“L'homme n'est que ce qu'il devient, vérité profonde; l'homme ne devient que ce qu'il est, vérité plus profonde encore?” — Amiel
Like the culture it is portraying, the tv series Mad Men made a fundamental switch in its moral focus with last night’s episode. The definitive moment came early on, when Don Draper has emerged from a swim at the New York Athletic Club. He’s standing on the street in the morning sunshine, young women are strolling by in summer dresses, and the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction is playing over the whole scene.
Satisfaction, of course, is the definitive Boomer anthem. Its throbbing message of individualism, narcissism, sexuality and hedonism, set off against a gnawing suspicion of the failed consumerist promise of the fifties, marks a crucial change in our culture. This is the moment when counterculture became The Culture, which it has dominated for close to half a century now. Don’s wearing his shades in the scene, perhaps because his future’s so bright, but perhaps because he doesn’t really want to see what’s going on.
The theme of generational change was a recurring theme in the episode. Don is dating a young woman, but while he’s dated young women before (especially the proto-hippie Midge from season One), this one is different. She’s forward, she has needs, and she’s willing to go down on him in a taxicab. Meanwhile, Joan is finding that her 50s bombshell looks don’t get her anywhere with the hipster doofuses in the office; to them, she’s just another bitchy old schoolmarm. More than anyone else in the episode, Joan looks dated. (Bert and Roger, of course, are nowhere to be seen. The show has passed them by).
The culture has changed, and so has Mad Men. The running tension in the show has always come from the basic existential question, “who is Don Draper?” But the first few seasons treated Don’s dark and mysterious background as in some sense the wellspring of his creativity: it was a show essentially about America, advertising and the fifties. While the characters have always been excellent, what drove the excitement of the first few seasons was that it all took place in a past that was, for all intents, a different country. The show delighted in playing off the alien nature of America in the fifties, not just the smoking and the drinking and the casual office sexism, but wonderful shots like the Draper family picnic that ends with them driving off, leaving their garbage strewn about on the grass.
In contrast, there is nothing alien about the sixties. Our culture simply has not changed that much in the last 45 years, and what changes have occurred (including “big” shifts like the acceptance of gay marriage) are simply the working out of ideas and principles that were advanced by the leading edge of the Boomers as they entered university. And so now we see Don Draper behaving in ways that we recognize as utterly contemporary. He’s watching how much he drinks, he’s exercising, he’s even keeping a diary for heaven’s sake. This inward turn, this obsessive plumbing of the depths of the self, is now front and centre thematically, and it will achieve its completion in the Oprahification of our culture in the 2000s.
And so Mad Men has transitioned, from a show that once used a foreign culture to teach us lessons about our own, into a show about the beginnings of our own culture. What it is, now, is a show about the search for authenticity, and much of the tension in the show will emerge from how the various characters are able to survive on that highly contested ground. This is why it is not surprising to see that it is becoming a show about Don and Peggy, because each embodies a different understanding of what we mean when we talk about authenticity.
Authenticity is nothing more than the alignment of appearance and reality, of the outer world of seems according with the inner world of is. But this alignment can come about in different ways: Our outer self can come to reflect an unchanging inner core, or, alternatively, the fungible inner self can change to reflect the front we wish to portray to the world. The distinction is captured in the quotation at the top of this post from the Swiss philosophe Amiel: A man is nothing more than who he becomes. Or, alternatively, he becomes who he essentially is. Is destiny character, or is character destiny?
Don has made his choice: After years of existential infighting between Dick Whitman and Don Draper, he is becoming the Don Draper he’s always wanted to be. As he wrote in his diary last night: "People tell us who they are, but we ignore it ... Because we want them to be who we want them to be."
On the other side of the equation is Peggy. More than any other character on the show, he knows who she is, what she wants, and what it will take to get there. Her struggle has always been to prevent culture and circumstances from dictating who she is entitled to be.
Which of these is more “authentic”? There’s no right answer to that question. What does seem certain, though, is that in the age of authenticity into which Don and Peggy are stepping, Peggy’s future is much, much brighter than Don’s.