Is Fake All That’s Real? Mad Men Winds Down


Is Fake All That’s Real?

Mad Men Winds Down

By James B. South


When Rod Carveth and I edited Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing Is as it Seems, we could not have foreseen that the show’s historical time period would extend to 1970. As the final half of its last season begins, though, it’s worth looking at our selected subtitle since I think we may in fact need to come to terms with the fact that everything is as it seems. In the current episode, “Severance” how do things seem? Don and Roger are womanizing. Peggy and Joan are fighting. It could be the first episode again–as Don says, “People don’t change.” We know things have happened: Don’s getting a divorce from Megan; the merger with McAnn Ercikson happened, there are bombings of department stores, and Nixon is on TV announcing a withdrawal of troops from Vietnam while beginning a new offensive against Cambodia and Laos, no doubt using napalm that by 1970 only Dow Chemicals was still making. But while all this is happening, what is being experienced?

In “Waterloo,” the immediately preceding episode, Burt Cooper, the company patriarch had died while watching the Apollo 11 moon landing. Roger regrets that his last words were from an old pop song: “Another cup of coffee, another piece of pie.” These lines, from an Irving Berlin song written during the depression, have a satirical bite, the songwriter intimating that in hard times, all you can do is hope for better times while enjoying pie and coffee. So, it’s no big surprise in “Severance” to find Roger and Don, with a bevy of beautiful, models in a diner. While they may be having a late night breakfast, it’s a clear allusion to the song. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Nor is it a surprise that throughout the episode, especially the beginning and the end, we have the voice of Peggy Lee, asking in her hit of later 1969—as if commenting on the 1960s—“Is That All There Is?” She recounts one experience after another, a house on fire, a visit to the circus, falling in love and losing the person she loved, and after each experience asks, “Is that all there is to a fire”?; “Is that all there is to a circus?”; “Is that all there is to love?” Is that all there is? Shouldn’t these experiences have been vivid? Shouldn’t they have been meaningful? Instead her big question is: “If that’s all there is my friends / then let’s keep dancing / Let’s break out the booze and have a ball / If that’s all there is.”

“Severance,” begins significantly, I think, with a dedication to the late director Mike Nichols, perhaps best known for 1967’s The Graduate. As anyone who has seen that movie knows, one of the most iconic scenes is one in which the recent college graduate, Benjamin, is given advice by an older man:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

The notion that the future is in plastics is an echo of the previous episode’s (“Waterloo”), in which Roger Sterling complains that he doesn’t want to work for “the ad company of the future,” a phrase used by Jim Cutler whose vision of the company revolves around computer power and television advertising. There’s a not so subtle critique of this new way of doing things as Roger outmaneuvers Jim and arranges to have his company merge with McAnn Erickson, a larger advertising firm, but one that will let them work their way, not Jim’s. But is Roger’s plan successful? Maybe not, given all the references to plastics in “Severance,” most notably in the fact that that Ken Cosgrove, who gets fired in the episode, has a wife whose father is retiring from Dow Chemicals, one of the largest producers of plastics. By the end of the episode, Ken is himself working for Dow as its advertising director. The older generation has passed along this futuristic product to a new generation, just as Jim wanted to make the company forward looking. Ken, who had once wanted to be a writer, will be selling plastics—and napalm. There is a self-referential moment here, as if Matthew Weiner, the writer of the episode is suggesting that while we want there to be something besides the fake product that is plastics, there really isn’t. Things may just be what they seem. Fake may be real. Is that all there is?

Moreover, the idea that things are manufactured, like plastic, is inherent in the advertising business, as we see at the beginning as Don and company pose models so that they will appear seductive. We are the ones being seduced here by Matthew Weiner, who implicates us in the enjoyment of manipulation and voyeurism. But equally important is the product that drives the company’s efforts during the episode, the introduction of the hosiery product L’eggs, ubiquitous because sold in supermarkets, not just department stores, and known for the fact that they were packaged in little plastic eggs. It’s the competitor, Topaz, that is the company’s client and their hosiery sales are dropping due to an inferior overproduced, easily available product inside plastic.

Susan Sontag, in her famous essay of 1964, “Against Interpretation,” had warned her readers that while interpretation is the modern way of understanding something, in fact it’s a way for us to avoid an art work, in our case Mad Men. Interpretation, she states, “makes art into an article for use.” The way Don and company use the models is precisely in an artificial way, and Matthew Weiner knows, and makes us see, that we want to do that too. Sontag goes on to warn that “…ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.” The lessons here are important ones. We look for meaning in interpretation, but in doing so lose the art. We try to experience, really experience, our lives, but our deadened sensory experience makes that impossible.

We see the overproduction in the product competitiveness of Topaz and L’eggs. Again, advertising contributes to this excess and the corresponding loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. The loss of sharpness is made apparent in Don’s mistaking a diner waitress for his former lover, Rachel. The waitress, named Diana, seems like ready-made intractable symbol. She goes by the name Di, and our interpretive instinct is to see this as a way of thinking about death. Indeed, Don finds out that Rachel has died after dreaming of her, but I’d argue we shouldn’t allegorize Diana’s name however much we want to. After all, Di also sounds like “dye,” another instance of the fake quality of life made possible by a plastic future. Is Di supposed to remind us of “die” or “dye”? Does it matter?

At the end of “Waterloo,” Don had a vision of the dead Burt Cooper singing “The best things in life are free.” While this seemed an odd message from someone who had made so much money and used Ayn Rand as a guide for life, it gets us back to the way that we are oversaturated in meanings, in excess, in overproduction. These facts dull our senses and we crave meaning even when it’s not there. Don’s quick episode of sex with the waitress Di may have been meaningless; it certainly had a sense of compulsiveness about it, but it was clear that Don didn’t know what to make of it. Freud famously said that the finding of an object is, in fact, a reminding of it. But Freud was a master interpreter, and the show won’t let us have such an easy symbol.

Two final notes about fakery in “Severance.” In the episode, Peggy meets a lawyer and decides, after a bit too much alcohol, that they should go to Paris since she’s never had a vacation. Alas, she can’t find her passport and so her immediate plans are thwarted, though she holds out hope that they will rendezvous again in the future. As she discusses this with a colleague the next morning, the only thing she can think of to say about Paris is that that’s where margarine was invented. And what is margarine, but fake butter? Even more interestingly, the actor who plays the lawyer is known to any TV fan as Devon Gummersall, a character in the excellent 1990s TV show “My So-Called Life.” So, a question to keep in mind as we watch the remaining six episodes: are any of these characters living lives? Is living a life a story we tell ourselves to give it a meaning it doesn’t have? To give it a content so that there is something real in our lives.

Peggy’s life, one in which she’s never had a vacation, can hardly be called a life, if the best things in life are free. But then we all know Don leads a fake life that’s double in more ways than I can enumerate here, but which this episode presses as a life of personal failure and professional success. But Don also knows that there is nothing more to love than what advertisers make of it, as he famously stated: “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget.” And that brings us full circle, back to the way that nylons (and now nylons in plastic) drive the plot of this episode, as Don’s inability to love and Peggy’s never not working remind us that our loss of sharpness in experience may mean that everything is what it seems.

Again, Burt Cooper may or may not be our guide here. In Don’s vision of him singing, “The Best Things in Life are Free,” he talks about the moon, the stars, flowers, robins singing, sunbeams shining. These are things that belong to everybody. The song closes, “And love can come to everyone / so we will always be/ the best things in life are free.” This is a striking counterpart to Don’s view of love and the way he experiences the world. Who’s right? Burt Cooper or Peggy Lee? What is all there is? For this episode, at least, we’ve been warned: “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”

James B. South is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. He is the editor of the journal Philosophy and Theology. He edited Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy (2003) and co-edited James Bond and Philosophy (2006), Buffy Goes Dark (2009), Mad Men and Philosophy (2010) and Philosophy and Terry Pratchett (2014). In addition, he has written essays on movies, comic books, and popular music. He also has published extensively in late medieval and renaissance philosophy, where he focuses on 15th and 16th century Aristotelianism. James wants things he hasn’t seen—where’s that Hilton Hotel on the moon?


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