‘Mad Men’s’ Characters Know the American Dream Is a Lie — But That Hasn’t Saved Them From Buying In to It

If seven seasons of Mad Men have taught us anything, it’s this: advertising doesn’t sell products. It sells a way of life. And, perhaps more importantly, it sells consumerism: the idea that there’s always more, and that you shouldn’t only aspire to those things, you deserve them. In this respect, it’s the oil that greases the wheels of capitalism — it creates demand out of desire rather than need, encouraging people to spend money on an ongoing basis. This much, of course, we know already. But as Mad Men comes to an end, it’s become clear that virtually all of its characters have bought into variations on this idea — and, ultimately, that is what’s responsible for their enduring unhappiness. As Leonard Cohen once wrote, “You are locked into your suffering/ And your pleasures are the seal.”

In this respect, the show is a more subtle and clever critique of capitalism and consumerism than it might appear to be. It’s been implicit since the beginning that the world of advertising is not a place to find happiness — it’s superficial and shallow, and it chews people up and spits them out, often for reasons that are hypocritical (Freddy Rumsen) or just plain wrong (the unfortunate Sal Romano). Those who stay the course can’t help but come to understand how cynical and calculating the whole industry is. Their response to this understanding is largely determined by their role, with accounts types basically not caring (Roger, Pete, Bert) and creatives finding at least some measure of creative fulfillment in the process itself (Don, Peggy, et al).

Either way, though, you’d perhaps expect them to understand that if the idea they’re selling other people is one of insatiable, endless desire, pursuing such desires themselves is equally doomed to failure. Consumerism is never a need that can be filled — there’s always something new to lust after, something that Don Draper is selling you with a winning smile and a gleam in his eyes. But the consumerist ideal seeps through into every aspect of the characters’ lives. In their own ways, all of Mad Men‘s characters buy into the same idea that they’re selling the world: that there’s more, and you deserve it.

Their great tragedy, I think, is that they’re generally right. There is always more — more women, more booze, more money — and in their own ways, each character does feel entitled to those things, never really questioning whether taking them is the route to happiness or fulfillment. As the series winds down, we see them dealing with the consequences of these actions — there’s the scene where Don asks Peggy to set out her ambitions, and then responds to each of them with, “And then what?” He’s trying to tell her that none of these “dreams” will bring her a sense of satisfaction, that there will always be something just over the horizon. And even Peggy, smart as she is, doesn’t want to hear what he’s trying to tell her.

There’s been much made of whether Don is an antihero, but really, if anything he’s a tragic hero, someone who’s walked straight out of Sophocles and into Madison Avenue. The other characters never quite have the self-awareness to understand why they do the things they do. Roger, for instance, perhaps understands to some extent why his deep-seated feeling of inadequacy is never quite sated by either work or the company of ever-younger women, but he never really does anything about this self-knowledge. Pete finally comes to the realization that trying to get more than what he already had is only making him unhappy, and hilariously enough, he’s probably the only one who’ll end up happy, because of course he will (capitalism tends to work out well for the Pete Campbells of this world, no matter how hard they try to fuck things up for themselves). Even then, though, it’s an epiphany brought on by resignation more than anything else — you get the impression that if Pete were as good at hitting on women as Don or Roger, his realization about the joys of family life might not have been quite so life-changing.

Don, though… He does understand the hollowness of the dream. (And, of course, that’s why he’s so damn good at selling it.) He’s deeply invested in the American Dream, so much so that in many respects he’s an embodiment of it — a (literally) self-made man, one who’s risen from poverty to become a millionaire, a man who’s grasped the golden ticket and run with it. He’s the ultimate realization of the consumerist ideal — a man who can have anything he wants, whenever he wants it. He’s long since come to understand that none of this will release him from the fact that beneath it all, he’s still Dick Whitman, the poor boy who grew up in a brothel and dreamed of being able to buy a Hershey bar.

Decades later, he can have as many Hershey bars as he wants, and as such, material things have lost their allure (contrast the pride he takes in his fancy new car in Season 2 with the way he casually gives that car away in the last episode). The one constant, of course, is women — he acquires lovers like Bert Cooper acquired artwork, and it’s the ones he can’t have — Rachel Menken, Sylvia Rosen, Diana the waitress — who he wants most. He knows he’s constantly chasing rainbows. He knows the things he does will end in disaster — that sooner or later Megan will lose patience with him, that he lost Betty and (to a lesser extent) his children because of his philandering. And he does it anyway, because what else is there to do?

And we know it too. We know that the route to happiness isn’t replacing the iPhone 5 with the iPhone 6, or slapping down your credit card to buy a calamitously expensive handbag, or announcing your partnership to the world by buying a fancy new Cadillac. But we do it anyway. The conflation of property with happiness is literally written into America’s founding document — the Declaration of Independence speaks of inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And what’s happiness? Private property!

The notion that the more you have, the happier you are is so deeply ingrained into American society that it’s inescapable. If Mad Men is “about” anything, I submit that it’s about exactly this: that the characters buy into the same myth that they sell to the rest of the world, and ultimately, they’re as doomed as the rest of us. But hey, they have nice stuff!