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Notes on Creation

Latest thoughts on the creative life

But Not Much More: Mad Men and the Life of a Career

Jennifer de Guzman

In the series finale of Mad Men, a frustrated Stan shouts at Peggy: “There’s more to life besides work.”

It’s a lie.

Well, at least it is within the context of the show. As it follows the careers of advertising executives, Mad Men continuously reaffirms what capitalism and the legacy of Puritanism alike have told Americans: Work is what matters.

Work is how Don Draper, né Dick Whitman, contextualizes and manifests what he has learned in his life as a liar, cheater, and manipulator. Work is what validates Peggy Olson’s intelligence and tenacity, and work is where she finds love. Work is more important to Joan Holloway Harris than men who do not understand her drive to have a career. Work is what gives Pete Campbell a chance at redemption — his family restored, a happy home to fly off to in his own private jet. Work is something Bert Cooper did until the end, and he is rewarded by transcending the flesh to become something of a guiding spirit and workplace Lares (his altar a pornographic ukiyo-e print, passed down to Peggy for her new office).

Think of the characters who ran afoul of the show’s work ethic code. Copy writer Paul Kinsey first was a (somewhat clumsy) civil rights activist and then, after leaving advertising, slipped into the counter-culture, landing with Hari Krishnas before disappearing into California and from the show for good. Michael Ginsberg, unable to overcome his trauma through work, broke down, Van Gogh-style, and is never spoken of again. Megan Calvé Draper could have found success in advertising or in soap operas, but she wants more than work: she wants art. So she moves to California (again, California, that land of fantasy in the show) to pursue meaningful acting — and fails. Her unwillingness to commodify herself in pursuit of happiness is cruelly thrown at her by Harry Crane, who berates her for not trading sex for roles. And then there is Betty. She was a model, briefly, and still is nostalgic for those days, but she gave up any work to be a wife. And having lived her life without a career, she suffers the ultimate erasure — a fatal illness, an early death.

The final half-season opener, “Severance,” eerily presaged a development in my own career. Ken Cosgrove, a talented writer (remember “The Gold Violin”?) who has turned into something of a company cog, is summarily fired from his job as account manager at SC&P. I admit, I don’t quite remember the reasons — they felt much like the reasons for my own departure from the company where I worked: If they don’t want you there anymore, they’ll find the reasons to justify getting rid of you. It was strange how similarly it occurred. Ken goes into his termination meeting clueless, having gone about doing his job that day not knowing anything was amiss. (Ken soon avenges himself by becoming head of advertising at Dow Chemical.)

Shortly afterwards, in “Time and Life,” SC&P gets the news that McCann Erickson is going to finish the job of absorbing the boutique agency in shocking fashion, when they get a vacate notice from their building management. Suddenly, everyone’s job is uncertain. Unless, of course, they are exceptional.

Unless they are Don Draper, a man whose entire identity is his job. Dick Whitman discarded his identity so he could become Don Draper, Creative Director. He runs away sometimes, but he always returns to that life, that work, and it always accepts him back, his detours only serving to reinforce Mad Men‘s message: This is what is important: this job, this work, this meaning. 

Don built his career on turning universal experiences into advertisements. But the experiences themselves are worthless on their own; they cannot simply be because, for Don, they are meaningless until he has converted their energy into work, until they become his Kodak Carousel pitch or even his disastrous revelation at the meeting with Hershey. The peace he finds at the retreat on the rugged central California coast is not triumph until it becomes the crowning achievement of his career, the Coke “Hilltop” commercial.*

That leaves the rest of us wondering — What if I’m not exceptional? What if the meaning we get from our experience remains internal or personal, not something we transform into capital? Is there a place for us in this world that goods and services and commerce has created, where aphorisms like “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” define how most of us will spend our adult lives? Why should doing what we love be for a company’s benefit? — especially when we might learn what Ken Cosgrove did, what I did: There will be work and there will be someone to do it — if not you, then another person, and if not them, then you; in the end, it doesn’t really matter. In work, your individual fate is never guaranteed.

*NB: McCann Erickson was indeed the agency behind the “Hilltop” spot and the creative director on the account was Bill Backer. The story of his idea for “Hilltop” can be read here, and his reaction to the Mad Men finale is in a story at CNBC.