White Men & the New Religion
By Thomas Millary · 13 November 2023
Under the Hollywood Matrix, Part II: A Review of Matthew Weiner’s "Mad Men"
In the second season of AMC’s Mad Men, comedian Jimmy Barrett, played by Patrick Fischler, confronts the adman protagonist Don Draper over his sleazy affair with the comedian’s wife: “You know what I like about you? Nothing.” Jon Hamm’s suave antihero is visibly shocked. Jimmy’s confrontation with Don is the first time in the series we see him drop his buffoonish persona and speak with genuine seriousness. “You want to step out, fine. Go to a whore. You don’t screw another man’s wife. You’re garbage. And you know it.”
Years later Patrick Fischler would be cast as Comic Man in David Robert Mitchell’s conspiracy-themed neo-noir Under the Silver Lake. In a pivotal scene, Comic Man reveals to the protagonist Sam, played by Andrew Garfield, the subliminal techniques used by the advertising industry to manipulate consumers, and he describes “the hobo code”, explaining it as a system of symbols used by 1930s hobos to communicate practical information to each other.
An early episode of Mad Men uses that same code to explain Don’s troubled motivations. In “The Hobo Code,” an extended flashback depicts a crucial episode in the childhood of Dick Whitman, Don Draper’s true identity. During the Great Depression, a hobo wanders into the Whitman farm, asking for the opportunity to work for a meal. Dick’s cruel father Archie initially rebuffs the hobo, declaring they “aren’t Christians here no more.” But Dick’s stepmother Abigail overrules him, and allows the hobo to stay one night and work in exchange for payment. The identification of Dick with the hobo takes place quickly. The hobo remarks that Dick reminds him of himself. “That doesn’t surprise me at all,” replies Abigail with disdain.
Dick observes the hobo’s mixture of sly cynicism and socially adept politeness. That night, he presents a glamorized version of his homelessness to Dick, describing how, for him, “every day is brand new.” He also tells Dick that praying will not help him, that he should stay close to his mother (although Dick explains Abigail’s animosity toward him by revealing that he’s the son of a whore), and that death is coming to the farm (a foreshadowing of Archie’s demise). He makes Dick an honorary hobo, revealing to him the code by which they communicate.
The following day, Archie cheats the hobo out of his promised pay before his departure. Dick looks at the front gate of the farm and notices that the hobo has made the mark indicating that a dishonest man lives there. The episode’s end credits are accompanied by the song “(Gimme That) Old Time Religion”.
Showrunner Matthew Weiner has cited Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents as one of the major inspirations for Mad Men, and especially the concept of the death drive. The premiere episode has the Sterling Cooper ad agency’s thick-accented head of research, Dr. Gretta Guttman, explaining Freud’s notion of the death drive to Don, suggesting that such a drive can be channeled to glamorize the danger of cigarettes. Don responds by throwing her research into the trash, telling her that her approach is not only ineffectual but perverse. She responds by implying that Don will fail in his client meeting with Lucky Strike. Proving her wrong, the show presents the first of many brilliant sequences in which Don deploys his manipulative charm to produce great advertising (“Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes… is toasted.”).
A fascinating tension is on display within these scenes, one that remains unresolved until the series’ conclusion. Dr. Guttman is shown to be largely correct in her Freudian perspective, as Don’s death drive and other instances of repression (sexual and otherwise) are on constant display in Mad Men. However, the show depicts Don as clearly correct in terms of advertising strategy. At one point his colleague Pete Campbell pitches clients on a death drive-themed ad campaign and comes across as insane. Over the next seven seasons, the show drives home that everything about Don’s persona is a lie, except for his skills as an adman.
Weiner has made no attempt to conceal the social critique intended by his characterization of Draper. “Don is a representation… of American society,” said the Mad Men creator in a 2014 interview. Of Draper and his colleagues, Weiner comments that “they build these big businesses, these empires, but really it’s all based on failure, insecurity, and an identity modeled on some abstract ideal of white power. I’ve always said this is a show about becoming white.” The people who built America did not have happy childhoods of “getting their hair tussled by their father,” but rather have stories more akin to Don’s. (Whitman, Don Draper’s true last name, chosen as an unsubtle stand-in for ‘white man’.)
Weiner also admits that “Sterling Cooper is more like my high school in the ’80s than it may have been like an ad agency in the 1950s or ’60s.” His desire to tell a story “about outsiders seeking a way in, grasping for a gauzy version of the American Dream while blotting out their grimy pasts” is largely born out of grievances concerning his personal experience as an American Jew. Given this attitude, we can see why beneath the veneer of exploring the glamor of the 1960s, Mad Men is often a rather vitriolic series. Almost every sequence and story-line returns to Weiner’s goal of demonstrating the bigoted and repressed nature of its characters. While many audience members may be taken in by the fantasy of Don Draper, Weiner thinks of the viewers as more akin to the petty and loathsome Pete. “They really feel superior to him. And it’s amusing to me, because they’re not.”
If Don is an emblem of American society, the implication is obvious – that traditional culture and a high-trust society were always unstable illusions, whose real archetype is not the father but the hobo. However, as much as Weiner despises men like Don for their perceived refusal to admit that they share his insecurities and alienation, the revelation of Don’s hobo nature is not the ultimate moral arc of Mad Men. Rather, the critique of classic American ideals gives way into the vision of the dawn of a new moral order.
AMC's "Mad Men"
In “The Mountain King,” the penultimate episode of season two, a flashback shows a younger Don being confronted by Anna Draper, the wife of the deceased soldier whose identity he has stolen. When she angrily demands his honesty, a frightened Don relents and reveals the truth of her husband’s death, his own true name, and his cowardly story of identity theft. Finding relief in knowing the truth, Anna wryly asks him, “Well, Dick, what do I do with you?”
In fact, having gained knowledge of Don’s darkest secret and therefore the power to ruin his life, Anna acts with total benevolence, allowing Don to stay legally married to her while entering into a relationship with him that is maternal, rather than romantic. Of Don’s three major mother figures, one died giving birth to him, another was his unloving stepmother, and the last was a prostitute who took a teenaged Don’s virginity after nursing him back to health from a fever. But Anna, perhaps the most pure-hearted character in the series, tells Don “I know everything about you and I still love you.”
The contrast between the religious dispositions of the mother figures in “The Hobo Code” and “The Mountain King” foreshadows Mad Men’s final spiritual messaging. The primary attributes of Don’s Christian stepmother are her bitterness, her inability to accept Don, and her association with Don’s Illinoisan and Pennsylvanian childhood. By contrast, Anna is a pot-smoking denizen of LA County constantly exuding joyfulness and care.
When Anna gives Don a tarot reading, he is skeptical but warmly listens with interest. The first card highlighted by Anna in the spread is the ‘Sun’. Next is ‘Judgement’. Don interprets this negatively, saying “It’s the end of the world.” “It’s the resurrection,” Anna corrects him. Finally, she identifies Don with the ‘World’ card. “She’s the soul of the world… She says you are part of the world. Air, water. Every living thing is connected to you… It means the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.”
Don’s tarot spread reproduces a reading that Weiner says he received in real life. “I looked at the cards and I said, ‘This is me, but this is also Don — it’s a lot of men’.” Anna’s tarot-inspired reference to resurrection is reasserted at the end of the episode, with Don closing his eyes and immersing himself in the California ocean. The baptism symbolism is made explicit through the use of the song “Cup of Loneliness” by George Jones. “I say Christian pilgrim, soul redeemed from sin/Called out of darkness, a new life to begin…”
Weiner would later return to the Judgement tarot card to explain the darkest season of the show, season six, which references Dante’s Inferno to frame Don’s descent into increasingly self-destructive behavior. “The Tarot, which is older than the Inferno, has this card that is basically about Judgment Day, and it has this scary image of people getting out of graves, and you think ‘Oh my God, what does that mean?’ And historically that image is some kind of… semiotic signal for rebirth. Something has to die for something to be born.”
In season four, Anna relates to Don that she’s seen a UFO and how “The idea of another civilization on another planet smart enough to find a way to get here,” made her start “thinking of everything I was sure was true and how flimsy it all might be.” Later, after Anna’s death, Don sees a ghostly vision of her smiling while passing on to the next life. In an indication of the strange connection between advertising and her perfect maternal love, the apparition is holding a suitcase, the product that Don has been slavishly trying to create an ad for.
In “Person to Person,” the series finale, the deconstruction and recreation of Don Draper are completed. Despite having landed a dream job at the agency McCann Erickson, Don had fallen back into his hobo ways, disappearing without a trace and wandering wherever he pleases. Finally, from a retreat center intentionally modeled after the real-life New Age epicenter the Esalen Institute, he calls his closest friend Peggy while in a state of nearly suicidal despair. She tries to coax him to return to New York, reminding him that he has the most significant opportunity an adman could ask for, working on Coca-Cola. Don is unmoved. “I’m not the man you think I am… I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”
A retreat counselor notices Don and shuffles him to a group therapy session. At this moment, viewers are primed to be cynical about the New Age proceedings. When another character (Anna’s niece Stephanie) left an earlier session overcome with sadness and guilt, Don reassured her with his characteristic cynicism. “Don’t listen to them… You weren’t raised with Jesus. You don’t know what happens to people when they believe in things.”
In a moment in which it seems that Don is about to open up the group, a new character, Leonard, instead begins talking. Weiner has called this small part “probably the most important role in the series.” Leonard explains to the group that he’s an uninteresting office worker who doesn’t understand his own unhappiness. He feels invisible to coworkers and family, while suffering from a nebulous sense of lack.
“You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what ‘it’ is.” Leonard concludes by relating a dream of being an anonymous product sitting on a refrigerator shelf, with people occasionally looking in, not necessarily choosing him but being glad that he’s there. When he begins sobbing uncontrollably, Don walks across the room and embraces him, at his lowest moment finding an empathetic connection to Leonard’s emptiness.
The next time that we see Don, the same teacher who led the group therapy session, played by an actor clearly meant to resemble New Age guru Alan Watts, is teaching a meditation class outside. “Mother Sun, we greet you and are thankful for the sweetness of the Earth. The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led, the lives we get to lead. A new day, new ideas, a new you.” Don chants “om” as the sun shines upon him with the peaceful sound of the ocean in the background. Anna’s tarot reading is fulfilled, Don finds rebirth in self-help spirituality that emphasizes connection to all things. As a bell chimes, Don smirks and we cut to the only fitting ending for Mad Men – an advertisement.
AMC's "Mad Men"
The final sequence of the series is the entirety of the famous Coke “Hilltop” ad, featuring a cast of multicultural young people standing in rows in a setting not unlike that of Don’s meditation. They hold Coke bottles and sing the infectious jingle “Buy the World a Coke.” Don’s Esalen-enlightenment has provided him the inspiration to return to advertising and write the greatest commercial of his life. Weiner has no patience for those who would read this ending as darkly satirical or dismiss the ad itself as trite.
“It’s a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism. I’m not saying advertising’s not corny, but I’m saying that the people who find that ad corny, they’re probably experiencing a lot of life that way and they’re missing out on something. Five years before that, black people and white people couldn’t even be in an ad together! And the idea that someone in an enlightened state might have created something that’s very pure… that ad to me is the best ad ever made…”
The sequence is a triumphalist celebration of a new multicultural paradigm, with all the old prejudices of racism and religion overcome by a benevolent blend of consumerism and the New Age. Seven seasons of cynicism all building to a moment of total sincerity. Peggy’s earlier attempt to coax Don to write for Coke was meant to sound hollow, but she’s proven correct, in that Don does find enlightenment through advertising. Countless sequences in the show seem to imply a contemptible sentimentality in the sacralized manner with which advertisers and their clients speak about meaningless consumer products. But here at the end, we see a full-throated endorsement of the salvific power of Coca-Cola, for Don and perhaps for the world.
From Weiner’s perspective, the problem was never consumer advertising as such but the fact that the industry was once partly the purview of patriarchal white Christians. With the deconstruction of Draper finalized, Don can fulfill his necessary role in service of the emerging social order, using the power of advertising to draw the Leonards of the world into the new regime. Because Don was failed by Christianity and his father, he now is in an ideal position to be a messenger to all middle-American men who sense that the world now sees them as disposable. Don’s enlightenment follows Leonard’s admission that he is uninteresting, empty, and willing to be a product on a shelf. Don and Weiner communicate that if we stop clinging to supposed illusions of nation, fatherhood, and God, we will receive Esalen spirituality and Coca-Cola as a worthy consolation prize.
The finale brings the series full circle. Beginning with Dr. Guttman’s Freudian critique in the premiere, Mad Men wants to say that she was only half-correct; accurate in her assessment that the culture of Don Draper is built on denial and fear but failing to recognize that advertising is needed to sell white America on a post-Christian multicultural order. What starts with the destruction of Freudian suspicion ends with the hedonistic, New Age spirituality of Alan Watts.
Given the significance of tarot to Anna Draper and Matthew Weiner (his production company, Weiner Bros, uses the Sun card as its logo), it is not far-fetched to read the series in terms of a classic esoteric dictum. The series is an instantiation of solve et coagula, dissolve and coagulate. Weiner is telling us that traditional American society should be dissolved, but not through revolution. Indeed, Mad Men demonstrates endless contempt for naïve radicals who wish to destroy or withdraw from the system. Rather, Weiner is shrewd enough to recognize that consumerism and media are the perfect tools to undermine the cultural archetypes for which he has boundless resentment. He’s well aware that the seductions of prestige television drama and other media offerings will be perfectly effective in getting most American men to sell their birthright and embrace the New Age Coca-Cola religion. Leonard tearfully admits he is so alienated from meaning that he doesn’t even know what ‘it’ is.” Don’s masterpiece ad reassuringly informs him, “It’s the Real Thing.”
Underpinning this conclusion are the same psycho-spiritual dynamics as in Under the Silver Lake – the hobo taking refuge within the goddess. Sam, Under the Silver Lake’s slacker antihero, finds himself spiritually, culturally, and physically homeless. He therefore willingly enmeshes himself in a maternal matrix associated with a sexualized older neighbor, his mother, and archetypal starlet Janet Gaynor. Similarly, in Mad Men, the hobo Don finds salvation within a cultural womb symbolically connected to the pure love of Anna Draper. The last time he and Anna see each other, they drink Coke together, foreshadowing the linkage between Don’s greatest work and Esalen-spirituality. The series premiere shows Don defining happiness as “a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing… it’s okay.” Anna, the mother goddess in Mad Men, accepts Don and so Coca-Cola accepts us all.
Although Mad Men concluded less than a decade ago, it represents a form of propaganda that one may already become justifiably wistful for. Despite the occasional clunkiness of the proto-woke messaging and Weiner’s petty intentions, the show is often an involving experience. This can in part be attributed to the strength of the performances, the functionality of the narrative arcs, and the stylish design. But the show also represents a bygone era in which such propaganda at least attempted to appeal (however manipulatively) to an audience nostalgic for an America that no longer exists.
Criticism by the woke set that the series is ‘problematic’ undeniably represents an increasingly ascendant media illiteracy. But the abundance of such critiques speaks to the fact that Mad Men (mostly) stuck to heavy insinuation of its political messaging, rather than meeting the current dogmatic standard of characters staring at the cameras and reciting progressive talking points. Tellingly, one of Jon Hamm’s post-Mad Men performances is Confess, Fletch, a 2022 revival of the Fletch detective series, the conclusion of which includes minority characters openly castigating him for his incompetence and white privilege.
Weiner quickly found himself out of step with a new and less sophisticated phase of cultural engineering, as evident from a 2018 interview, in which he was berated for an insufficiently woke approach to race, class, and gender. Even so, he became more explicit in depicting the violent and chaotic side of the New Age consumerist goddess he worships. His only show after Mad Men is the anthology series The Romanoffs, among the most distasteful media products ever created, dwarfing Mad Men in its hatred for traditional Christian societies. The opening credits depict the brutal murder of the Russian royal family as the Tom Petty track Refugee plays mockingly in the background. The final episode ends with a male-to-female trans poisoning an innocent character as part of a revenge plot: an act of murder played as a moment of girlboss triumph. The protagonist is revealed to have had a neglectful and adulterous father. After the character realizes his trans identity, he is told to “Think of the woman you want to become” and replies “My mother.”
The message is identical to Mad Men and Under the Silver Lake: in the absence of true fatherhood, one’s only recourse is to be melted into the feminine matrix. The coagulation of a society that runs on meditation and Coca-Cola is only possible in the wake of the dissolution of patriarchy and traditional Christianity. Returning to Patrick Fischler’s turn as comedian Jimmy Barrett, we see the destruction stage of solve et coagula on full display as he venomously declares “You’re garbage” to Don and to all viewers who would find Draper’s image appealing.