Everything, and So Much of It

The lights go down, and in the projector's glow you can still make out the sheen of Brylcreem in his hair, still see, as he launches into the meat of his pitch, the easy confidence of a man who knows what he's doing. But there's something else here, too, some intimation of failure beneath the gleam of success. When he talks about Teddy, an aging Greek who mentored him in the long-ago days of copywriting for a fur company, his frequent pauses create the staccato rhythm of a man trying to catch his breath:

Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound" . . . It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship; it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called "The Wheel," it's called "The Carousel" — it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again, to a place we know we are loved.

Images of a family idyll — children climbing trees on some sunny weekend afternoon, husband and wife laughing over a shared hot dog — click on and off the conference room's vinyl projection screen. And so Don Draper's life flits gently past, like sand through the gaps in his fingers.

Set between the first wide distribution of the Pill and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the first three seasons of Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner) feel like an adaptation of The Tempest set before the characters wash ashore, except that we viewers already know the names of the rocky shoals ahead — Cuba, Oswald, Selma, Tet, Chicago — and watch for them as though still trying to steer clear. Unaware, Don (played with two parts sex appeal and one part menace by Jon Hamm) and his wife Betty (January Jones, at times so fragile and pale she seems on the point of vanishing), a picture-perfect suburban couple, find themselves up to their necks in anomie. Don's troubling grasp of just how painful the past can be is matched only by his wife's own grief, which she burrows into so deeply that she can only express it to a neighbor's 10-year-old son, holding his mittened hand. "Glen, I can't talk to anyone," she says, beginning to cry. "It's so horrible. I'm so sad . . . Please tell me I'll be okay." "I don't know," he replies. "I wish I was older."

For Don and Betty and Glen, as for secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and the other victims of the Eisenhower Snooze who roam the halls of ad agency Sterling Cooper, what one wants soundly trounces what one already has, despite/because of the fact that what each wants is far more difficult to get, and less easily explained. This is, as Betty Friedan famously termed it, "the problem that has no name." It arises not from poverty but from immense, unyielding comfort, like a bed from which you cannot get up. It is, in short, a feeling that life itself, amid luxuries unimaginable to one's parents, loses some vital part of its value. "I look at you and I think, 'I want what he has,'" Peggy tells Don. "You have everything, and so much of it."

What "everything" might entail is left unexplored, and maybe that's the point: modern America is a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side proposition, full of evidence that we're not making what we can out of what we've been given. The characters' struggle to move beyond the ennui of afternoon cocktails and idle affairs, to rediscover a better past, mirrors our own struggle to move forward with all that baggage on our back. In this country, fifty years on, we're still waiting for the time machine to bring the imagined idyll around again, desperately seeking something, anything, to salve the old wounds. And as goes the country, so goes its television: Mad Men's emotional thermostat seems to be set permanently at longing — longing for what we had (or believe we had) and lost, longing for what we hope to gain, longing sentimentally and longing with distress, longing stuck in the uncomfortable place between nostalgia and regret, where it becomes hard to tell whether the pain we feel stems from having once been happier than we are now, or from never having been happy at all.

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