Mad Men Carousel: A Book Review

Okay, um, wow. I am positively blown away by Matt Zoller Seitz’s book, Mad Men Carousel. His sentences are paragraphs, paragraphs are chapters, and chapters an entire work in density not length. I mean this in the best possible way. I never knew that when Don was stopped at the railway tracks, he was contemplating suicide. Or when Betty vomits in their recently purchased automobile it ruins the new car smell and is a form of revenge because Don has stunk up their marriage. Matt brings tons to light.

He schooled me on what is really going on in a series I have watched five times. In viewing, I was enamoured with the historical accuracy and the portrayal of the ad business, specifically the pitches. My last viewing was paired with this book (like martinis and oysters). I would watch a few episodes and then read Matt’s corresponding analysis. Then I would switch the order by reading then watching.

In so doing, I got an incredible amount more out of the stories, characters, and historical context. Matt is incredibly balanced. He calls the series out for missteps and mistakes especially when they appear to back off issues and subjects when they shouldn’t. He acknowledges the complaint of many that, “the series is merely a high-toned soap opera gussied up with period detail and allusions to literature, mythology, and other signifiers of respectability.”

I have wondered if the team behind the show had it all plotted out or it was a balance of planning and happenstance. Matt answers that with, “what we find is a series not beholden to a strict and forbidding architecture at all but something far messier, far more beautiful, and far more real.” And, “the show regularly abandons traditional narrative form for a kind of dream logic, moving forward suddenly in time, flipping backward, seemingly digressing, ordered not by chronology but by emotional associations.” Matt makes his own logic in 92 essays covering each episode.

When the show was in its heyday and was a water cooler topic, I would ask others, Why did they choose advertising? Why that profession? Could it not have been set at IBM or NBC? Perhaps, but we would not have had the same wackiness of Madison Avenue. But more importantly, it is because advertising is a delightfully appropriate avatar. It has always presented an unattainable and vacuous ideal – a perfect life brought to you by…consumerism.

The show ironically postulates this unattainable. It “glamourizes the constructed image of the Eisenhower-era, Leave It to Beaver-style nuclear family by showing us beautiful people with beautiful homes and clothes and cars, as if they, too, were fantasy objects, things that other people dream of having.” At the same time, many argue that the show is not about advertising. It is simply an entertaining means to deliver the deeper content. I disagree.

Matt puts it this way, “Why do we want the things we want? Is it because we really want them, or because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we should.” For millennia, marketing and advertising has clouded the line between wants and needs. And for seven seasons and ninety-two episodes every character tries to find that line for themselves even while they contribute to that cloud through their professional lives. If the show can be boiled down to one theme it is the tension between wants and needs.

The show explores many topics. Much has been written on whether or not Mad Men addressed race or deceivingly skirted it. Most black characters have “narrow substance”. Maids, secretaries, elevator operators, a mugger, a con artist/robber, and a Playboy Bunny. It is if the show is playing an elaborate joke.

Carla is the one exception as a black character. She is a wonderful stabilizing and normalizing force. While she is the black housekeeper, she is much more. Don’s secretary, Dawn, is a complete throw away except for the ongoing jokes about their names. I can tell you I was shocked when Pete’s father tells him that a job as an account man in advertising is not fitting for a white man.

Gender too, is a constant subject. Matt points out, “a woman on Madison Avenue circa 1960 was to feel constantly scrutinized, rated, and otherwise dehumanized by men.” The cringe-worthy humiliations pile up throughout the series and do not lessen. If anything, the male characters ramp it up perhaps sensing the seventies will be different than the sixties.

It also touches on homosexuality through Sal, a closeted gay man. Everyone rooted for Sal and most viewers and critics thought he would return in later seasons. Matt’s analysis of the episode where Don discovers Sal’s secret on a business trip is fantastic. Don threatens him with the insider knowledge but it is so damn subtle. This is bully-Don. Don passively lashing out because he has so many secrets.

Every character is a slow burn of a reveal. We go through the series gradually learning back stories. We come to understand what motivates and scares these mad players. They all want to write their own stories or to have life on their terms but they have no idea what that means or what they want. It is a frustrating quest for unattainable control.

John Hamm’s Don Draper is “outwardly square but has rebellious, even anarchistic, tendencies.” He is “a crisply attired, Brylcreemed embodiment of the Madison Avenue’s influence, (but) feels like an outsider himself.” Matt calls him, “an arrogant, oversexed rock star.” In fact, he is a professional imposter. A poster child for the fake world packaged and presented in ads. As bad as his childhood was, it does not let him off the hook.

John Slattery’s Roger Sterling is a charming man-boy full of one-liners. Somewhere deep down he knows he is no David Ogilvy though he wants that acclaim. A man on permanent shore-leave. He ships off as often as Don disappears and reinvents.

Betty’s “narcissism and casual cruelty towards her children” became her badge of honour. January Jones either is this person or grew into the role. She began to impress in the second season but I found the fat-suit storyline detracted and distracted. She is at her best-worst when she accompanies son Bobby on a school outing. That episode was a gruesome display of parenting.

Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy was wonderful. I always enjoyed the name, Peggy Olson, as it conjures up the innocence that was once Peggy and America. Matt believes the Peggy and Don relationship is so deep, so layered that it has no precedent in television history. And then there is Pete. Oh Pete. He is a perpetual love-hate of a character. Vincent Kartheiser’s delivery of the line, “Not great Bob!” is gold.

Sally is amazing both as a character and in the fantastic actress Kiernan Shipka quickly came to be. When she yells, “I am not going!” to Don who is making her return to Betty, you can feel every ounce of frustration and anger. Matt sees her, “always observing and interpreting the madness around her.” You hope Sally escapes her childhood and avoids deep dysfunction if she has her own family.

I really struggle with Megan. And not only because I live in Quebec and that the supporting French-Canadian characters are experts in dysfunction. After the last viewing, I now conclude that Megan is a ditzy opportunist turned unbalanced woman-brat. Did Don really ruin her life? Yes and no. He gave her opportunity and she rose to heights her own talent and maturity could not match.

Many fans wish Megan never happened. I am not in that camp as to me Megan is an appalling hypocrite. Matt makes me question Megan even more when he hints that she did some naughty things in an audition to win a part while at the same time Joan prostituted herself to gain a partnership in the business.

I rooted for many of the supporting players. Freddy Rumsen is reminiscent of the main character in Yates’ story B.A.R. Man. Both reel from PTSD from World War Two. How many of the greatest generation turned to drink due to experiences at The Battle of the Bulge or Okinawa? Freddy could be a book end representing the old and new but instead he is a befuddled, out-of-touch veteran who never came to grips with killing.

Ken and his secret quest as a writer was fun to follow. He is better scribbler than those writing at the agency. Even when he can escape, Ken is invariably drawn to the marketing profession. Though quite conventional by Mad Men standards, I reveled in his revenge.

Many folks have had issue with characters on the show either due to their very inclusion or the skill of the actors portraying them. Glen, played by Matthew Weiner’s son, tends to top the list. His story arc with Betty is a stretch and the stilted acting make most scenes brutal. Greg who played Joan’s husband never came off. The actor squandered a great role. Lou Avery is a dud. People I knew fast-forwarded through Lou’s scenes.

Matt does a great job contextualizing the client pitches, “The Lucky Strike meeting is also about how language can shape perception and self-perception, and give a person or a company permission to do as it pleases.” One of the most quoted Don Draper lines likens advertising to happiness or the perception of happiness. In the meeting, “happiness means the ability to do as you please, without worrying about other people’s expectations, opinions, rules or laws.” And here I thought it was just another client meeting.

The SnoBall pitch re-affirmed the fact that the competition is often within the agency. It shows that most agencies have to do work with small, unattractive accounts. When Don pitches a campaign to Waikiki Sheraton he floats a big idea that turns out to be a vision for his own suicide. He doesn’t see it until it is mentioned in the client meeting. The look on his face is priceless.

Most people talk about the Kodak Carousel and Heinz pitches, I loved Accutron. Don arms Freddy Rumsen with an amazing value proposition for this time-piece. Matt points out, “Like pretty much every advertising pitch, this one either preys on existing insecurities or creates them, subsequently offering a product that promises to make everything better.” That being said, the tagline, “It’s not a time piece. It’s a conversation piece.”, is a classic.

Sprinkled liberally throughout the series are shocks. Most of Mad Men is about non-stories, just people competing in an office and struggling at home. But at intervals, like life, there is a life changing event. Adam Whitman’s suicide due to Don’s denial of him as family wins as the most shocking for me. The gentle character played brilliantly by Jay Paulsen is tragic in every sense of the word.

Then there is Roger vomiting an ocean of oysters. That was so well done I thought John Slattery was a method actor. The now famous John Deere incident comes with Vietnam and World War Two connections and a nod to the JFK assassination. Ginsberg’s bloody nipple and the bayonet to Abe’s chest a la Apocalypse Now are standouts. We all felt Sally’s horror when she witnesses the fellatio of Roger. The fight between Lane and Pete was a beauty. The old-style fisticuffs were fantastic.

Matt believes, “Mad Men using symbolism to complicate its stories rather than tie them up in a bow.” The symbols come to represent themes including the feeling of being trapped and escaping. We see this when characters take unnecessary vacations and business trips or find a bar. Checking out midafternoon to take in a matinee is also a favorite ploy. My father was a World War Two navy veteran who did the matinee thing and I emulated him without knowing until much later that we shared the pastime. All of the characters go AWOL all some point.

Having been in the advertising industry, I know that people can be jealous and vindictive, sour, acidic, petty, judgmental, and superior. That may seem like a mass generalization but it is a topic that comes up frequently in advertising so Weiner and crew got it right. The characters are ill-equipped to be adults so act childlike exuding entitlement and dissatisfaction in equal measure. At one point Megan exclaims, “You’re all so cynical. You don’t smile, you smirk.”

Secrets abound but thankfully consumption and consumerism provide distraction. Matt points out that the show is, “how capitalism, advertising, and workplaces can warp the mind and kill the spirit, making people act coldly toward the ones they love because they aren’t meeting the goals the system set for them.” Meanwhile, the characters are fascinated with “work, commerce, career advancement, profit, and consumerist fantasy.” This goes beyond avoiding home life, it is how they self-actualize.

I really appreciated Matt’s view of how the show is shot. He believes the character of Duck is consistently placed in sparsely furnished rooms and seen from some distance back to emphasize “his emotional and physical isolation.” Matt really digs at this, “the series tends to editorialize with camera angles and cuts rather than in dialogue.” He sees this as an invitation “to not just watch the show but scrutinize it, as one might scrutinize opponents in a fight. We’re always on the lookout for deceptions and self-deceptions.”

Music underpins each episode’s theme or accentuates the actions of characters. There is the upbeat but desperate Telstar by The Tornadoes, the plaintive cry of Tobacco Road by Nashville Teens, and the clear message in You Only Live Twice from Nancy Sinatra. In later seasons, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bleecker Street, The Beach Boys’ I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times and The Beatles incredible Tomorrow Never Knows speak of being lost in our time. All very Mad Men indeed.

Mad Men is at once simple and incredibly complex perhaps best compared to Bert Cooper’s description of New York City, “a marvellous machine filled with levers and gears and springs, like a fine watch wound tight, always ticking.” Comparing the show to something else that is being compared to something else is absolutely fitting as life is metaphor and advertising is comparison.

Matt concludes the book by suggesting Mad Men is not about history, it is mystery. In his book, he solves a great deal of those mysteries and has forever enriched the series for me.

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