The Virtues of Mad Men


Mad Men is back. And the season 5 premiere pivots on Megan Draper, former secretary to leading man Don Draper who he impulsively made into his second wife in the finale of season 4 after she lovingly and effectively cared for his kids (unlike their mother in seasons 1-4) during a trip to Disneyland. [Notice: spoiler alert]

Don, now turning 40, is two years into this second marriage where Megan (10-15 years younger, first time wife) is a copywriter at Don’s ad agency. Megan throws Don a surprise birthday party at their mid-century cool home with vintage, period furniture and white carpet.

Like a pre-teen that just buys into whatever craze the world is selling that year, Megan innocently imitates the then bleeding-edge, French mid-1960’s hipster singers as she performs for Don (in front of everybody, which embarrasses him) the period song Zou Bisou Bisou. Her performance is sensual but I believe virtuous in intention here as Megan declares her monogamous love for Don right in front of his sea of shallow Madison Avenue trendsetters. Here are a portion of the lyrics, translated:

Kiss kiss kiss
My God, how soft they are!
Kiss kiss kiss
The sound of kisses!
In the bushes, under the August sky
Lovers glide stealthily
Like birds, they have dates
Everywhere you hear:

Kiss kiss kiss
Kiss kiss kiss
Kiss kiss kiss
Oh Kiss Kiss

My God, how soft they are!
But tell me, do you know
What that means, between us,
What does “zou bisou” mean?
It means, I confess to you,
But yes, I love only you!

(The show’s producers have the confidence to know Jessica Paré’s performance should be available for purchase.)

Well, people being people, many in the office miss the sweet tenderness of this wife’s gift (and they probably don’t understand the French lyrics), and the office is abuzz with innuendo and even lust, which Megan catches on to, and goes home “sick.” There are some other subplots with characters’ behaviors that repulse her.

She later that night says to Don, “You’re all so cynical. You don’t smile, you smirk.” Talking about their white carpet being littered with trash from the party, Megan asks, “I thought you wanted it?” Don replies, “I just wanted you to have what you want.” Maybe this is evidence that Don is on his way to becoming a servant husband here, Or maybe he was just consuming a product (carpet) in the Madison Ave way of instant gratification? In any event, the carpet isn’t white any longer, like everything else one can buy to feel new and clean, it’s just temporal.

I heard Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace once say during a premiere in LA, “Cynicism is easy. It’s harder to stand for something.” With television programming mostly populated by self-aware, acerbic characters and flimsy plot lines, it’s refreshing to have a TV show that makes you think (like reading does!). This Shakespearean tragedy shows that nearly all the characters consistently make unwise small decisions that add up to dapper but corrosive lives. Which is, I believe, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s ongoing brilliant social commentary about individuals (who together make up a society) making wrong, poor choices that ultimately eroded their humanity as God intended it. Mad Men perfectly shows us our want to pervert our natural, normal, innate desire for order and aesthetics. Don Draper’s job is to sell America a fleshly, superfluous, skin-deep beauty; to shill a fake version of the pursuit of happiness.

And the advertising around the show propels the facade, with commercials for a Mad Men branded clothing line at Banana Republic. Hopefully we’ll “get” the morality tale and not just the aesthetic.

Will Mad Men watchers learn from this ongoing Shakespearean tragedy or will they be simply transfixed by the visceral cool of the show? Is my take on this being a morality tale even accurate?


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