Old Frontier

Let's recap what happened on the just-concluded fifth season of AMC's Mad Men. Ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) blew his brains out after adding up the total number of women he'd slept with and realizing it topped the population of Schenectady. Soon after Don's death, his ex-secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) met the young Ellen Willis (guest star Emma Watson, fresh from wrapping her part as Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise). Peggy became such a wild-eyed contributor to The Redstockings Manifesto that even Shulamith Firestone (the Emmy-nominated Lindsay Lohan, finally living up to her youthful promise) had to ask her to tone it down.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) got lured away to LBJ's White House to overhaul its PR. That assignment ended in disaster when he was gleefully rogered by Allen Ginsberg (Paul Giamatti, who else?) during the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Pete's eerie resemblance to Ralph Reed made him bitter in old age.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was fired from Sterling Cooper Draper Price after drunkenly turning down the Disney account: "Aw, screw Mickey Mouse and the ship he rode in on. Everyone knows it'll all go in the toilet now that Walt's dead." On a visit to Monaco, Betty Draper (January Jones) got trapped in a revolving door with Grace Kelly (also played by Jones) and spent the whole season going around and around until neither woman could tell which one was the other.

None of this ever aired, needless to say. Thanks to contract wrangling, there was no fifth season of Mad Men this year. Still, we can dream, can't we? Kidding aside, if series creator Matthew Weiner doesn't know the saga needs to end with Don Draper kicking the bucket, he's shorter on huevos than he thinks he is. Right now, though, Weiner is probably more worried about the downside of delayed gratification. By the time Mad Men returns next spring, the bloom could be off our fascination with Don, Peggy, and the gang -- or even with those fabulous 1960s in general, the necrophile vogue the show did so much to crystallize.

Even if it includes you, keep in mind that my use of "we" and "our" is highly restricted. Several years of magazine covers to the contrary, Mad Men is by no means a popular phenomenon. If you even recognize Don Draper's name, you're an elitist whether you like it or not -- and obviously, some do like it fine. No longer the one-size-fits-all broadcast monolith of the boomers' childhood, TV has turned into something more closely resembling the landscape of Los Angeles itself: nugget-like enclaves without even a freeway exit in common.

Watching upscale boutique cable shows provides the same kind of social and cultural marker that checking out the latest Bergman or Fellini did back when the yobs were all flocking to Debbie Reynolds in The Singing Nun. The twist is that now we've managed to create the subtitle-free equivalent of foreign cinema for well-off, sophisticated people right here at home. But to a diehard fan of pop culture's broad outreach, such unmistakably class-based niche viewing can't help smacking of decadence all the same.

THAT GOES DOUBLE for Mad Men, since nostalgia for the 1960s -- not the New Left's barricades version, but the flawed cathedral in place as Dwight D. Eisenhower left office -- sometimes feels like an acknowledgment that this country's just about ready for the glue factory. Sure, we can kid ourselves that maybe we could do World War II over again if we had to -- but not midcentury's heady combo of flush wallets, unparalleled power, and paradoxically vibrant complacency.

Nor would its resurrection be a good idea, for reasons the show itself is sometimes keen to remind us of (the sexism that Peggy battles daily) and sometimes cloyingly evasive about. Along with -- I'm guessing -- a good many of his viewers, Weiner does seem unduly entranced with the vanilla swank of a time when nobody knew what the word "multiculti" meant. That doesn't mean that he or they are the Klan. They're just suckers for the Titanic's violin quartet.

Then again, Weiner's age lets him off the hook when it comes to excusing his fascination. Born in 1965, he didn't live through the real thing. Because boomers were at once the era's ultimate beneficiaries and the first to say the emperor had no clothes, we bring our own cocktail of ambivalence -- dash of scorn, two jiggers of yearning, add cherry and stir -- to seeing our parents' world thus fetishized.

As it happens, Mad Men also has a subtext in my case that Weiner couldn't have anticipated. Thanks to the U.S. State Department, my childhood memories are more exotic than the boomer norm, locale-wise. Yet it isn't just the mores of the show's ad execs that remind me of the chipper American diplomats who surrounded me in my formative years. What they do for a living rings a bell too, because back then, representing the United States abroad was pretty much the ultimate ad account. This is discomfiting.

Anyway, I started out watching AMC's mimicry of the '60s with a beadily fault-finding eye. We Foreign Service brats don't have a lot to cherish about our past except its oddity, and now even that had gone up the spout. People got sick of hearing me moan, "These jokers don't even know how to smoke," although it was and is true that they don't. Watching Hamm and his castmates disconsolately puffing away, I miss the nicotine choreography -- the furious mouth-stabbers, the indolently confident Ex-GI Droop, the women mysteriously able to finish a cigarette without once being observed bringing it to their lips -- that individualized the habit and was half of its usefulness as social weaponry.

If my proprietary peeves have faded, that's because the show's "Ooh, look at the way they were" side has grown increasingly inconsequential. Early on, it was Weiner's primary claim on our attention -- -and often a smug one, at least whenever we were prodded to appreciate our superior self-knowledge half a century later as we kept an ear cocked for historical ironies. But no scripted TV series, boutique or not, has ever generated viewer loyalty for its premise alone, and what happened with Mad Men was what always happens: Viewers got hooked on the characters for their own sakes.

The period stuff is still there, and sometimes a detail or incident gets things gloriously right. At the "does that ever take me back" level, I especially liked the picnic that ends with our Mr. Draper blithely chucking his beer can at the horizon as Mrs. Draper shakes out the meal's detritus onto the greensward. While its dramatization has often been clumsy, the subplot about Don, born Dick Whitman, being an impostor -- along with his discovery that no one really cares -- strikes me as a fairly acute literalization of the unease men of his generation experienced at their bewildering transformation from Depression babies to war vets to the affluent society's (and does that term ever take me back, too) suburban pashas.

Even so, from season two on, the talismanic 1960s setting has been no more vital to keeping us interested than, say, the layout of the Starship Enterprise was to viewers' investment in Kirk and Spock's byplay. To whatever extent Mad Men has evolved into the time-capsule version of Star Trek -- with the space between Don Draper's ears now the show's final frontier -- it's been an improvement.

THAT DOESN'T MAKE IT any less worthwhile to ask ourselves this: How in the name of Andy Warhol did the pre -- counterculture 1960s -- the Pan Am and Playboy Club edition, not "The whole world is watching" and so on -- acquire such a patina of belated glamour?

One answer is that the decade is now as far from us in time as Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age was then. That makes its conversion to legend as predictable as the cult of World War II in the '90s. Back in 2001, David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street earned grizzled rock critics' wrath for its shoddy musicology, but musicology was never Hajdu's point. Figuring out that the young Bob Dylan and Joan Baez had become the new Scott and Zelda -- with Richard and Mimi Farina, somewhat confusingly, as Gerald and Sara Murphy -- was. In its best sequences, Todd Haynes's I'm Not There was similarly spellbound. Brace yourself, Lou Reed.

That's still bohemia, however. In sociological and/or artistic terms, Mad Men is a post-millennial regurgitation of Sloan Wilson's 1955 The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, among others -- proof, incidentally, that midcentury was nowhere near as oblivious to its own issues as Weiner pretends. In cultural terms, though, the show is the logical sequel to Saving Private Ryan. Life's a beach, and then you don't die.

The counterculture may well get its posthumous day in the sun down the road. But it doesn't suit our current yearnings, because the late '60s were so chaotic -- not a goal we need to aspire to these days -- and there is no consensus as to their meaning. If lefties sentimentalize 1968 as their high-water mark, right-wingers demonize it as Original Sin, and everybody younger just can't wait for all of us to die and finally shut up. Mad Men, by contrast, portrays a pigheaded society made sexy by confidence -- one so confident, in fact, that Don Draper and Bob Dylan could coexist in it for a while. Talk about letting us eat our cake and have it too.

In our big rearview mirror, midcentury America now plays the dual role of Atlantis and creation myth. It's become the last era we agree on, in a way -- meaning not only its chic but its sins. Which of those matters more to us determines whether we see the era as a lost paradise or a Carthage that deserved to be destroyed in order to make us what we are today. It is, however, perfectly possible to balance both perspectives, as Weiner himself does. The underrated genius of Eisenhower was to convince everyone, some historians included, that our seismic shift to unprecedented wealth and superpower status was pretty boring. Then John F. Kennedy made it exciting, and well ... hello, Dallas and Saigon.

Eisenhower was also the first presidential candidate to let himself be sold on TV "like soap," a comparison no doubt encouraged by his eerie resemblance to a bar of Ivory. The link between the "square" 1960s of Mad Men and bohemia, not to mention the counterculture, is their shared preoccupation -- probably the decade's most enduring cultural legacy -- with image. Or "persona," if you were Bob Dylan and critics needed a weightier term. Not only was Advertisements for Myself the canniest book title of Norman Mailer's career, but Abbie Hoffman's most brilliant intuition a decade later was to perform not as an anti-war scourge but as an infectiously inspired radical huckster. None of them topped Jackie Kennedy, responsible for a magnificent act of branding that put Don Draper's labors to shame. She did it by cooing a single word in the direction of journalist Theodore White's notepad one day in November 1963: "Camelot."

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