In which I rewatch Mad Men from the beginning and analyze it for your reading pleasure. I’m attempting to do one post per season, but we’ll see how it goes.
“You make the lie,” a Greenwich Village hipster tells Don Draper. “You invent want.” In the post-war heyday of consumer culture, an ad man’s job is to tell people what they want. Yet the men and women of Mad Men are constantly struggling to understand what they themselves want or need. This central theme can be found in every episode of the first season, sometimes very explicitly stated, but always there under the surface.
“Ladies Room,” the second episode, finds Don asking, “What do women want?” He poses the question in a creative meeting about spray deodorant, but the idea clearly derives from trouble at home. His wife Betty is suffering from unexplained nerves and might need to see a psychiatrist. Apart from his disdain for psychiatry, Don can’t understand why Betty could be unhappy when she has “all of this.” All of this is the picturesque suburban home and two children to occupy her days. He later tells her, “It’s my job to give you what you want.” Of course, for Don this means the material proof of success and respectability, which his own childhood utterly lacked.
Undefined want is not limited to the show’s female characters. “New Amsterdam,” episode four, feels like it’s asking, “What do men want?” Or perhaps more broadly, “What makes you a man?” The episode follows Pete Campbell’s conflict with his new wife over buying an apartment that they can’t afford on their own. Accustomed to always getting what she wants, Trudy happily turns to her parents for money. Pete, in typical Pete fashion, is feeling emasculated at every turn. With most of his achievements coming on the back of his family connections, Pete craves nothing more than respect and control. Don likes to undermine these efforts at work, while Trudy does so at home. All he has are small rebellions like trading in a duplicate wedding present for an air rifle.
Some characters’ desires are easier to define than others. As the central enigma of the show, Don’s are arguably given the most attention and complexity. For a character like Betty, I would venture to say that she wants the substance of her life to match the facade. The culture of Mad Men is all about presenting the most attractive image to the world, while the show delights in revealing the unflattering truth behind it. Betty wants her picture perfect life to actually be perfect, with the devoted husband and well-behaved children. In her bizarre interactions with Glenn Bishop, he says she’s beautiful and compares her to a princess. Betty wants Don to put her on that same pedestal, as he may have done at the beginning of their relationship before the mundanities of life crept in.
Betty’s world is shaken whenever she sees the truth behind someone else’s facade. The most potent example is divorced Helen Bishop, whose presence in the neighborhood is a specter to Betty, the embodiment of her worst nightmare. Mad Men is obsessed with doubling characters like this. At turns the characters emulate or recoil from each other, but always provide juxtaposition. Don and Pete are my favorite example. Pete wants to be like Don from the first episode, but he lacks the natural charisma. Besides which, Don is (quite literally) a self-made man, giving him no patience for the old money that has smoothed Pete’s path in life. However, Don doesn’t always have the upper hand, particularly when he can’t fire Pete due to the social connections he brings to the agency.
The season finale contains Don’s famous pitch to Kodak for their new projector wheel. Using photos of his own family in the presentation, Don talks about nostalgia as “a twinge in your heart” and “the pain from an old wound.” He says the projector can bring them back “to a place where we know we are loved.” During his affair with Rachel, Don wants to believe that she knows everything about him, but she won’t consent to be with him in the all-consuming way that he craves. His family doesn’t know the whole truth about him, but they have shown a willingness to love him blindly. Don wants to return to the facade and perhaps make it real. Instead he returns home to an empty house, his family already gone away for Thanksgiving, leaving him to face the reality that he is alone.