Fifty Years after the Fair: Mad Men Goes to the Dark

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Fifty Years after the Fair

Mad Men Goes to the Dark

By James B. South

“Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish

dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried

to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work.”

The latest Mad Men episode, “The Forecast,” is especially rich, and trying to find a way to focus my thoughts on it has been vexing. In what follows, I leave out a couple of important threads, both for space and because I assume they’ll continue into the next episode. Because of the episode’s richness, its array of character updates, some expected, some not, if I were writing this on another day, it might well discuss other topics. In the end, I decided to limit my remarks to the topic of the future, or more specifically, the way the show makes us think about the future. One of the hallmarks of Mad Men has always been that it’s a show set in the past that is about our present. But our present is the characters’ future, and I want to explore how the characters are facing a future that we in some part know but about which they are oblivious. I also want to ask the obvious follow-up question: what does all this say about our future?

The epigraph to this post comes from the opening paragraph of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, his 1966 book on the state of the future we face, the mysteriousness of our plans, potential conspiracies and whether they make sense or, more precisely, whether we can make sense of them in relation to a world that has changed drastically. That Matthew Weiner is influenced by this book is suggested by the fact that in an earlier season, we saw Pete Campbell, of all people, reading the novel while on the train commuting from his suburban home. The book is, ultimately, about the futility of trying to make meaningful sense of a direction in history, of seeing the future.

The main character of the The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas, is sent on a kind of traditional detective story hunt, but instead of finding answers, she finds more and more mysteries until it’s unclear there are any answers. Many passages in the book could be used to frame my thoughts about this episode, but I’ll choose one that I find significant:

“… and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.”

Two facets of this passage make it important for thinking about “The Forecast.” First, in previous posts, I have noted how important plastic has become for the show as it looks to its present. And we saw just a hint of “The Graduate” again, but this time as failure. The hapless Glenn, still infatuated with Betty, has dropped out of school, joined the army, and fails in his seduction of the previously seductive Betty. We know none of this is the future he envisaged or that Betty clearly fantasized. Indeed, being reminded of the Betty and Glenn dynamic and its always unrealized future (Betty was never going to seduce fully and Glenn was never going to have sex with Betty) is a good way into the episode as a whole.

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Second, I love the metaphor of the mechanization of life and the way the meaning of this new form of life hovers just outside our understanding, as if it is an unrealized future. The crucial phrase is “intent to communicate.” But how we can and can’t communicate the new was the theme of “New Business.” Now, though, the question becomes how we can predict the future—make a forecast—if we don’t understand the present or past. The metaphorical linking of the transistor radio to the way we live, at least as viewed at a certain distance, reminds me of the distance mediated by television and our viewing of it. We are at a “high angle” looking at 1970 from the perspective of characters who don’t know what the 1970s or beyond will bring. The haunting phrase though, which I think hovers over the action of “The Forecast” is “But this did not work.”

As we arrive at the final episodes of Mad Men, “The Forecast,” provides us a meditation on the notion of the future, and it’s clear that none of the characters know how to speak or think about the future, in part because past predictions about the future did not work. The episode is framed by Roger’s need to provide a vision of the firm’s future, and he delegates to Don writing 2500 hundred words for him to read. But Don seems lost as he tries to work on the project. He asks people repeatedly what they think the future holds, we see him reading magazines from 1970 about what the future is going to be like, and he even tries to give advice about the future, yet it all puzzles him, eludes his grasp, and his advice about the future is as banal as Betty’s assurances to Glenn that all will be OK as he heads off to Vietnam.

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In a pivotal scene of “Forecast,” Don Draper takes his daughter Sally and some friends out to dinner before the girls go on a “teen tour”—twelve states in twelve days. Sally expresses exasperation with the question of what she’s going to do with her life after the other girls have given their answers: a U.S. Senator, a translator, and another who just wants to live in New York. These are pretty specific goals and already presage a society in which expectations about the future weigh heavily on the young, as if the promise of the liberation of the 1960s is evaporating before our eyes in mist made of plastic and transistors. Don tells Sally: “If you’re lucky enough to think of it, you should write it down–because when you’re older you’re going to forget.” Given Don’s difficulty in writing the remarks on the future, the viewer can’t help but wonder if Don has forgotten his future, if he ever knew what it was. Even more provocative is the word “lucky” in this context. In our desire to know what we want to do and be, we hope for more than luck, but in the end, luck is what we have; the kind of luck Don had in finding the dead Don Draper’s dog tags and being able to assume a new identity.

Later at the bus station, he tells Sally, “You’re a very beautiful girl. It’s up to you to be more than that.” How is it up to her? How could it be up to her? The mechanization of society is working against her, the plasticized future unknowable and just outside the horizon of understanding. Don’s contradicted himself. Is it luck or effort that makes us who we become and shapes what we do? The parallel between Sally and Don is striking—he’s a very handsome man, but what more has he become? And how? Earlier in the episode, Don is lying on a couch more or less free associating into a dictation machine, and, after starting with the opening words of the Gettysburg Address, continues, “It’s supposed to get better.” But why do we think the future is supposed to get better? And does Don think that? If he did think that, why does he keep asking others about the future? As for Sally, I want to turn again to the world she’s about to enter. In an outrageously polemical column written for the New York Times Book Review entitled “On the Women’s Movement,” Didion wrote:

“It is the right of the oppressed to organize around their oppression as they see and define it,” the movement theorists insist doggedly in an effort to solve the question of these women, to convince themselves that what is going on is still a political process; but the handwriting is already on the wall. These are converts who want not a revolution but “romance,” who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists did, and they also tell us, I suspect, that the women’s movement is no longer a cause but a symptom.

The scare quotes around “romance” show up Don Draper’s hapless advice to Sally. As Didion notes, “Eternal love, romance, fun. The Big Apple. These are relatively rare expectations in the arrangements of consenting adults, although not in those of children….” Society has already made, by 1972, Don’s words hollow and meaningless, a pro forma cheer that will do Sally no good. She may have good looks, but what about her luck? What is going to be possible for her as she heads off to college in the early 70s?

As Don looks for advice about the future, he’s even so desperate for help, that he asks his secretary, Meredith, about the future. She responds, “Did you go to the World’s Fair? That’s what I think it’s going to look like.” Don asks, “What was your favorite part?” At this point, the conversation gets interrupted, as if asking about what one most wants for the future is going to be constantly interrupted by others, by life events, by social circumstances.

The World’s Fair reference is especially interesting, since it took place in 1964-65 in New York. Earlier in the episode, we see Don ask Meredith for the files on the creation of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Pryce in December 1963. They had formed that company to avoid being assimilated to McCann Erickson and retain their independence. Yet now it is 1970 and Don is working under the McCann Erickson umbrella. Still, 1963 seemed full of promise for Don and company, and his desire to recapture the hope for a future makes a weird sort of sense. The World’s Fair, too, offered promise with it’s Unisphere and its theme of “Peace through Understanding.” Here we are, fifty years later and we know that was a false hope and any unity to our sphere is provided by multi-national corporations and the interconnectedness made possible by the internet; peace is nowhere to be seen.

I’m reminded of a song by Aimee Mann, “Fifty Years After the Fair,” which is about the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York, with its futuristic buildings and promises of technological hope. America was coming out of the depression and there was a spirit of hope, exemplified by the twin structures of the trylon, which contained the world’s tallest escalator, and the perisphere, which included inside it a diorama called “democracity.” The theme of the fair was “The World of Tomorrow.” Mann’s song, reminds us, though, of the reality:

Fifty years after the fair

The picture I have is so clear

Underneath the clouds in the air

Rose the tyrlon and the perisphere.

And that for me was the finest of scenes

That perfect world across the river in queens.

Fifty years after the fair

I drink from a different cup

But it does no good to compare

’cause nothing ever measures up.

I guess just for a second we thought

That all good things would rise to the top.

And later, hammering the point home:

It hurts to even think of those days.

The damage we do

By the hopes that we raise.

As we find ourselves fifty years after the 1963-64 fair, these lines still resonate, and we think about the hollow promise of the slogan “Peace through Understanding,” the aspirations of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the incipient gay rights movement. These raised hopes took shape in ways we couldn’t imagine.

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At one point, Peggy, who is upset she hasn’t had a performance review, comes to Don for one. Think about the notion of a “performance review.” It’s retrospective in its evaluation of the past year’s work. Don turns the question around. He’s not concerned about Peggy’s past performance. He’s interested in getting an answer to his question about the future. He asks Peggy: What do you see for the future?” After stumbling through some lame answers (create a great slogan), she finally admits that she wants to “create something of lasting value.” Don looks at her quizzically and says, “In advertising?” Peggy shoots back: “This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life.” Don finishes the conversation brutally: “So you think those things are unrelated?” This is a complicated interchange. Don knows that advertising is not about creating things of lasting value, but Peggy can’t see beyond the confines of her job. Still, she reveals something of great importance to her. She reacts angrily to Don’s response. It’s left to us to decide who is right in this exchange. Is the meaning of life reflected in one’s job? Is it reflected in the dream to create something of lasting value? Is there meaning at all, or is being constantly interrupted, or corrupted, by others—or oneself?

Thinking about the World’s Fair examples is illuminating here. They are an example of advertising par excellence. They promise us a better future—Tomorrowland—but we know from our vantage point now that the future they promise is a lie. Is Don trying to tell Peggy she needs to get out of advertising to create something of lasting value? Does that mean he doesn’t see creating something of lasting value as part of the meaning of life? Given this season’s emphasis on transience, including Burt Cooper’s death, the dissolution of Sterling, Cooper, & Partners, Ken Cosgrove’s quitting, Peggy’s tenants moving etc., my bet is on the latter. Even looking back on Burt Cooper’s death, I can’t help but think that his last word, “bravo” aimed at Neil Armstrong, is a foretaste that our future, and what’s more futuristic than landing on the moon can kill us; or being stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube.

Susan Sontag, who has been a touchstone for my approach to Mad Men’s closing episodes, noted in her late 1960s essay, “‘Thinking Against Oneself’: Reflections on Cioran,” that ‘’Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.’’ And she adds, “The becoming of man is the history of the exhaustion of his possibilities.’’ At the end of the “The Forecast,” we see Don return to his now empty upper east side penthouse apartment, only to find out that his real estate agent has successfully sold it. We see him looking dazed and confused as he stands outside the door. His is a world now of possibilities, with no wife and no home to tie him down. Can he do anything with those possibilities? Has the damage been done? Is it supposed to get better? But there is work and the suggestion that in work he finds his meaning to live. Is that enough?

The hint, again, is in the song played over the closing credits. It’s the Roberta Flack version of the song, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the 1957 folk song that Flack made into a beautiful ballad in 1969 (and that later became a hit in 1972). In short, this is a song that spans the era of Mad Men. And, as with last week’s closing credits song, it breaks off before finishing a line, and the break point is astonishing. After the closing shot of Don standing outside what is no longer his apartment, the credits role, and we here the first verse of the song:

The first time, ever I saw your face

I thought the sun rose in your eyes

And the moon and the stars

Were the gifts you gave

To the dark, and the endless skies.

But we don’t get the full last line; the credits end on the word “dark.” Does this mean there are no endless skies for Don? For us?

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