The ’60s, according to ‘Mad Men’
Normal spoiler disclaimers apply.
“Mad Men” and American history have a complicated relationship. Being a period drama set in the 1960s, “Mad Men” has relied heavily on historical events, while at the same time never making them the focal point of the story. History is the story being told in the background of the characters’ lives; one that may define their drama, or merely serve as window dressing. The idea of dubious nostalgia plays out in “Mad Men” in brilliant technicolor, but it never actually reaches the level of sentimentality. It tiptoes around the edges. There are the typical cultural and historic facets of “Mad Men,” like the changing fashion or household appliances; mentions of World War II, the Depression, and Prohibition; tv shows, movies; inflation jokes; technology; pop culture; and politics. But there are also overt instances when the characters of the show in one way or another interacted with American history itself.
The first season starts in the Spring of 1960. The presidential campaign looms large, with older characters like Roger and Cooper saying that JFK is a inexperienced neophyte. Don identifies more with Nixon. Cooper is an avid fan of Ayn Rand’s idea of capitalism and an old New York Republican Establishmentarian, while Don represents what would later most likely be seen as a RINO. The bar scene is in the process of changing, especially when “The Twist” comes on the jukebox. Sal’s life as a closeted gay man is lightly examined and used more for laughs than insight. Don’s mistress, Midge, is pretty enmeshed in the beatnik scene. After smoking grass and listening to Miles Davis, Midge’s hipster, counter-culture boyfriend levels his judgement against Don’s advertising profession with the line “You make the lie. You create want. You’re for them. Not for us.”
Sterling/Cooper begins work on the Nixon presidential campaign in a volunteer capacity. Betty’s neighbor, Helen Bishop, volunteers for the Kennedy campaign, introducing the Draper ladies to her son, Glen. Don says when he looks at Kennedy he sees a silver spoon but when he looks at Nixon he sees himself. Pete Campbell buys ads for laxatives alongside Nixon’s, effectively shutting Kennedy out of certain markets. But the real battle of old vs new plays out in his power struggle with Don. Pete, after discovering Don’s former persona as Dick Whitman, tries to blackmail him into supporting his promotion to Head of Accounts. Pete’s warped entitlement makes him feel the promotion is rightfully his, while Don resists, asking “Why, because your parents are rich? And you went to boarding school and have a five dollar haircut? You’ve been given everything.”
This dynamic is given added meaning throughout the season when Don’s very humble upbringing and background is revealed. We find out that his his name is not his own and his artificial identity as Don Draper is, like Nixon, entirely self-made. The Sterling/Cooper gang watches election coverage late into the night.
In the show’s miniature version of the 1960 election, Nixon succeeds in that Don comes out on the winning side of their power struggle. The season ends with the first reference to the coming cultural shift with Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” which was released a year later.
1962 and season two starts with Jackie Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House, the shock of American Airlines Flight 1 crash, and John Glenn’s return to earth from space. There is the first mention of the Moon Race, and a passing reference of an upcoming New York fundraiser for Kennedy where Marilyn Monroe was expected to attend. When Don is first handed the manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society, rather than immediately shooting it down, he likes it, and commends its idealistic, if scattered, focus. The new young, creative hire, Smitty, lays out the hippie/Baby-boomer philosophy when he says to Don, “We don’t want to be told what to do. That’s over.”
Clients are agitated when their commercials are run during TV programs with racy storylines. In order to keep pace with the times and the changing media market, Harry Crane creates a television department, heralding an age of influence regarding television and advertising. Communism is repeatedly mentioned as the Boogie Man of the times. The death of Marilyn Monroe affects Joan in a profound way. Peggy attends a Bob Dylan concert in The Village and smokes weed in the office.
At the end of one episode, Peggy’s priest, Father Gill, busts out a guitar and launches into his version of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Early In The Morning.” His performance fades the episode to black and into the band’s music. The beatnik scene has finally given way to folk, the precursor to the hippies.
Paul Kinsey(who displays the show’s first beard) and his black girlfriend, Shirley, travel south with the Freedom Riders after Don chisels him out of a business trip to California. He relates to his fellow passengers by blathering on about how advertising somehow supports Marxism.
While in California, Don attends a presentation on intercontinental ballistic missiles. It shakes him bad and he, having been shut out of his house by Betty, considers leaving his family entirely, for either a new California identity as Dick Whitman or that of a bohemian vagabond. He relents and returns home, just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After a season filled with mentions of “The Bomb,” nuclear anxiety finally reaches a fever pitch. Duck negotiates the sale of Sterling/Cooper to the foreign ad firm PPL, and positions himself as an incoming tyrannical president of the new company. Everyone at the firm scrambles as they consider their uncertain futures. That is until Don, who is essential to the deal, reveals in a meeting with the new partners that he doesn’t have a contract. This blows Duck out of the water, and like Kennedy and Khrushchev’s confrontation, is one of the greatest low-key battles of the series. News radio permeates the finale, with all of the characters waiting for information as to their fates. Everyone else deals with the possibility of total nuclear annihilation in different ways.
Betty finds out she’s pregnant and hooks up with a stranger in a restaurant before reconciling with Don. Pete refuses to leave the city. While alone in an empty office, Peggy tells Pete about their secret lovechild from the previous year.
The third season’s action takes place in 1963. Season three aired in the fall of 2009, making it the first season of the show to play after the 2008 crash and the beginning of Obama’s first term. The season begins with continuing layoffs at Sterling/Cooper following the merger, reflecting the jobs crisis that was going in the country at the time of production. During a PR campaign to get beatniks to give up the old Penn Station for the new Madison Square Garden, Don says to a developer “Change is neither good or bad; it simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy… A tantrum that says, ‘I want it the way it was’ or a dance that says, ‘Something new…’” This is the show’s most direct reference to Obama in the year that birthed the Tea Party. He then segues into language that would presage Reagan’s political rhetoric as he talks about how Madison Square Garden can help transform New York into the city on a hill.
The show also moves deeper into ‘60s culture as well. There are the first real mentions of Vietnam. Smitty and the others discuss the possibility of a Draft. Pete is trying to land North American Aviation and says that the military is ordering a lot of planes and helicopters. Joan’s husband, Greg, joins the military as a doctor, and mentions only in passing that he might have to go to Vietnam. There’s a news report on TV about monks setting themselves on fire in Vietnam.
The struggle for Civil Rights starts to play a larger role in the show. Medgar Evers is mentioned. He even makes an appearance in the hallucinatory dream Betty has during the birth of baby Gene. The four little girls are mentioned in a news report. Martin Luther King’s Dream Speech is played in an early morning news broadcast while Don is driving with his children’s teacher and mistress, Suzanne. They both recognize its power and she says that she will play it on the first day of school. Pete tries to convince a client to cross-promote their television ads in black markets where sales are stronger. He reads Ebony and Jet.
He disapproves of Roger’s blackface rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” and is generally more socially liberal than his coworkers. He sees sales as the same for everyone. That everyone, regardless of race, wants the same American Dream of a house, car, and television. When he suggests more ad buys in black markets, the Admiral Television clients and his bosses balk. What he sees as logical marketing integration shocks them.
There are smaller historical events that get passing references as well. Ties get fatter, turtlenecks make their first appearance, the Pope and Rietta Wallenda die, Peggy’s feminist side begins to develop when she mentions equal pay for equal work and asks Don, “What if this is my time?” Harry enjoys increasing prominence as television takes a bigger role in advertising. There are rumblings of the Goldwater campaign. Rockefeller’s fictional chief of staff, Henry Francis, appears in the same episode as Conrad Hilton. Hilton courts Sterling/Cooper while Henry pursues Betty. Hilton transfers his disappointment in his own children onto Don, a slight reference to his family’s classless progeny. But the whole season is really about JFK.
The show can be broken into two phases: before the assassination and after. It took a big stylistic turn after season three. One half of Mad Men ends and a new paradigm takes shape. Throughout season three there are historical markers that, taken as a whole, create a deadly countdown to November. Early in the season, Roger’s daughter’s wedding invitations display the date as November 23. Another episode references the fact that the First Lady’s baby is due in September.
After a freak lawnmower accident sprays blood all over the office, Joan is seen in a hospital waiting room with a spattered, soiled dress not unlike Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit. When Don is forced into signing a contract with the firm he dates it 7.23.63. In the next episode, characters mention how empty New York is in August. The following episode features Martin Luther King’s Dream Speech, marking late August. Another news report later in the episode says the date is September fourth. Then there’s the Aquanet pitch meeting that resembles the seating arrangement in the ill-fated presidential limo. Leaves change in fall outside of a train window.
The next episode is around Halloween, and acts as the breaking point in Don and Betty’s marriage. Betty finds out about Don’s real past and has a final confrontation with him about his true identity. They seemingly come to terms, if only temporarily. In the next episode, Pete and Harry are talking in Harry’s office with the TV muted in the background when the news breaks. Shortly thereafter people burst into the room to watch the live coverage. The episode is filled with archival news footage.
Betty sits down on the couch with her maid, Carla, smokes, cries, and watches the news. Everyone spends the episode watching TV. Roger’s daughter goes ahead with the wedding. It’s a disaster. Pete, already unhappy with the agency, boycotts the wedding and stays home. After Oswald is shot on Sunday, Betty throws the gauntlet down on Don. Everyone on the show takes solace in each other, except for Don and Betty, who’s rocky marriage was not healthy enough to survive the crisis.
In the finale, the partners of Sterling/Cooper find out the firm is being sold to McCann. They hatch a scheme to bail, ransack the office records, and start a new agency, staffed by a skeleton crew of the core cast members. With Kennedy’s death, the dismantling of Sterling/Cooper and the disintegration of Don’s marriage, the show and history’s interaction were never so intertwined and dependent on each other. It represents a total unmooring of the show and the country at that time, with the old agency, Don’s personal life, and Kennedy acting as something that’s gone and never to return. The finale serves as a reboot for the series, and gives the audience a new unofficial beginning to what the rest of history would refer to as The ‘60s.
Season 4 functions as a fresh start for the show. Late in 1964 Sterling/Cooper/Draper/Pryce has moved into a new office. The offices are more sterile and modern, but also more colorful. Office furniture design is less ‘50s and more ‘60s. The show itself has a new, retooled look. The wardrobes are more colorful. Roger has just a hint of sideburns. The show’s story is liberated from the earth-shattering historical events that defined its earlier seasons. History takes a backseat to the character’s stories. Don mentions that his capital gains taxes are insanely high. The new art director, Stan, worked on the Johnson campaign, helping to craft the unaired KKK ad against Goldwater. The Nashville Teens “Tobacco Road” closes the season premiere, heralding the British Invasion.
Don even buys Sally some Beatles 45s for Christmas. While brainstorming for a pitch, Peggy calls Freddy old fashioned, except this time it’s a negative. Don takes Sally to see The Beatles at Shea Stadium. A folk artist in an underground club plays an acoustic version of “House of the Rising Sun.” The Beatnik scene has slowly given way to the Hippies, as Peggy’s new boyfriend, Abe, talks up the revolution. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bleecker Street” closes out an episode, and The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is also featured prominently.
The first mentions of the Berkeley Sit Ins are made when Don visits Anna Draper in California. While her niece, Stephanie, supports the aims of the sit-ins, she still goes to class. Pete cracks an LBJ joke about turning an account opportunity from “chicken shit into chicken salad.” Greg is shipped off to Vietnam. Vietnam combat coverage is shown on television for the first time. Don mocks Muhammad Ali’s name and dismisses Joe Namath for not having played a professional game yet. Henry Francis begins working for New York Mayor Lindsay. Pete has to resign working for the war profiteer, North American Aviation, because Don can’t get a defense clearance on account of his murky past.
Civil Rights plays a bigger role throughout the season. Cooper thinks Civil Rights is a slippery slope that will lead to full on socialism. Peggy, in early 1965, mentions to her coworkers that Malcolm X was recently killed. Roger, after reading about Bloody Sunday in Selma, seems receptive to Civil Rights while Cooper remains hesitant.
The fourth season, as strong as it is dramatically, is the least dependent on history, and is the weakest of the series’ run. It ends with “I’ve Got You, Babe” by Sonny & Cher. Need I say more?
Late 1966 to spring of 1967 serves as the backdrop for season five. It picks up where season four leaves off, with Civil Rights. The season premiere starts with a real life incident, during which Civil Rights protesters on Madison Avenue are attacked by an ad firm with water balloons.
Riots are mentioned throughout the first part of the season. After Sterling/Cooper/Draper/Pryce takes out an equal opportunity help wanted ad as a public joke about the rival agency, the office is inundated with black secretarial applicants. Pete, in all his social liberalism, doesn’t think the joke is funny. Don sees no problem with hiring diversity, while Roger and Cooper scoff. The premiere ends with the swelling music of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” as Sterling/Cooper/Draper/Pryce is forced to make its first African American hire, Dawn.
Season five, like season four, is less wedded to historical events, making the show more about the emotional pressure associated with the cultural fracturing of the country at the time rather than the actual history. At one point, Roger asks Don “When is everything going to get back to normal?” A young girl at Pete’s driving class says that things feel like they’re speeding up.
Dark news stories permeate the season. The Chicago nurse massacre and the Whitman sniper attack in Texas are examined. Ginsberg tells Peggy that he was born in a concentration camp. Don tells a would-be Rolling Stones groupie that his generation is scared for the Boomers.
Vietnam becomes a huge issue. Don says that Johnson will stop the war before the next election. Cooper retorts that you don’t end a war before an election. Cooper talks up the Domino Theory, while left-wing Abe pleads with him that there is no monolithic Communism. Stan, whose cousin is in the Navy, rightly says that the war is only meant to serve government contractors. Cooper massages Roger’s shoulders while whispering that Nixon is lying in wait. Joan’s husband reenlists and goes back to the war, where he feels more fulfilled.
There are other instances of the show flirting with history. Pete meets with clients who are trying to work around Ralph Nader. The firm pursues Dow Chemical, the makers of napalm. Henry Francis says that George Romney is a clown, an overt reference to the 2012 presidential race. Roger trips on acid with his much younger second wife. It’s the first time the show addresses the psychedelic, almost religious, early approach to the acid culture. And having the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” play during the first trip scene didn’t hurt either.
Roger becomes fixated on acid and trips again, alone and naked in the season finale. Paul Kinsey shows back up as a confused devotee of Krishna Consciousness. Paul, already a fan of “The Twilight Zone” in previous seasons, writes a “Star Trek” spec script, and with the help of Harry Crane, leaves the Krishnas for an uncertain future in Hollywood. Peggy leaves Sterling/Cooper/Draper/Price to the sounds of The Kinks’ “All Day and All Of The Night.”
As great as Roger’s tripping and Paul’s Krishna adventure are, the highlight of the season comes in the episode “Lady Lazarus” when, after some prompting from Megan, Don turns on The Beatles’ album Revolver and listens to “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The song plays over a montage of characters’ assorted personal drama and arcs. The coup of getting a Beatles song was already a monumental technical feat, but the occasion itself of prominently featuring a Beatles song against the show’s action was a big pop culture moment, and coupled with Roger tripping, delivered on things that hardcore fans and history buffs had been waiting for for years.
The premiere of season six takes place over New Years’ 1968. Vietnam is everywhere. While in Hawaii, Don has late night drinks with a GI on leave, Private Dinkins. They accidentally mix up monogrammed lighters. Jokes about the war on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson hurt ad campaigns. Don is against the war yet still working for Dow Chemical. The season, like 1968 itself, is total mayhem. The Tet Offensive leads to the acknowledgement that the US is losing the war. Don uses his influence to get a neighbor’s kid out of the Draft, not for altruistic reasons but because he’s sleeping with the kid’s mother. Stan’s cousin is killed in action.
The show gets even more colorful, costume-wise, even as the subject matter gets darker. Lapels get wider. Stan has grown an epic grizzly beard. Ginsberg has a creepy mustache. Women’s hair gets bigger. Roger and Pete both sport deep sideburns.
Pete mentions the play “Hair.” Don says at one point that all of the teenagers of the world are in revolt. Swingers make passes at Don, Megan, Pete, and Trudy. Jim Garrison’s JFK conspiracy theories are brought up on Carson but are then preempted by Vietnam coverage. Glen Bishop shows up rocking peace buttons on his lapel. The word “groovy” is used for the first time. Lava lamps appear in the office. When someone says “hip” around Cooper he mistakenly tries to correct them with “hep.” Chevy executives joke about shooting Nader, just before they accidentally shoot Ken. Abe, now with longer hair and a goatee, is an increasingly radical McCarthy supporter. When Peggy accidentally stabs him, he breaks up with her on the way to the hospital, telling her how offensive her livelihood is to him and that she will always be the enemy.
Season six has a similar countdown structure to season three, in that every other episode is either preparing for or reacting to one traumatic event or another from 1968. The Martin Luther King assassination episode sends New York into anarchy with rioting tearing apart uptown and effecting Sterling/Cooper/Draper/Pryce office politics to varying degrees. Harry talks about lost TV ad revenue, while Pete explodes, more for the loss of his own family and less for MLK. Dawn has trouble getting into work. Don takes Bobby to see “Planet of the Apes,” gets wasted, and surveys the mayhem from his balcony.
The presidential election is brought up repeatedly, with the country moving beyond Johnson and focusing attention on Bobby Kennedy and Nixon. In the episode where Sterling/Cooper/Draper/Pryce and Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough merge, Peggy dates the press release for May 17th, meaning that Bobby Kennedy’s death is just weeks away. When the show does cover Bobby’s death, it’s Pete’s demented mother who wakes him to say “They shot that poor Kennedy boy.” He dismisses it, and the episode ends with Megan crying while watching the news. Credits roll as news reports play over “So Groovy” by Jocelyn Alice and Right the Stars.
A similar situation plays out later in the season with Joan, Don, and Megan all watching the news coverage of the riots at the Democratic Convention from different locations. The next day, while talking about the prime time riot during a business meeting, a California executive makes the show’s first mention of “Dutch” Reagan. Nixon’s law and order ads make an appearance before the end of the season.
Season six flirts with the psychedelic aspects of the late ‘60s without jumping all the way in. Cutler brings his own Dr. Feelgood to the office to dose the creative team with speed in anticipation of a Chevy pitch deadline. Don runs around spouting profound nonsense like some Madison Avenue Hunter Thompson. On a business trip to Los Angeles, Don, Roger, and Harry hang out at a party in Hollywood. While Roger, now an inveterate acid user, is comfortable with tripping hippies, Don gets too high after hitting some hash in a hookah circle, has hallucinations of a pregnant Megan and the ghosty Private Dinkins, and almost drowns in the pool. Roger saves him.
Don’s age is also starting to show. Especially while wearing suit separates at a party filled with untucked shirts and ponchos. But it can’t get any groovier than Don sauntering down a hallway, stoned while “Found Love” by The Fly Bi Nights plays. Then, just when the episode can’t get any crazier, Pete, exasperated by the advertising business and his station within Sterling, Cooper & Partners, sits down in the creative lounge and hits a joint. As soon as he puts it to his lips everything goes into slow motion and Janis Joplin’s “Piece Of My Heart” starts blasting. It’s another epic moment that had been coming for a long time.
Season six ends in total limbo. Don is satisfied that Nixon has been elected president and everything is back the way it should be, yet he has turned into a degenerate drunk. He finally hits rock bottom after a conference room meltdown, and is forced to take a leave of absence from the company. The season ends with “Both Sides Now,” performed by Judy Collins.
The abbreviated half-season starts in January 1969, a mere three months after Don was forced out of the agency. 1969 is crazy. The show’s look is worlds away from where it began. The first Afro of the series appears. Men are wearing ascots, scarves, and beads. Sideburns and lapels get wider. The word abortion is shown on a magazine cover, along with the now deceased Eisenhower. Characters curse much more now than ever before. Henry Francis talks about a “wildness in the kids.”
The lives of the show’s leading characters are just as crazy as the times. Don is hoping to maintain his now bi-coastal marriage with Megan while trying to stay busy professionally. Roger’s apartment had been transformed into a bohemian hippie den.
Henry Francis supports Nixon’s slow exit from Vietnam. Cutler attends the inauguration. The accounts department has to cope with losing clients to in-house marketing run by business majors, not glad-handing drunks.
Besides infesting Rogers apartment, hippies play a bigger role than ever before in season seven. While visiting Megan at her house in the LA hills, Don’s whole vibe is painfully dated and guarded as compared to the super groovy west coast atmosphere. The destruction of their marriage is solidified when he engages in a little free love with Megan and her actress friend. Anna Draper’s niece, Stephanie, is now a Berkeley dropout and knocked up homeless hippie who shows up in Don’s life just long enough to bum some money. Roger’s daughter, Margaret, leaves her husband, abandons her child and joins a technology-averse commune in upstate New York. It was always inevitable that one character would become a hippie. Sally was too young but Margaret was the perfect age. Roger attempts to bring her back to reality, but the visit turns into a throwdown that literally ends with them rolling around in the mud. Margaret compares her commune escapism to Roger’s neglect of his family in favor of his professional, square life, and he has to leave the commune on foot, covered in mud, and short one family member.
The counter-culture revolution happens to coincide with the arrival of a room-sized computer at Sterling, Cooper & Partners. Aside from providing analytical advertising advantages and implying the dawn of the information age, the computer actually replaces the creative lounge in the office. While the installer says that the computer acts as a vague metaphor to some, Ginsberg takes its arrival much more seriously; thinking that it turns people into “homos” and beams signals into his brain. His long-undiagnosed psychological trouble finally comes to a head in the office after a little self-mutilation.
Music is used more in this season to mark the passage of time within the characters’ lives. Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 was 9” plays when Don accepts the stringent terms of his return to the firm. The Hollies’ “On A Carousel” plays when Don recommits himself to the grindwork of his diminished role. It also serves as a callback to his first season Kodak pitch. “This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies plays when Don reconciles with Sally. Peggy and Don slow dance to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” while working late at the office.
Late in the season, Bob Benson bails a Chevy executive friend out of jail. His (boyfriend?) is entrapped and beaten by the NYPD for homosexual behavior. The police brutality and Bob’s closeted lifestyle are timed to have occurred within weeks of the Stonewall riots. During a visit to New York, Megan is packing up things to take back to LA and one of them is a newspaper from the 1963 Kennedy assassination, further bringing home the point that, like his relationship with Betty, Don’s second marriage is over.
Finally, after seven and a half seasons and nearly ten years in the lives of it’s characters, “Mad Men” gets to the Moon Landing. The mid-season finale, like the end of season three, features all of the show’s main cast watching the shared historical moment on television. The events of the evening prove too much for Bert Cooper, who suffers a stroke and dies. Roger, rocked by the death of his business partner, and hoping to save Don and the agency from the Machiavellian Jim Cutler, concocts a deal to sell the firm to McCann/Erickson. The remaining partners sign off, save Don’s job, and become very rich in the process. On the walk back to his office Don has a vision of a dancing Cooper singing “The Best Things In Life Are Free.” The moon landing and the sentiment of the song are both comforting and disturbing to Don, who slumps on his secretary’s desk as the episode cuts to black.
“Mad Men,” like the history portrayed through the lives of its characters, isn’t just some meaningless thing that passes through television. It isn’t meant to be binged. It’s meant not only to be watched week to week, but year after year, over and over again. Like old news reels of the events that shaped the latter part of the 20th century, “Mad Men” is meant to be replayed and experienced through the lens of hindsight and the dramatic anticipation of an uncertain future, like the passage of time itself.