Monday, April 27, 2015

Once I Had A Mail Room

Made it run
Made it race against time
Once I had a mail-room, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

 A hundred people will write a hundred columns about this week's “Mad Men”, so I will keep my remarks brief and slant-drill them into the existing mountain of speculation from a different angle.

Since the beginning, one of the motifs of “Mad Men” has been Don Draper’s desire to “build something” --

-- and to dole  out stern, fatherly lectures to lesser mortals on the virtue of going out to“make something of yourself”.   Whenever Don has pushed a partner or underling off a figurative ledge, the defenestration would usually come with a Don Draper Sermon on the exhilaration of starting over from scratch.  How this was the worst part, but now everything will start to get better because now you get to reinvent yourself from scratch any way you like!

And this has always been Don’s tragic flaw; the inability to tell the difference between falling and flying.  Hell. if you follow Draper's Rule of Reinvention to it's logical conclusion, the entire country should have been grateful for the Great Depression because it gave us all a chance to “start over” and build something brand new.

In the Depression-era song, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” (Lyricist E. Y. "Yip" Harburg /composer Jay Gorney) the singer is proud of the fact that he was “building a dream” and that “when there was earth to plow or guns to bear” he was “always there, right on the job.”

Not so for Don Draper.  His dream was always to find clever ways of manipulating the dreams of consumers in order to sell them the things that other people made.  And whenever there was “earth to plow or guns to bear”, Don Draper got the hell outta the area as fast as possible.

Don wanted everything post-war America had on offer, and in gargantuan helpings.  Don wanted to be wealthy and powerful.  He wanted the respect of men and the adoration of beautiful women.  Don wanted to drink what he wanted, when he wanted.  Don wanted to take naps in the middle of the day and then wake up refreshed and ready to leap from his sofa to Rally The Troops and Save The Agency.

And he ultimately he found a way to do and have all of those things, but not by creating anything of lasting value.  Don Draper did not get rich building towers “up to the sun” out of “brick and rivet and lime”: Don Draper got rich by setting up shop in towers built by other men and using his gift for bullshit to sell poop medication and Porsches to a nation suddenly awash in easy money and pent-up desires.

Too late, Don discovered that he had been a renter of the American Dream, not an owner.  That what he had built was not a railroad or a skyscraper, but merely a palette of clever words and pictures with which to paint happy, friendly faces on the giant corporations which were rapidly buying up what remained of that American Dream.

And at long last one of those giant corporations-with-a-smiley-face decided it was time to swallow Don’s little agency whole.  In fact, for the landlords of the American Dream, gobbling up the little fish had had been the plan all along.

Sunday night we once more find Don waking from yet another nap to once again Rally The Troops and Save The Agency. But while Rip Van Draper had been snoozing and boozing and dreaming and writing million dollar checks and being adored by beautiful women, the world he had helped birth had grown up, grown teeth and moved on.  Sure, for Don’s tiny band of indentured millionaires living like kings at the top of the world, Saving The Agency seemed like a the same mighty cause is had been back in 1963 when they were scrappy world-beaters out to carve a slice of Madison Avenue of their very own. But the America of 1963 had not yet heard of the Beatles.  In America in 1963 Dick Nixon was a washed-up political has-been who we would not have to kick around anymore. And in 1963 (according to the short story "The Time-Traveler" tucked away in my trusty copy of Spider Robinson's "Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon" [yes, my brain is wired to hang onto the most obscure things]) a total of 33 Americans had been killed since the start of US involvement in an obscure corner of the world called "Vietnam".

So while Don Draper may have marched square-jawed and indestructible all the way through the 60s conceding little more than a few elements of his wardrobe to a decade of chaos, riots and revolution, by 1970, for everyone who was not Don Draper (or in his immediate orbit), the Agency was no longer a Cause.  In 1970, anyone with eyes could flip on a teevee or open a newspaper and see what a real cause looked like, so for the rank and file, working at SC and P was just another job where different, fungible people were hired and fired every day.  

And in such a place, the idea of rallying to Millionaire Don's banner to Save The Agency had become incomprehensible -- a powerless relic left over from another time.  Like finding Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda holed up on Lubang Island in the Philippines, still defending Imperial Japan 30 years after the war had ended and 20 years after Honda had begun hiring Madison Avenue advertising firms to help them sell Japanese motorcycles to Americans.


MedicineMan55 said...

I found the last 2 minutes of this episode were the big payoff for me. Watching Don and his coterie writhe in angst over the massive buyout they were about to enjoy I was struck by how devoid of perspective they really are. While they were obsessed about losing their floorspace they gave not one iota of thought to the parade of jobs that are about to evaporate, because you can sure as fuck be certain that the lease isn't the only expense their new overlords are looking to eliminate.

--Nonny Mouse

Fritz Strand said...

And Don's kids after going into advertising and making their agencies millions of dollars are now asked to re-apply for their jobs and to justify their re-hire.

blackdaug said...

One of things I have always found fascinating about the show is how it chronicles the contrasts between the characters of two very close generations represented by Sterling and Draper.
Sterling represents the WWII "Man in the Grey Flannel suit" era type, who comes home from "his war" (as an already rich scion of a successful ad company) and rides the up elevator provided by the exploding post war U.S. economy.
Draper comes back from "his war" Korea (where he steals his identity) to a red panicked, blacklisting, iron curtain obsessed
western mega boom - where the Sterling's are already running the show.
The arc shows that neither of them are equipped to handle the drastic changes being demanded by the next generation coming up in the 60's.
In this episode, Draper quips to Sterling about how he always envied the seemingly effortless way Sterling has managed his achievements..."In another life, I would have been your chauffeur".
and Sterling replies.."yeah, and you would have been screwing my grandmother!".
Each sees the other as really undeserving of their success, but neither begrudging the other for it - since they both know it was all built on the big grift. Selling makeup, dreams and smoke...with laxative.

keith gargus said...

I enjoyed your essay, but why Bing Crosby?

starskeptic said...

I like Don McLean's version - he couples it with "Over The Rainbow".