Friday, April 10, 2015

Mad Men and the "Death of the American Dream"

During my recent illness I became a huge fan of two vastly different television shows, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, that each in their own way do a fantastic job of showing just how empty the pursuit of the "American Dream" really is. Breaking Bad's Walter White becomes unhinged after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and decides to use his remaining time alive cooking meth in order to build the fortune that eluded him in the straight world and that he felt he deserved. Mad Men paints with a broader brush (though there are key similarities between Walter White and the latter show's Don Draper), but at its heart are a group of characters--ad executives in the 1960s and their supporting office staff--whose lives become ever emptier even as they come to enjoy more and more material success.

The final seven episodes of Mad Men are just now being broadcast, and while watching the premier last Sunday the first thing that struck me was that the characters now find themselves in 1970, the year conventional American oil production peaked. I doubt Matthew Weiner, Mad Men's creator, took that particular factoid into account while setting up the show's conclusion, but given how many electrons have been annoyed in cyberspace by various writers analyzing the show's portrayal of the perils of pursuing material success just for success's sake, the ending taking place the year America's organic "material success" was peaking is quite relevant.

Don Draper--the dirt poor impostor who changed his identity and hustled his way to a partnership in a major Madison Avenue ad agency--has been described by Weiner as having grown up "one generation away from living without plumbing." My father just turned 80 this year, making him only a few years younger than the fictional Don Draper, and he has described to me how his father--a World War I veteran--lost his small trucking business in the early 1930s and then subsequently dragged the family all over the Midwest desperately searching for a way to recapture that tiny bit of the pie he had managed to slice for himself. Eventually he would settle for a factory job back in my hometown, but losing that chance to become a big shot-- even in a small pond--left him emotionally broken for the rest of his life.

One of the ongoing story lines in Mad Men involves Don's relationship with his estranged teenage daughter, Sally, and how he has a hard time trying to figure out why she's so unhappy despite having every comfort he never had growing up. On the show Sally Draper represents the Baby Boomer generation, the first to be raised with television and, not incidentally, to be bombarded with the ads Don and his cohorts so intensively labor developing. Sally may be too young to yet participate in the rat race (or to be the trophy wife of a successful businessman as her shallow and vain mother wants her to be), but her's is the first generation to be brainwashed from the start by media advertising, leaving her unable to recognize that that fancy new designer purse she just bought at Macy's will not make her any happier.

As Mad Men draws to a close, it will no doubt bring some sort of closure to the story arcs of its major characters. But the big picture it has spent seven years of broadcasts painting will in fact be only halfway completed. The second half of the story is unfolding in our current times, at the back end of the lifespan of the fictional Don Draper (assuming he like my father is now living out his golden years in the sort of retirement that became the middle class American ideal but for which only that generation on the whole ever got to enjoy). Draper and my father grew up one generation removed from living without plumbing. As a baby boomer and an elder Gen-X'er, Sally Draper and I were among the first to grow up expecting that a limitless cornucopia of consumer goods would always be available at our fingertips--assuming we were willing to either climb on the big treadmill or marry someone really successful so that we could afford it.

Sally Draper's children, however (I do not have any of my own) and especially her grandchildren are going to be the ones who find out just how big the lies her father told for a living really were. Mad Men has been very good at portraying just how the pursuit of the American Dream can consume a person's soul. What Mad Men will not be showing is what happens when the resources needed to support the kind of lifestyle being sold by Don Draper start running out. Sally Draper's grandchildren are likely going to be the first since Don Draper's parents to discover what it is like to live without plumbing...and they'll be LUCKY if that's as bad as it gets.

That's the show that is playing out in real life every day right now. I doubt if 50 years from now anyone will be putting it on television--or that that most people will have the time to spare from just trying not to starve to watch it if they did.

Bonus: "Even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary"


  1. Thanks for this essay Bill. On a parallel note, but in real life right now in Sao Paolo a man wrote this:

    I am writing by candle light. The aching in my hand and the irregular handwriting reminds me that it’s been a long time since I wrote on paper and not a keyboard. The power cut has already lasted more than eight hours and I fear that the combination of events and outcome of what we are going through might be a foreshadowing of what’s soon to come around the world.

    It started with an irony, that may well be the perfect metaphor: the largest city in a country that holds 20 percent of Earth’s fresh water supply ends up without any. A combination of climate change, years of deforestation, privatization and a badly managed and corrupt political system have come together in a perfect storm to throw my city into one of its darkest crises ever. We now face a reality of four days without water and two with. We might as well call it what it is: a total collapse.

    Imagine a megacity like São Paulo as schools are forced to close, hospitals run out of resources, diseases spread, businesses shut down, the economy nose dives. Imagine the riots, the looting … what the police force, infamously known as one of the most violent in the world, will do as this dystopian scenario engulfs us. One of the great modern, rising capital cities of the world suddenly falls apart.

    We brought this on ourselves. We buried our rivers under concrete, we polluted the reservoirs, chopped down trees, erased the local biome to grow sugar cane, soy and corn to fuel our vehicles, feed our appetites, our extravagant lifestyles.

    I read the IPCC reports warning us of catastrophe. I watched the documentaries exposing corporations’ hidden agendas … the YouTube videos showing polluted oceans, overfishing, extracting, fracking and burning. I knew all this. And how markets march “forward” no matter what. How leaders pose for group shots with those golden pledges they never deliver … and how we, the People, march demanding change.

    This is personal … it’s about everything I love. And you have no idea how terrifying it is. It’s the kind of fear that you have no control over, that makes you grind your teeth at night while you sleep. There’s no language to describe this feeling of dread. No way to fix it. No time to fix it. This is the future that science warned us about. The new normal. And the truth is, I never realized it could happen so fast and that my friends, family and I would be forced to live through it, suffer like this.

    The battery on my phone is almost dead. The power has been out for 16 hours now. Still no water.

    I scroll the photos I took last month on our trip to NYC.
    My wife comes to me and in a low voice asks what we are going to do. “I don’t know,” I reply.

    What will 22 million people do in the dark?

    — Pedro Inoue

    Tom [hat tip Gerald Spezio for finding and posting this]

    1. Tom--I just read an article about the Brazil drought yesterday, but this post really brings home how bad it is.

  2. You've hit another home run with this post. Most of what goes on is political theater which, "Mad Men" create and MSM promotes with TV and internet sites. I believe that the iphone screen is "the" reality for many people. I have been at meetings and these people have their eyes glued to the screen tuning out what their co-workers are discussing. How long this continues is anyone's guess.

    "The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it's profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, pull back the curtains, and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater."
    Frank Zappa

  3. Great post Bill, the next generation will not be enjoying the success Drapers generation enjoyed. At the house where I rent out a room at a young man of 24 years who also rents there told me things would never get better in my lifetime. That is his lifetime. They already know how bad things are and that things are going to get worse. I myself cannot do what my father did. Work 28-30 years at a giant corporation and then be given a full, fat pension at the age of 62 like he did. Those days are over. For me the dream is dying and soon will be dead. I feel very badly for the next generation, theirs will be a hard, tragic fate.