperate, but are dishonest and paranoid of each other. They fear losing clients on a daily basis. There's very little suggestion that any of the products they advertise are actually fun to them. It is more about making the company money. At least they look good while doing it.
The dated nature comes from the names on the company's door. Roger Sterling is an older version of Draper down to their shared alcoholism and womanizing that tears his personal life apart. There's also Bertram Cooper, who believes in capitalism and lives by the work of Ayn Rand. He is eccentric and collects paintings while serving mostly as a figurehead. They represent an inability to appeal to younger audiences largely because their youth is many decades removed.
This is where Draper fits in. After lying his way into the company, he becomes one of the most successful copywriters in the company's history. He is reserved and doesn't participate in anything fun with his cohorts. He has the charisma of the quiet yet powerful Gregory Peck. He is secretive at work, never letting anyone know his complex past. He is about business to the extent that it ruins his home life with wife Betty and children Sally and Bobby. The first season ends with him alone in his house after giving the presentation of his career for Kodak. Even in this moment of triumph, he has an unsuccessful home life to torment him.


This is because Sterling Cooper isn't his outlet for happiness. The show focuses on how he works his magic. He sees New York as pretty much one large Times Square. In the opening credits, an unknown man is seen falling past a building while iconic advertisements spin around him in a loving ode to the poster for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. It dissolves into a man sitting coolly in his office. He can never be happy because every moment feels predicated on him landing a client. He has ditched his old persona years ago in favor of being the image of success. It has cost him a lot, especially as New York begins to feel isolating thanks to his web of lies that got him to where he is.
With the introduction of youth movements, Draper has the impossible task of predicting the future. Most of the scenes involving his memorable interactions with young people don't actually take place within the city. Some take place during long drives around the northeast states. In some cases it is embodied in Los Angeles: the carefree and progressive alternative to the Big Apple. Even as the fashion is updated, it still is business casual with the familiar grey and blacks being replaced with bright primary colors. Everyone has moved on except Draper, who sticks to his old familiar colors. Along with several company mergers and the growing competition between the old and new employees, Sterling Cooper has evolved with the times visually. Over the course of the series, they learn to accept female employees with power and the benefits of appealing to racially diverse audiences. In some cases, it feels like the only reason some clients were accepted was for the money.
In New York, the consistent theme has been about creating a successful image. Draper wallows in his false projection. There's a failed campaign featuring a parody of Bye Bye Birdie with a copycat advertisement featuring the popular title song sung by an Ann-Margaret lookalike. It doesn't feel right despite impeccable similarities. This is because instead of being on the streets, they are in their offices overlooking the other skyscrapers and imagining what will make strangers happy. This is also where Draper spends countless nights to escape his personal problems. Even as he wins the company coveted awards like the Clio, he ends up suffering a long period of alcoholism and infidelities. He later finds happiness in his new wife Meghan, but it doesn't last due to his inability to relate to the young and progressive woman.
There's something about New York that haunts Draper. He contemplates his importance and overcompensates as his life spirals out of control. His former admirers in the company end up suspending him for questionable behavior. The free time doesn't help much. It could just be that all of those disingenuous happy faces that stare at him from billboards are ties to an unpleasant past and the career that he chose to distract himself from. He knows that the people are money-grubbing competitors who may be more honest, but are likely just as desperate for acceptance.
He is the man's man, but at a cost. New York is a state that runs on commerce. As Draper sabotages his reputation by writing open letters denouncing their biggest client Lucky Strike and ruining a pitch meeting for Hershey, he has become stuck in the past. The wardrobes have changed and the offices have changed from the original drab look to something shinier. Much like the series' major locations, it is a compensation for what's not there. Draper has a persona that he seems bored by but desperate to fool everyone with. It is a conflict that seems strange for a man who in "Waldorf Stories" had the biggest grin when Sterling hired him as a copywriter.
Manhattan is a fascinating city for the show largely because it is the land of competition. It is a place with history and the ability to grow so long as there's capitalism involved. It will never truly be progressive so long as the advertisements pander to quick dollars. The staff at Sterling Cooper is out of touch with the common man too much to know this. As Draper begins a new life in California, he quickly discovers that he can start anew, even if he will never truly be able to forget his conflicting past. It may have not all started in New York, but it bumped into him on the street on his way to lunch at yet another New York location that is actually in Los Angeles such as Casey's Irish Pub or Cicada Restaurant. This creates the perfect disconnect of a man trying to sell success while not being entirely honest with who he is. He can only buy into the illusion of financial happiness for so long.


COMING TOMORROW: Mad Men's Quest for Eternal Youth in Los Angeles, CA

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