Helen Razer: the Mad Men finale and the loss of nostalgia

Once, “nostalgia” was not a common term used to sell consumers the pleasures of the past, but a diagnosis peculiar to physicians to describe the pain of loss. Veteran soldiers, orphaned children and others who had brutally learned that you can’t never go back home were treated until the late 19th century for a disorder that Mad Men’s hero, Donald Draper, addresses in season two with a modern-era approach. He finds his protégé Peggy Olson in a hospital choked by the despair of giving an untimely child to adoption. He says, “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”

Having grieved the past, Peggy moves on never to suffer the old disease of nostalgia again. But her mentor is afflicted with its symptoms and, for seven seasons, Don’s near-fatal refusal to address the past drives him to drink, scandal, and, eventually, the return of the repressed at an ad pitch for Hershey’s Chocolate.

Don invents (another) high-fructose family fiction to feed the needs of his corporate audience and speaks of those idyllic afternoons he spent with a father who would buy him a Hershey bar, “the currency of childhood affection”. Usually, this kind of bullshit moves the client to tears but on this occasion, the orphaned Draper moves himself to tears and his ad agency to the brink of bankruptcy as he upchucks his true past in the boardroom. “I grew up in a whorehouse”, he says, where the real currency of affection was the American dollar.

The revelation does not make Don whole. Don is not, despite today’s tsunami of sentiment applauding the “hope” of yesterday’s series finale, redeemed by his confrontation of the past. Over 92 episodes, showrunner and creator Matthew Weiner has implicitly and explicitly offered the view that the past has a single function. It is not to bring us pleasure. It is not to be manfully overcome. It is simply to be addressed and, if it has anything at all to teach us, it’s that we haven’t really improved that much. And, actually, our outfits are much worse.

It’s in the look of the show that we were permitted nostalgia of the pleasurable, modern sort. This series that launched a thousand Eames knock-offs looked a-mazing. Weiner’s visual attention to period was evident to anyone who saw it and the subject of a TV industry fable, which has its creator diving into a bowl of fruit in the Drapers’ kitchen and removing an inauthentically shiny apple. His stars’ silhouettes were formed in high-carb diets and their costumes were sourced from eBay or original patterns. From whisky bottles to Xerox machines to the smoke respired into the faces of children, this work offered joy only in the look of the past, not its substance.

There may be some viewers who took a little covert pleasure in the racism, homophobia and sexual abuse of Mad Men, even if it were just to say, “Well, thank goodness we’re not like that anymore”. But, I venture that it’s impossible to truly engage with this show and not see Weiner’s suspicion of the idea of progress and its false premise that the present is better than the past.

In this last half of season seven, we see Joan Harris and Peggy subject to a salvo of ‘70s sexism in a meeting at McCann Erickson. The women, both former secretaries who have wheedled, but mostly worked their way up to executive positions, encounter a new kind of hostility unleavened by the older and arguably better idea that women should be a civilising presence.

We see African American secretary Shirley leave advertising because “it’s not a comfortable place for everyone”. It’s not just that progress is slow for Shirley. It’s that it is a falsehood. Meet the new boss. He’s the same as the old boss. Although, these days, you might find him wearing love beads and saying “om” to the beat of a mindfulness bell at a tasteful New Age hell-hole in California.

The last moments of the show are held in Big Sur at a place of crystal-idiocy likely modelled on the Esalan Institute. These are extraordinary for their dark critique of progress and if you’ve not endured them yet, please immediately stop reading because I shouldn’t want to deny you the true pain of nostalgia. The old disease and not the new pleasure.

For the fan who has admired Weiner’s irresolute approach, not everything was perfect about the series finale. Art director Stan Rizzo’s declaration of love to Peggy felt as faithful to the ugly truths of Mad Men as Don’s Hershey bar story had to those of us who knew him as Dick Whitman. We can only suppose that Weiner had fallen for Elizabeth Moss’s Olson so hard, he wanted to make her happy.

Fortunately, Don remains as incomplete and deluded as our ideology of progress.

In a group therapy session for divorcees which Draper has not willingly attended, and whose founding principles he earlier compared to evangelical Christianity, we briefly see a meek man called Leonard. Leonard talks about how he felt largely invisible to his wife and others, even when he was being seen.

“I had a dream,” says Leonard, “I was on a shelf in a refrigerator”. Like a product of the sort that Don has spent his adult life advertising, Leonard is a thing whose use-value is turned to nothing by the created, fetishistic gaze of the consumer. (If Weiner, whose references in his show to both Marx and Freud have been regular, is not at least an occasional psychoanalytic materialist, then I’m Baby Gene’s true father.)

“Sometimes, they’re happy to see you,” says Leonard. “Maybe they don’t look right at you … maybe they don’t pick you.”

“The door closes and the light goes off,” says Leonard, and Don embraces him and cries more copiously at the thought of the candy bar alone in the dark than he did at the Hershey meeting.

This has been read as a “breakthrough” moment by critics eager to believe both in the progress of a culture that, apparently, became more candid in the ’70s and of the universality and timelessness of love. I could see it as nothing less than a powerfully depressing reminder that the mechanism of the market is now the mechanism of the self. Our failure or our success to become love-objects for others has devolved with every published advertisement for Hershey or for Kodak. Our apparent “openness” is a more elaborated form of repression. Just as sexism and racism have mutated into more covert aggressions, the “I’m OK, You’re OK” approach to expression offers us the illusion of freedom. This is not psychoanalysis here at Big Sur. This is its reverse.

The illusion of freedom serves the market with its illusion of choice. When Don has embraced the overlooked, refrigerated candy bar of a man, the “breakthrough” he has with his past does not serve him. It serves the market. Don will make Coca-Cola whole.

We see Don on a cliff against the Pacific. For a second, the cynic seems to be giving himself over to the elite high of transcendental meditation. The camera dollies and we see his face transform from its usual sceptical repose into a smile. It’s indistinguishable from the look of enlightenment. The mindfulness bell rings and the last minute of Mad Men is given over to the well known “I’d Like to Buy The World a Coke” television commercial.

Whether it is Don or it is Peggy or a team of McCann Erickson demons responsible for the commercial is not the point; although TV sleuths have upturned striking visual similarities between the happy, One World hippies that appear in the ad with those who people the five-star commune. The point is that everything is commoditised, that moments from our past will be misremembered, imbued with the artificial light of television and stolen from us so that we cannot even feel the pain of the old nostalgia.

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One can say, and many commentators have, that this is a beautiful moment and that advertising is a significant art form that offers a rousing record of the era. And, in the sense that Coca Cola managed very successfully to depict the cultural posturing of its time to the market, it did. Here, we have One World liberal humanism in carbonated form and all the lies about freedom and self-awareness on which this crap depends.

To believe that Don has had a legitimate breakthrough is to believe that Coke is the “real thing” and not just something that we are “free” to look at first when we open the refrigerator.

The door has closed. The light has gone off. And, without Mad Men, nostalgia will never again be what once it was. I expect to be shocked very soon by how much Weiner’s critique never happened.

14 responses to “Helen Razer: the Mad Men finale and the loss of nostalgia

  1. My step dad worked in New York in the period of MM. My mother had a family full of people who could have populated those days in NY. A family friend worked at Oglivy & Mather. None of them found themselves identifying with MM at all. It was simply not NY as they remembered it. Not saying it wasn’t a good show. It was. Just that the people I know, who knew that place and time, found it so unconvincing that they did not recognise it.

    1. My Dad worked at Ogilvy & Mather in London at the time. He said it was spot on. And I recognised some of the real-life stories he’d told me before, in Mad Men. A lot of it was based on fact. Apparently Bob Levenson (one of the original copywriters from that period) was script adviser – so you could hardly say it was inauthentic.

  2. I actually had to skip over some of this, as I am planning a binge of the final few seasons over coming weeks (so needed to avoid any spoilers)

    I may not have fully understood your points about ‘nostalgia’ but I actually think nostalgia in general is becoming more central, important and maybe celebrated in a number of ways. The most significant current nostalgia is comparing the current continually evolving ‘mainstream phase’ of social media and other online stuff to the previous era (pre 2000 for many of us). This is not ‘fake’ nostalgia – those of us who are old enough to have really experienced both ‘eras’ realise how fundamental this transition has been.

    Apart from shows like Mad Men, the internet gives us almost unlimited access to ‘nostalgia’.

    I’m not as sceptical about consumerism as some. Maybe there is a limit to which we can criticise something which gives us the thoroughly comfortable first world lifestyles that we have.

    And now that we all have a ‘voice’ to an extent courtesy of the internet, I am also less sceptical about marketing and advertising. If this was an American website, I might say something like: “We are all trying to sell something, we are all trying to hustle, even if it is just an online image or persona”. It isn’t, so I won’t.

    But just as there are ‘citizen journalists’ these days, I think many of us are increasingly becoming involved in the ‘citizen marketing’ racket. I’ve raved enough.

    1. How does mass consumption intrinsically offer comfort? Of course, it’s nice to have nice things. But there is a very strong and frequently made, clinically studied argument that the “choice” consumers have offers them paralysis and anxiety.
      An anti-market view is not necessarily an anti-comfort view. To critique the emotional influence of the market is not to say that everyone should eat only Soviet sausages made from Trotsky and dust. But neither is it to say that the market and all its baubles should be understood as thrilling. And, as for mass consumption offering unprecedented wealth. Textile workers in Bangladesh might disagree.
      As for nostalgia. I said that it was once considered a disease (it was) and now is considered a luxury. Weiner offers an implicit critique of the new habit we have of looking to the past with fondness or pity. Both as an audience of Mad Men, an anti-nostalgia trip, and in the lives of its characters.

  3. Terrific piece Helen. So good to see this level of commentary in the public sphere. It reminds me of Herbert Marcuse. Do you know his essay on liberation?
    “Not the automobile is repressive, not the television set is repressive, not the household gadgets are repressive, but the automobile, the television, the gadgets which, produced in accordance with the requirements of profitable ex- change, have become part and parcel of the people’s own existence, own “actualization.” Thus they have to buy part and parcel of their own existence on the market; this existence is the realization of capital.”

    1. If I were the type to acquire tattoos, One Dimensional Man is something I’d consider having written in pigment on my skin.
      I have little doubt that this ’60s best-seller was something Weiner has read.

      1. I would also so though (without wishing to diminish your flattery, I LOVE A COMPLIMENT) that it is Weiner who has provided the stuff of such conversation.

    1. If you mean the slide carousel episode, then YUP ! that it is the only time I was genuinely impressed by the show.

      I stopped watching soon after. Seemed to devolve into standard soap opera fare in swinging sixties costumes.

  4. Nice piece, Helen. I’m not certain I’m expressing this properly but it feels like that ‘ding’ moment was little more than a snake shedding its skin. Up until the moment when he gets off his chair and walks toward the sad accountant, he had been selling a version of himself that said “I understand what makes people tick.” From the moment he started to cry, he started selling something more sinister; a version of false empathy that says “you’re ok, I feel you”. He goes from saying “you are broken, and this thing will fix it”, to saying “there is nothing wrong with you, and joining our tribe will help you keep feeling that way.”

    1. Yes, Ross. I’d not considered the matter of his personal transformation from the guy that said “Love is something I invented to sell people like you nylon” to one that believed in the authenticity of the manufactured love and not just the nylon.
      It is a move from cynicism to absolute, naivety. Don becomes his own jailer.

    2. I think he did find something in that room – I think it was real empathy, he cried real tears for that man, I thought the sound of the crying was kind of grotesque (probably on purpose). But empathy alone is not the wonderful benevolent ‘breakthrough’ people assume happens in group therapy, i think you can take it anywhere. I love your metaphor of a snake just shedding its skin, something Don just DOES (he tries to tell what’s-her-face blonde girl to do the same earlier in the episode, except she won’t buy it anymore and steals his car and takes off instead) to turn back into what he wants to be. Later he looks like he’s meditating under a tree like a Buddha, but actually he’s restored – clean shaven, hair tidy, his white shirt back on, dreaming up that famous Coke ad.
      actually I also found this interesting because meditation that you pay for hasn’t changed much since the 70s apparently. We’re still going strong.

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