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Ed Driscoll

‘A Man Is Whatever Room He Is In’

July 9th, 2008 - 10:16 pm

Just arrived from Amazon is the DVD collection of the first season of AMC’s Mad Men, a show about which I’ve written several times previously. But the package is fascinating: its four DVDs are encased in a nifty giant tin mock cigarette lighter, and inside is an ad for a pair of actual working Zippo lighters embossed with the Mad Men logo. The inserted ad recalls an earlier sponsorship of the show. They’re reminders that the producers of Mad Men want to have it both ways–they want to look down upon their characters for smoking and excessive drinking (pretty rich coming from hedonistic Hollywood), but simultaneously, they’re happy to use their series on the excesses of advertising to advertise the exact vices the show condemns. Now that’s postmodern entertainment!

Does the hectoring subtext of the writing matter all that much? Maybe not, as I wrote last week:

While the show’s first season had some good episodes as it gained its stride and got past the hectoring tone of its debut (which I discussed at length over at Pajamas HQ last year), it’s the extremely well crafted look of the show that serves as the real time machine. It’s a reminder that, while Mad Men’s establishment liberal Bobos In Paradise writers believe that the past is a strange, alien world, the series’ production and costume designers certainly makes that world look remarkably inviting, especially when compared with today.

On the Museum of the Moving Image’s Website (found via the IMDB) is a nicely written, if slightly hyperbolic article on the strength of Mad Men’s production design, though–Warning!–it does contain a pretty big spoiler for anyone coming into the show cold via the DVD package. And come to think of it, the scene in question creates a modern connection to the show that I’m absolutely sure its writers didn’t intend at all:

The climax of the first season of Mad Men, set at the dawn of the 1960s at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is actually a brilliant anticlimax—a revelation swiftly followed by a re-veiling. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a clumsy striver at Sterling Cooper, attempts to topple the resident alpha dog, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), with what looks to be a career-ending disclosure: Draper, the firm’s dazzling creative director, is living under an assumed name; he’s a fraud, likely a Korean War deserter, and possibly worse. Campbell blurts it all out to the avuncular overlord, Bertram Cooper [Wonderfully played by Robert Morse, who's perhaps the show's most inspired casting choice--Ed], while Draper stands by silently, poker-faced, hands steady enough to light yet another cigarette. The elder statesman Cooper considers, waits an agonizing long beat, and makes a purely utilitarian reply.”Mr. Campbell, who cares?” Cooper asks calmly, his voice burring with pity and disdain for the youngster’s naive theatrics. “This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here.”

“The Japanese have a saying,” Cooper continues. “‘A man is whatever room he is in’—and right now, Donald Draper is in this room.”

This marvelously tense scene—from the season’s penultimate episode, titled “Nixon vs. Kennedy”—is Mad Men in a nutshell. (The AMC series has its second-season premiere on July 27; the complete first cycle of 13 episodes is now out on DVD and Blu-ray disc from Lionsgate.) The televised Nixon-Kennedy debates are generally acknowledged as the moment when image overtook content and began supplanting it; for the hard-drinking, impeccably tailored men and women who populate the randy, smoke-filled offices of Sterling Cooper, the self is a performance, adjusted according to the demands of The Room. Context is everything. Everyone leads at least a double life. (For the men, juggling a wife and mistress is practically a job requirement.) Denial is enormously useful. (One character was pregnant all season and didn’t know it.) But it’s the dashing über-WASP Don Draper—né Dick Whitman, son of a prostitute, orphan of the Depression—who most fully embodies the idea of the self as a brand that can be revamped on the whims of the market, without remorse or apology. He is what he does. (And why is Donald Draper in this room? Because he generates revenue.)

“A man is whatever room he is in”–that’s a remarkably timely phrase right about now, isn’t it?

Related: The characters in Mad Men would be horrified by this lack of consumer choice in Obama’s hometown; something tells me the producers wouldn’t, though.