Mad Men and the bite on Steve’s apple

***Spoiler Alert***

David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Young and Rubicam are a few of many names that ring a bell in the mind of anyone interested, or actually working in the ad world. This makes the idea of bringing viewers back to 1960s, when advertising was at its heyday, and these Ogilvy and Burnett were real people sitting in a magnificent corner of their own agency, with an actual name card on the door, all the more appealing. Thanks to the wizard hand of Matthew Weiner, we have had Mad Men as one of the most exquisite TV masterpieces of all time, as well as an incredibly truthful and solicitous insight into the chaotic world of mental genius “mad” men and women.


Mad Men centers around Don Draper, an iconic figure that represents every good and evil aspect of an ad man that decade: middle-aged, fairly rich and obviously very attractive; he’s a womanizer under the polished cover of a loving married man, with a gentle yet sexist attitude towards women; he’s the creative mastermind of Sterling Cooper (then Sterling Cooper Draper Price) agency where he works, plus the gem of the business. In a word, he’s everyone’s glamorous dream. Nonetheless Don’s a miserable man, a vulnerable soul that keeps shattering over the course of the show, because as any talented creative mind, nothing is big enough to cover his enormous ego. Accordingly he’s in a constant need for something else out of his reach. But Don isn’t the only one worth seeing on Mad Men. It also tells the story of a whole lot of other remarkably well written characters, including Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Joan Harris, Roger Sterling, Betty Francis, Megan Draper, to name a few. All are complicated bipolar personalities with pretty much unpredictable deeds, on top of dark sides that they are no good at, or not even concerned about, hiding, and, this quality they do have in common, a deep thirst for something they cannot truly own, some kind of happiness that seems presented elsewhere beyond their very own existence.


Don’s life tells it all. He made a decision to bury his shady past life and to chase the life he wants for himself, yet every now and then the ghost of the past would come back to haunt him; and when it does, it ruins every piece of the seemingly perfect shining life he’s tried to build up. Still Don isn’t happy with whatever he has. In season 1, we first met him sitting alone in a restaurant, trying to ask the black waiter questions about the cigarette brand he was smoking. Don was seeking inspirations for his new campaign with Lucky Strike, Sterling Cooper’s most important client (which he later landed Lucky Strike’s legendary tagline “It’s toasted.” – it just blew my mind when I found out the tagline and the campaign was real); then we knew he was having an affair with a sexy spontaneous artist called Midge, while at the same time was playing the flirting game with a beautiful Jewish client, Rachel. We would be like, OK, that’s normal for an attractive single man working in the creative field. But wait. By the end of the pilot episode, he, after all the hooking up and flirting, eventually drove home to a country house outside of dazzling New York, there waiting for him a woman sleeping in the bed. Then for the first time we found out Don had a wife and two kids, and a place called home. Don, what the hell are you doing?


While we may hate Don for that, he is not entirely at fault in this: his flawless wife Betty Draper has a dark side too. Though Don’s professional performance seems to compensate for his falling apart at home. Over the course of his two marriages on screen, it always feels like Don faces the hard act to keep balance between his life and his work. When he’s best at his job, he appears to just be escaping away from reality at home. When he is happy with his second marriage, Don passes the buck onto his right hand, Peggy Olson, and he sees nothing else but his new wife Megan. Then it falls apart again, and he finds relief in work, again. I just figure that Don Draper is somewhat the opposite of AMC’s Breaking Bad’s protagonist Walter White. They’re both ruthless and extremely good at what they’re supposed to be good at; but Walter White, until the very last bit of his epic criminal journey, stays the family man that could kill people without blinking his eyes all for the sake of his family, while Don is a well-mannered and kind man at heart, yet he is so unwillingly good at hurting the ones he loves. But well, in the end Walter White hurts his family, too. And you know why? Because they both have so big egos that overshadow everything else, without them even recognizing that. They just unconsciously prefer themselves to other people, and they have a very clear idea of how they want people to be. When they don’t get it, they flip out. That’s the root of the tragedy happens to their lives.

It would be unfair to talk about Don without mentioning Peggy. She is the extension of his, as much as he is the extension of hers. They reflect each other in a kind of relationship that’s hard to put a label on – mentor/mentee, boss/employee, friends, or whatever you may want to call; in everyone’s eyes, Peggy is definitely Don’s favorite, though that’s possibly not how she could feel through the arrogant and bossy manner Don behaves around her. But what’s noteworthy about Don/Peggy relationship is that it’s completely platonic. Peggy started off as Don’s secretary, a post that before her, no girl could last long for a mysterious reason (which is hinted and rumored that Don slept with them all). So on her first day at Sterling Cooper, innocent Peggy was told to believe that it’s a must for her to seduce her boss. She awkwardly tried to hit on Don by touching his hand when they were alone; but Don, out of her expectation, drew a line “I’m your boss. Not your boyfriend” and suggested she could start fresh the next day. Unlike any previous experience he had with secretaries (or maybe not exaggerating to say, with women), Don never sees Peggy as sexual. He saw her very differently in the first place, which weirdly upsets Peggy sometimes, but maybe that’s why their relationship last longer and survived all the hardships they went through together. (The irony in Don’s life is that the women he could keep close by his side are the ones he never has sexual feelings for, like Anna Draper, Peggy, and surprisingly, the extra-stimulatingly beautiful Joan Harris). Don sees the younger himself in Peggy, as much as she sees her dream future in what he has achieved. They’re not close friends, not even close enough for Don to know about Peggy’s romantic life (his romantic life is public though), but he was the only one there for her when she gave birth to her secret baby (totally out of the blue, and out of anyone’s, including Peggy herself, expectation). “This never happened. You will be shocked how it never happened.” Don gave Peggy the advice he gave himself years ago, that sometimes in life we have to make the hard choice to leave things behind, and to pick the life as we want it to be.


Oh Don! He can be the stone-faced devil that screws a secretary and acts like nothing happens the next day, for he actually thinks that incident was no more than a blurry night of two people finding relief in sex, just kind of spur-of-the-moment action. He can be the straight-up man who immediately spits at the idea of letting a woman sleep with the client so that the agency could land the big account. He then storms out of the room, and afterwards even tries to reach the woman in her home to make clear he doesn’t want her to accept the offer. He can be the pompous boss who takes credit for all the work of his protégé, at one time literally throws money at her face; other time he turns into the gentleman who kisses her hand begging her to stay with him in the agency, or takes the length to go to her home, apologizing “If you say no, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.” He’s a good provider but a terrible husband. He’s a genius player, but a desperate and pathetic lover. Like anyone on that show, Don is “mad”. He’s mad about his job. He’s mad about love. He’s mad at himself. And they’re all the same. All those people in that agency, all adorably and endearingly messed-up minds, have together painted the most vibrant and exciting picture of an unforgettable era in advertising.


Not a single main character on Mad Men is fully satisfied or happy with their life (honestly, who is anyway!). They are never settled with compromised happiness. They seem to always reach out to something out there, like an itch that’s never enough scratched. But the more they scratch it, the more it hurts. Worse off, they never notice that until it starts to bleed. This leads my thinking a creative icon of our time, Apple. Apple’s logo has long been the source of controversy over the bite on the apple. What was Steve Jobs thinking adding a bite? It stirs the feeling of something unfinished. Always hungry. Always looking. Always be the innocent lonely soul that searches for peace, which is impossible; because the soul is a storm in itself.


But isn’t it what creativity all about?

When you reach out for the stars, you may not get one, but you won’t get a handful of mud either.

_Leo Burnett_


Dạ Ly


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