Thursday, January 02, 2014
Rulebook Casefile: How “Mad Men” Creates Its Own Sense of Right and Wrong
As with most post-Civil-War stories, the hero of “Hell on Wheels” is a confederate veteran (because that’s “romantic”), and yet he quickly gets a co-equal black sidekick to prove that he’s not one of those confederates. At least on “Copper”, they give us a Union-vet hero for once, but otherwise it’s typical. Once again, he constantly defers to his black best friend, a scientific genius who has single-handedly invented all of the forensic advances that will appear in the next fifty years.
Basically, the heroes of both of those shows say to their fellow white men, week after week, “Hi, I’m from 2013, and I’ve come back to set you people straight.” That’s what makes them the heroes.
Historian professors like to warn their students against “the myth of progress”: This refers to the belief that everybody in the past was trying to reach the pinnacle that is us, so every time they became more like us they were moving “forward”, and every time they became less like us they were going “backwards”.
On “Copper” and “Hell on Wheels”, bad is defined as “how they did things then” and good as “how we do things now.” Both shows shy away from the possibility that the past might have an ironic relationship to the present.
The “Mad Men” pilot slyly dangles this possibility in its opening scene. In the first scene, our hero initiates a friendly chat with a black busboy, only to have the busboy’s white boss come up and grumble, “Is he bothering you? He can be a little chatty!” Sure enough, Don gets his back up and barks, “No, we’re actually just having a conversation, is that okay?”, and when the boss slinks away, Don says to the busboy, “Well you obviously need to relax after working here all night.”
“Okay, great,” the audience thinks, “this guy is going to be just like us!” But before the scene is over, we realize that this isn’t the case. Don quizzes the man about what might get him to change cigarette brands, then, at the end of the conversation, the busboy says, “Reader’s Digest says it’ll kill you.” Don ruefully chuckles, “Yeah, I heard about that.” But then the busboy gives a tiny eye roll and says something that’s music to Don’s ears: “Ladies love their magazines.” Don may have ten times more power than the black man, but at least they share a chuckle about how unimportant the views of women are.
We quickly realize that Don is nothing like we want him to be. Yes, because of his dirt-poor background, he has some respect for black suffering, but he couldn’t imagine himself having any black friends. Don’s an upper-middle-class white man in 1960, with all (or at least most) of the reflexive bigotries that that entails.
The tease of the show is that we keep rooting for Don to finally wise up to the flaws of his era and just start thinking like us already, but creator Matthew Weiner is always happy to yank that football away.
This led up to a delightfully ironic moment at the end of the first season, when Don, after taking no offense at several horrific things, finally arrives at the one injustice he can’t accept…when Joe Kennedy steals the 1960 election from Richard Nixon. Only now does Don get fed up with the fact that the system is unfairly rigged against the little guy!
“But… but…”, the audience sputters, “That’s one historical injustice that we’re totally okay with! That one was for the best! That’s one little guy who deserved to have his rights taken away!”
“Mad Men” actively strips us of our modern morality and sends us spinning head-over-heels into the past, unable to find secure footing. We’re in Don’s world now, and we’re never sure where we stand in relation to him. The better we come to understand his skewed morality, the more we come to doubt our own certainties. The show is steeped in irony, which is why it’s so meaningful.