I have really been enjoying the show, Mad Men, and won’t even call it a “guilty pleasure,” that anti-category of intellectual stupefication in the face of crass enjoyment. It really is a thought provoking and well-assembled show. Now, by well-assembled, I am not referring to set design, costuming, and other effects meant to simulate the period (most notably cigarettes, sexism, and anti-semitism). I have read people on IMDB fruitlessly, hopelessly, even breathlessly debating whether or not the show is “period,” “authentic,” or take your pick. People particularly like to invoke their own remembrance of growing up in the sixties, which begs the question of who amongst these people grew up in a Madison Avenue ad agency office.
That said, the show is effective because it works by layering details upon each other with varying effects. Sometimes the different vellum panes of detail clash in their hue or texture (the episode focusing on Pete) but sometimes there is a harmonious glow that emanates from the transposition (this week’s episode, Babylon).
I have been thinking about a brief exchange that takes place in the aforesaid episode when Don Draper, the main character, meets Rachel, a Jewish woman running her father’s department store, but trying to attract a more WASPy clientele. She refers to, though a bit obliquely, the title of Thomas More’s famous fictional dialogue, Utopia. The title is a pun on two Greek compounds–eu-topos and ou-topos (though I could be wrong about later). The former means, “happy place,” while the later means, “no-place.” In the show, however, Rachel says that ou-topos means
“the place that cannot be reached,” “the place that cannot be” to paraphrase.The minor discrepancy between these two translations is very interesting to me. Part of the point of More’s pun is that the two meanings were intertwined, even mutually dependent. Utopia is a happy place because it does not exist and does not exist because it is a happy place, a very tidy reversal. And yet this reversal gives the non-place a kind of virtual existence (thus has a kind of dialectical quality to it). I was taught that this can be exemplified by the humanist community of the 15th and 16th century. This community existed through letters and across the linguistic and geographical boundaries. And yet this non-existent community was of far greater importance to More than the really existing place where he lived (though I’m no expert, and that probably is an arguable point).
So, to change that concept around slighly and say that Utopia is the “happy place that can never be reached” casts a much bleaker pall over the show. But I don’t find this alternate meaning to be applicable to every character, though certainly for Don Draper. His character is marked by a restless propulsion, a drive towards something, yet an unidentifiable something. This causes him much angst, seen in–again, small details–the way Jon Hamm (the actor playing Draper) cups a glass when Draper drinks a drink. His hands encircle the top of the glass, cradle it; his eyes seem to peer into its depths, then through the translucence, as if surprised that the cup doesn’t have a different substance altogether. There is always this strange reluctance in the way he drinks, a moment thought and hesitation. This is the pause of someone who wants to dive into the abyss and hope to hit the bottom, finally, like the free-fall that dominates the title sequence:
Yet in the episode last night, we see other characters–notably Joan, the red-headed secretary played by Christina Hendricks–who seem much more caught up in the “dialectical, punning notion of Utopia,” if I can term it that, aware that desire is always caught up in its presence and absence. There is no absolute state of happiness, which leads to altogether different type of restlessness.