I want to talk about Mad Men and its Didionesque gaze.
The gaze has always been there, most obviously in the series’ sidelong glances at California, where the warm golden light and desert haze renders everything hyperreal. And critics have, at times, alluded to this, particularly in the bicoastal Season 6. In his Dear Television recap of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ Evan Kindley observed that the party in the Hollywood Hills was “cobbled together from Hollywood parties in Annie Hall, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and a half-dozen Joan Didion essays.” The recap itself was titled ‘Mad Men does Joan Didion’. And of that season’s finale, Slate’s Hanna Rosin wrote, in reference to the characters’ collective California Dreamin’ “it’s Joan Didion I hear in the background, warning about the illusion of the golden dream.”
I want you now to take a moment, blink once or twice, and let your eyes to adjust to the glare. Now look again. Look closely. Can you see it? It’s not just California. And it not just an aesthetic affectation. Didion’s fingerprints are all over Mad Men.
They are there, holding a cigarette, casually pointing us towards the hokey McCann slogan: Truth Well Told. They are smudges on the glass-lined offices of Sterling Cooper and Partners, nudging us to notice the still-gaping hole between everything America in the 1960s was, and all it aspired to be. They are right there on the camera lens, with its poly-optic gaze that is sometimes of-the-moment, sometimes in-the-moment, yet always set apart. A gaze that wants to show us how things are, but cannot help but say this is how things were.
And now think about — and watch again if you have to — ‘The Milk and Honey Route’, the penultimate episode of the final series. This episode takes Don Draper to Alva, Oklahoma, the geographic middle of the country, and strands him there. Here at the dark heart of middle America, he is ripped off by the local mechanic, hustled by a young con man, and phonebook bashed by a local group of veterans, after he’s revealed them his closest held secret (or at least part of it) — that in Korea he accidently killed his C.O. And all while Pete Campbell sets his sights on Wichita, Kansas, convincing Trudy that their second shot at happiness is waiting for them there.
After I watched ‘The Milk and Honey Route’ I turned, as I always do, to the critics I’ve come to rely on almost as much as the series itself. Writers like Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture, and the epistolary teams at Slate and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Dear Television. And I have to confess, that is was only through reading their insights, and seeing what they saw and didn’t see, and what they said and didn’t say, that it dawned on me. As Didion thought of Yeats and ‘The Second Coming’, I could not stop thinking of Didion and ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’. I read recap after recap waiting for someone to mention it. No one did.
The center cannot hold. The center was not holding.
Dear Television’s Phil Maciak and others have been pointing us towards the displacement and “decentering” of Don Draper for some time, both in terms of plot, and in terms of point-of-view. Don is no longer at the centre of the story, and we’re no longer seeing Mad Men, at least not exclusively, through his eyes. In ‘The Milk and Honey Route’ we see Don, for the second episode in a row, living a hobo-like existence a long way from New York, as he drives from town to town in his Cadillac. Is this how it happens? In the middle of America, we see Don Draper finally decentred, finally fall apart? By the end of the episode, he does not even has his car. But he still has his wits and as far as we know, he still has money. I don’t believe that Don Draper is really displaced. He can choose to come back the centre any time he likes. So who or what in Mad Men is being displaced?
In the preface to the Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the collection named for the 1967 essay that applies Didion’s razor-sharp focus to the hippies of Haight Ashbury, she writes that the lines from Yeats’ poem that inspired the title had for several years “reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there”. She writes also of being forced to come to terms with disorder, “the proof that things fall apart” in the wake of her Haight experience, and writing about it. Reading this preface, I am reminded that when I watched ‘The Milk and Honey Route’ and thought of the centre not holding, it was not that particular essay that first came to mind. It was ‘The White Album’, the one that frames a disparate collection of observations and almost-stories with Didion’s mental dis-ease, from a period that “began around 1966 and continued to 1971”. An essay that opens with the line: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the choices.
Maybe if you watch Mad Men long enough you start to see things. Maybe you start to believe you can see a pattern, believe you can find whatever you want embedded in its code. Maybe if you look at America and the 1960s for long enough you are simply bound to come to the same, inevitable conclusion.
We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
It seems perverse that in a show where literary references are stock in trade, Joan Didion has never rated a mention. But which Mad Men character would plausibly read Didion? Peggy maybe, if she wasn’t so busy working. Or Kinsey, had he made it past Season 3. Joyce Ramsay definitely would. And I’m thinking Jane Sterling might. Megan probably has Slouching Towards Bethlehem on her bookshelf, but I’d guess that it’s only for show. What about Sally? Sally has so often been the cipher for that Didionesque gaze. Innocent, yet knowing. Heartfelt, yet removed. But has she actually read Didion, or even heard of her? Probably not. Not yet. My guess is Sally will be at college — and maybe even at Berkeley — when she discovers Joan Didion, her kindred spirit, and that we won’t ever see it. I will just have to imagine it I suppose.
We’re all madly trying to predict the end of Mad Men, all wanting — and at the same time not wanting — to believe that we can. As Didion wrote in her farewell essay to New York, “It’s easier to see the beginnings of things and harder to see the ends.” As it should be.