I figured out what my problem with Mad Men is

26 Nov

I figured out what my problem with Mad Men is, and it lies in the “and they call us savages,” line that was a point of contention in the last season opener.

It’s not what you think, because I’m aware that the line is factually true. Many critics savaged the line, saying that it “rang false,” and defenders of the show trounced the critics by pointing out that the line had actually been spoken as recorded by a NY times article. 

That the line was factually correct would put the matter at rest if Mad Men was a Ken Burns doc, but it isn’t. Mad Men is a show that presents the factual along with the imagined internal lives of the people who lived through the turmoil of the 60’s.  One of my favorite scenes of the whole show is Peggy Olson, one of the central characters, singing Bye Bye Birdie to herself in the mirror before going to bed in her lonely cold apartment. 

Peggy is my favorite character; a strong-willed woman who has stumbled into the ad world, but maintained her position through work and sheer talent. She struggles with sexism, and perseveres, but she has never outwardly expressed any solidarity with feminism. Peggy is not a folk-hero, in fact she is of-the-time, sometimes using the symbols of feminism and race relations to benefit her career.

Any number of things can be going through Peggy’s mind in the scene above; doubt, a longing to be a traditional beauty, ironic detachment, or modern contempt for Ann-Margret’s childlike presentation:


Bye Bye Birdie factually happened, but Peggy’s rendition probably didn’t. The fact that we haven’t been let into the internal lives of any black people on the show threatens to eat the whole narrative from the inside out.

Consider the line spoken by the black woman pelted with water balloons in the season 5 opener, consider the Sterling Draper Pryce secretary’s account of feeling in danger walking home from Midtown Manhattan to the Bronx at night, and consider that most of the black experience has been relegated to facts and that we haven’t had one black character that the camera follows home. What does it feel like to be black and to walk into the Sterling Draper offices? To suspect or outright know that you were hired as a joke? To find that not very many people want to have lunch with you, or talk to you, except for maybe Peggy.

What an amazing show that would be.


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