Seeing Mad Men through its ads: Every week, WIRED takes a look at the latest episode of Mad Men through the lens of the latest media campaign by advertising agency Sterling Cooper & Partners.
Webster’s Dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment; joy…a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” It offers an obsolete definition as well: “good fortune; prosperity.” Here it draws close to the definition articulated by Don Draper—Draper’s Dictionary, so to speak—back in Mad Men‘s very first episode. “Advertising,” he tells his clients, “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 are doing is okay. You are okay.” Whatever else a life of safety, comfort, and new cars involves, good fortune and prosperity are certainly key ingredients.
But this is itself an obsolete definition. In Season Five, the revised edition of Draper’s Dictionary presented a more up-to-date version, aimed at skeptical DuPont executives who didn’t understand why they’d hire Don to blow up their marketing strategy when they’re on top of the market. Don’s answer? “Because even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten…. You’re happy because you’re successful—for now. But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” The goal can never be reached, because it is, by definition, unreachable. A moment of happiness is just that: a moment. When it ends—and it always ends—the hunt begins again.
Don Draper has grappled with his own definition of happiness for the entirety of Mad Men‘s seven seasons, and in last night’s premiere, “Severance,” that battle rages on. Many critics of the show see this as its fatal flaw: Perpetually searching, perpetually unhappy, Don never changes. But even if we grant the faulty proposition that a psychologically constant character automatically makes for bad drama, we’re selling Don short. The man himself has changed plenty, and not just when he transformed from Dick Whitman into “Don Draper” in the first place. He has morphed from a family man to a bachelor; from an up-and-comer to a partner to an outcast back to a partner; from a divorcé to a remarried man back to a divorcé; from compulsive philanderer to faithful husband to obsessed Other Man to long-distance significant other to , finally, tomcat extraordinaire. The problem is that the impossibility of happiness has stayed maddeningly static, no matter what he does.
This dilemma is reflected in the ad campaign for Wilkinson razors that Don is spearheading. The episode begins with a beautiful model showing off her smooth skin from beneath an expensive fur coat as Don, his colleagues Ted and Pete, and a pair of Wilkinson execs leer in appreciation. Based on conversations Don has with both Ted and his secretary Meredith, not to mention the seven seasons’ worth of Mad Men casting sequences under our belts, it’s clear this process has gone on for some time—solely because the Wilkinson guys think it’s nice work if you can get it. “What can I say?” Don responds when Ted complains to him that, in an effort to decide between their top three candidates, the razor company has requested a binder full of photos featuring 120 women. “They’re perverts.”
Adman, heal thyself. When Don returns home from a long night of carousing with his pal Roger and several young women, his answering service functions as a Nixon-era Tinder. It provides him with sex à la carte, presenting him with messages from three willing women with whom to pursue his evening’s entertainment. Everyone here’s a consenting adult, and it’s not wise to conflate the distasteful with the immoral. But there’s certainly something creepy about how Don conducts his personal life given the alacrity with which he sees through the “perverts” at Wilkinson. It’s the same thing as the casting, only no cash changes hands.
Until it does. When Don encounters a diner waitress who may or may not be Midge, the beatnik turned junkie with whom he once had an ongoing affair, she interprets his interest—accurately, it turns out—as sexual in nature, screwing him out back for $100. In prostitution, societal boundaries between the personal and the professional break down, as Don’s whorehouse upbringing taught him. Now it’s just more out in the open than it is when Don applies the techniques of his dayjob to his nightlife.
But the spheres of his existence had already begun to collide before his alleyway assignation. His first glimpse of Midge/”Diana” apparently inspired a dream in which Rachel Mencken, another lover from the time period, shows up at the Wilkinson casting and wows him. “You’re not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth” he tells her, using an advertising slogan to bestow his seal of approval. The dream then feeds back into Don’s work, when it gives him the idea to contact her to see if her department store would adopt the agency’s pantyhose client Topaz as a house brand. (Topaz’s product itself can be seen not just as a knockoff of the more successful L’eggs brand it hopes to emulate, but the smooth legs of the archetypal Wikinson woman.)
But when Don learns Rachel has died, he returns to Diana’s diner, perhaps hoping she’ll replace the happiness he can no longer find with his late lover. Only then does the sexual transaction take place. Like Midge, Rachel actually meant something to Don, yet some part of him still sees them as interchangeable—“cogs in a wheel,” as Ken Cosgrove describes his DuPont executive father-in-law elsewhere in the episode. The commodification of these human beings into goods to be selected from a menu, as if sex is a cosmic diner waitress asking you “what’ll it be, honey?”, is merely the most grotesque example of the core capitalist conceit: This one’s good, but the next one’ll be even better!
Don’s not the only person capable of calling bullshit on this endless bait-and-switch, even as he falls victim to it. The philosopher Andre Vantino writes, “Sexual encounters are desired in the same way in which art is desired. Desire is not a biological need….Desire springs from the void at the centre of life.” The drive to fill that void is so powerful that Freud named it the death instinct in light of its self-destructive potential—a potential Don has demonstrated time and time again. He’s tried to fill that void, to find the permanent moment of happiness, with sex, family, money, respectability, creativity, professional success, and industrial quantities of booze.
But as Peggy Lee puts it in the song that begins and ends the episode (though I prefer the quaalude-dosed disdain of Cristina’s version), is that all there is? Nothing ever meets expectations, because expectations cannot be met. The void cannot be filled. Until Don truly comes to terms with this, every handhold he grabs will crumble to dust in his hand, forcing him to reach out again, and again, and again. He may be smooth, but he can never be Wilkinson smooth.