“We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”
Mad Men has ended. I find myself wishing for 2007, when I was still living in Pittsburgh and watching the show’s premiere. Wishing for new eyes, eyes that hadn’t seen Don’s grimace, Peggy’s eagerness, Roger’s ease and swagger, and Joan’s mask of confidence that says she always knows more than you. I want that first time high. Never again will I be able to watch without analysis, without looking for clues, symbolism, themes, and meaning. Of which there are many.
The quote is from Season 4’s The Summer Man, and is the heart and soul. Matthew Weiner has created a television monument replete with memory paintings which drive the point home over and over again. We’re always looking to the future, hoping for what will be. We’re always looking backward, wishing we had the things we misplaced. Time is ephemeral. We only have now, so we are lost. We must endure that gap.
It’s a show that requires multiple viewings. It can be discussed, argued over, and ruminated on like great literature. It moves slowly, ponderously, with unexpected moments of “BANG!” and “BOOM!” A lot like life. People complain about its tedium, but the show replicates our quiet lives of desperation. We plod on and then “BAM!” something happens like an unexpected accident, a firing, a death, a promotion. It shakes us to our core for just a moment before we catch our breath and settle back into the monotony of the day to day.
And all the while as we plod and plot we wish for what we had. Nostalgia is a powerful theme, one that lives alongside others like identity, time, honor, pride, work, family, feminism, race and why are we here? Do people really change or just change for a while before settling back into their inherent natures? How do you face radical upheaval within the decade you exist? So many layers.
Nostalgia drew me in initially because I was born in the 60’s, and the women of the show look and sound like the most important women in my life. I’m triggered by every scene whether its Trudy’s hair in 1970 which looks exactly like my Aunt’s, or Megan’s Zou Bisou dress which was something Momma wore. This isn’t just a period piece. It’s a time capsule. For just a moment every week I can have what I had. I can see Momma as she looked when she was young. Before she was a mother. Before children narrowed her world. That’s powerful stuff. I’ll miss it.
So many of the show’s women-centric moments snag something inside me and give it a good yank. Betty, perfectly coiffed and attired at 7am pries open a can of frozen orange juice concentrate then dumps the slime into a pitcher with a sick plopping sound. As a girl, that was my job. I almost blow a memory gasket. I’d forgotten. Nostalgia, what Milan Kundera defines as, “…the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return,” has always been my albatross. I remember everything. I yearn over everything. And Matthew Weiner yearns even more than me.
Peggy Olsen flings out her IBM Selectric cover like it’s a blanket, using it to secure her typewriter against that evening’s dust. A memory file drawer is thrust open and I’m a secretary again, working for a small group of lawyers, typing their letters, their invoices, their envelopes. I wear a pink angora sweater dress to my interview. Months later my boss confesses it got me the job. It curves in all the right places. Suddenly I’m Joan.
For a short while at 19 I am Joan, fending off advances, proposals that aren’t marriage, reveling in that kind of attention because I’ve never gotten any before. I should be aghast, but instead I blush. I’m flattered. I’ve never been viewed as a sexpot. To my utter astonishment, I love it. It feels powerful. Every woman should work her inner Joan sometimes.
For women of that generation, clothes are powerful. When you spend an hour securing your underthings you can’t help but walk a certain way. In one of my favorite scenes several neighborhood women are sitting around, looking 1960’s fabulous, smoking and drinking cocktails in the middle of the afternoon. Quietly projecting that kind of unadvertised, secretive power only kid gloves, kitten heels, red lips, leopard print hats, and ornate costume jewelry impart. These women sure as hell project power through their clothes.
Amidst all of this Sally and Bobby Draper come rushing in, wearing dry cleaning bags and screaming, “Look Mommy! I’m a spaceman!” Betty tersely replies, “If my clothes are lying in a big wrinkle in the bottom of my closet you’re going to be in BIG trouble.” Drag on the cigarette. Sip of the cocktail. After a withering look to the kids, another look to the ladies that says, “God! These kids today.” I howled with laughter because this snapshot could’ve been pulled directly from my family album. Minus the dry cleaner bags though. Momma was the original helicopter parent when it came to possibly suffocating.
Clothes are a major nostalgia trigger. My mother and grandmothers must’ve had HUNDREDS of housecoats. And all those frilly nylon nightgowns Trudy is bouncing around the house in? Looking for all the world like a Stepford wife? Spitting image of Momma. I used to dig through her dresser to examine those flouncy oh-so-flammable gowns, fingering the material, wondering if I’d ever be able to fill one out. They always seemed more like costumes than clothes. Like flimsy little Kleenex. Or Tinkerbell’s wings. Momma had hundreds. Because she loved them, but also because Nana worked in the lingerie department at Newberry’s. Momma could count on one every Christmas and birthday. I’ve so many memories of Momma lying in bed in one of those things, sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, talking about how she didn’t feel well. Or she’s tired. She doesn’t have time to talk to me. That’s one good hard hurtful memory yank at the heart. It’s too accurate to be comfortable. It makes my stomach hurt, but in a really good way. Because I’m a nostalgia masochist.
Momma was Betty in that everything had to be “just so” for company, but once the curtains were closed it was wine, housecoats, and flouncy gowns. Her dinner parties were true practices in early 1960’s Camelot-meets-Jacqueline-Kennedy protocol. As befitting a woman who majored in Home Economics at a woman’s college. The buffet was her work of art – a special serving plate for every offering, real cloth napkins. We even had a multi-tiered “tree” for cookies. And Sinatra on vinyl. Ol’ Blue Eyes is back? He never left.
I’m obsessed with Mad Men Women because I know them. I lived with them. I was them. I am them. Momma looked like Megan, but acted like Betty. Nana looked like Peggy, but acted like Megan. I was Sally, wondering why all the adults were so mean and stupid and crazy. Constantly wondering if I’d ever be free to do what I want, when I want. Hating my mother. I’m still Sally at my core, watching the world and wondering what the fuck is going on.
In my 20’s I was Peggy, working three jobs just to make ends meet, wondering if any of my male superiors respected the effort or even noticed, hoping I’d make it to my next paycheck. Now I’m Betty. And I’m Joan. I find myself at a crossroads. Wondering where I fit in, worrying about my fading youth. Making sure my hair and makeup are just so before I leave the house. Trying to figure out my place in the world. Realizing it’s finally my time to be the most essential part of myself. To do something memorable. Hoping I don’t turn around and find a major traumatic life event staring me in the face the way Betty did. The way Momma did. So many women of that generation ended up this way, living and caring for others, smoking and drinking and eating away their troubles, frustrated by their limited options. Realizing the gilded cage isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. When they find the courage to live authentically, here comes cancer. Or something else. Mad Men reminds me to get off my ass and not wait around. Because you never know.
I’m Peggy too. Because I want it all. The work and the love. I want the myth and I’ll fight like hell to get it with a cigarette dangling from my lips and a naughty print under my arm. I’ll continue to aim for the unattainable ideal. Because I am all these women. Matthew Weiner has created such in-depth archetypes I can recognize myself in all of them. How ironic it took a man to remind me I’m not alone.
Yes, it’s just a TV show. But it’s provided me with a story to fall into when I need to fill the gap. A place to escape when I can’t stop thinking about the shit I have to do. It’s my version of Don and Peggy going to the movies to clear out the cobwebs. The show reminds me I’m not alone in my hopelessness, futility, desperation, and longing. We all experience this. It’s our lives.
Like a beloved photograph album Mad Men reminds me of forgotten moments. It’s a Kodak carousel slideshow I’ll watch again and again whenever I need to escape the ponderous NOW. Whenever I find that demon Nostalgia tapping me on the shoulder, crooking its finger, luring me away. Recollections are ephemeral and inaccurate, but Mad Men will stand as record of where we’ve been. And help us reflect on where we’re headed. I thank him for that.