The Meristems of Mad Men

[This piece contains major spoilers for the finale of Mad Men.]

In most plants, vertical growth occurs from two points, right at the tip of the stem, from the “shoot apical meristem” and at the bottom, in the roots, from the “root apical meristem”. Both are similar structures, both influence the plant’s biology in obvious and unseen ways, and understanding how both work is essential to understanding the plant. To extend this metaphor to Mad Men, which just finished its run on Sunday, the two most important anatomical features of the show are the finale, and the equivalent of the “root” meristem, a seminal book from 1996 titled The Conquest of Cool, by cultural critic Thomas Frank. Understanding one helps to understand the other, and the two depend upon each other to give the show its meaning.

There’s that word again, “meaning”. We touched on this last time when discussing Mad Men and admittedly it’s dangerous territory for such an ambivalent piece of drama. But this is worth having, and timely, as the reactions of many to the finale demonstrate. Clearly, the disappointment and even resentment the finale generated among longtime fans indicates that there were strong feelings in the audience concerning what the show was about, where the characters should go, and what sort of ending the show deserves, and the actual finale failed to deliver on those expectations. That could be considered a strength of the show, in retrospect, as it was able to engage so many people with very different visions of the show’s theme, style and characterizations and live and grow in their imaginations.

For my part, I went into the finale with no expectations at all, save to expect the unexpected and a strange, ambiguous final scene. I enjoyed the episode, for what it was worth in the great scheme of things (as a standalone episode it admittedly did feel weak at times and a bit too much like a coda to a climax we never got to see). But this “shoot” apical meristem makes much more sense when I went back to the source material of the show, the “root” system, and finally have an idea of the show’s narrative shape and goals. This is potentially dangerous territory, so I’ll make it very clear: I’m not trying to nail down once and for all what Man Men “means”. I’m simply offering a reading, informed by a fascinating bit of scholarship, that feels satisfying to me as a viewer.

The Conquest of Cool was derived from Thomas Frank’s PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago, in 1994. It concerns a re-framing of the history of American advertising, postulating, amongst other things, that “cool” and “rebellion”, these concepts associated with rock and roll, popular culture and youth culture, were not only exploited by advertisers in the 1960s and 1970s, but indeed created by them. Advertising, starting well before the rock and roll revolution and the other cultural forces of the 1960s, pioneered the invention of the culture we now live in, youth-obsessed, concerned with the refinement of individual identity and most of all defining “culture” and “counterculture”, that strangely fluid set of sociological terms.

In excellently making those points and others, in a fluid, readable yet still academic style, Frank takes us through a tour of American advertising, from 1947 to around 1971, projecting forwards into the future with astonishing accuracy. He introduces the characters and personalities in that peculiar industry, many of which were unknown to industry outsiders. He repeatedly calls these guys “Admen”, lying the foundations for the series’ title. And, perhaps most timely of all considering when the book was written, he culturally re-frames the 1960s as being both more and less than we think they were. The mid-1990s, as some of you will recall, saw the rise of the neo-Conservative movement in American life, a time in which the GOP took control of Congress but also positioned themselves as the dominant cultural force, dismissing the sixties as a “mistake” and an historical aberration. On the other side, there were the literally rose-coloured glasses of the Baby Boomers, now sipping lattes and becoming dot com millionaires, but whose affection for the sixties only grows with each passing year, and the entire decade being lauded as the turning point in western history. Frank knows that both sides are right, and both are wrong about that decade, and by showing how much of it was actually created by advertisers, and in the service of deep capitalistic goals, he blows the dust off old social history cliches and allows us to see the decade in a new light.

Matthew Weiner, as the story goes, read The Conquest of Cool and used it as one of his main inspirations for Mad Men. But even if he hadn’t, the book would seem now as terribly prescient about that show and others in our modern cultural memory. This is most obvious in the characterizations, particularly of Donald Draper, the show’s central character. Draper has many fascinating aspects, but professionally he seems to be cut from the same cloth as real-life Admen such as the legendary Bill Bernbach, of the ad firm Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). Bernbach’s approach to his work, bringing freshness and creativity into the technical, scientifically-oriented ads of the 1950s. He insisted that advertising be approached as a creative enterprise, and assumed the role of outsider genius, clearly one attributed to Donald Draper. Frank quotes Bernbach here, and the “voice” is clearly Draper:

“There are a lot of technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules…. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art”

Frank refers to Bernbach as an “ideologue of disorder”, constantly tilting at windmills, trying to find the fresh approach. Another very Draper-like notion was to acknowledge the audience’s intelligence, rather than treating them as children who needed bright things dangled in front of them. DDB did pioneering work for Volkswagen, turning, as Frank puts it, “The Nazi-mobile into the Love Bug.” In 1963, the company ran an astonishing print ad, with no photo and no headline, simply “instructions on how to write a VW ad”, which outlined the new imperatives of 1960s advertising, such as “Call a spade a spade. And a suspension and suspension. Not something like “orbital cushioning”, and “Speak to the reader. Don’t shout. He [sic] can hear you. Especially if you talk sense.” This notion of appealing to the intellect of a customer helped to create an almost conspiratorial environment, in which advertising spoke the emerging language of the counterculture: “It’s you and me against the Man.” (In this case, the proverbial “Man” was the Detroit automotive industry, with its relentlessly happy and childish ads from another era.) Of course, this advertising wasn’t genuinely subversive, and was designed to make money for the client. As Frank put it, the message was, “… advertisers are liars. Except of course, [us].”

DDB and other firms also, in real life, blazed the trail that led to Silicon Valley in their work environment, doing away with ties and suits, embracing open-concept offices with loud colours, rock and roll music, longer hair, and, yes, marijuana and LSD. It’s notable that these Madison Avenue types were way ahead of cultural mainstream on just about all those issues, whether they themselves fully committed to them or not. (As Frank writes, “They all loved rock and roll, or at least the said they did.”) It was a cult of creativity, which Bernbach himself described as “… the most practical thing a businessman can employ,” and the influence it has on the modern workplace is fairly obvious. If you’re working right now listening to rock music, or not wearing formal attire, you’re a cultural descendent of 1960s Admen.

It should be noted that Don Draper is not Bill Bernbach. For one thing, Draper never quite seemed to get beyond 1961 in his “look” or in his taste. While others on the show gradually pick up elements of the sixties fashion sense and musical taste (Peggy and Stan most notably, with her sharp style and his rumbled bearded mountain man look), Don is eternally cut from the whole cloth of middle America. And not just his short, black hair and cleanshaven face. Even in the series finale, he’s still living on a diet of whiskey and cigarettes, keeping mostly to himself, reading constantly, while others are starting to consider health food and other lifestyles. Don would never think of an open-concept office, leaving that to the younger contingent like Stan and Peggy, but in his professional style, he’s very much like Bernbach. Don has an ability to find exactly the right tone for an ad, to speak to the audience as another intelligent person, to empathize with them. Consider his defense of Nixon, early on in the series, where he pans Kennedy as a spoiled rich kid, but he looks and Nixon and sees someone like himself, someone who worked hard to rise in American life. While Kennedy’s advertising was simple, ebullient and childish, Don pitches Nixon in very much the same way Bernbach pitched VW, another very unlikely success story.

There’s a whole other level to Don, of course, and that’s his personal struggle with identity and with his own demons. Don knows advertising so well because he does it constantly. He’s always selling a product, the product happens to be himself, and he applies many of the same lessons there that Admen like Bernbach applied to their work. The “Don Draper” product is the same every year, with no variation, like a VW Bug. (DDB picked up on that as a way to differentiate them from Detroit and its compulsive need to plan obsolesce and turn over their entire product line every year.) Although, in an apparent contradiction, Don also feels the need to burn down and rebuild his entire life every few years, going through two marriages and countless affairs over the course of the show, not to mention periodic “flake-outs” and retreats back into the tattered remnants of his “real” identity, Dick Whitman. But for all that struggle, the “Don Draper” product remains constant.

It’s Don’s own alienation from society, an alienation he maintains by pushing away social contacts compulsively, is the key to his success as an Adman, but it comes at a terrible cost. That cost is apparent in the finale, and this is one of the strongest aspects of that episode. There probably wasn’t any end for Don Draper that would leave all audience members satisfied, but his final epiphany comes not from meditating in Big Sur in the final shot, but from his conversation with his protégée, Peggy, on the phone from New York. These two were always the emotional centre of the show, as they both struggled with identity and somehow found an unlikely genius for advertising, a profession for which neither of them trained. Don breaks down on the phone, laying his sins out in front of him and counting them. “I broke my vows. I betrayed my family. I stole another man’s name and made nothing of it.” He slides into catatonia, awakened only by an “encounter session” with another middle-aged man at the new age retreat centre, who gives a long speech about feeling taken for granted by his family and friends, but now realizes that he just wasn’t tuned into their love. (At least, that’s one way of interpreting the long speech from “Leonard”.) Don feels something again, perhaps feeling a great sense of existential release from his many problems. But perhaps what he sees finally is the limits of rebellion.

The Conquest of Cool has at its centre a message about creativity as a rebellious act. Don is a relentlessly creative person, out of necessity. He improvises, like all good con men (or Admen, in the Bernbach era), and practices his own form of rebellion. He rebels against his own identity, his upbringing, his name, his station in life: perhaps in some existential way, the American Dream is a form of rebellion against the cruel realities of socioeconomics. It’s important, though, to consider what that rebellion ultimately cost Don. “I want things to be normal,” his dying ex-wife Betty tells him, “And that includes you not being here.” Don is floored by that simple truth, fairly begging for a chance to win back the life he deliberately destroyed many years ago. It’s all too late: that’s one price of living as perennial rebel. Consider that in the context of Conquest of Cool, written at a time when the idea of sixties rebellion was being vilified as destabilizing and a dangerous experiment, tearing at the social fabric of American life. There’s a cost, so the reactionary forces argue (with some validity) to a culture of cool rebellion. The “Leonard” speech, therefore, illustrates in one unbroken statement, how the other half lives. Here’s a guy who didn’t rebel, who played entirely by the rules, and he feels lost and broken an empty: just as much as the rebellious Don. I think that’s a good explanation for why Don broke down and cried with him at the end, in what really was the show’s climax. If he could see how much he had in common with someone on the other pole of American life, this is a good lesson in empathy and love, one of the few Dick Whitman ever received.

Finally, there’s the last scene, of Don meditating on a cliff, dressed all in white (reminding me of the post-death shot of Nate from Six Feet Under singing “I Just Want to Celebrate” in the finale of that show). The dirty secret of Admen, and Frank makes this very clear in The Conquest of Cool, is that everything they did was to make money. They were in business, not trying to change the world for its own sake. They saw the potential, stemming from that original VW campaign, all the way through to Reebok using “Revolution” in the 1980s and beyond, of marketing youth, cool and rebellion to sell things. (They were so successful at reducing meaning of culturally-appropriated images that I actually had a young person ask me once if the Union Jack was a “real flag” or not just some sort of rock and roll icon!) In the back of their minds, there was always the thought, “how can I use this…?”, whatever the experience might have been. In that last scene, Don may indeed be having one of his short-lived moments of peace. He’s had them before in the show and come back to his old ways, and I would predict that this “new meditating Don” won’t last, just as the sober, bachelor-apartment swimming-pool Don didn’t last in season 4. But he’ll take something with him, something about the experience of empathy, wrapped in the package of counterculture, which he has experienced but doesn’t understand. And the clear, obvious, shining beacon of that in the 1970s is Coke.

The show’s creators had been running up to the Coca Cola ad for several episodes in fact, setting it up as the El Dorado of advertising. “You can work on Coke!”  became the mantra. (And of course, Joan’s experience with cocaine adds another layer of flavour to that statement, as we head into the 1970s.) This is a drink that had been around since the turn of the century – Ty Cobb was one of the early investors. Other than removing the actual cocaine from the drink, the formula was essentially unchanged. The product was either “dead” in terms of advertising, or so deeply ingrained into the culture that Admen could finally do something terribly post-modern. The famous commercial that ends the show, possibly the most famous piece of advertising in the 20th century, is “I Want to Teach the World to Sing,” which was from 1971. One of the brilliant aspects of it is that it not only uses the counterculture to sell Coke, it uses Coke to sell the counterculture. The vision presented here, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural (it reminds me of every Canadian government film I saw growing up), outdoors, calling to the ocean like some Greek legend, that you just want teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, is not a completely off-base as a summary of the hippie ethos. Even the second line, “I want to buy the world a Coke,” is a curious inversion of the capitalist imperative. You’re buying, but buying for someone else, someone who you will then proceed to “keep company”. The product itself is almost criminally undersold by the standards of the industry, but that just reinforces the notion that they’re selling a culture, not a drink.

Consider how this relates to Don. Earlier at the retreat he peels off bills and hands them to the hippies, the only way he knows how to show his love for anyone. “You’re so generous,” the retreat staffer says. He literally wants to spend his way into enlightenment, to “buy the world a home and fill it up with love”. It’s an ideal expression of how he relates to the sixties. “It’s the Real Thing,” goes the tag line, packaging false authenticity with the best of intentions. That’s Don Draper.

We see that commercial today, and it seems dated and a bit hokey, but considering its timing, it represents a turning point, the point at which the counterculture went truly commercial, in a deep way. Yes, the Diggers celebrated “Death of Hippie” in 1967, and good for them for seeing the what was already underway. But by 1971 it was too late – as soon as guys like Don Draper understood hippie culture, it was all over. And that, I think, makes the ending shattering and brilliant. This is the shoot apical meristem, to come back to our original point, and connecting it to the root apical meristem, The Conquest of Cool, is seven seasons of Mad Men.

Yes, we can argue over “Steggy” and the perhaps wasted opportunity to get a great character out of Bruce Greenwood as Joan’s new lover, but I found the ending of Mad Men every bit as brilliant as the rest of the series. And when one considers the meristems, the most visible and least visible living parts of the show, there’s connection there that’s as organic and lovely as any plant.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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1 Comment

  1. Love your analysis. I also didn’t go into the finale expecting any particular outcome or for the show to even have an “ending” in the usual sense stories often do, not sure what disappointed fans were expecting.

    I have to point out that “If you’re working right now… not wearing formal attire, you’re a cultural descendent of 1960s Admen” makes a lot of assumptions about what kind of work your readers do because many professions have never dressed in suits to work.

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