How ‘Mad Men’ Deftly Dealt with the Events of 1968

By  · Published on June 25th, 2013

As a period drama, Mad Men has sustained a notable gap between the dispositions of its audience and of its characters. We approach the show from the privilege of hindsight, knowing the major events that the characters will encounter before they encounter them. When Roger Sterling announces his daughter’s wedding date to be late November, 1963 during the third season, for instance, we know that the assassination of the US President will put a considerable damper on the that event, even though we might not know precisely how that will play out. But if we suspend our disbelief to the extent that we buy into the fantasy that these characters exist (at least, in Matt Weiner’s 1960s), the show’s characters also have an advantage over us: that of present experience, of living history not qua history, but as an inevitable component of the ongoing present.

“History” becomes a series of moments deeply entangled with the circumstances of characters’ personal lives, and these moments can be experienced directly or peripherally – a history not understood, in short, through the distilling practices of a textbook, but through the disorientation of immediacy. Whether dealing with the death of John F. Kennedy, the University of Texas shooter, or less canonized events like the 1962 plane crash in Jamaica Bay, Mad Men has walked the difficult tightrope of re-framing annals of America’s past in terms of the characters’ perpetual present, and “history” as recounted by the show can be as forceful as an interpersonal crisis mirroring a national one (enduring the Cuban Missile Crisis while Don’s marriage falls apart at the end of season 2) or is simply reduced to a series of flickering images on television (iconic images of history, after all, don’t always become so automatically).

So, how did this season of Mad Men handle what is arguably the most historically revisited year of the 1960s: the tumultuous events of 1968? In short, as best it reasonably could.

A Very Colorful Backdrop

I can’t say this about any decisions that went into the construction of Mad Men as a whole, but as a viewer and fan, I found myself greatly anticipating “1968” (a year often recounted as the terrifying climax of an eventful decade in popular memory) as the show progressed onward. With the assassination of JFK in the 3rd season came the anticipation that his brother would inevitably follow. With Pete Campbell short-sightedly asking an African-American elevator operator about what type of soda he prefers came the possibility that African-Americans would later populate the workplace itself after 1965. And Don’s Season 1 affair with a beatnik foreshadowed the emergence of a full-fledged counterculture within a few short years.

This has neither been my primary nor my driving interest in Mad Men (if the show always was, as this parody suggests, simply a Midnight in Paris of basic ’60s social politics as evidenced within ad industry, it would go stale remarkably quickly), but simply one of several well-engineered aspects motivating the show’s demonstrable popular appeal. Weiner and his team effectively turn history – specifically, the most historicized, written-about, and reflected-on decade of the 20th century – into long-term dramatic suspense.

When Mad Men finally arrived at 1968 this season, it seemed to be given an impossible task: how to tell the story of a year that has already been re-told so many times. How can a show like this hit the anticipated political and pop culture markers built by its conceit without feeling like it was simply moving through a requisite series of anticipated major events? Season 6 attempted to accomplish this via three strategies: through affective allegory, media representation, and what I’m calling Draper Disinterest.

#1: Affective Allegory

The first episode of the season (the two-part “The Doorway”) was about death. How do we know? Because death is all over the damned thing. The season opens with Draper reading Dante’s “Inferno” (the easiest path to “subtext,” after all, is to have literature spell out the themes for you; it also spells out “quality television”), witnessing the near-death of his doorman, having a drink with a (probably) soon-to-be-dead cadet (who revisits him later during one of multiple drug trips this season), and creating an ad campaign that spells out to everyone else – except Don – an act of suicide.

Where Mad Men’s best episodes elegantly tie together storylines that converge as subtextual thematic cues that viewers might not fully realize until days later, the opening episodes of Mad Men replaced subtext with text. The first episode is about DEATH spelled out in big bold letters, with the My Lai massacre, violent student protests, and shocking political assassinations operating merely as the inferred atmospherics served to peripherally inform such a pungently realized theme. Don Draper isn’t tapped into the so-called zeitgeist (see #3), but moves through the first few episodes as an affective embodiment of a society presently painted with violence. Mad Men has shown a dedicated interest in metaphor throughout, but in the beginning episodes of Season 6, it turned Draper himself into a walking metaphor, seeming to bear the burden, confusion, and complacency of – in the most generalized terms – “trying times.”

Then again, “1968,” as a historical emblem constructed after the fact, is rarely reflected on with nuance in popular culture.

The show dealt with these themes in more interesting ways when the entire office was brought in to encapsulate a culturally pervasive state of being. Ken Cosgrove, whose body slowly falls apart during his work with GM in Detroit, has been interpreted as the season’s most darkly comic Vietnam metaphor. And the Dr. Feelgood-engineered “The Crash” merged business culture and counterculture; hip and square, until the hangover the next day (or, in Hunter S. Thompson’s terms, when “the wave rolled back”), merged as one for a passing, glorious, terrifying moment of psychedelia run amok.

These were not evocations of a particular historical, pop cultural, or political moment, but were meant to elicit and momentarily distill more general state of experience particular to popular memory of 1968, a state that can’t be summed up with a specific date or public figure.

#2: Media Representation

Media technologies have served as useful devices to allow the show’s characters to “experience” important national events. After all, most of these characters do work in the industry of creating media images. Vietnam was the first heavily televised war, and this capacity for profound media representation has been largely credited to the public lack of confidence in US foreign policy that emerged around this time. Influenced by the work of Marshall McLuhan, New Left pioneers like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, et al. knew how to deliberately harness media power for maximum effect, to disseminate messages that compete with those of networks, Hollywood, and, yes, advertising.

So while the show’s use of television sets as contextualizing devices may be repetitive, it is notably consistent with the times. When Meghan calls Don and weeps over images of college students getting hit in the head with police batons outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, this demonstrates a relationship to media that is profound, new, and remarkably true – people became tied to public events, not alienated by them, through the technological intimacy provided by the television. A diner, for instance, turns into a community at the announcement of Martin Luther King, Jr’s death on TV.

At the same time, because it’s an entertainment device, the television still has the power to become white noise, to broadcast background information, like when Don shows active disinterest in Robert Kennedy’s death after being broken up with by Sylvia. Which leads us to…

#3: Draper Disinterest

Draper Disinterest began most forcefully in the 5th season, when Don began to shift from early-60s hip to late-60s square. He famously stopped listening to The Beatles’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” midway through, failing to see the difference between studio-produced psychedelia and the Ed Sullivan-era mop tops. How could he possibly understand anything in popular culture that came after?

Draper’s disinterest, however, has been a much more effective and original tool to contextualize the show’s historical events. Don Draper has always been a selfish character, but Season 6 found him immersing deep into the psychological recesses of his own identity, preventing him from seeing anything around him but his own blinding subjectivity. He casually condescends Meghan’s sympathy for the protestors, is glass-eyed during RFK’s assassination, and only involves himself in the conversation about the war draft to the extent that he can reach out to Sylvia. Don does not live in the present, but redundantly resides in his own biography. While Roger seeks psychological counseling, Don turns to sex, booze, and professional one-upmanship to exorcise, bury, and ignore his demons. Mad Men explored 1968 through a character completely disconnected from it, through perhaps the show’s sole major character who couldn’t reflect enough to know the moments in which history was actually taking place during the present. The gap between Don and Meghan’s age expanded all the more as the show trekked onward.

For such an uneven season, the show ended on a note of surprising closure – and even, for once, a bit of optimism.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the Season 6 finale is thoroughly reminiscent of the Season 1 finale, in which Don’s career-halting overshare to Hershey’s echoes and contrasts his shameless commodification of his family for The Carousel. But there’s also the presence of Nixon. The show’s first season delineated Don Draper from Dick Whitman in that season’s penultimate episode, the 1960-election-day-set “Nixon v. Kennedy,” and on Sunday night the show (seemingly) closed that storyline with the metaphorical death of Don Draper. Nixon had a commanding presence in Season 1, but was little-seen in Season 6 (the ’68 election wasn’t exactly a nail-biter). Draper, whether or not he voted, is certainly a member of Nixon’s Silent Majority, but ironically, where he ends up at the end of Season 6 is positively groovy…

Ultimately a self-made square peacenik, Don decides (and is, in many ways, forced to) live outside of his own head through the sudden realization that his actions actually impact the lives of others (his open sexuality was never “free love,” but about control, as the show’s flashbacks pathologize ad nauseum). For a show that, up to this point, seemed to be nowhere near as interested in redeeming Don as its fans have been, it’s perplexing and fascinating that Don gave peace (with himself, with Ted) and love (again with Ted, and with Sally, but not with Meghan) a chance.

At the end of Mad Men’s 6th season, Don became far more moon landing and Woodstock than he was Vietnam. For the first time watching the show, I have little notion what awaits these characters in relation to history next season. Dig.