The myth of America, if it persists at all, has always rested on a precarious foundation. It is precisely its fragility, not its audacity — the perpetual worry of its believers, not its arrogance — that has made it something different (dare we say better?) than just another version of nationalist pomp.
Whenever Roger Sterling wants to remind others of the fact that he was on a destroyer in the Pacific during the Second World War, he usually does so in the form of seemingly jocular remarks. A visit to an elegant restaurant with Don and their respective wives, for example, can quickly induce him to make a witty reference to past wars. In order to get another round of drinks, he asks the waiter, “Tell the lieutenant, please, that things are getting a little dry around Hill 29.” He is immensely pleased at Don’s clever repartee: “All clear in No Man’s Land” (MM 1.2). Like Don, Roger is also haunted by his experiences at the frontline, only he positively boasts about a past that he does not, under any circumstances, want to forget. At the same time, in their shared war experience, these two men are also shown to bond. During a dinner in her own home, Betty asks Roger to tell a true war story and he unhesitatingly describes how his father, with a bayonet in his hand, successfully killed a German soldier who was lying only a few feet away from him in the trenches. Her own husband, in response to Betty’s complaint that Don hardly speaks about the war, defends himself by objecting to his work buddy: “Not much to say, you boys used up all the glory.” Roger, in turn, immediately takes up the challenge, and explains: “My old man will always have one on me with that bayonet” (MM 1.7). War memories, however, not only serve to forge an affective connection between the two figural brothers in arms, Roger and Don. War, as the event that different generations of Americans share, also brings to the fore the difficulties the sons have when it comes to measuring up to their fathers. For precisely this reason, Roger proceeds at once to recount the mission for which he was decorated. In his witty rendition, shooting down a Japanese reconnaissance plane transforms into a gleeful adventure in the South China Sea.
That Roger takes these war anecdotes quite seriously, however, becomes clear as well in the first season. After his heart attack, Roger confesses to Don, “I’ve been living the last 20 years like I’m on shore leave” (MM 1.10). If the trope he comes up with for his fear of death is the idea of returning to the war front, then that means he has been treating his life during peace times as a time-out from war. His untroubled insistence that, for him at least, the Second World War is as yet unfinished business is only consistent. His persistent jokes about military matters thus prove to be the flip side of his own quiet melancholy. Like Don, he, too, lives in two temporal periods. His past life as a soldier, which he had to leave behind on the Pacific front upon returning home from war, obliquely overshadows his current work on Madison Avenue. And he, too, is estranged from his fellow men and women owing to this double life. Once, on December 9th, he arrives at the office ostentatiously wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt over his elegant vest to celebrate Pearl Harbor Day. Already inebriated, he proceeds to explain to one of the secretaries why, even though this attack was a stroke of genius, it ultimately brought about the defeat of the Japanese enemy. Nobody, however, is much interested in what he has to say, given that for most of the others, the political situation has drastically changed. While his war memories serve as the decisive point of orientation for his thinking, his insistence on reminding others about the human loss this war entailed blights the confident optimism they prefer to place in the future.
Nowhere does his refusal to consign the Second World War to the past cause as much conflict between him and his partners as in their competition for the Honda account. During the meeting at which Pete informs the others about this amazing opportunity, Roger insists that their agency will not do business with the Japanese. “I used to be a man with a lot of friends,” he asserts, “then World War II came and they were all killed by your new yellow buddies.” Bert, who keeps his war record to himself, resolutely retorts: “The war is over, Roger” (MM 4.5). This does not, however, prevent his recalcitrant partner from attending the meeting with the representatives of the Japanese car company, during which he immediately proceeds to embarrass them by recasting the conditions they have proposed for the competition in terms of a continuation of war with other means. Showing loyalty toward the dead is more important to Roger than any form of reconciliation. Given that he obstinately insists that he made an oath to his war comrades that must not be broken, he can only conceive of Don’s decision to nevertheless give a sales pitch to the Honda representatives as a sign of capitulation. Joan, to whom he turns in the hope of finding solace, sternly rebukes his self-pity. “Roger, I know it was awful and I know it will never seem like it was that long ago,” she explains, “but you fought to make the world a safer place and you won and now it is” (MM 4.5). At stake are two different attitudes. While Joan feels compelled to give her attention to the real threats posed by a war taking place in South-East Asia at the time of their conversation, Roger insists on not letting current events screen out the past war, because he does not want to let go of those who fought and died in it.
Both are right in their own way. Joan, whose husband is about to be deployed in Vietnam, needs to adjust to the situation of becoming a single mother. When she discovers barely a year later that he has volunteered to do another tour there as an army surgeon, she throws her husband out of her life completely. Even though he defends himself, accusing her that she would have praised his decision if it were the Second World War and the Japanese had attacked America, she refuses to change her attitude. Unaffected by his military passion, she retaliates by insisting that, then as now, soldiers wanted to come home and stay there. As a professional woman who on a daily basis must deal with the sexist attacks on her own work front, she is immune to all sentimental war patriotism. Roger, in turn, has never fully returned home from the war in the Pacific. He openly laments the fact that he has no friends from before he enlisted. “The Sword and the Chrysanthemum” (MM 4.5) also draws our attention to the fact that the site of martial conflict has, to a degree, begun to surface within the nation as well. Significantly, the backdrop for Roger’s aggressive contestation of his agency’s dealings with Honda are news images from Selma, Alabama, where a protest march against the obstruction of African American voters calls forth open violence. It may be that the world has changed, but the deployment of violence as a political weapon has remained the same. Only for some has America really become a safer place.
How tenaciously Roger is influenced by his experiences on the destroyer in the Pacific is also revealed in the fact that, to the end, he uses these recollections to gauge his current situation. After his agency has been swallowed by the behemoth, McCann Erickson, and they are forced to leave the offices in the Time & Life building, he recounts one last true war story. Standing forlornly in the empty foyer of what was once the executive suite, he takes Peggy into his confidence. To her, the sale of the agency seems like a challenging opportunity, even if this was something imposed on them. Roger, in turn, invokes a scene from the summer of 1944 in order to explain his take on the unexpected change of fortune that has beset him. It had been a very hot day and his captain therefore decided to anchor in a Laguna so that everyone could go swimming. Initially he was not able to follow his comrades, who had immediately jumped into the water. The ship was two storeys high and he had been afraid to dive down that deep. Whimsically he admits that he ultimately did jump, but only because someone had pushed him. His gaze at the abandoned offices allows him to link the two sites in his mind, assuring Peggy: “This was a hell of a boat” (7.12). Yet this assertion implicitly calls up another trope. While Jim Hobart, Chief Executive at McCann Erickson, confessed to Don Draper in the same episode that he was the white whale he had been chasing for ten years, Roger’s comment also makes reference to the novel Moby-Dick, albeit obliquely. His advertisement agency is comparable to Captain Ahab’s ship named Pequod, which, in his novel, Herman Melville conceived as a miniature of the American nation. In Mad Men, this “hell of a boat” also serves as the stage where the struggles so characteristic of the 1960s — between the generations, the sexes and diverse ethnic minorities — have come to be played out; in proxy for American society at large.
Yet Roger is not the only one haunted by war. Even if not as consistently, other characters are also associated with their military past so as to render visible the continuation of war with other means in civilian life. Sometimes this serves to explain why a character such as ‘Duck’ Phillips repeatedly fails in the business world. At one point, trying to convince Don to help him out of a tough spot, he admits that during his time with the Marine Corps he once was negligent while on duty and had needed his comrades to cover for him. The break he asks Don for is meant to assuage this embarrassment. Then again, a laconic reference to the war can also explain the tough resilience of a character such as the Machiavellian Jim Cutler, who proudly confesses to his melancholic partner, Ted Chaough, that during his bomb raids over Dresden he felt no death wish (and thus, implicitly, no subsequent compunction either). Other scenes are less about personal memories than a commemoration of those who fought for the American nation in the past. Pete Campbell shamelessly uses the legend of a great-grandaunt, who is supposed to have valiantly attacked a Hessian officer during the American Revolution, when he wants to impress his landowner with his prestigious pedigree. And in the conversation Lee Garner Jr. has with Roger in a bar, so as to inform him that the Lucky Strike account has been given to another agency, he, too, has recourse to a family legend. Lee Garner Jr. recalls that at the end of the Civil War, his grandfather had refused to capitulate and instead chose to re-encode even this terrible defeat as a moment of celebration, hoping that Roger will do the same.
Don himself is fairly reticent when it comes to paying homage to the past. During a 4th of July party, which he is celebrating together with Betty and his children at their country club, the MC asks all the war veterans to stand up. The applause they receive is meant as a sign of recognition from all those present for the courage they showed serving their country. Because the situation is embarrassing to Don, he initially hesitates getting up from his chair. But seeing his daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), wildly clapping, he finally stands up as well, bemused at her pride. While he feels uncomfortable because he knows that he does not deserve this accolade, the ironic distance he brings to this scene also exposes the protective function of this staged military commemoration. The oldest veteran present, who is, in fact, called out by name, was a member of the Rough Riders, the cavalry unit in which Theodore Roosevelt himself fought during the Spanish-American War. His presence, token of the survival of a former national spirit, however, also obliquely references the botched invasion of the Bay of Pigs. This recent event can precisely not be taken as an example for the heroic valor of American troops. Cuba in the 1960s emerges instead as the site of a military defeat that actually came to encourage rather than abate a real nuclear threat to the nation.
In his own home, Don resolutely undermines all romantic war worship. One evening, soon after Betty’s father, Gene (Ryan Cutrona), who is suffering from dementia, has moved in with them, Don watches him unpack his war memorabilia in their kitchen. First, casting a mischievous glance at his son-in-law, Gene shows him the Victory Medal he earned for his valorous deeds in the trenches of northern France. Then, pulling a Prussian helmet from one of the cardboard boxes, he directs the attention of his grandson to the holes that indicate where he shot his enemy, with dried blood still clinging to the edges. After he proceeds to proudly place this trophy on Bobby’s (Maxwell Huckabee) head, Don, who up to this point had watched in silence, intervenes. Explaining to his son that this hat belongs to a dead man, he once more removes the helmet and puts it away. While Don opposes all glorification of war, because it so fundamentally contradicts his own experience in Korea, for his father-in-law, his time in the trenches during WWI is precisely his most lasting memory, indeed one of the few he has managed to retain. He may have lost his short-term memory, but recollections of his camaraderie with the other doughboys, which, he insists, was what made him a man, resiliently remain with him. Mad Men thus makes use of personalized war remembrances, regardless whether they cannot or must not be forgotten, to negotiate the collective haunting of the nation. These war stories make up a shared cultural space that includes everyone, even while it also constitutes a consecutive series. If the founding of America was predicated on a war of independence, its subsequent history, punctuated as it is with further wars, finds, in the 1960s, a logical continuation of this violent struggle for self-definition in the war in South-East Asia. The notion of historical re-imagination negotiated in Mad Men thus also speaks to the repetition compulsion inscribed in America’s military interventions.
A continuation of war in peacetime, however, also surfaces in the way that military jargon (and indeed military codes of conduct) not only informs the work environment at Sterling Cooper, but also helps shape the competition amongst the agencies on Madison Avenue. Early on in Mad Men, Pete, seeking to ingratiate himself with Don, raves: “A man like you I’d follow into combat blindfolded and I wouldn’t be the first. Am I right buddy?” (MM 1.1). Don contemptuously repudiates such camaraderie from a junior colleague so unscrupulously seeking self-advancement. A few episodes later, however, Roger will himself once again invoke the notion of the military’s chain of command, so as to make Pete pledge his loyalty to the senior creative director of whom, at this point in the show, he is deeply envious. “I know your generation went to college instead of serving, so I’ll illuminate you,” Roger explains: “This man is your commanding officer. You live and die in his shadow” (MM 1.4). Indeed, the verbal wit of the dialogs in Mad Men frequently borrows from military vocabulary. The office employees are often called ‘troops’ by their superiors, an impasse is quickly compared to Chamberlain’s ‘Munich agreement,’ while Bert Cooper does not hesitate to speak of the merger with the British firm Putnam, Powell & Lowe as “life under British rule” (MM 3.1). Then, again, Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray), in a moment of crisis, recalls his time with the Signal Corps during WWII. Forced to explain why he had been too drunk to give a sales pitch for Samsonite, he can only admit that it was a SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up).
The cultural survival of war in the offices of postwar America, which the intermittent recourse to military jargon attests to in Mad Men, can be concretely attributed to the incredible logistics involved in the D-Day Landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 6th, 1944. As Christoph Bartmann suggests, the superiority of American management could henceforth draw on precisely this organizational achievement, given that it promised to introduce the principles of a good and just war into the civilian world of business. As he argues, the often still young veterans of the Second World War that now rushed into the big corporations to there prove themselves as they had previously done in battle, wanted, on the one hand, to continue to deploy tested military methods. On the other hand, they were equally eager to further the democratic principles of the free West, which had just recently won a victory over the ideological violence and tyranny of totalitarian governments.
Yet, in Mad Men, the sustained militarization of the business world also takes on a cynical note. What is rendered visible is the way energies that previously were mobilized for war can just as readily be brought into play in this new environment. Indeed, in this urban war zone, men are allowed to ruthlessly deploy all means, if necessary, in order to either keep an old client or win a new one. They are even allowed to exercise the destructive furor of battle if this promises financial success and social reputation. To think of their competition with other advertisement agencies in terms of the art of war sweeps away all moral scruples and even justifies betrayal and deceit. In order to convince Peggy to work for an advertisement campaign for Heinz Ketchup, even though she only found out about this possibility in a private conversation with Stan, who is still working for Don Draper, her new boss, Ted Chaough, asserts: “This is how wars are won.” It is not an issue of betraying her friend’s confidence, because, as he assures her, if he is working with one of their competitors, “he is the enemy” (MM 6.3).
Military logic, however, is also responsible for the fact that these two rivaling creative directors will ultimately join forces. On the evening of their presentation for Chevy, Don and Ted meet in the bar of their hotel where they realize that they can only succeed if they turn a competition, conceived in terms of war, in their favor. Don had made the claim that the management of General Motors “fight the war with bodies on the ground” (MM 6.6). This trope, borrowed from a discourse about frontline engagement, is meant to support his argument that only an agency large enough to open up another office in Detroit can win this account. The moment Don senses that he can forge an unexpected alliance with his former enemy, his reference to a continuation of war even takes on a playful note. Fired on by his own military pitch, he asks his new brother in arms, pointing to the bar, “Hey, Lieutenant, want to get into some trouble?” Ted, himself inspired by this newly aroused lust for battle, agrees. The merger of the two small agencies under the name SC&P will, indeed, amount to a peace treaty, given that they now no longer need to fight each other in public. The critical light Mad Men sheds on a continuation of military strategies in the American business world is, however, such that after this merger, Jim Cutler, who had been head of accounts at CGC, instigates an internal battle. The conflict between media and creative, which Don had already won after their first merger with the British firm PP&L, is merely a pretext. That Cutler, in order to install an enormous mainframe computer, sacrifices the lounge of Don’s creative team, which had, in fact, made the agency so special in their eyes, also gestures towards a political development. The competition Cutler fuels amongst the different agencies on Madison Avenue regarding who has the best data processing facilities implicitly corresponds to the arms race between the superpowers during the Cold War. Don’s creative department threatens to become the internal collateral damage of this proxy war.
Once again Ted is the one to openly address this continuation of war in their workplace. If, before the merger, he was the one who declared all those working for his competitors to be his enemies, he now reproaches his old partner for thinking in military terms, given that it now concerns their own agency: “You’re splitting this place and not in half” (MM 7.2). Jim Cutler’s concept of management is precisely not predicated on democratic principles, but rather on a form of absolute sovereignty merely adapted to new Western technologies. He is willing to tolerate neither Don’s unpredictable behavior nor Roger’s recklessness because both introduce a contingency factor into what he sees as his efforts at optimizing the course of business. In the end, it is the American spirit of democracy, however, that will win the day. During their last conversation, the old patriarch Bert gives a crucial piece of advice to his longtime partner Roger regarding how best to battle an internal enemy. Outlining for Roger what options are open to them if they want to hold together their side of the agency, he casts everything in terms of the pathos of war camaraderie. Jim Cutler may have a vision, Bert explains, but he is not part of his team, and to it any good leader must remain loyal at all costs. While he concedes that Roger, in turn, has both skill and experience, in Bert’s eyes he is not a leader. When, after Bert’s death, the difference between him and Cutler comes to a head, Roger will actually discover a loophole in this alleged aporia, allowing him to turn the conflict to his advantage. After all the partners have agreed on the merger with McCann Erickson, even if they need only commit themselves to a three-year contract, he emerges as the victorious leader of his troops. Cutler, forced to abdicate, will ultimately ask to be bought out and, in so doing, leave this theater of battle completely.
War in Mad Men thus emerges as unfinished business in a double sense, even while reflecting upon the historical moment in which it was itself produced. On the one hand, the violent events of the Cold War make up the backdrop for a conception of the business world that remains heavily influenced by military logic. In Weiner’s historical re-imagination of the Madison Avenue of the 1960s, the key players and their competitors think and act in terms of comrades, willing to sacrifice everything in their competition with adversaries whom they target as enemies. On the other hand, equally significant is the way that allusions to past wars are shown to correspond to news broadcasts, reporting about actual international and national conflicts in the present: most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis, the war in Vietnam, as well as the political power struggles around the Civil Rights Movement, erupting in street violence but also leading to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.
If Weiner’s Mad Men repeatedly falls back on tropes and idioms borrowed from the language of war, then perhaps because it seeks to underscore a particular continuity of military thinking in the history lesson it has to offer. America, which the agency SC&P represents in miniature, has incessantly defined itself as a nation by virtue of military interventions, in both its foreign and its domestic policies, and it continues to do so today. The deployment of military concepts, however, also demonstrates how the world of business that, at the beginning of this TV show, is still predominantly white, male and upper middle class, is compelled to adapt itself to the cultural changes of the times. In the course of the series even the African American secretary, Dawn (Teyonah Parris), along with Peggy and Joan, is able to rise up in the hierarchy and get an office of her own; a privilege previously open only to men. At the same time, the financial situation of the agency, which becomes ever more precarious after the fourth season, can be read as a reflection on the impending military defeat in South-East Asia. The declining trajectory of the ‘boat’ bearing the name Sterling and Cooper runs analogous to the war in Vietnam. The empty offices of SC&P, in which Roger tells his last true war story to Peggy, uncannily anticipate the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon only a few years later.
Significantly, the actual impact of the Cold War is primarily brought into play in Mad Men by virtue of its media transmission. While we only rarely see characters in locations that are directly affected by the political events of the time, news about these occurrences permeate the apparent safety of their everyday lives and interrupt their daily business in the form of articles in the New York Times or broadcasts on the radio and on TV. Repeatedly, montage sequences make use of documentary footage, reminding us how, at the time, the political crises of the 1960s were broadcast. In so doing, these re-invoked news broadcasts not only resuscitate the past for us but also serve as the invisible cord connecting the various characters with each other. If the montage technique splices together documentary evidence with fictional re-imagination, it also welds together the past and the present. As representations of real events, these TV news broadcasts constitute an affectively forceful counterpart to all those stories about happiness and prosperity that Don and his team come up with as their advertisement strategies. As Michael Wood argues in general for the myths commercial media creates, “the solution has to be imaginary because the dilemma is authentic — if there were a real solution, the myth wouldn’t be needed.”
By interlinking these two visual series, Mad Men, however, also self-consciously refers to the fact that, on American television in the 1960s, commercials and news shows would already seamlessly flow into each other. On the level of their media transmission, these two very different ways of representing the present as a visual narrative were always already conceived as two sides of the same coin. The inclusion of TV news broadcasts from the 1960s in Mad Men, splicing together documentary reportage with studio-filmed fiction, thus brings into play once again a visual logic borrowed from Pop Art. Andy Warhol’s point, after all, was that images are real while the real is ever only graspable through images. Our access to the world — then and now — requires a formalized representation. The historic 1960s news images of political violence do not simply interrupt the everyday lives of the fictional characters of Weiner’s TV show. They also render visible the real social antagonisms that advertisement, with its promise of happiness, seeks to resolve on the level of the cultural imaginary. The news broadcasts themselves, however, do so as representations that aesthetically refigure political events even as they offer a moral commentary on them.
The wager of Mad Men thus consists in the following: With the help of two separate but parallel visual series — the advertisement stories created by Don Draper together with his team, and the documentary material that serves as evidence of former news broadcasts — a fictional time travel into the 1960s can be undertaken. The real political battles of this decade, in turn, make up the ground and vanishing point of Matthew Weiner’s historical re-imagination. In retrospect, the former zeitgeist can be made accessible only with the help of those visual series that emerged from this historical period even as these advertisements also had their effect on this past. Sometimes, these images draw our attention to the violence lurking ever so closely beneath the surface of advertisement’s beautiful illusions. At other times, they point to the fact that the feeling of satisfaction and safety that the visual narratives of advertisement encapsulate for us are a necessary and viable protection against the knowledge of real injustice and deprivation not despite the fact that they disclose the illusion on which the American promise is predicated, but rather because they do so. They are an instance of what Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism.’
However, both image sequences — the news broadcasts and the advertisement campaigns — share a common claim: Only on the level of the cultural imaginary can a meaningful coherence be found for the haunting of the nation by its traumatic history of violence. A reference to the real of the past adheres to the news broadcasts that are interpolated into the fictional world of Matthew Weiner’s characters. At the same time, they draw their power from the fact that we recognize these familiar news images of past historical events. Like the visual stories Don and his team create, they belong to the image repertoire of the 20th century. Mad Men, thus, not only speaks about the history of war that weighs on the cultural memory of America, but also recalls how we continue to be haunted by the images of this national violence as well.
is Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Zurich and, since 2007, Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. A specialist in the 19th and 20th century literature she has also written books and articles in the area of gender studies, psychoanalysis, film, cultural theory and visual culture. Current research projects include a book on Shakespeare and contemporary culture and another study on women war correspondents.