Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Serializing the Past: Re-Evaluating History in Mad Men

Published onMar 18, 2012
Serializing the Past: Re-Evaluating History in Mad Men

In the midst of Mad Men’s first season, Sterling Cooper’s office manager Joan Holloway informs secretary Peggy Olson about her promotion to copy writer. At the end of their conversation, Joan refers to her position as messenger: “Well, you know what they say: the medium is the message.”1 Of course, the viewer can classify this as one of the show’s many anachronisms. We know that Marshall McLuhan’s slogan, which is one of media studies’ essential phrases, became popular in 1964 and not in 1960 as depicted by the show.2 But there is more to that. This famous sentence self-reflexively signifies that Mad Men’s form, its complex serial condition, is central to the way it represents the past. The medium, i.e. Mad Men as contemporary hybrid serial television drama, is the message as it signifies the show’s basic principle of investigating the past. We follow the characters of the fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper through their troubled public and private lives, and see them struggling, sometimes even capitulating, in the light of challenging historical times, from episode to episode, from one season to the next—over and over again. At the same time, the chronological order of (historical) events is disrupted by experimental storytelling techniques like narrative gaps and temporal discontinuities. Like both McLuhan and Mad Men, this article explores the relationship between the medium and the message. For Mad Men, it is not simply the televisual form, but the serial televisual form that communicates the show’s message.

Given the show’s focus on the medium, it here quickly becomes apparent that there is a need for new terms in television studies. Following the recent development of primetime television drama’s narrative forms, including Mad Men, but also Lost, The Wire, and The Sopranos, contemporary television drama is now more focused on complex and never-ending storylines, and the links between episodes than on the narrative closure of weekly episodes. So-called ‘quality television’ primetime series are also accompanied by immense academic output, either due to formal considerations or topics addressed. In television companion books, scholars analyze the shows’ non-conventional narratives. Invested in this current televisual phenomenon, Jason Mittell names this “narrative complexity” a key feature of contemporary storytelling in US-American television. Over the course of their development, television series like Mad Men use innovative narrative styles and a self-reflexivity about the forms they employ.3 They become an experimental ground for trying out new modes of storytelling. As the primetime television drama expands serial features and is, therefore, more focused on continuity than on closure, narrative complexity foregrounds the continuity of plots.4 This shift within contemporary primetime programming originating in the United States liberated both the serial and the soap opera from its stigmatizing label as a low-quality daytime format. Heralded in a new form as critically-acclaimed evening dramas, this ongoing but nevertheless fractured form of storytelling suggests and enables Mad Men’s re-telling and re-evaluating the past.

One possible method for considering the complex relationship between content and form in contemporary television dramas may be drawn from a 1988 article in The American Historical Review in which Hayden White discussed the relationship between history in words—“historiography”—and history in images—“historiophoty.5 White asserts that both forms are not simply marked by difference, as it is often assumed by historians, but are unified in the basic fact that neither can ever depict historical events objectively. Every medium shapes its content according to its own nature, no matter if it speaks the language of the written word or the filmic image.6 Concerning Mad Men, one has to consider its visualization of history and, perhaps even more importantly, its serialization of history as its message. Telling history through the modes of seriality and narrative complexity establishes a deepened narrative scope that is not driven by linearity and closure, but provides space for historical complexity.

So what possibilities are there to transform history in today’s hybrid, multiple storyline serial form? Here, I argue that the hybrid serial form is significant in the way Mad Men chooses to tell its version of the 1960s. As its complex narration features elements of nonlinear storytelling, (historical) events in Mad Men are not presented as a coherent narrative but are marked by dissonance. History itself is negotiated anew as an elliptic experience. Moreover, the serial nature of its storytelling universe provides space for re-telling and re-evaluating history through personalization. The Mad Men narrative offers its audience the opportunity to experience abstract history through the life of different individuals. As we are witnesses of the micro-perspective on 1960s history, we are asked, as viewers, to draw conclusions about the macro-level production of history by historians, textbooks, and a conservative culture. Glen Creeber states that the historical serial, as Mad Men may be considered, is so successful because it is “able to balance and address the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ within one complex narrative trajectory.”7

Complex Narration and Hybridization: Multiplying the 1960s

As Sarah Kozloff suggests, television can be described as the essential storyteller of our times.8 Since its rebranding in 2002, AMC has redefined itself as major competitor in the storytelling universe of television, symbolized by its current slogan “Story Matters Here.” Its first original drama series, Mad Men became a cultural phenomenon after the first season aired. In addition to its visual style, a new quality of contemporary primetime drama can be found in its narrative structure. One primary distinction in the narrative structure of serialized television is that between series and serial:

Series refers to those shows whose characters and setting are recycled, but the story concludes in each individual episode. By contrast, in a serial the story and discourse do not come to a conclusion during an episode, and the threads are picked up again after a given hiatus.9

In the following analysis I refer back to this basic assumption. The television serial, synonymous with the daytime soap opera, features a continuous narrative. Though the series also offers its viewers a consistency with regard to setting and characters, it gives prominence to discontinuity in narration as each single episode presents a self-contained storyworld. In general, the series signifies the neglecting of episodic memory, whereas the serial denotes the materialization of episodic memory.

With regard to contemporary programming, however, it is no longer useful to strictly differentiate between both forms of storytelling. Rather, it is crucial to show how flexibility and fluidity characterize new narrative forms. British television scholar Robin Nelson coined the term “flexi-narrative” to explain the hybridization of the contemporary television drama as a “mixture of the series ‘plot-resolution model,’ the serial’s ‘extended story over several episodes’ and the soap’s ‘on-going narrative.’”10 This concept is also highly relevant to the discussion of Mad Men.

Elements of continuation clearly prevail in the show. Some storylines are expanded over several episodes while others are temporarily forgotten and then referred back to and modified in later episodes. Narrative enigmas—described by Jeremy Butler as the core of serial programming—remain unsolved over the course of whole seasons.11 Don Draper’s true identity as Dick Whitman, for example, is a central mystery of the first three seasons’ storytelling universe. Don’s reluctantance to talk about his childhood is a continuing storyline that gains depth throughout the serial narration. This is exemplified in a conversation with his colleague Roger Sterling and their wives, in which Don evades the topic in a comical way: “I can’t tell you about my childhood. It would ruin the first half of my novel.”12 But at this stage of the program, it is already obvious that there is no need for a Don Draper autobiography. Serial narration in the contemporary television serial is richer in detail and character drawing than any life depicted in print.13 In Mad Men’s diegetic universe, anyway, Don would never approve of a novel based on his story. Rather, he has gotten used to employ humor and self-assurance as a means to conceal his fear of getting caught living under a false identity.

Nevertheless, three episodes later, viewers witness the sudden appearance of a central link to Don’s secret past, his brother Adam Whitman. Don tells Adam that he must have mistaken him for someone else, as he wants his brother to believe that he died in Korea.14. In a second meeting, Don finally states that they cannot have a relationship again as he has taken on another life and identity.15 In order to deepen the enigma of Don’s past, the show features flashbacks to his youth and life as a young man. There are several fragments depicting his family life on a farm16 and his time as a soldier in the Korean War.17 Various flashbacks into the elusive main character’s time as a car salesman and his relationship with the real Don Draper’s widow, Anna Draper, cast light upon his identity change.18 It is not until the end of season three that Betty finally discovers her husband’s secret past and confronts him.19 Still, for the audience, Don’s past remains an ongoing suspenseful storyline.

The course and outcome of Peggy Olson’s pregnancy is another story arc that remains mostly unsolved several seasons into production. At the end of season one, Peggy has visibly gained weight, but her pregnancy is not made explicit until the season’s finale.20 In a subsequent episode, a flashback in which her mother and sister, and later on Don, visit her in a hospital shortly after she gave birth illuminates the missing parts of this particular storyline.21 But again, the audience is largely left in the dark about the primal sequence of events. Such enigmas—which are caused by narrative gaps—postpone the closure of storylines. Rather, as the story arcs involving Don and Peggy illustrate, one enigma seems to give cause to the next.

As Sean O’Sullivan suggests, Mad Men’s serial narrative is ambivalent in nature. It stages a central conflict between narrative coherence with regard to its characters and events and, at the same time, features elements of discontinuity through alterations of formula as well as in time and space.22 Likewise, Glen Creeber describes the merger of the series and the serial as “small screen hybridization,” and simultaneously declares the triumph of the serial form within contemporary programming.23 As he explains, “television drama now has a ‘soap-like’ quality to it,” as the serial form has become more flexible.24 Thus, the Mad Men narrative seems potentially endless.

Apart from its ongoing serial storylines, Mad Men also features the elements of a series. In the midst of many unresolved and mysterious narrative threads, music gives the audience a sense of episodic closure. The sound accompanying the ending credits—realized through instrumentals, original music from the 1960s, contemporary pop songs, diegetic noise or just silence—displays a more or less intense culmination for and commentary on the contents of the discrete episode. In this regard, the show uses music toward narrative functions to bring episodes to an implicit end. The episode “Babylon”, for example, concludes with Don and his mistress Midge attending a performance of the song “Babylon” in a Greenwich Village bar.25 The old folk song, based on Psalm 137, was adapted and released by the singer-songwriter Don McLean in 1971. The lyrics deal with Jewish exile in Babylon and the quest for unity and match the counterculture setting of the sequence perfectly well. While the song establishes a melancholic atmosphere, it comments on an accompanying montage. Viewers see Rachel Menken, whom Don had courted earlier in the episode, folding ties in her department store, Betty putting on lipstick on her daughter, Sally, each of them absorbed in thought and calmness. While Don is listening intently to the song, Roger and Joan, engaged in a long-term affair, are departing a hotel room, leaving like strangers. The music unites these fragmented images through its affect and tone, highlighting the theme of loneliness. At the end, the song fades into diegetic traffic noise, and finally into silence.

An additional element of closure is given in the episode titles. As discussed above with regard to the music, “Babylon” focuses on Jewishness, exile and the feeling of isolation in general. These subject matters are also broached in other episodes, but not as intensely as here. In order to prepare a presentation for the Israeli Tourism account, Don and his colleagues have, comically enough, compiled “research material,” including the bestselling novel Exodus and a copy of the Old Testament.26 In an attempt to find out more about Judaism, Don seeks advice from Rachel Menken, a Jewish client. Over lunch, she tells him about Jewish exile from Babylon and throughout the world.27 The theme of exile extends beyond the physical exile experienced by the Israelites and later Jews, the subject to Don and Rachel’s conversation, but speaks to the self-exile, remaking of self, and dissociation experienced by various characters throughout the episode. The title “Babylon” therefore functions not as a capsule or definition, but as a hint to specific topics that are addressed with in singular episodes, here speaking to the latent feelings of alienation that defined American postwar culture. Even with continuing plot lines, the episode simultaneously functions as an individual capsule.

Thus, as this analysis of Mad Men’s narrative structure has shown, it features serial as well as series elements. Though music and episode titles function as significant elements of closure, Mad Men’s most prevailing narrative characteristic is not that of the series, but the ongoing story arcs of the serial. To this point, Mad Men features many instances of what Mittell calls “the narrative special effect.” It is a hybrid period drama. This break with conventional television storytelling “push[es] the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration.”28 To elucidate Mad Men’s possibilities for analyzing history, I will take a closer look at the techniques of its complex narration.

Mad Men’s experimental narrative techniques feature elements of nonlinear storytelling. Above all, different forms of temporal discontinuities broaden the narrative scope of single episodes and ongoing storylines. Don’s identity is a central narrative enigma that is told fragmentarily through several flashbacks. Likewise, flashforwards lead to narrative uncertainty, which is the case in “Seven Twenty Three,” an episode that begins with three parallel flashforwards that signal the upcoming events in a suspenseful way.29 Such temporal leaps can even characterize entire episodes, which is the case in “Three Sundays”—an episode which covers three Sundays of narrative time, though the events are not necessarily directly related.30 Within Mad Men’s complex serial narration, the history of events is marked by discontinuity.

Furthermore, Mad Men’s complex storyworld is intensified by “virtual events”31 like dreams, visions and the characters’ memories that motivate the progress of the story. In addition to the narrative leaps and flashbacks that come to define Don’s past, present, and future, Don’s wife, Betty, experiences visions and daydreams that function as glances into an imagined subjective world and illustrate their fantasies and wishes. Betty’s dreams serve to amplify her feelings, like when she imagines an erotic encounter with a stranger in a daydream.32

Another time, she wakes up at night after she had a further dream of an erotic encounter on a chaise lounge, a piece of furniture also known as the fainting couch.33 As this dream suggests, it suits Betty, who is overwhelmed by her imagination and feelings, perfectly well. At the end of the third season, her dreams catch up with reality as she finally divorces Don, and remarries, this time the man with whom she fantasized and was encouraged to buy the chaise.

Mad Men’s fantasy sequences can even add a surreal quality to certain episodes, as it is the case in “The Fog”, when Betty hallucinates herself into a warm summer day while in painful childbirth.34 Both exhausted and under the medically-induced influence of drugs, she imagines talking to her dead parents at home in Ossining.35 In a way, such virtual events are comparable to the serial’s ongoing narrative enigmas as they are never completely solved and function as a mystery to the storyworld. When Don fantasizes that he receives a piece of advice from his dead father,36 this vision also adds complexity to the ongoing narrative enigma about his character and his familial relationships. “Bringing back the dead” once again draws attention to Mad Men’s own serial memory, i.e. its own history. As if commenting on the fact that history is always a construction or re-telling events, and is in fact full of dissonances, Mad Men does not present us a coherent explanation or chronological order of its events.

Mad Men’s own memory, which is inherent to its narrative, signifies the show’s productive potential for the representation of history. Firstly, the serial form entails that single episodes refer to each other throughout and thus, as the show proceeds, Mad Men’s serial memory gains in depth. Episodes are generally based on one another; nonlinear features like flashbacks, flashforwards, dreams, visions and temporal gaps additionally deepen Mad Men’s narrative scope. Secondly, the show’s mapping of the course of history of the 1960s—the first three seasons cover historical events from 1960 to 1963—characterizes the show’s capacity for memory. The slowly building narrative allows for an expanded portrayal of history that captures the zeitgeist of the larger era. In some cases, episodes cover several days, while others cover several weeks of story time. In the transition between the first and the second season, there is a temporal gap of 14 months from November 1960 to February 1962. Therefore, some historical events are part of the narrative while others are simply left out. In Mad Men, history is not equalized with a coherent sequence of events. The doubling of the presence of the past in Mad Men—as form, manifest in its complex serial structure and as content, through thematizing the period of the 1960s—offers a unique scope for historical consciousness.

Serial Characters as Agents in History

As Mad Men re-narrates history, its narrative scope is mirrored in the slow but constant development of the characters. As one of the elements that constitute televisual characters, Roberta Pearson mentions serial clues in their biography, which cumulate through the course of several episodes and seasons.37 Complex narrations focus on the characters’ inner life. Through an accumulation of details their biographies gain depth:

In television, it’s more accurate to talk about character accumulation and depth than it is to talk about character development. The long-running American television drama can create highly elaborated characters of greater accumulation and depth than any contemporary medium.38

The characters’ complexity is grounded in their serial depiction. The fact that the characters in Mad Men are central to its narrative makes them agents in its reproduction of history. The focus on the characters and their social environment stresses the private aspect of history. According to Creeber, the soap opera techniques of the serial form emphasize the private side of history.39 As the Mad Men episodes accumulate, the audience becomes more involved in the characters’ daily life experiences as a part of cultural history of the 1960s.

Focusing on serial characters, Mad Men’s narration provides space for re-evaluating history through personalization. The mise-en-scène’s authenticity—which communicates an apparent perfect historical surface—evaporates in moments of serial dramatization in which the characters seem to be powerless within the regressive historical context. The slow pace of the show’s camera work is a contrast to the multitudinous complex storylines that, on the one hand, make history more tangible and, on the other hand, feature an element of narrative criticism. Viewers witness the Mad Men protagonists within their everyday 1960s lives yet, viewed through the show’s hybrid and complex serial form, the image remains fractured. There is no master narrative, no overall explanation nor explicit connection between private and historical events.

Still, the characters’ personal dramas mirror their problems with the historical and social environment. At this point, emotion coincides with interpretation. The characters embody specific experiences of the times in a stereotypical way. History itself, and with it the illustration of conventions, norms, social values and political (in)correctness of the 1960s—as interpreted by Mad Men—is a protagonist of the Mad Men narrative. Conflicts are never just of a personal nature, but refer to social problems on a macro-level as well as the discursive practices of the era. Each of the characters’ biographies is determined and restricted by its historical context. This generates the show’s commentary on the epoch, which accumulates through the course of the serial narration. Along with its narrative memory, Mad Men displays the cultural experiences of its characters through the course of history. In their exaggeration and stereotyping they serve as signs for interpretation in Mad Men’s representation of history. They self-reflexively unfold the show’s underlying methods and constructions through personalization.

The series’ creator, Matthew Weiner, points out that the most important aspect of his access to the era of the 1960s is “[n]ot being distracted by the way history has interpreted it.”40 Rather engage with the same constructedness and teleological view of history, he re-tells history through inspiration from bits of popular media and cultural knowledge as well as oral history.41 With regard to the aim of negotiating the static field of history anew, Weiner has approved the idea that his characters embody historical change: “I’m interested in how people respond to change. Are they excited by the change, or are they terrified that they’ll lose everything that they know? Do people recognize that change is going on? That’s what the show’s about.”42 By focusing on their interactions with cultural values and shifts, he depicts the characters’ agency within history, i.e. their personal histories.

Personalization of History as Self-Reflexive Cultural History

On a macro-level, history in Mad Men presents itself through different histories of repression. As the pilot opens in the year 1960, the television drama captures the epoch-making transition between the 1950s and the 1960s, and therefore illustrates how different social norms and ideals collide. As Edward J. Rielly writes in The 1960s: “Every historical period brings some transformations, but the 1960s seemed to replace an old world with a new one.”43 On the basis of this shift, Mad Men portrays an epoch transition marked by social dissonances and visualizes emerging political turmoil and social change. Its characters exemplify climaxes and turning points in the history of the era as they live through them in their everyday lives. Their feelings are captured in the midst of historical change: “All the characters seem to be screaming in silence under their suits and skirts.”44 On the inside, underneath their sleek appearance, they feel frustrated about the social restrictions they have to cope with.

In Mad Men, the course of history itself provides the multiple narrative enigmas necessary to push the serial forward. An overall motivation for its continuous storylines can be found in the question of how the characters respond to the historical context. The characters’ biographies are directly and irreversibly influenced by the time in which they live. On the one hand, this means that their roles are represented as historical stereotypes. On the other hand, the characters’ unease with the restrictions of the times is a constant implicit commentary of the show. Through the prism of the characters, history is captured epistemologically, reflected and deconstructed.

As a setting of historical change, Mad Men visualizes the emerging advertising industry of Madison Avenue as part of the culture industry. The show reveals the production of predominating products and images of the 1960s and negotiates them anew. Don’s sarcastic commentary in a meeting with Rachel points out that Mad Men attributes the advertising industry with an investigative perspective upon cultural history: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”45 Starting from a material level, Mad Men captures immaterial cultural meanings and ideas that are linked to them. As we are about to see, the show’s characters extend the depiction of the era’s cultural values as they make them even more tangible.

The personalization of history calls attention to the fate of individuals and whole groups while simultaneously pointing metonymically towards cross-social conflicts. Through personalization, the abstract political context is visualized: “In their different ways, these characters improvise ad hoc narratives, cultural or countercultural, to replace broken traditional 1950s ways of life.”46 The multiple personalized storylines focus on a self-reflexive depiction of history and identify regressive social power structures as personalization merges into social analysis. Mechanisms of suppression like sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism are constant narrative topics and form the analytic potential of the Mad Men narrative. The character’s metonymic quality constitutes the analytical potential of the serial as “the ‘personalized’ preoccupation of soap opera can actually help to re-examine historical matter, casting a critical and often self-reflexive eye on official and objective notions and conceptions of ‘historical fact.’”47 Experiencing history through the life of individuals differs fundamentally from studying official history through facts.

The serial form enables the audience to get familiar with the conflict between the generations in the 1960s through personalization. While the older generation—which is represented by Bertram Cooper, Roger Sterling and at times even Don Draper—holds on to traditional values and seems to have little sense of upcoming trends in politics and culture, the younger generation does. The young copywriters and account managers—Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove and Paul Kinsey—are more involved in the changes that are about to come. In fact, the generation gap is one of the show’s central themes. The Election Day episode, Nixon vs. Kennedy,48 draws attention to the differences between old and young. The rivalry between Nixon and Kennedy is mirrored in the power play between Don and Pete. When the ad men discuss Kennedy’s chances of winning the forthcoming election in an earlier episode, it is Pete who seems to have an understanding of the upcoming shifts in politics via popular culture:

Roger: He’s inexperienced.
Bert: He doesn’t even wear a hat.
Pete: I don’t know. You know who else doesn’t wear a hat? Elvis. That’s what we’re dealing with.
Bert: Remind me to stop hiring young people.49

But as the personalized generational conflict shows, the ad agency’s older generation has to give way to the demands of popular culture and therefore to the lifestyle of the youth. The triumph of youth culture and a youth market could not be ignored any longer by the older generation at Sterling Cooper. Following the request of a client, they hire the young and hip advertising team Kurt and Smitty. Nevertheless, they are full of doubt and prejudices about the young employees’ skills, as they are even younger than the other copywriters and account managers.

An additional self-reflexive history of problems is apparent in the omnipresent gender conflict in society as depicted by Mad Men. At work sexist and discrediting (speech) acts characterize a regressive atmosphere that continues at home, where wives have to cope with patriarchal family patterns. Apart from the hierarchical structures, which exclude women from any position other than secretary, it is the obvious sexism at the women’s work place that identifies the regressive milieu. Although Peggy is able to work her way up and becomes the first female copywriter at Sterling Cooper, her long and hard professional ascent illustrates women’s precarious situation in general.

Fig. 1 Mad Med Season 1 Episode Photos, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Fred Rumsen in Episode 6, “Babylon.” Photo credit: Carin Baer/AMC.

This is best illustrated in “Babylon,” and so I return to this episode to add layers of complexity to the narrative structure. In this episode, a request from the cosmetic company Belle Jolie has the ad agency perform an experiment that considers the female consumption of lipstick. As the women try out several lipsticks and answer Dr. Greta Guttman’s questions, the male members of the staff visibly enjoy watching the “show” through one-way glass, eating snacks, and commenting on the women’s behavior and bodies.50 Peggy, who does not really take part in the test, stands out among the female employees because of a pointed remark. As she hands the waste paper basket filled with lipstick-covered tissues to Freddy Rumsen, she calls it a “basket of kisses.”(Fig. 1)51 Realizing its relevance to the Belle Jolie campaign, Freddy shows interest in her remark. As he shares Peggy’s comment with the other men in the office, he expresses insensitive surprise: “It was like watching a dog play the piano.”52 This sexist expression not only clarifies Peggy’s personal job situation at Sterling Cooper, but exemplifies the fact that women were marginalized from higher job positions.

Fig. 2 Mad Men Season 2 Episode Photos, Episode 6, “Maidenform.” Photo credit: Carin Baer/AMC.

The problematization of the male gaze and the predominating perception of women in society are again picked up in Maidenform. The first sequence of this episode shows a cross-cut of Mad Men’s female main characters performing their time-consuming morning dressing habits.53 As this episode shows, it is not just the wardrobe of the 1960s, like the fashionable corsets the women are wearing, that constricts them. The restrictedness of female role models is moreover illustrated by Peggy’s futile attempts to convince her colleagues about the Playtex campaign’s semantic flatness, which reduces femininity to the stereotypes of Marylin Monroe and Jackie Kennedy. Instead, she has to fight for acceptance at the male-dominated meetings(Fig. 2).54 Again, it is Peggy who obviously struggles with the prevailing male perspective at Sterling Cooper. At the same time, again, it is clear that her conflict is not just of a personal nature but refers to the everyday battles for recognition women have to cope with. Once more, these personalized experiences accumulate and become more tangible throughout serial narration.

Another continuous narrative strand concerning personalized history is evident in Salvatore Romano’s struggle with his homosexuality. The serial narration shows Sal living a false life in his marriage and his professional environment and continuously displays the tragedy of his story. At the beginning he does not seem to be aware of his homosexuality. Sal’s commentary on a survey from Dr. Greta Guttman considering Freud’s theory of the death wish proves to be a self-reflexive harbinger: “So we’re supposed to believe that people are living one way and secretly thinking the exact opposite? That’s ridiculous.”55 His powerlessness is a motif that runs through the further narration and refers to the social silence concerning homosexuality. The topic’s explosiveness arises in a dialogue between Sal and Elliot, a sales representative for the Belle Jolie account. After Elliot offers to accompany Sal into his hotel suite, the sexual tension between the men is obvious, but Sal evades the proposal:

Elliot: What are you afraid of?
Sal: Are you joking?56

A conversation in the break room of Sterling Cooper reveals Sal’s fear concerning his sexuality. After all, in the course of social discrimination his whole existence could be at stake. In this scene, Kurt comes out as a homosexual and the other characters do not know how to behave. Smitty tries to ease the situation: “He’s from Europe. It’s different there.” But the others are horrified:

Harry: So Kurt is a pervert. How about that?
Joan: He certainly had me fooled. […]
Ken: I knew queers existed, I just don’t want to work with them.

Smitty exposes their ignorance: “What, he’s the first homo you ever met in advertising?”57 During the conversation Sal remains silent.

The coexistence of personalization and social analysis points to the potential for history in today’s hybrid, flexible serial form. The first two seasons’ slogan, “Where the Truth Lies,” is a statement on the production-related statement on Mad Men’s self-reflexive narration. The sleek visual surface is a starting point for narrative negotiation of the historical: “Mad Men’s producers reanimate 60s iconography in order to level it.”58 In the representation of history the conventions and changing social and cultural norms of the 1960s are being analyzed and deconstructed. The flexible serial form offers a balancing act between the personal and the political nature of history in one narration. The personalized access to history enables a detailed analysis of the past and opens it up as subjective and self-reflexive experience.

Mad Men’s multi-perspective, multi-subjective approach to history involves a reflection of its methods. The series points towards the assumption that in addition to professional historiographical writing, there are multiple approaches to access the past. By exposing the characters as sensors of history, Mad Men reveals its own perspective upon history as constructed narrative. Following Creeber, “the serial seems intuitively in touch with contemporary historicism, particularly the notion that history is simply another discourse, and that it should never, in any circumstances, be confused with ‘the past’.”59 Social and historical mechanisms are exposed through the biographies and the narrative scope of the characters. The characters leave historical facticity behind them and point beyond themselves in their play with historicity: “After all, this is by no measure ‘the way we were’ but a highly intermediated and reflexive version thereof.”60

In its totality, Mad Men’s hybrid, flexible form—its complex narration that combines series and serial elements—is the core of its historical complexity. Its complex serial narration, which is driven by non-linearity in (historical) events and personalization, introduces history as self-reflexive adventure. Robert Rosenstone’s vision of a productive relationship between film and history comes true in Mad Men’s hybrid serial form: “Through visual history we can experience possible new modes of historical representation, both filmed and written—about history as self-reflexive inquiry, as self-conscious theater, as a mixed form of drama and analysis.”61 History in the contemporary hybrid television serial allows for forms of historiography other than official historical discourse. In its popular and critical televisual medium, Mad Men urges us to reconsider our relationship with the past.


Monique Miggelbrink is a research assistant and PhD student in Media Studies at the University of Paderborn, Germany. Monique received her BA with a double major in Media Studies and English and American Literature and Cultural Studies, and her MA in Media Studies from the University of Paderborn. In her dissertation, “(Re-) Organizing Domestic Topography: Television as Furniture” she investigates correlations between the television set as a piece of furniture, i.e. as material artifact, and its implications for the construction of gender. Her research interests include design research, media ecology, gender and media, and television history and theory.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?