Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. ~ Svetlana Boym1
“Don Draper’s Guide to Picking Up Women,” a 2008 Saturday Night Live skit featuring Jon Hamm, who plays Don on AMC’s critically acclaimed television show Mad Men (2007-present), succinctly identifies both the satisfaction and the absurdity of the series and its nostalgic appeal. In this satire, Don explains those who wish to emulate his success with women (as defined by quantity not quality of relationships) need only follow a few “simple” steps, the last of which articulates what is simultaneously seductive and disconcerting about the show’s unabashed nostalgia for the 1960s and Draper’s inexplicably charming misogyny:
Finally, step four: look fantastic in a suit, look fantastic in casual wear, look fantastic in everything, sound good, smell good, kiss good, strut around with supreme confidence, be uncannily successful at your job, blow people away every time you say anything, take six-hour lunches, disappear for weeks at a time, lie to everyone about everything, and drink and smoke constantly. Basically, be Don Draper.2
While step four begins with markers of the standard fantasy presented to us by television—characters “look fantastic in everything,” are often “uncannily successful at [their] job[s],” and win us over with their wit—his list meanders off-course, presenting some undesirable behaviors most of us would not wish in a romantic partner (disappearing, lying, drinking and smoking). These latter traits evince a stark divergence in Mad Men’s particular brand of nostalgia; it acknowledges that sometimes we want to indulge in bad behavior (and in bad history) and that one of the functions of television, generally, and the show, specifically, is to allow us to do so—at least by proxy. A significant lure of “be[ing] Don Draper” is being able to misbehave and get away with it.
It’s in this fantasy of misbehavior—the desire to be bad and still be loved—that much of the draw of Mad Men’s first season, in particular, lies. Later seasons temper Don’s roguishness somewhat, but he and other characters still frequently make ill-informed, if not brazenly stupid, decisions and somehow come out on top. Not to mention that the show basks in an era notable for its disavowal of authority, the 1960s, chronicling the lives of people (Manhattan ad executives) who thrive on anticipating social trends. Notably, advertisers rely on consumers’ desire to belong while convincing them that they’re unique, that their product choices help define their singularity and their normality. That the characters of Mad Menaim to perpetuate this myth of mass consumer consciousness overlaid by a façade of individual sovereignty is patently obvious; however, whether or not the “mad men” themselves buy into their own mythology remains unclear. At times, even Don, by far the most introspective character on the show, remains blissfully oblivious to the machinations around him, to his own failures as a colleague, boss, husband, lover, and father, and to the challenges to his authority. Other times, he has moments of self-awareness, moments when he seems to realize his own tenuous power, his fallibility or the problematic nature of his self-fashioned isolation. In these moments, Don’s regret is palpable, and yet he is helpless to change his past, present or future. As a character, Don Draper symbolizes both the darkest fantasy of individualism, that we have absolute agency over our decisions and their outcomes, and the deep-seated fear of a consumer society, that there are no true choices left to be made.
To say that Mad Men exhibits some ambivalence toward Don Draper as a character anyone might admire or emulate would be an understatement. So, too, the show’s sense of nostalgia evinces a continual tension between longing and disavowal. The series represents its era, setting and cast of characters as simultaneously alluring and repellent. In this essay, I explore two aspects of the show’s nostalgic appeal; in both cases, the pleasures of Mad Men’snostalgia are such that the show both indulges and repudiates its viewers’ desire(s). First of all, it presents a fiction of the 1960s that renders some of its most abhorrent elements at the very least fascinating, if not downright appealing, from sanctioned workplace misogyny and widespread philandering to rampant smoking, alcoholism and consumerism. Mad Men asks, “Wasn’t it beautiful?” while flaunting the era as past; here fiction and history merge to offer a joint disavowal: you can’t go home again, but would you really want to? Secondly, the show presents us with a prickly protagonist; despite his success, Don does not quite fit in with his coworkers. More overtly charming and confident than his coworkers, he is also the most damaged character and, as a protagonist, does not offer much of a foothold for potential viewer identification. While he is innovative as a creative director, Don’s personal life is stuck in the past. He is constantly bogged down by his troubled upbringing, war-time secrets, and memories of his once-happy marriage.Therefore, he is unable to fully assimilate into the rapidly changing present. Mad Men articulates not only viewers’ potential nostalgia (for being part of an era of hope and radical change), but also Don’s yearning for an identity that has always been a fiction. It is through Don that these desires merge and Mad Men plays out the dangers of living in the past, but it also marks viewers as helpless against its nostalgic appeal.
Don’s explicit longing and whatever yearnings the show might attempt to cultivate in its viewers speak to the heart of nostalgia’s etymology: from medical condition and psychoanalytic trope to a sentiment exploited by advertisers and a lure of mass media. Originally considered a disease, nostalgia was first diagnosed by Johannes Hofer in 1688 as an extreme form of homesickness he noted in his observations of Swiss soldiers.3 In its three-hundred-plus year evolution, nostalgia has shifted from medical conundrum to socially-accepted sentimentality. As Svetlana Boym elaborates, “Nostalgia (from nostos—return to home, and algia—longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. […] A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life.”4 This description of nostalgia as a double exposure, past and present juxtaposed in a wild romantic dream, speaks to the heart of Mad Men’s wistful historical fiction. And we must not forget the place of loss in the nostalgic imaginary; without loss, we have no longing, and without longing, we cannot seek pleasure in the fantasy of a past in which we never took part or only half-remember. This pleasure, often found in nostalgic daydreams, separates nostalgia from its cousin, mourning. Together, mourning and nostalgia often merge in our thoughts of loves found and lost and cherished memories half-forgotten, but they are nevertheless separate emotional responses.5 While mourning constitutes a typical reaction to the loss of a loved one, place or object (or, in some cases, even the loss of an idea: a fantasy never to be realized, a dream unmoored), nostalgia frames that sense of loss and imbues it with the richness of desire.
Sometimes dwelling in nostalgia can be better than the actual lived moment. In the final episode of Mad Men’s first season (“The Wheel”), three notable plotlines intersect, converging at Don’s irreclaimable past. First, he finds out his estranged brother has committed suicide; this recalls Don’s true past, as the destitute and mistreated Dick Whitman, a past he would just as soon forget. The real Don Draper died during World War II and Dick, a foot soldier under his command, stole his identity. Secondly, Don’s wife Betty laments having to take the children to her parents for Thanksgiving without her husband, who ostensibly has to work. In part because of his frequent absences from family events, she begins to suspect at least some of Don’s many infidelities, among other betrayals.6 In fits and starts, their marriage begins to unravel (it takes two more seasons for it to fully dissolve). Thirdly, the ad team at Sterling Cooper struggle to come up with a campaign for Kodak’s new slide carousel (which the company at first dully dubs “the wheel”).
These three narratives come together through Don’s pitch to Kodak when he, in a burst of melancholy inspiration, arrives at the perfect narrative for their ad campaign. Setting up the slide projector in the room with the Kodak executives, Don fills the carousel not with stock images but with deeply personal family photos: Betty and the children playing in the park, Don napping on the couch with their daughter while their son plays in the background, Don and Betty kissing, etc. While he flips slowly through these intimate moments from his family’s history, his pitch resonates with a yearning far more complex and private than his co-workers or the people from Kodak could possibly understand. For viewers of the show who know and understand his history, Don’s words expose not only a desire for the perfect marriage reflected (but always already a fiction) in his photos, but also a longing for an identity that’s truly his:
Nostalgia—it’s delicate, but potent. 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 where we know are loved.
What does it mean that Don mistranslates nostalgia as a sort of remembered pain, a scar not quite healed in mind or body? The desire implicit to contemporary (and commercial) uses of nostalgia are not reflected by the phrase “pain from an old wound,” nor does it quite correspond with Don’s verbal imagery: a time machine, an ache, a carousel, a child’s journey round and round, a “place where we know we are loved.” Don’s supposed literal translation aligns nostalgia more closely with mourning than with fantasy or desire, as do his photographs. Here is his beautiful marriage, his family, his home, his wife, his children—captured only in the static memory of photographs that cannot really hold them and figuratively dissolving in front of his eyes. His old life as Dick Whitman is a life Don doesn’t want to remember, and yet his brother’s suicide resonates all the more sharply because of Don’s prior disavowal of his half-forgotten sibling. His present life as Don Draper is becoming past so rapidly that he cannot catch up—especially with Kodak’s carousel which only takes him “around and around and back home again.”
The episode’s denouement, then, is all the more fitting as a double ending in which desire abuts reality. Don arrives home and catches Betty and the children as they’re about to head out the door; just in time, he is able to accompany them to Betty’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Then, the scene repeats: Don arrives home and his family is already gone, the first arrival only a fantasy of his return. In this scene, Don’s nostalgia, on such stark display during the Kodak pitch, works forward instead of backwards, projecting an impossible vision of familial forgiveness into a future that will never be realized.
Don’s “old wound”—his abandoned identity, his no longer happy marriage—manifests itself as a desire to be part of a family, by reliving the past and/or changing the future. Don, Betty tells her therapist, “doesn’t know what family is; he doesn’t even have one.” He lacks an identity in that he has a stolen one; he is no longer Dick Whitman nor can he ever truly be Don Draper, at least not to himself. Likewise, his inability to remain faithful to Betty, or any woman, suggests his inability to accept the fantasy of a perfect family, past, present or future, no matter how much he longs for it. As a character, Don is fundamentally broken, but it’s because of his fractured identity that he is able to reach consumers so effectively. After all, isn’t one of the fundamental ideas of advertising to make consumers yearn for something they weren’t missing in the first place and then offer them the product, that misplaced puzzle piece that will resolve their ideal image of themselves? Don’s ability to channel his loss into creative acumen manifests this loss as productive, instructive and profound; he understands better than anyone the appeal of Kodak’s carousel: an endless repetition of visible memories taking him backwards and forwards.
Tellingly, in the final episode of the third season, the conclusive end of Betty and Don’s marriage intersects with Don’s defection from Sterling Cooper. Conspiring with some of his co-workers to create a new agency, Don attempts to convince secretary-turned-rising-star-copywriter Peggy Olson to join them by appealing to their mutual sense of loss: “There are people out there who buy things. People like you and me. Then something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable.” To Don, loss and nostalgia are powerful tools of the advertising trade, lending both him and Peggy a special aptitude to seek out and manipulate consumers’ hopes and dreams. Throughout the series, Don frequently compares himself to Peggy in both obvious and unspoken ways, and it’s notable that she is one of the few women in the company whom he doesn’t attempt to seduce. However, Don and Peggy deal with their respective losses, the destruction and reconstruction of their identities, in different ways. Don is nostalgic; Peggy is expectant. Don regresses: he wallows in his past, continually trying to revive his previous prowess as both a lover and a brilliant ad man. Peggy progresses: she rejects her past (as daughter of a working-class family in Brooklyn, as a naïve secretary, as mother to an illegitimate and unwanted child) and imagines a future in which she is exactly who she wants to be. Don’s mourning for a lost selfhood and attempts to reclaim his virility reflect a popular, if overly melodramatic, narrative of the 1960s as an era of upheaval during which defiant rebels loosened the stranglehold of a traditionalist status quo. Don, still mired in 1950s notions of masculinity and the male privilege, sovereignty and dominance it implied, struggles to overcome “the loss of [this] enchanted world with clear borders and values.”7 Through Peggy, Don may see a possibility for looking forward and not back, but it is one he is not able to fully adopt for himself. Peggy’s refusal to follow traditional feminine inclinations—motherhood, marriage, domesticity—predicates her willingness to sidestep the status quo and make her own future in spite of her past.
What of the viewer’s nostalgia, then? Does Mad Men’s success and the flurry of recent attempts to capitalize on 1960s retro chic (e.g. Banana Republic’s Mad Men clothing line and Barbie’s collectible Mad Men dolls, as well as NBC’s recently-cancelled The Playboy Club and ABC’s moderately-more-successful Pan Am) speak to a desire, or a perceived desire, for seductive fictions of our collective past? Mad Men offers at least two paths towards this nostalgic imaginary. Embodied by Peggy, the first frames the viewer’s potential nostalgia as a pleasurable performance of historical fiction. This perspective renders the era’s charm—the fashion, the glamour, the blissful ignorance of the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, the burgeoning potential for radical change at home, at work and in the government—as alluring. Its foibles—misogyny, racism, homophobia, cutthroat consumerism, political upheavals—we can consequently read as regrettable peculiarities of a now-uninhabitable past, not forgotten, but overcome. A highly-flawed fantasy, but a tempting one, it puts aside the most glaring questions. Have we actually overcome the civil rights issues of the 1960s? Have we tamped down on our rampant consumerism or alleviated our political turmoil?
The second nostalgic model, following Don’s lead, is more honest and less appealing, but equally captivating. From the first to the (most recent) fourth season, Don’s deterioration of character evinces a stern refusal on the part of the show to allow viewers to easily identify with him. He is a rakish bad boy, a charming philanderer, a brilliant innovator, a snake oil salesman, a loving father, a careless husband, a pitiable outcast and a pathetic fool. His past isn’t pretty and neither is ours, but while nostalgia may lead Don astray, his loss is our gain. His mournful performance of lost identity echoes a sentiment many viewers feel when watching (fictional) others make mistakes: a deep sense of schadenfreudejuxtaposed with the mitigated desire to behave badly ourselves. Don struggles with his impossible desire to shut out the world and live in the past and his compulsion to repeat the site(s) of his loss into the future and beyond.8
The past holds enormous sway; it can, according to Roland Barthes, “fulfill and lacerate.” In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes goes on to ruminate on the power of memory: “The imperfect is the tense of fascination: it seems to be alive and yet it doesn’t move: imperfect presence, imperfect death; neither oblivion nor resurrection; simply the exhausting lure of memory. […] I remember in order to be unhappy/happy—not in order to understand.”9 This idea—that memory cannot change the past, present or future, that it cannot lead to deeper understanding and that it only leads to sentiment (feelings of loss or pleasure or both)—speaks to the heart of both Don Draper’s and Mad Men’s appeal. The series does not give viewers a deeper understanding of the 1960s, of ad executives, or of charming philaderers like Don. Understanding might require acceptance. Instead, Mad Men offers us nostalgia as a lure. The show basks in the past, reveling in both its triumphs and its failures. As viewers, not part of the show’s fictions or its history, we can indulge in the fantasy of someone else’s memory. While Don twists in Kodak’s carousel with the relics of his misdeeds, we are free, like children who do not yet have his painful past to remember, to spin “around and around and back home again.”
Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an Adjunct Professor of Film Studies at the University of Northern Colorado and recently received her PhD from the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. Her articles have appeared in Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, Ms. Magazine, The New Republic, and Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal and in the anthology Queer Popular Culture (Palgrave, 2007). Her research and scholarship interrogate the intersection of television and contemporary visual art as well considering the representation of gender in popular culture.