Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins

Abstract: In 17th century Netherlandish painting, artists employed a complex visual system to assign a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral concepts and narratives. Such “disguised symbolism” was often used to reflect as well as express concern about the period’s wealth, hedonism, and habits of consumption through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms of the material world. This article will explore the adoption of disguised symbolic iconography in the television series Mad Men.  The article will focus on certain objects – the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster – that have acquired and accumulated meaning over time, based on art historical traditions and the past experiences of their collective viewers.  The article will argue that the way in which these objects were used, both in 17th century Netherlandish painting and in Mad Men, promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, they transcend the function of a visual narrative device and allow viewers access to “Truth” about consumption that is relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

AMC’s critically-acclaimed Mad Men (creator: Matthew Weiner) is a television series in which style and visual aesthetics are regularly praised for both enhancing the depth of the fictional narrative and contributing to the historical authenticity of the program. For instance, Jim Hansen has argued convincingly about the importance of appearances and the layers of meaning to be unpacked in regard to the corporeal image of Don Draper (Hansen 2013, 145-160). Meanwhile, Jeremy Butler has written about the “profound nature of things:” the objects that comprise the mise en scene as signifiers of 1960s culture and evidence of Weiner’s attention to historical visual literacy (Butler 2010, 55-71). So far, however, there has not been an attempt to combine these two valuable perspectives – Hansen’s search for deeper meaning through style with Butler’s focus on material paraphernalia – in regard to Mad Men. Yet, for art historians, it is a familiar practice to interpret the appearance of objects as a means of unveiling deeper meaning and creating an experience of revelation for the viewer. Employing the tradition of 17th century Netherlandish painting as a point of comparison, this article will explore the use of disguised symbolic iconography in Mad Men. The frequent insertion of historically symbolic item such as the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, the inclusion of these objects allows viewers of Mad Men access to “Truths” about consumption that are relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

The basic tenets of semiotics are essential in drawing a comparison between the use of symbolic objects in both Mad Men and Netherlandish painting. A simplified semiotic approach to the subject would argue that images (whether painted or motion picture) are signs, that signs are designed to represent something beyond themselves, and that an inherent part of human experience is to interpret the signs that we encounter in our daily lives. The act of creating any image is an act of arranging compositional elements to convey meaning; and the act of viewing an image is an act of translating and deciphering such elements to create significance. Hence, representations of objects – whether depicted in a painting or in a television program – always contain layers of potential meaning and symbolic value.

In Derrida’s semiotics, this process is constantly being negotiated and both sign and signified are always in flux, with authorship becoming less significant than viewership for determining value and meaning (Derrida 1982, 313-323). According to Bryson and Bal, an image is “by definition repeatable…[o]nce launched into the world, the work of art is subject to all of the vicissitudes of reception; as a work involving the sign, it encounters from the beginning the ineradicable fact of semiotic play…works of art are constituted by different viewers in different ways at different times and places” (Bal and Bryson 1981, 179). In his influential text Ways of Seeing, art historian John Berger argues that images acquire and accumulate meaning over time, based on the past experiences of their collective viewers. The reason that certain historic images may still convey specific symbolism or meaning to us today is because our current experiences are not altogether unlike those of the individuals who first made and viewed the images in question (Berger, J. 1991, 24-33). Therefore, to argue that certain “signs” (symbolic objects) convey a similar meaning in both 17th century painting and on Mad Men in the fictional context of the 1960s, we must investigate potential similarities in context that would affect the production and reception of these images, all the while keeping in mind how the context of this article’s writing influences our interpretation (Derrida 1979, 81).

Madison Avenue in the mid-twentieth century was, in many ways, not so different from the Grote Markt district of Antwerp in the seventeenth century. Over the course of the previous hundred years, Europe had become socially and economically modernized and, proportionately, the Low Countries had financially benefited much more than any other area of the continent during the Renaissance (Snyder 2004, 433). Better methods of transport there led to massive increases in trade, empire, resources, and urbanization. These factors caused a shift in the distribution of wealth, as the flourishing of commerce elevated the social and material status of merchants, bankers, and those involved in the service industry, giving rise to a true middle class that was capable of consuming and patronizing the arts. On a visit to Antwerp in 1520, the renowned German printmaker Albrecht Dürer noted the socioeconomic diversity of the urban environment, commenting upon his interaction with “workmen of all kinds, and many craftsmen and dealers…shopkeepers and merchants…horsemen and foot-soldiers…Lords Magistrates…clergy, scholars, and treasurers” (Durer 1889, 96). Among these various strata of the population, the new influx of material wealth was readily apparent despite vocalizations of concern about the sins of gluttony and greed (Schama 1987, 3-15). Northern European cities were becoming renowned for every conceivable type of consumption, from “business [to] bourse…breweries [to] brothels,” even though members of the population expressed anxiety about the way in which these practices countered traditional religious beliefs (Snyder 2004, 433). Art itself became a commodity, treated by some as an investment, by others as pleasurable decoration for increasingly large homes (Alpers 1983, xxii).

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

It was in this context, of increasing material wealth combined with Christian guilt at overabundance, that disguised symbolism became prominent in the paintings of the era. As described by Erwin Panofsky, disguised symbolism was a complex visual system that was, nevertheless, understood by a wide audience. Artists employing this strategy assigned a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral and historical concepts and narratives (Panofsky 1953, 131-148). Disguised symbolism was used as a vehicle to “create an experience of revelation” (Ward 1994, 12) through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms, of the material world (Lane 1988, 114).

Intended as a means to “celebrate the triumphs of the Dutch culture of commodities [yet…] moralize against consumption” (Berger, H. 2011, 37-38), familiar objects were transformed into “emblems of mortality to remind the viewer how transitory and fragile his pleasures are and how easily beauty and life are broken” (Slive 1962, 488). In 1984, the art historian Ivan Gaskell convincingly argued that the inclusion of disguised symbolism is ultimately about a desire to reveal Truth. In his article, “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth,” Gaskell compares the iconography of a particular painting – Woman Holding a Balance – to Biblical verses, other period artworks, and 16th century guides to visual symbolism in order to demonstrate that the painting can be read as a contemplation of Truth as an antidote to the imbalance of worldly vanities (Gaskell 1984, 557-561).

The notion of balance that was integral to the emergence of disguised symbolism in 17th century painting was once again relevant in post-World War II America, when conflict about consumption again reared its head. Then, the United States experienced extreme economic expansion, fueling – and, in part, fueled by – a growing advertising industry with its locus of power on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Between 1945 and 1960, America’s GDP doubled, and grew by an additional 46% in the ensuing decade, with major growth taking place in the service sector and in the manufacturing of consumer durables (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Plentiful jobs, higher wages, and better educational opportunities led to the rapid growth of the middle class and an increasing market for everything from processed foods to refrigerators, cars to a home in the suburbs. Television sets, in particular, became much more affordable to many Americans, and ultimately were made a ubiquitous part of post-war cultural life, with nearly 90% of all US households owning one by 1960 (Jordan 1996, 798).

Yet, many Americans were uneasy with such newfound wealth and increasing consumption. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, the fear that spending would lead to decadence was rooted in a long-standing sense of pragmatism and Christian morality that was skeptical of luxury and opulence (May 1988, 148). The advertising industry was highly influential in challenging these doubts, and took advantage of television’s ability to transmit messages straight to the living rooms of a public with more leisure time and greater disposable income than ever before. Corporate spending on advertising doubled in the decade immediately following the end of World War II, then doubling again within the course of just the next five years (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Representations of conspicuous consumption abounded in both print ads and television commercials of the era, demonstrating the power of the image by effectively encouraging Americans toward increasingly materialistic values and practices (O’Guinn and Shrum 1997, 278-294). As the market became saturated and consumers became younger and savvier over the course of the 1960s, a creative approach that would continue to attract and influence Americans was necessitated. Wit and humor, narrative and personality were incorporated into advertising, and subtly began to define not only the products being sold, but also the advertising industry itself. More and more Americans began to associate the trade with modernity, youth, and hipness, in addition to its traditional connotations of wealth, luxury, and indulgence (Meyers 1984, 122; Frank 1997, 132-167).

With the actual historical and locational context of the fictional program Mad Men aligning with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, we may now begin looking in earnest for shared “signs,” recurring images that appear in the television program and in historical Dutch paintings, encouraging deeper analysis as examples of disguised symbolism. Though there are many incidences of potential disguised symbolism to be found throughout Mad Men, this article focuses on four symbols – the mirror, the timepiece, the egg, and the oyster – that were of especial significance in the 17th century, and whose historical symbolism resonates particularly well in the 1960s storylines that Weiner constructs.

The very first episode of Mad Men (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) introduces the mirror as a symbolic element, of reflection and confrontation with a true image of self that is often denied. The opening scene finds Don sitting alone at a bar table, an empty book of matches and three snuffed-out cigarettes in the ashtray before him and a mirror above him, reflecting the bar’s patrons (Figure 1). Trying to come up with a new advertising strategy for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Don asks the barman about his smoking habits. After a moment’s hesitation, he explains that he loves smoking, but then goes on to state that his wife “hates it” and that “Reader’s Digest says it will kill you.” The camera then pans to the bar, at which the dozens of happy patrons, male and female, who were reflected in the mirror above Don’s head are seen puffing away on their cigarettes. Whether the smokers are oblivious to the dangerous nature of their habit, or just unwilling to confront it, the viewer is put in the position of an omniscient observer of Truth, privy to the reality and self-deception taking place in the scene, and the balance between the pleasures of the physical world and their potential relationship to death.

Even a casual observer might detect the symbolic possibilities that a mirror possesses, and their potential applications in Mad Men. A mirror is a vessel of verisimilitude, confronting the user with an image of self that might not correspond to the user’s perception of self. The mirror’s ability to strip away vanities and deception and reveal truth lends power to this object, as well as symbolic value. The fact that the image that appears in the mirror is temporal in nature, subject to change or vanish altogether when the subject himself moves or disappears, adds another layer of meaning to the mirror, suggesting the transient nature of self-awareness, if not life itself. In the disguised symbolism of the 17th century, this object was used to suggest the impermanence of youth, beauty, and earthly delights as well as the foolishness, the deception, in valuing such ephemeral things.

When watching Mad Men, the viewer often occupies a position similar to that of a spectator of such a 17th century Netherlandish genre scene. The century prior had seen the development of a fascinating new artistic convention: the inclusion of reflective surfaces that depicted people or objects outside of the actual area of the representation, oftentimes the artist or symbols of his craft. For instance, Simon Luttichuys’ painting Vanitas (Figure 2, c. 1655) contains several elements historically representative of the passage of time and inevitability of death, including the hourglass, the fading flower, the blank page, and, of course, the skull. A mirror is also included in this assemblage, demonstrating that the symbolic value of this object is aligned with that of the others. Indeed, it reflects the back of the skull, suggesting that, though we often turn to the mirror for superficial reasons, to satiate our vain impulses, the mirror can actually reveal the fleeting nature of youth and beauty and demonstrate, instead, the true end that awaits all things of this world. In addition to the skull, another object appears in the mirror: an artist’s easel, with a canvas upon it. This inclusion invites the viewer to not only identify painting with a reflection of truth, but to identify personally with the artist, the omniscient maker of meaning, by seeing the scene from his point of view (Stoichita 1997, 186-197). The invitation to witness a moment in time from this vantage point – from which we can see both an object and its reflection, perception and truth, and are left to draw our own conclusions about the difference between the two – is also extended to viewers in Mad Men.

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Mirrors abound in every season of the program, offering views of several characters that both reveal the characters’ focus on superficiality and self-perception, yet allow us to also see a more critical, corrupted, “realistic” view of their true moral character – from an overweight Betty tightening her stomach in front of a mirror in Don’s new apartment, to Megan, sobbing in front of a bathroom mirror after her acting abilities are criticized, to Don, peering into his mouth with a mirror to look at his rotting tooth, a potent symbol of a decaying soul. “Maidenform” (Season 2, Episode 6) is an episode particularly dominated by reflection and repeatedly offering the viewer the opportunity to stand outside of the scene being depicted and to see the dual function of the mirror: as an object involved in vain pursuits as well as in the revelation of the fraud involved in such self-deception.

The episode opens with the three primary female characters – Betty, Joan, and Peggy – reflected in bedroom mirrors as they are donning undergarments. Here, the mirror represents the superficial focus of women striving to satisfy the gaze of self and/or other. Each woman attempts to construct a youthful and beautiful façade, to appear trim, well-formed, and tan (respectively), whether for their own approval or for that of those who might observe them (Figure 3).[1] Similarly, Peter Campbell uses a mirror in the same episode to seemingly overlook his own lusty sins and see instead a successful and desirable spouse. This scenario arises when Pete returns to the apartment he shares with his wife after a fling with a potential Playtex bra model who still lives at home with her mother. Creeping into a darkened house, Pete puts down his briefcase and catches a glimpse of himself in the hall mirror. After looking himself in the eye for a moment, he gave a slight, smug smile and looked away, perhaps relishing his newfound studly self-perception while ignoring the obviously roguish dimensions of his character. In all of these cases, the mirror is engaged in its primary function, serving as a reflective surface that allows those who stand before it to see what they want to see – a flattering version of themselves that is nonetheless constructed of fleeting qualities such as youth, beauty, and sexual desirability.

Later in the episode, the mirror takes on its second function, revealing to the omniscient viewer both the superficial reflection as well as the often-unpleasant Truth about what or who is shown in its surface. For example, midway through the episode, Don meets Bobbi Barrett in her hotel room, where she pours two glasses of champagne in front of a mirror. She looks up at Don, who approaches her from behind, and has a verbal exchange with him that ends in his request for her to “stop talking,” perhaps because her speech disrupts the desirable image that he saw reflected in the glass. They kiss and turn away, while the viewer continues to watch their lusty embrace in the mirror. Though the couple is surely attractive and desirable on the surface, the viewer sees in the mirror two individuals who are violating their marital vows as they head toward the bed that lies in shadow. Indeed, the scene quickly goes sour when Bobbi, in that bed, verbally reveals this truth that Don doesn’t want to face: he has developed a reputation around town for being a connoisseur in the field of extra-marital affairs.

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

In the final scene of the episode, the exchange with Bobbi is revisited, in a sense, as the viewer witnesses Don shaving before a mirror. His daughter Sally comes into the bathroom to observe him, reassuring her father that she “won’t talk” so as not to disturb him in the process – a verbal reminder of his own request to his mistress. He stops to look at her, then back at himself in the mirror. He is visibly shaken, and cannot continue his act of grooming, first looking himself in the eye, then averting his own gaze before sitting down on the toilet, with his back to the mirror above the sink, demonstrating an inability to confront his own infidelity as reflected back to him. However, the viewer is still privy to a mirror image of Don for, as the camera pulls back, we see the image of the “real” person slipping off-screen to the left, as a reflection of him in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door comes into view on the right side of the screen. For a moment, both images inhabit our field of vision, before the scene fades to black (Figure 4). Just as in Luttichuys’ painting, the viewer is put in the position of the omniscient meaning-maker, confronted with dueling dimensions of reality: Truth and perception. Here, the deceptive nature of the glass now becomes visible not only to Don, but to the viewer as well, whose ability to stand outside the scene and observe that which is simultaneously represented and that which is not, highlights the discrepancy between reality and reflection and drives home the need to challenge the acceptance of superficial appearances with honest assessments of cost and benefits.

The appearance of the wristwatch and its significance in several episodes of Mad Men also speaks to self-deception, particularly in regard to the denial of one’s mortality. The wristwatch, like the hourglass in Luttichuys’s painting and many other Netherlandish genre scenes, reminds the viewer that time is passing and will eventually catch up with us all, that the pleasures of indulgence and consumption will pass, and that we – like all material things – will ultimately age and die. This symbolism is driven home in Season 6, Episode 1 (“Doorways”), for example: an episode almost entirely about death. The episode opens dramatically, with the camera pointed toward the ceiling, a woman screaming, and a doctor’s face looming large up above, performing chest compressions on the person whose perspective the viewer occupies, putting us in position to contemplate the potential for an imminent and unexpected death. The scene fades to black, as the voice of Don reads the first sentence from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” A scene comes into view, of Don reading and Megan sunbathing on Waikiki Beach. Just a moment later, he picks up his wristwatch to check the time for Megan, only to discover that the watch is not working (Figure 5). He holds it to his ear, scrutinizes the dial, then hands it to Megan, who insists that Don must have gotten the watch wet. After a moment of consideration, she hands it back to him saying, “Who cares what time it is?”

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

The meaning behind this opening sequence revolves around an interpretation of the stopped watch as a symbol of death. In paintings, all watches and clocks are, of course, stopped, frozen by the artist at a distinct moment in time, for all time. Yet it is equally obvious that, in the disguised symbolism of 17th century paintings, the appearance of a “stopped” timepiece was not a mere side effect of the painting process, but a deliberately symbolic inclusion. In Peter Claesz’s 1630 Vanitas Still Life (Figure 6), a skull and bone rest atop a table, next to an empty and overturned glass, a common symbol for a life brought to an abrupt end. Beside the glass is an elaborate pocketwatch, open, with a mirror in its lid reflecting nothingness and its hands frozen in time. The watch, viewed in conjunction with the skull and glass, can be read as implying the end of time that precedes the darkness, the truth we wish to avoid, seen in the mirror. As the watch stops ticking, so, too, we are left to gather, does the heart of its owner.

This interpretation is particularly relevant in light of the juxtaposition of images – heart attack victim and Don’s stopped watch – seen in “Doorways.” The fact that Megan disregards the stopped watch may be a sign of her youth and naivety, her sense that there are still many more moments to be experienced, despite the fact that one never knows when he will run out of time, so to speak. Yet the observant viewer likely can recognize that this is a symbol not to be ignored, especially since it has appeared before – in Season 2, Episode 3 (“The Benefactors”), in which Don’s watch is again described as having stopped, only later to be repaired by Betty. Perhaps there, the broken watch was more metaphorical, a representation of Don’s marriage nearing its expiration date (this was, after all, the episode in which he begins his affair with Bobbi Barrett that later led to his divorce). In “Doorways,” however, the close visual link between the stopped watch and stopped heart suggest a more fatalistic reading in keeping with the vanitas imagery of the 17th century, which overtly drew parallels between timepieces and the end of all time.

The second-ever episode of the series, “Ladies Room,” seems to likewise directly reference the disguised symbolism popularized by 17th century Netherlandish painting. The opening sequence of the episode is a beautifully composed still life activated by the presence of the motion picture camera. In the first shot, an egg is cracked and broken, with the yolk poured out into a small bowl. A disembodied hand then reaches for a dish in which a lemon sits, halved. One half is taken away, placed in a cloth napkin, and squeezed over the yolk. In the background, the viewer can discern other bowls, piled high with croutons, cheese, and lettuce – the makings of a Caesar salad (Figure 7). Yet the focus is clearly on the egg, a highly symbolic food item that makes its way into dozens of 17th century paintings, as well as several future episodes of Mad Men.

Eggs have, in many cultures and for many millennia, been considered a symbol of fertility, reproduction, and regeneration. The egg’s physical characteristics and actual function – a vessel for a new life hidden within a rounded form that has been compared to both a testicle and a breast – are clearly responsible for these attributes, which occur in the art and mythology of societies as diverse as that of ancient Egypt, China, and Finland (Newall 1967, 3-32). The Christian artists of the Northern Renaissance imbued the egg with additional levels of disguised symbolism that were carried on in the works of 17th century Netherlandish painters. Within the Christian tradition, the egg became representative of the Resurrection of Christ (Jesus rising from the dead as the chick springs forth from a seemingly inert object) as well as the Incarnation (with the egg representing the womb of Mary, impregnated with the Christ child).

Jan van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna (Figure 8, 1436) illustrates this latter interpretation of the egg, demonstrating the new, distinctly religious dimension to the pre-Christian association of the egg with regeneration and fertility. In this painting – as well as other images of the Madonna by van Eyck, such as the Ince Hall Madonna – the Virgin Mary is enthroned in a domestic interior, nursing the newborn Christ child on her lap. To the right are objects such as a basin filled with water and a clear glass vessel that are traditionally read as symbols of baptism and of Mary’s intact virginity, respectively.[2] On the left side of the picture plane is a large leaded glass window through which light passes: a potentially symbolic inclusion, as Christ is often called the light of the world, the means by which divine truth is illuminated. The light beams pass through the intact glass (again, symbolic of the undisturbed virginity of Mary) to illuminate not only the Madonna and child, but two eggs that sit directly on the windowsill. The symbolism of the eggs parallel that of the other objects represented in the scene, in that they speak to the idea of new life being created and contained within something unbroken and intact. The fact that there are two eggs – mirroring the two human figures present in the painting – suggests that van Eyck is referring not only to the Incarnation of Christ, but to the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself. In both cases, fertility and reproduction were stripped of the “sinful” stain of sexuality; instead, they were connected to ideas of purity, wholeness, and the sacrality of familial life, which the egg, as a versatile symbol, took on.

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

In Season 2, Episode 4, “Three Sundays,” the egg appears in a way that corresponds with the disguised symbolism just described. This episode focuses on Peggy Olsen and her relationship with religion in the aftermath of giving birth to Peter Campbell’s son. Despite her struggles with spirituality and the institution of the Catholic Church, Peggy agrees to do some pro bono advertising work for her home parish and develops a friendly relationship with the young pastor in the meantime. Through dialogue with her family, the pastor, Father John, finds out about the child Peggy bore out of wedlock. At the end of the episode, the third Sunday – Easter Sunday – has arrived, and an egg hunt is taking place on the church grounds. Father John approaches Peggy and the camera zooms in, then holds the image of the priest pressing a blue egg into the palm of her white gloved hand, “for the little one” (Figure 9). The Easter interpretation of the egg – as a sign of the risen Christ – is here eclipsed by the other symbolic value of the egg, as a sign of fruitful femininity and the proliferation of family life through new birth. Though Peggy’s virginity is, of course, no longer intact, the priest’s gesture seems to suggest a desire to restore wholeness to Peggy herself, and to her family life. Peggy, who ultimately gives her child up for adoption, seems uncomfortable with the gesture, perhaps not only shocked by Father John’s knowledge of her illegitimate child, but unwilling to adhere to the model of femininity and family life implied by the intact egg and visualized in van Eyck’s Madonna paintings.

Understanding the egg as a symbol of fertility and family with sacred undertones helps inform an understanding of an even more frequently seen image, repeated in several episodes of Mad Men: that of the broken egg. If the intact egg is a symbol of wholeness, virtue, and the life-giving role of sexuality in a familial context, the broken egg represents the shattering of innocence, integrity, and the familial bond. Broken eggs can frequently be found in Netherlandish paintings representing the cost of intemperance, particularly as it relates to sexuality and family life. For example, Jan Steen’s raucous Interior of an Inn (Figure 10, c. 1665) depicts a barmaid whose skirt is being lifted by an inebriated patron. Though she places one hand on his arm as though to restrain him, with her other hand, she touches her breast in a sensual manner. Two other men look on, one openly laughing and the other provocatively stuffing the bowl of his long-stemmed pipe with his pinky finger while staring at the female subject. On the floor before them all are opened mussel shells (the symbolism of mollusks to be discussed at length later in this article), an empty frying pan with an exceedingly long handle, and many broken eggshells.

While there might be a logical interpretation of the eggs’ appearance – surely, in a scene of such boisterous behavior, its reasonable to assume that a fragile food item might be disturbed – their staged appearance on the floor, in conjunction with the other objects that surround them and the previously established symbolic value of intact eggs, suggests disguised symbolism at work. The indulgence in the vices of smoking and drinking are overtly pictured in the work. Additionally, sexual indulgence is implied through the gestures of the painting’s characters and the phallic allusions of the pipe stem and pan handle juxtaposed with the receptive voids of the pipe’s bowl and pan’s bottom. The broken eggs add a moralizing component to this otherwise festive scene, alluding to the destruction of purity in the domestic ideal expressed by the intact egg, and signifying especially fallen womanhood (Thomson and Fahy 1990, 11).

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Breaking eggs serve a similar iconographic function in Mad Men, and are especially abundant in Season 3, appearing in Episode 4 (“The Arrangements”) and Episode 5 (“The Fog”) alike. In both cases, the egg’s historical value as a symbol of incarnation, birth, and familial life is relevant, but the fact that the egg is shown breaking seems to indicate the fracturing and dissolution of family life. In “The Arrangements,” the premise by which the breaking egg is introduced is, again, the making of a Caesar salad. Gathered around the table this time are Don, Peter Campbell, and Horace Cook, Jr. (“Ho-Ho”), one of Pete’s old school friends. Ho-Ho is presented as a spoiled rich kid, about to waste his inheritance by investing in jai alai. The dinner conversation revolves around father-son tensions – particularly, the distaste Horace Cook, Sr. has for his son’s leisurely lifestyle and investment choices – a theme that will repeat throughout the episode. As the men talk around the table, a new camera angle is presented, which places the salad preparation table – and, significantly, the breaking of an egg – in the foreground of the shot. Perhaps not coincidentally, this same episode features Gene, Betty’s father, dying, as well as an insomniac Don getting up in the middle of the night to stare at a picture of his father and step-mother: families shattered, just as the egg was.

In “The Fog,” Betty Draper gives birth to Gene, the child conceived even as her marriage with Don was falling apart. Again, the egg is given a place of importance, visually and, this time, in regard to dialogue as well. Don, taking care of Sally and Bobby while Betty is hospitalized, is shown cooking a late night snack of eggs and corned beef hash. He holds an egg up to the light, “checking for a chick” as Sally astutely guesses, before the camera closes in on the frying pan to show Don breaking the egg over the sizzling meat. Sally says that her teacher taught her that eggs from a store could never become a chicken, “even though they came from a chicken.” Sally then awkwardly transitions into a question about whether or not the baby will live in Grandpa Gene’s old room. The new life of the Gene, Jr. is juxtaposed with the death of Gene, Sr., visualized by the breaking of the egg. Perhaps as well, Don’s futile search for new life in the egg (the lack of a chick and Sally’s statement that he will never find a chick in eggs like that) represents the inability for his family to be reborn and recover from his adultery.

The image of the broken egg again reflects generational conflict and families divided due to intemperance in Season 4, Episode 2, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” Taking place in the aftermath of the Drapers’ divorce, this episode finds Sally’s close friend Glen Bishop breaking into the family home (now occupied by Betty and her new husband, Henry Francis) and vandalizing it with the help of his friend. Glen, the product of a broken home himself, has been motivated to engage in this behavior by the confidences of Sally, who confesses extreme unhappiness in her new familial environment. The two young boys focus their destructive energies on the kitchen, and are shown dumping out the refrigerator contents on an empty counter. While there are a few food elements that are clearly visible (such as ketchup and cereal), there is again a focus on eggs, with the boys removing a carton and breaking individual eggs all around the kitchen. It is a scene of simultaneous abundance and squander, infused with anger. These representatives of the younger generation lay waste to the fruits of capitalism and consumerism as they express frustration with the seeming selfishness of their parents. The boys’ unhappiness with the divided Draper household – and their own, as well – is reinforced by the symbolic connection between broken eggs and broken families that echoes through the seasons of Mad Men.

A final symbolic element to appear in Mad Men is the oyster, verbally and visually alluded to in several episodes of the series. Throughout, the oyster serves as a symbol of luxury and indulgence, often with intemperance as an undertone. For example, in Season 2, Episode 2 (“Flight 1”), Peter Campbell finds out that his recently deceased father was insolvent, having spent his money on “oysters and travel club memberships” – seemingly frivolous and fleeting pleasures. This verbal association of the oyster with self-indulgence is enhanced by imagery in the series as well, such as that seen in Season 1, Episode 7: “Red in the Face.” Don and Roger, out for a bender of a lunch, are enjoying copious amounts of oysters and martinis. At the 34:33 mark, as Roger is ordering another pair of drinks and more oysters, the camera focuses in on the table before them. On the red and white striped tablecloth sit two platters piled high with the remains of a decadent lunch. Each hosts a dozen empty half-shells and several squeezed lemon wedges nestled on a bed of lettuce alongside a partially-full bowl of cocktail sauce. On a small plate between the two main dishes are two lemon wedges, one untouched and the other appearing squeezed. Directly adjacent to this plate is an ashtray, full of cigarette butts and ashes. Two small carafes of water appear half-full, and Roger’s martini glass, nearly empty (Figure 11). The visual connotes both extravagance and waste, abundance spent, with symbolism and a moralizing tone that are both borrowed from Netherlandish painting.

Ubiquitous in 17th century genre scenes, oysters were – then and now – a food that connoted luxury and indulgence, yet also perhaps danger. The European fascination with the oyster can be traced back at least as far as Greek mythology, which initiated the association of the erotic with the shellfish by situating the birth of the goddess Aphrodite on an oyster shell. “The oyster remained a symbol of Aphrodite throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and continued into the Baroque era,” bringing with it through the ages an association with the characteristics of “fertility, pleasure, and sex” that were attributed to the goddess herself (Cheney 1987, 135-6). The rise of the Dutch empire in the 1600s added another layer of symbolic meaning to the oyster. As the Dutch conquered the Portuguese in the waters of the Indian Ocean around the mid-century mark, pearl fisheries and oyster-rich waters came under the domain of the Netherlands, and the oyster became an accessible – if rare – edible indulgence that simultaneously represented the increasing power and possessions of the nation.

When seen through a moralizing lens, however, the positive identifications of the oyster with abundance, wealth, and sensual pleasure can be correlated to the deadly sins of greed, pride, gluttony, and lust. Indeed, many Dutch genre painters employed the image of the oyster in their works as a strategy for documenting the increasing luxury and materialism of their time while suggesting the fleeting nature of such earthly passions. In his 1618 tome Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum, Joachim Camerarius explained that paintings that illustrated the drinking of wine and eating of oysters spoke not only to pleasure, but to the dangers of over-indulging in physical desires (Camerius 1618, 120). The scholar claimed that the inclusion of oysters in an image were a means by which a nouveau-riche society that was, at the same time, historically abstemious could grapple with such conflicting aspects of its character (Camerius 1618, 121).

The duality of the oyster’s symbolism has much to do with the potential peril involved in its actual consumption. Raw shellfish carries a risk for bacterial contamination that can cause serious illness in those who consume a tainted sample. Illnesses such as hepatitis, typhoid, or even death by septicemia were not uncommon in centuries past, when refrigeration was lacking and proper handling techniques were not always employed. The literal link between indulgence and the possibility of an untimely death made the oyster a symbol ripe for exploitation by Netherlandish vanitas painters.

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

As such, it became “the focus of many genre paintings…frequently the principal food depicted, serving as a vehicle for moral comment” in scenes both superficially merry and serious (Cheney 1987, 135). For example, in Jan Steen’s Easy Come, Easy Go (Figure 12, 1661), the oyster meal is at the center of a seemingly festive gathering loaded with disguised symbolism. In the dining room of a lavishly appointed home, an elderly servant opens oysters for her laughing master, while a beautiful young woman offers him a full glass. The contrast between these two female figures is enough to indicate a negative interpretation of the oyster; associated with old age, not youth and beauty, with death rather than the full life that the brimming cup signifies. Other aspects of the painting add layers of meaning to the oyster’s symbolism. Behind the master of the house is a statue of the goddess Fortuna mounting a die and surrounded by strange sculptural elements. For example, beneath her are two cornucopias: the one on the right (the side of the young woman) overflowing with fruit and coins, while the one on the left (the side of the elderly woman and oyster) full of wilting brambles. Similarly, on the left side of Fortuna is a weeping putto, while on the right, a cheerful one reigns, scepter in hand.

The duality of the imagery here is reinforced by the inscription on the mantelpiece beneath Fortuna that reads “Easily Won, Easily Spent.” A simple explanation for this composition might relate the message and symbolism to the gambling that is taking place in the background of the scene: the viewer sees two men standing around a gaming table through a doorway painted in the upper left corner of the canvas, rolling dice in a game of backgammon. However, the action taking place in the foreground of the scene may be even more pertinent to understanding the fullness of the moralizing message Steen wished to express. Here, an oversized lemon is place on the seat of a chair in closest proximity to the viewer, its peel twisting off in a way that was meant to imitate the inner springs of a clock, symbolizing the passage of time. The lemon is placed next to a juicy oyster, though several empty shells also occupy the seat of this chair, as well as the floor. To the left of this chair, also in the foreground of the scene, is a representation of a boy adding water to wine, suggesting not only religious ritual, but the tempering that is desperately needed in this scene. Behind him on the ground are two empty glasses, perhaps representing the emptiness – even the death – that can be avoided through moderation. Overall, the oyster here serves as a symbol of indulgence and wealth, but is simultaneously associated with chance and even death. The contrast suggests the transient nature of earthly delights and urges moderation and restraint.

Steen’s intention, and that of the other painters of the 17th century symbolic genre scene, was to visualize the decadence of their culture that many members of the up and coming middle-income class of patrons idealized or perhaps even experienced. Yet, these artists sought to simultaneously problematize indulgence by reflecting on the true nature of mankind’s mortal existence and the ultimate cost of consumption by using symbols and signs that a contemporary audience could understand. Thus, Dutch artists could access the often complex, conflicting feelings – of both desire and guilt – that their audience possessed through images that were equally layered with duality of meaning. A similar sort of disguised symbolism works in Mad Men not only because the cultural climate of the 1960s had much in common with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, but because our contemporary 21st century context does as well.

Since Mad Men debuted seven years ago, its Western audiences have enjoyed the highest standard of living the world has ever known — but with the knowledge that this abundance of riches often comes at the expense of other people, animals, and the environment. Like the Dutch as well as their American predecessors in the 1960s, the 21st century audience of Mad Men is experiencing the attraction of material pleasures (made all the more alluring by the ubiquitous advertising of our age) while simultaneously witnessing the social and environmental cost of consumption. The continuing conflict between consumption and conscience suggests that the use of disguised symbolism in Mad Men can transcend the function of a visual narrative device, and may also point viewers toward a course of action that is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century: to seek Truth and strive for balance in the complex relationship between mortality, morality, and materialism.


Works Cited

Alpers, Svetlana. 1983. The Art of Describing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bal, Mieke and Norman Bryson. 1991. “Semiotics and Art History.” The Art Bulletin 73/2: 174-208.

Berger, Harry. 2011. Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life Painting. New York: Fordham University Press.

Berger, John. 1991. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Butler, Jeremy. 2010.”’Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’: Historicizing Visual Style in Mad Men.” In Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, edited by Gary Edgerton, 55-71. London: I.B. Tauris.

Camerarius, Joachim. 1618. Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum. Middleburg.

Cheney, Liana De Girolami. 1987. “The Oyster in Dutch Genre Paintings: Moral or Erotic Symbolism.” Artibus Et Historiae 8/15: 135-158.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1979. “Living On: Border Lines.” In Deconstruction and Criticism, edited by H. Bloom, et al., 75-176. New York: Continuum Publishing Group.

Dürer, Albrecht. 1889. Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer. Ed. W.M. Conway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gaskell, Ivan. 1984. “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth.” Burlington Magazine 126/978: 557-561.

Hansen, Jim. 2013. “Mod Men.” In Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, & Style in the 1960s, edited by Lauren Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert Rushing, 145-160. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Jordan, Winthrop. 1996. The Americans. Boston: McDougal Littell.

Lane, Barbara. 1988. “Sacred vs. Profane in Early Netherlandish Painting.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 18/3: 107-115.

May, Elaine Tyler. 1988. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books.

Meyers, William. 1984. The Image Makers: Power and Persuasion on Madison Avenue. Los Angeles: Times Books.

Newall, Venetia. 1967. “Easter Eggs.” The Journal of American Folklore 80/315: 3-32.

O’Guinn, Thomas and L. J. Shrum. 1997. “The Role of Television in the Construction of Consumer Reality.” Journal of Consumer Research 23/4: 278-294.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1953. Early Netherlandish Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schama, Simon. 1987. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Slive, Seymour. 1962. “Realism and Symbolism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting.” Daedalus 91/3: 469-500.

Snyder, James. 2004. Northern Renaissance Art. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Stoichita, Victor. 1997. The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, James and Everett Fahy. 1990. “Jean-Baptiste Greuze.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 47/3: 5-54.

Vatter, Harold and John Walker, eds. 1996. History of the United States Economy Since World War II. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Ward, John. 1994. “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism.” Artibus et Historiae 15/29: 9-53.



[1] This idea is reinforced by Don’s pitch to the Playtex company later in the episode, in which he says, “its about how they [women] want to be seen by us, their husbands, their boyfriends, their friends’ husbands.”

[2] While the basin’s likeness to a baptismal font makes for a relatively straightforward comparison, the importance of the glass carafe is understood best in light of period sources, such as this Nativity song quoted by van Eyck in another composition: “As the sunbeam through the glass passeth but not breaketh, so the Virgin, as she was, Virgin still remaineth.” See Panofsky 1953, 144.


Bio: Dr. Catherine Wilkins is a faculty member in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. She received a M.A. in Art History (2003) and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Cultural History (2008) from Tulane University. The subject of her doctoral dissertation was post-World War II German landscape painting and its use as a vehicle for social critique. Dr. Wilkins’ research on this subject was recently published as Landscape Imagery, Politics, and Identity in a Divided Germany, 1968-1989 (London: Ashgate, 2013). Her current research interests cover a range of topics in modern and contemporary art and popular culture. Additional publications include “Performing Art History’s Problems with New Media: ‘Capitalist Realism,’ the Northern Renaissance, and Gerhard Richter.” NMediaC, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Summer 2009) and “Constructing Individual Identity in a Cybernetic Age.” Gerard Lange Cartograph/Jared Ragland Apropos (Rocky Mount, N.C.: Barton College Press, 2010).

Don Draper On The Couch: Mad Men and the Stranger to Paradise – Mark Nicholls

“I don’t think I realised it until this moment.  But it must be hard being a man too… Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you, the way other people live it.  There is something about you that tells me you know it too.”

As befits the hero of any television series, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is everything and nothing. Throughout Mad Men we see Don as a child, a war veteran, an ad man, a husband and father, a philanderer and, inevitably for most of us, a fellow traveller in the affairs of the heart at war with society.  He is a gentleman, a friend, a harsh and occasionally cruel boss, sometimes severely restrained, responsible and buttoned-up, sometimes foolish and infantile.  For a serial philanderer he has an intensely loyal and sensitive nature.  Although reputed a creative genius, he is beset with fears, prejudices and a recurring look of bemusement.  He despises psychotherapy and, to a large extent, defies analysis.  Rather than being the subject of psychoanalysis he seems to stand on firmer footing as a hero in a tale brought forward in support of the analytical subjectivity of his audience.  In this way Don Draper is an interesting example of television’s great invention of the character that is almost all things to almost all people [1].

Despite Don’s apparent ability to engage an audience and, indeed, the accolades of Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, he carries with him a disturbing sense of character contradiction.  As a protagonist who suggests himself as almost all things to almost all people, he also prompts us to question whether, despite this, he is really all there.  As I indicate in the scene from the pilot episode quoted above, department store chief Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) understands Don’s disconnection and his near compulsion towards seeing the world second hand.  Whether it is mediated by one of his outstanding creative pitches, an eight millimetre camera or a series of Kodak slides winding their way around a carousel, it is only via these “fantasies of persuasion”, as Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) calls his work, that the disconnected Don Draper can effect any real measure of engagement.  He confirms as much in a frank discussion with Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton) in San Pedro in the penultimate episode of series two when he says, “ I have been watching my life.  It’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get in.  I can’t.”

One reason for this apparent disconnect is Don’s seemingly immovable, almost Althusserian belief in the constructed nature of the basic things in life.  A sense of happiness, security and the freedom from fear, he tells Lucky Strike management, are what advertising is all about.  Love, he advises Rachel Menkin, does not exist, except as something created by people like him to sell nylons.  Happy families such as his own, and their memories, clearly only exist in Sterling Cooper copy and on Kodak slides.  The past and, indeed, American history itself is nothing. [2]  For Don, who goes to such lengths to stamp it out and to alter his name and place in it, there is only a frontier to be discovered.  There is, of course, no London fog, nor did wartime snipers find their aim through the process of “three on a match”.  There are only products to be sold and life–what we have come to understand as “lifestyle” –to be manufactured in the selling.  This construction not only creates the notion of happiness but, according to Don, it serves the ameliorating purpose required by consumers.  “People want to be told what to do” is Don’s familiar response to questions about the integrity of his profession.  They want to be told that what they are doing is ok, he says.  According to his research department, forty-five precent of the population see the colour blue as blue, not because it is, but because they are told to see it that way and they don’t want to see it any differently.

The things of life as constructed by the advertising industry are compelling, even to Don who is such a good salesman, but they are in no sense real.  In the opening episode of series two Don is advising the creative team on the Mohawk Airlines campaign when he concludes his captivating speech about “adventure” with a highly dismissive “blah, blah, blah.”  I will write below of Don’s ability to be mesmerised by his own pitch, but this is an example of his essential failure to be impressed by the lie of advertising that is, in his mind, the lie of life.  By his own logic, as he cannot believe in the constructs of advertising, he cannot believe in anything.  A key campaign in series one is for the Belle Jolie lipstick account–“a basketful of kisses”–but after a seemingly successful and well-considered pitch the client demurs.  Don’s response is indignant and instructive.  In an impressive piece of rancour he tell the Belle Jolie exec that there is no point going any further because he is a non-believer and does not have Jesus in his heart.  Once the client is brought around to accept the campaign and they are all shaking hands at the end of the meeting, Don confuses and disturbs him, yet again, when he tells him that they will never really know if the campaign was a success or not – “it’s not a science”.  This scene shows Don at his most revealing and tells us a great deal about him.  In an advertising sense he clearly knows the power of Jesus, he can preach the gospel and he may even be a believer in the “old time religion” (“it’s good enough for me”) but he doesn’t believe in God.  He recognises a fellow non-believer in the Belle Jolie exec, because he too does not have Jesus in his heart.  Don’s job is to instil Jesus into the hearts of clients and consumers even if he cannot find Jesus there for himself.  In this way Don joins a long tradition of salesmen, selling everything from snake oil to salvation, that like Jim Casey in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) lost or never had the calling.[3]

As the essential things of life, for Don, are merely advertising constructs, it is no surprise that he tells Rachel that:“you are born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget.  I am living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.” As one of the great rule makers of his generation–for advertising constructs are surely the basis of many Cold War rules and prohibitions [4]–Don feels this more keenly than most.  Anna and the spectre of his father confirm his sense of this isolation when the former tells him that this belief is the reason he cannot be happy and the latter tells him that to be a success he cannot continue to believe it.  Whether or not he acknowledges this–and something in the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce at the end of Season Three suggest he does–Don’s nihilism and his sense of being disconnected are such that we understand that he lives in a universe that is cold, lonely and meaningless.  As he tells the beatnik lover of his mistress Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), “There is no big lie, there is no system. The Universe is indifferent.”  In series three he reveals a similarly entropic view of the universe when he tells the creative team that “change is neither good nor bad, it simply is.”  In many ways he is like the physicist played by Jack Warden in Woody Allen’s September (1987)–they both know the Universe to be random, violent and meaningless and, in a sense, they both get paid to prove it.  The problem for Don in this knowledge is that, unlike Jack Warden’s physicist who takes refuge in the love of his wife (Elaine Stritch), he has very little to cling to at night.  When he comes to the realisation that Midge is in love with the beatnik, he is sympathetic, impressed and even envious, but if he can muster up enough faith to believe in love at all, he cannot know it for himself.  All he can do is give her the $2500 bonus he had from Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), another random event in his life, tell her to buy a car–a sign, at least, of happiness–and walk out of her life.

Although distrustful and consequently disconnected from his own life, as I have indicated, Don Draper certainly has the talent to engage others, and in this he is not immune from the power of his own performance.  Frequently we see him swallow his own snake oil.  In the Lucky Strike campaign, the Belle Jolie episode, as well as in his boardroom defence of selling “products not advertising”, we see Don momentarily full of feeling and untroubled by his dreadful knowledge of “the whole world laid out in front of [him], the way people live it.”  He is engaged, positive, charming and sincere, seemingly lost and, as I have written, mesmerised along with the rest of us, by the process of unfurling the lie.  The Kodak Carousel pitch, in the final episode of series one is a case in point.  He stands throughout the presentation. This exposes him and opens him up to a far greater extent than we are used, so dominant across the series is the seated or couched image of Don as a controlling and sometimes almost sadistic figure.  His stance is contained, one hand either in his pocket or clasped casually with his other hand that makes frequent restrained but assured gestures.  He is wearing a dark gray flannel pin-stripe suit, much more conservative than his usual light gray and combined with his stance he presents an image of quiet confidence along with a rare note of humility.  We see this in his eyes also, and the way they alternate between the dark knitted brow look and a flash of white as the camera moves in and he talks about the idea of “nostalgia” and “deeper bond with the product.”  When the slide presentation is underway and all eyes are on the images of a family life we have never known for Don flick past, his address becomes more relaxed.

Whatever rehearsal he may have had is clearly obscured and overcome by his present sense of rapture at the life that he has such difficulties trying to enter flashing past him.  David Carbonara’s score of strings, horn, flute, piano and glockenspiel that began with the slide show, is highly resonant of the compositions of Elmer Bernstein (Far From Heaven, 2002) and Thomas Newman (Revolutionary Road, 2008, Little Children, 2006) and it works subtly, like the smoke from Salvatore’s cigarette wafting across the screen, to complement the truth and the simplicity of Don’s performance.  It is all too much for Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who guilty from a recent small infidelity, has been kicked out of home and must leave the conference room to hide his tears.  It is Don’s consummate performance, however, inspired and technique obscuring, that stuns us and impresses upon us his undoubted but too frequently absent ability to feel something.[5]   He too, it seems has the capacity to kneel down, moves his lips in prayer and believe.[6]

In the “Bye Bye Birdie” episode of series three Don cautions Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) about the apparent and necessary separation between art and work by saying, “You’re not an artist, you solve problems.  Leave some tools in your tool box.”  Nevertheless in the emotional intensity of his pitch, in his frequent reliance on spur of the moment inspiration and in the, often begrudging, admiration of Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Duck Phillips and the account men, Don is very much like an artist. [7] The decade leading up to the John F. Kennedy assassination in November 1963, represented at the end of series three in Mad Men, was a rich one in the representation of the tortured artist both in Hollywood and elsewhere; consider: A Star is Born (1951), An American in Paris, The Bandwagon, All About Eve and The Bad and the Beautiful (all 1952), Lust for Life (1956) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), not to discount Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963).  From the Cukor, Minnelli, Kelly and Donen musicals of the early 1950s, to the “gotta dance” stage, screen and studio melodramas that span the period, the cinema furnished a great many examples of the artist for whom art is easy but the rest of life is impossible.  Like them, Don Draper shows that it is only in his artwork that he can lose himself, that he can engage with something in life as a first hand and unmediated experience.  The popular myth of the creative genius may allow him a measure of cruelty, insensitivity and generally anti-social behaviour in his struggle with the rest of life, but at the moment of performance he needs no allowances made.  In this way, life is really only viable for Don as the artist in the creative moment.  All the rest is impossible.  Where Don departs from the Minnelli model, however, is in his ultimate distrust of the creative outcome.  Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas), Gerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) and even Joseph Mankiewicz’s Margo Channing (Bette Davis) may believe in the art they are creating but for Don, however mystified and aroused he may become by his own creation, as an advertising construct, he can never really believe in it.  As in the major part of his life when those around him are enjoying the moment, Don’s belief in the ad man created version life allows him very little room to feel or enjoy anything at all.[8]

Just as Don can be temporarily distracted by his work from, what he sees as, the cold realities of the Universe, he also allows himself an element of delusion over the possibility of escape.  This is directly related to his insatiable philandering and demonstrates another uncharacteristic level of engagement for the generally disconnected Don. In the main, the ease with which Don can float in and out of his extra-marital affairs has much to do with his nihilism and a certain emotional materialism and myopia that it has bred in him.  There is an aspect of his philandering, however, that he associates with the idea of escape and release – as if that were actually possible in the meaningless world he inhabits.

With Midge, Rachel and Anna (perhaps only an honorary mistress) he can frequently be more open and demonstrate his vulnerability in a way that he does not with his wife, Betty (January Jones).  We meet Midge before we ever meet Betty in the pilot and Don goes to her apartment for the first time when he is beset with anxieties about the Lucky Strike campaign and the generational threat posed by Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).  Almost immediately in his relationship with Rachel he is adamant that she knows and understands him better that anyone.  In Season Two, he acknowledges the problem openly with Anna when he says, “I’ve told you things I’ve never told Betty.  Why does it have to be that way?”  Just as these women seem to allow him the opportunity of “time out” from the codified world of marriage and business, he also associates them with the potential for complete self-removal.  As soon as his identity is placed under threat by Pete in series one, he rushes to Rachel and childishly proposes they run away and start their life over somewhere else.  On the stimulus of the bonus from Bert, Don’s first reaction is to charge over to Midge and suggest they immediately take a plane to Paris.  The California sequence at the end of Season Two, where he meets Joy (Laura Ramsey) and ultimately leaves her for Anna in San Pedro, is largely rendered for Don as a surreal and light-headed departure from the ordinary experience of life, as in a David Lynch film.

The significance of all this time off for Don is not as evidence of the viability of any vision of an alternative life for him as Roger Sterling might see it in the arms of his new young wife, Jane (Peyton List).  Don’s extra-marital liaisons, like his brilliant pitches, show his ability to engage in at least one small aspect of life, however false and unrealistic it may be.  Like his pitches, his affairs are limited and inevitably come to an end as soon as real life intervenes, but they do demonstrate the extent to which he can be passionate (with Rachel), vulnerable (with Midge) and emotionally challenged (with Bobby Barrett (Melinda McGraw)).  Don’s affairs, with the exception of Suzanne (Abigail Spencer) and, to a large extent, Anna, are related to his business and stand as an extension of that small part of life in which he seems to be able to engage.  To the extent that they have anything to do with love, however, we cannot divorce them from Don’s stated and demonstrated views on that subject.  They can be, therefore, no more real or viable for him than the idea of nostalgia that comes with the Kodak Carousel, the thrill of adventure with Mohawk Airlines or the feeling that comes with a new pair of nylons.

Thus far I have argued that Don Draper is disconnected and separated from the act of living his own life.  He believes himself to be in possession of an almost unbearable insight as to the emptiness of the world and the way god-like figures, such as himself, provide the things, rules, emotions and products that people can believe in to fill that emptiness.  Evangelist of the power of such a religion he may be, however, he cannot allow himself to participate or believe in it.  His sense of struggle, dissatisfaction and his growing understanding of his situation induce our sympathy and like Anna, we consider Don to be gripped by the false belief that he is alone.  The question of why he should be so faithless tempts us to follow the paths of psychoanalysis and mine the substantial screen time (which increases into the third series) allotted to Don’s childhood and youth.  But Don himself is so dismissive of psychoanalysis and this is a view not entirely rejected by even the Dionysian Roger Sterling.  Nor is there anything in Don’s childhood, and importantly in his reaction to his past that impresses itself as necessarily traumatic.  Experiences such as Don’s were hardly uncommon in and following the Great Depression.

Psychoanalytically this is dangerous ground but it does lure us away from the trauma-hysteria trajectory when we think about reasons for Don’s nihilism. [9]  Perhaps in this context, as Roger suggests, psychoanalysis is “just this year’s candy pink stove.”  Rather than trawling the past for the source of Don’s “damage”, to use a contemporary expression, Mad Men seems to present the far more disturbing idea that there is nothing wrong with Don at all.  Rather than reading him as a faithless, damaged and traumatised shell-shock victim, what I am suggesting as a fruitful approach to understanding Don is that we should read him as if he is right.  That Don’s disturbed view of the world is not his problem, but the problem of the society in which he lives.

In so many ways Don Draper is represented as highly successful, his own personal and emotional dilemmas not withstanding.  For all the brilliance we actually see in Don’s work, with clients and colleagues he seems to have a reputation far in excess of that demonstrated.  Beyond the awards he wins and the general recognition of his excellence, in each of the first three seasons of the series, it is made clear that Don’s presence at Sterling Cooper is absolutely essential to its existence – hence the on-going attempts to place him under contract and the regular flow of cash bonuses that come his way.  In his life outside business also, Don appears to live in a world seemingly without resistance.  In a guest appearance in the third season of NBC’s 30 Rock (2009), Jon Hamm encounters this resistanceless life yet again in an amusing parody of Don Draper’s world that Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) calls “the bubble”.  Liz explains to Hamm’s character, Dr. Drew Baird, that he lives in the bubble because of his good looks, and this, no doubt, also has something to do with Don’s success.  Yet it is clear, as in so many other aspects of his life, that Don’s experiences and even his vaguely deluded expectations have not only been socially recognised but also rewarded.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we should consider Don’s somewhat myopic view of the world as a viable one in the world of Mad Men for it is so thoroughly endorsed.  This we might consider to be even more the case given that the greatest critic of the world he inhabits is, in fact, Don himself.  As Don confirms when he advises Peggy to move on and forget the birth of her baby – “It will shock you how much it never happened” – no one is more disturbed by the apparent incongruity between the highly questionable nature of experience and peoples’ apparent willingness to forget.  Such is Don’s own localised encounter with the idea of American historical amnesia.[10]

A significant mark of both Don’s critique of the world and his recognition of it as meaningless comes from the way he sees his success as completely random.  Not only are his origins, as he says in series two, Moses-like, but his very birth to a dying prostitute is an accident, without planning or logic.  His name and identity, as well as all the threats he faces in protecting that identity, demonstrate the great deal of the luck and happy coincidence he enjoys throughout the show.  The eccentricity and worldly experience of Bert Cooper, as well as a developed sense of emotional detachment, accounts for Bert’s lack of outrage when Pete Campbell breaks the story of Don’s name change.  The explanation for Anna Draper’s acceptance of Don’s story, however, is less apparent.  Whatever he has done for her, however well he has explained his actions, her entire attitude towards him suggests an endorsement that is too good to be true.  And yet, despite the Lynchian Surreality of their sequences together in San Pedro, thus far into the show we have nothing concrete to suggest that this is anything other than Don’s illogical good fortune.  When he is finally forced to reveal his secret to Betty in the third last episode of Season Three, he speaks of his surprise that she ever loved him and wanted to marry him, secret or no secret.  Indeed the very idea of his marriage to Betty defies all reason.  The circumstances of his poverty and the obscurity of his background suggest their union as an highly unlikely match.  Betty’s psychological make up is no less interesting than Don’s, and requires a paper in itself. Beyond the more obscure reasons that led her to marry her man of mystery, however, we have to consider that on one level at least, her  “spoiled main-line brat” view of him as “some football hero who hated his father” played some horrific part in securing her interest.  Don is by no means the first man to wake up one morning and find himself a successful professional, a husband and father and wonder how it all happened. [11]  Like his pitches at work and his entire experience of creative inspiration, however, so much of his beautiful life seems to come out of thin air that we can hardly begrudge his suspicions over it.  If Don believed in God he might well see his life as a miracle.  As an apostate preacher, however, these “miracles” are simply evidence of his vision of a cold, random and meaningless Universe.

Beyond his apparent good fortune and as an American male in the early 1960s, the sense that Don is completely empowered and enabled to live with such freedom further argues the case against any philosophy that challenges his own.  Whatever doubts Betty has about his extra-marital activities, the freedom Don enjoys to “sleep in the city”, to wander off for hours, or even days, is as much a period feature of Mad Men as the featured period décor, the office drinks trays or the introduction of photocopiers.  Office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) gives detailed instructions to her fellow workers about ways to keep their male employers happy and these Emily Post-like edicts are similarly featured throughout the series. For all the feistiness of the key women in the series, however, Don’s expectations of women around him are almost entirely met.  Both Rachel and Suzanne present stinging critiques of Don the philanderer but end up sleeping with him and endorsing his personal concerns in a way that is similar to Anna’s.  Rachel’s comment, “it must be hard being a man too. . .” carries with it an element of irony but it also indicates the extent to which the “man’s world” view is perpetuated by the women in his life whom he treats with least regard.  When Don is surprised at home by the unexpected return of Betty he leaves Susan waiting for hours in his car.  Nevertheless, when he finally calls her next day her first concern is for his welfare.  In the penultimate episode of series one, we see Don, in a flash back, unable to leave the train with the body of the original Don Draper.  We know that to do so will expose his entire ruse but his performance of grief is so convincing – if indeed it is a performance – that a fellow passenger, a woman, picks him up, offering to “buy a soldier a drink” and comforting him with words similar to Rachel’s “It must be hard for you! Forget that boy in the box.”[12]

A potent theme of the series is generational struggle and Don is not immune from competitive fears inspired in him by Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling and, indeed, the memory of his dead father.  Nevertheless, just as Don seems to dwell in the frictionless space I have described, he sees many examples of others whose experiences have not been so blessed. He sees his father, the “common man” of the Depression, as totally crushed.  With his material comfort, Roger is not exactly the man in the gray flannel suit, but (like Bert Cooper) as the firm slips from their control, first due to their reliance on Don and then through selling out to Puttnam, Powell and Lowe, the extent to which these old timers come to inhabit the safe, reliable but easily redundant sheltered-workshop identity that threatens the protagonist of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Tom Rath, is obvious.[13]   At the other end of the greasy pole, despite the extent to which he challenges Don, especially in series one, Pete is also constantly, and often amusingly frustrated in his awkwardly stated professional ambition. With all Don’s success and good fortune in an indifferent world, he cannot but notice those whose experience of powerlessness has been harsh.  The extent to which he fears and is confronted with the intolerable realities of failure that these men endure has the effect of further emphasising Don’s frictionless experience and his sense of possessing an almost taboo personal status.

In light of its reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Jimmy Stewart’s nightmare of falling into the abyss of female desire, the obvious reading of Mad Men’s title sequence indicates similar fears of male decline.  The scenario suggests Don Draper, a shadow of his full self, walking into his office high on top of Madison Avenue only to have the whole business fall down around him and taking him with it to the bottom. [14]  It is not, however, a maddened and desperate figure, like Jimmy Stewart jumping up from his nightmare, that brings this sequence to an end.  Both this shadow man’s fall and the passacaglia of the strings on the music track are resolved into a comfortable image of the dark figure relaxing on a couch, his right arm casually draped along its back, his right hand holding a cigarette.  Accompanied by a mellow base and drum line it is as if the falling man has found his way to a relaxed downtown jazz club with cocktails and comfy seats, rather than finding himself splattered on the sidewalk.  From this perspective we can read the man as not so much falling between the images the late 1950s advertising boom, as floating past them and effortlessly falling on his feet again.  This is very much like Don’s experience.  Whatever signs we see of his anxiety, whatever his personal struggles, Don’s experience tends towards a comfortable resolution. So thoroughly endorsed in his empty universe view and in his power as the great creator of meaning, for Don the non-believer there is very little else for him to be other than God.  Everything and nothing, the beginning and the end of all things, he is intolerant of the past, of unhappiness and particularly psychoanalysis because he knows and is everything.  As God, or at least god-like, nothing comes before him so there can be no past.  He is the source of love (selling “products not advertising”) so there need be no unhappiness. He has no unconscious, no repressed thoughts and he knows all the thoughts of others, so there is no call for psychoanalysis.

The only, but substantial problem for Don is that he has a developing, nagging half-suspicion that there may be something for him beyond loneliness and beyond the world so comfortably created in his image.  As that great television god Truman Burbank experiences it in The Truman Show (1998), strange characters like the Hobo and strange ideas such as Utopia, nostalgia and what he himself calls “a life lived” frequently break in and suggest something else, like “an eternal thought in the mind of God” as Laurence Olivier puts it in the big hit of 1960, Spartacus.  If Don can keep the promise he makes to his son Bobby in Season One that he will never lie to him, the universe cannot simply be a meaningless and empty place simply waiting for the ameliorating fiction of Don’s products and pitches.  Bobby at least, and therefore Don, cannot be alone and therefore his barren philosophy must begin to unravel.  At this point in the show, however, if there is something for Don beyond advertising, it remains an “eternal thought.”  If he has seen it, like the life revealed to him by the Siren figure of Joy, Don has simply and quietly passed it by.  Whether it is created in his image or not, Don Draper remains a lonely god and a stranger to paradise.


[1] One particular example of this is the television news anchorman/woman.  In her discussion of the objective/subjective discourse of television news, Margaret Morse (1986) highlights the importance of the television anchor as a general subject whose personal sincerity is essential to his (frequently the anchor is male) credibility and the overall success of his endeavour to become a sort of personal paraclete.  Given the rise of the anchorman in the early 1950s and the importance of this figure thereafter, particularly in the person of Walter Cronkite, the comparison between Don Draper as adman and the essential television personage of the news anchorman is pertinent.

[2] See Althusser on history and ideology (150-2).

[3] John Steinbeck won the Nobel Peace Prize for literature in 1962.

[4] Mike Chopra-Gant analysis of a 1946 Studebaker advertisement, which involves a father and son working together with sleeves rolled up, is an example of the way post war advertising sold ideology as well as products (142).  The critique Don’s father makes (from the grave) of his son and his profession, is based around similar notions of masculinity and real work that Chopra-Gant reads in the Studebaker ad.

[5] Benjamin Schwarz reads this scene as an interesting mix of Don’s ability to sell himself and the audience’s desire to see Don as serious (The Atlantic).  In his commentary for the DVD release of the pilot episode Matthew Weiner, however, argues for Don’s honesty in the moment of his business pitch (“Commentary”).

[6] Althusser, “more or less” quoting Pascal (158).

[7] Bruce Handy points out that in his observations about human needs Don has “an artist’s intuition”, but undermines the seriousness of Don’s pitch by suggestion that it is in these moments that Mad Men comes closest to the idea of “shtick” (274).

[8] Matthew Weiner makes this point about Don in his description of the very first scene of the pilot (“Commentary”).

[9] Certainly I do not reject the use of a psychoanalytic reading of Don Draper.  Indeed, my own extensive work on masculinity, melancholia and loss in international cinema after 1940 (see Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob. Pluto and Indiana University Press, 2004) suggests a number of useful psychoanalytical approaches to discuss this character and Mad Men in general.

[10] Gary Edgerton aligns Don with George Santayana’s idea that Americans “don’t solve problems, they leave them behind . . .” He also associates this attitude with Don’s tendency to escape at the first sign of trouble (Critical Studies in Television).

[11] In Gary Edgerton’s subtle discussion of the series, Don is aligned with the John F. Kennedy mystique and what critics David Newman and Robert Benton have called “The New Sentimentality” that accompanied the myth of 1960s Washington DC Camelot.  Don’s own style and mystique is essential to this argument and nowhere is it more pertinent than in the comparison of the two men and the trophy wives that helped them sell their messages (Critical Studies in Television).  To my reading, Don is very much a Nixon man.  As he says, “when I see Nixon I see myself.”  The appeal of his persona to the Kennedy style, as Edgerton points out, is, however, undeniable and perhaps all the more poignant for its origins in a Nixonian base.  If Nixon’s tragedy in the 1960s elections (or at least in the first television debate) was that he lacked the Kennedy charm, consider Don’s problem–he may look like a young Kennedy but he feels like Nixon.

[12] Matthew Weiner comments that Rachel is unusual in that she really talks to Don.  He makes this point in relation to the pilot episode and in contrast to Betty.  However, it is certainly true that in general Don has a far greater degree of conversation with his mistresses than with Betty, his wife (“Commentary”).

[13] I disagree with Sergio Angelini when he writes that Don Draper is modelled on Tom Rath in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.  Both are veterans but not of the Korean War, as my colleague writes (90).  Tom Rath is 33 in 1953 and served in Europe and the Pacific in World War II.  In this he has more in common with Roger Sterling who also served in World War II.  Certainly all three men share the dual experience of being veterans returning to fight new enemies on Madison Avenue, but, as Matthew Weiner has pointed out, the theme of generational difference is important to Mad Men and this is largely based around a discourse of masculinity in relation to the differences between the two wars (“Commentary”).  Don reflects on the powerlessness of his seniors and, I suggest, aspires to overcome what he sees as the weaknesses and failings of the gray flannel generation.  This may account for some of the vehemence behind the punch he lands on Jimmy Barrett (Patrick Fischler) who calls him “the man in the gray flannel suit”.

[14] This is Matthew Weiner’s view (Handy 282).



Althusser, Louis. (1977), “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, in Lenin  and Philosophy and other essays, Brewster, B. (trans), NLB, London,121-173.

Angelini, Sergio (2009).  “Mad Men – Season 2”, Sight and Sound, Volume 19, Issue 9, p. 90.

Chopra-Gant, Mike (2006). Hollywood Genres and Postwar America: Masculinity,  Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir. London ; New York : I.B. Tauris.

Edgerton, Gary (2010). “JFK, Don Draper, and the New Sentimentality”, Critical Studies in Television,

Handy, Bruce (2009). “Don and Betty’s Paradise Lost”, Vanity Fair, September, pp. 268-283, 337-339.

Morse, Margaret (1986). “The Television News Personality and Credibility: Reflections on the News in Transition” in Modleski, T (ed) Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, Indiana University Press, pp.55-79.

Schwarz, Benjamin (2009). “Mad About Mad Men”, The Atlantic,

Weiner, Matthew (2008) “Commentary – Episode One”, Mad Men, Season One,  AMC.

Wilson, Sloan (1954/60). The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Pan Books Limited, London.



Mark Nicholls has been teaching at the University of Melbourne since 1993. He is the author of Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob (Pluto Press & Indiana University Press, 2004) and recently published chapters and articles on Martin Scorsese (Film Quarterly, Blackwell & Cambridge), Luchino Visconti (Quarterly Review for Film and Video), Shakespeare in film (Journal of Film and Video) and film and the Cold War. Mark is a film journalist and worked for many years on ABC Radio and for The Age newspaper, for which he wrote a weekly film column between 2007 and 2009. Mark has an extensive list of stage credits as a playwright, actor, producer and director. His email address is