Some years ago, former President Bill Clinton made a keen observation about the changes that swept American society during the 1960s. “If you think the ’60s were generally good, chances are you are a liberal,” he told historian Steven Gillon. “If you think the ’60s were bad, chances are you’re a conservative.”
That was true during Clinton’s presidency, and it remains true today. For better or worse, the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s continues to function as a Rorschach test of one’s ideology. Consequently, movies and TV shows set during that polarizing decade tend to be at least implicitly political.
The critically acclaimed AMC show Mad Men is no exception. As we mark the tenth anniversary of its premiere—the series debuted on July 19, 2007, and aired its finale on May 17, 2015—it’s worth reflecting on what the advertising agency drama says about the sixties revolution.
During its earliest episodes, which take place in 1960, Mad Men offers a standard liberal critique of Eisenhower-era social attitudes. It portrays the fictional New York advertising firm of Sterling Cooper as a veritable swamp of misogyny, sexual harassment, and casual bigotry. It also portrays the upper-middle-class suburbs of that period as Potemkin villages whose veneer of happiness, decency, and tranquility conceals a world of repression, neglect, and hollowness.
The show’s protagonist, a handsome yet mysterious advertising wunderkind who goes by the name “Donald Draper,” has a gorgeous wife and two children in Westchester County, but he also makes time to cavort with an artsy mistress in Greenwich Village. In a touch of heavy-handed symbolism, the Drapers live in Ossining, which is home to the infamous Sing Sing maximum-security prison.
When Don Draper’s wife, Betty, visits a therapist to deal with her anxiety, the therapist secretly tells Don what he and Betty have discussed. When one of the Sterling Cooper bosses—Roger Sterling—visits the Draper home for dinner, he makes a pass at Betty, which reflects his unearned sense of entitlement and general piggishness toward women.
Meanwhile, a Sterling Cooper account manager named Pete Campbell, who comes from the old Manhattan aristocracy, belittles a new secretary named Peggy Olson, who comes from working-class Brooklyn. A drunken Pete later turns up at Peggy’s apartment for an impromptu one-night stand—during which he impregnates her—and he subsequently has another romp with her on his office couch.
Writing in Commentary after Season Two of the show, journalist Sam Schulman argued that Mad Men encouraged its viewers to feel morally superior to the men and women of Don Draper’s America. “Above all, Mad Men teaches us, the triumph of feminism has raised all of us to a higher plane,” Schulman wrote. “It has liberated the modern-day counterparts of Mad Men’s secretaries and housewives from their thralldom to male sexuality, and it has freed men from their otiose masculinity and combativeness.”
But that’s not the whole story. While Mad Men suggests that the America of the 1950s really did need to change in some pretty significant ways, it also suggests that the changes wrought during the 1960s ultimately went too far.
Indeed, Mad Men revealed the dark side of the liberationist, hedonistic ethos that came to define the sixties in the popular imagination.
Don Draper indirectly captures this ethos in the series premiere, when pitching a new ad concept to the Lucky Strike tobacco company. “Advertising,” he says, “is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.”
Later, in the same episode, he tells a prospective client: “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”
Unfortunately for Don, his lies, deceptions, and philandering eventually catch up with him. His wife kicks him out of the house after learning of his infidelity, and she divorces him after discovering that he stole the identity of a fellow soldier—the real Donald Draper—who died in the Korean War. (Don’s true name is Dick Whitman.)
Don ultimately ruins two marriages, as does Roger Sterling. Both men leave a trail of human debris in their wake, including scarred and damaged children. At one point in Season Six, for example, Don’s teenage daughter accidentally catches him bedding his neighbor’s wife.
“I broke all my vows,” Don weeps in the series finale. “I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”
As for Pete Campbell, he, too, attempts to shake off traditional bourgeois restraints in pursuit of cheap thrills and instant gratification, despite being married to a rich, beautiful woman with whom he has a little girl. This leads to a revealing exchange with Don in an episode midway through Season Five.
Pete, Don, and Roger take a potential client to a high-end Manhattan brothel. Yet Don is still in the honeymoon phase of his second marriage, and for once he chooses to exercise some self-control. While Pete and Roger each get a room with a prostitute, Don sits at the bar waiting for them. Later, as Pete rides home with Don in a cab, he can feel his colleague’s disapproval.
“I suppose there are no stern looks for Roger,” Pete grumbles.
“Roger is miserable,” Don replies. “I didn’t think you were.”
Pete scoffs. “Wait till your honeymoon is over,” he says.
“Look,” says Don, “I’m just trying to tell you, because I am who I am and I’ve been where I’ve been, that you don’t get another chance at what you have.”
When Pete’s infidelity becomes too flagrant and embarrassing to ignore, his wife, Trudy, sends him packing. She tells Pete that their separation will give him what he seemingly wants: complete emancipation from the shackles of marriage and suburbia.
“You’re free,” says Trudy. “You’re free of everything.”
“It’s not the way I wanted it,” Pete responds.
“And now you know that,” says Trudy.
Pete eventually convinces Trudy to take him back and move their family to “wholesome” Wichita, Kansas, where he has landed a new job with Learjet. “I want to start over, and I know I can,” he says. “I’m not so dumb anymore.”
The Campbell family enjoys an unambiguously happy ending. So does Peggy Olson, the Sterling Cooper secretary who rises to become a member of the creative team. Yet it’s important to note that Peggy does not achieve her happy ending because of sexual liberation or workplace feminism. She does it the old-fashioned, romantic way—by falling in love with her closest male friend in the office. “There’s more to life than work,” the friend tells her, shortly before they declare their love for each other.
Peggy’s single greatest ad pitch comes in a meeting with Burger Chef, the fast-food chain that was later sold to Hardee’s. Speaking the day after the July 1969 moon landing, she emphasizes that Americans of all stripes had been hungry for some kind of “connection” amid the moral and political chaos of the moment. The moon landing enabled such a connection, Peggy argues, and Burger Chef can too. “There may be chaos at home,” she says, “but there’s family supper at Burger Chef.”
It’s a wonderful scene. And it reminds us that, as the 1960s drew to a close, untold millions of Americans were yearning for a restoration of social stability and bourgeois values. For all of its seeming glorification of hedonism, Mad Men ultimately helped us understand why they felt that way.