23 July 2012

The Commodification of Relationships and the Solitude of the Modern Male

Lies engender solitude, and the liar is the loneliest man in any crowd.  What is most startling about Don Draper, then, is not just that his persona, his name and history are a fabrication, not even that he somehow manages to get away with playing a man more than a decade older than himself, but that in all this he suffers no more than his average compatriot.  Lies abound in the business world of Mad Men:  lies about trysts and affairs, histories and operations — in these few short seasons there is enough scandal for a century of soap operas.  And behind it all are the lies that make television possible: lies about products and about us viewers: constructions within the language of image and suggestion meant to shift the lines of power and desire to the advantage of arbitrary business interests.  Chiefly, though, there is a lie about the self-sufficiency of the central characters.  Everything else in this world is shown to us raw: we know who has been unfaithful and how many times; we watch as personal projects and ambitions tangle with each other — all of this is given with clean omniscience.  But the central lies of our characters have to be discovered slowly by careful viewing: Betty Draper's careful sanitization of her emotional life, Pete Campbell's sorrow over his lost child with Peggy, even Greg Harris's aggressive fight against recognizing his wife's intellectual and social superiority.  Where on the surface Mad Men is an amazingly good period drama about the witty work and changing field of 60s advertising firms, it shows its greatness in the psychological portrait of a group of people so caught up in the flux of business and the absurd ideals men like themselves have conjured up for the masses that their genuine desires are suppressed for fear of missing out on the glamour of success, stability, health.

Each of Don's many women plays one of two roles: a trophy for his success at work, or a simulation of a real relationship.  All of them leave him alone, however, and in finding himself truly alone we hope he will begin to change.

(Written after finishing the episode "The Suitcase".)