by Joseph Riedel
Matthew Weiner’s program Mad Men examines the importance of social roles within humanity, primarily in the 1960s. There are many different roles to be played. I have noticed that most roles within Mad Men can be related to roles in the modern nuclear family. It raises the questions: “What is home?” and “What role do I play there and in society?” Throughout the thirteen episodes of the first season, each character’s role within that family has changed. The men and women of Sterling Cooper and their families back at home all evolve together and take on different roles with each other to function as a community. I will look at and compare the first episode of the series “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and the last episodes of season one “The Wheel” to view what roles the characters take on and how they change.
After viewing the first season of Mad Men two specific roles truly stick out. These are those of father or parent, and son or child. Every single character in the Mad Men reality are either a parental mentor to someone, or a childlike student. It is a common theme throughout the program and the roles shift further from the second season onward, but here I will be focusing on the first season as the two episodes that I am examining bookend that season.
Of course, the character that wears the most hats is Mad Men’s protagonist Don Draper, or Richard “Dick” Whitman. He takes on both parental and childlike roles. Interestingly enough, most of his parental roles are through his connections as Don Draper, and a good deal of his childlike roles come from his connections as Dick Whitman. First off is Don’s actual family: In the first season, Don lives with his wife Betty Draper and his two children, Sally and Bobby. He also has a dog that he got for Sally’s birthday. They seem to be living the American Dream. In reality, this may be one of the most artificial roles Don takes on at this time. He prides himself on being a good father, but in reality this fatherly role may be the weakest. The aforementioned dog that Don got for Sally was only to make up for the fact that he left her birthday party for a cake and never returned. This fatherly role is actually quite childish. When it gets down to it, Don Draper is still the scared little Dick Whitman. He uses this reality of wife and family that he has created for himself as a safety blanket to cover his own unease. “Mad Men captures those gleaming images of a perfect place and an idealized time, but also turns to reveal the specter in the background that is waiting to come into focus. In it we find the source of our unease” (Mark 8). At the start of the series the Don’s family itself eases and protects Don from things that go bump in the night. In that way, his family serves as a father to him. Though in the literal sense he serves as the father of his family.
At the very beginning of the series, one gets the feeling that Don does not care to deeply for his family. They are not even seen until the last few moments of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. Throughout the rest of he episode the viewer observes as Don gallivants around with his mistress Midge. We believe her to be his steady girlfriend. At one point he even suggests to her that they get married. It would seem that he has no true care for his actual family.
Another relationship introduced in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is between Don and Peter Campbell. In this relationship Don once again plays the role of father. Pete is the son, and a rather troublesome son at that. The child who aspires to be like daddy and one day surpass him. He wants all that daddy has. This is a prime example of an Oedipal complex. Pete certainly is willing to kill his “father” to achieve what he wants. This is proven when Pete learns the truth about Don’s past and actually chooses to throw his “father” under the bus by ratting him out to Bertram Cooper; the grandfather of Sterling Cooper. Pete’s relationship with his birth father is strained. He is not too fond of his family. They were New York aristocracy that met with an unfortunate fate and fell from their high esteem. Sterling Cooper is a fresh start for Pete. It is a way for him to make something of himself and get off of the sinking ship that is his family legacy. He must do away entirely with his old family, and Sterling Cooper has replaced them – with Don as his new father.
Naturally Don wants nothing to do with his son Pete. As many fathers do, he fears the upcoming generation. He recognizes the power that his son holds. He fears that Pete desires to take his job away and fears that Pete might actually succeed. “There’s a kid who comes by my office everyday and looks where he’s going to put his plants” (Don, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”). There is often a healthy competition between fathers and sons.
Then there is the prodigal daughter, Peggy Olson. She is a young, female Don. “When she gets pregnant by the sleazy mid-level executive Peter Campbell after her very first day at work, Don becomes a kind of mentor” (Tyree 33). Tyree uses the term “mentor”, while I use father. We both mean the same thing. Like Pete, Peggy aspires to be like her father Don. She, however, does not push like Pete does. She does not scheme to hurt Don in order to surpass him. She respectfully takes in all of his life lessons and embodies them. Being a female there is no Oedipal complex. She is also able to connect to Don on a very special level. They both have terrible secrets. Don even helps Peggy deal with her secret. This brings me to “The Wheel”, when Peggy’s secret is “born”.
By “The Wheel” the family roles for everyone have changed greatly. By the end of the first season Don no longer has a mistress. Don has left Midge and his short relationship with Rachel Menkin has ended. Don seems to have grown more accustomed to being a father in all aspects of his life. His father/ daughter relationship with Peggy starts to head down a new direction with the birth of her child. Hostilities with Pete have slowly started to die down. Things oddly sizzled after Pete revealed to Mr. Cooper that Don hid his past as Dick Whitman. Though Don attempts to hurt Pete by appointing Peggy as a copywriter in the episode, the episode itself serves as a gate way into the second season where Don and Pete’s relationship begins to change. In the second season Don even compliments Pete on his work and acknowledges that he does a decent job. This of course means the world to Pete. Nothing feels quite as reassuring as a pat on the back from the old man. That said, there will always be the competition, and Don never truly does trust Pete.
There is one particular scene in “The Wheel” where Don’s feelings for his family, nuclear and otherwise are made clear. I refer to the scene where Don reveals his pitch for the “Kodak Carousel”. It is a simply beautiful scene. Don has personalized his pitch. He uses the device to pitch the concept of nostalgia. Watching past events over and over again. Around and around they go. He uses images of his family in the pitch, and he cries. It is clear now that family is no longer a fake ideal to Don. It is a necessity. This episode is also where Don’s fatherly side and his childish side finally meet each other. At the end of the episode the childlike qualities of Dick Whitman surface once again. Fatherly Don has a childish Dick like fantasy about returning home to his family, only to be crushed when he realize that they have already left for their vacation.
The family roles play a very important part in Mad Men. Sterling Cooper is essentially a giant family. A lot of the family looks to Don as their father. They all have their own families outside of work as well. Don has his beautiful wife and kids. Throughout the first season, family roles do shift, but they remain there nonetheless. On the surface, Mad Men’s primary theme is the corruption of big business in the mid nineteen-hundreds, but I argue that the true theme is the family one acquires during life. How one juggles all the different family members they accumulate during their travels, and how one learns to accept everyone in their families -even the Petes.
Joseph Riedel was born and raised in New York. Not only is he a writer, but he has obtained a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and has developed an extensive resume in musical theatre. Three years ago Riedel moved to Chicago, IL where he began his career as a writer. Though focusing on mostly narrative television writing, Riedel also has his hand in film and journalism. He currently studies at Columbia College Chicago.