David Hoppe

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:: A Mad Men moment

Freedom and excess

By David Hoppe

There's a scene from an early season of the television series Mad Men that haunts me. Mad Men , as you doubtless know, is about the lives and lusts of a group of people working in a Madison Avenue advertising agency during the early 1960s. The narrative revolves around a creative director named Don Draper, a man whose identity is based on a lie — he is, quite literally, not who he says he is.

Draper's unwillingness to come to grips with his background makes for a fraught family life with his wife, Betty, and their two young children. So it comes as a relief when, in one episode, we are presented with an idyllic picture of the Draper nuclear unit enjoying a picnic lunch on the slope of a grassy hill.

We see the family from middle distance. They are finishing their meal; everyone appears smiling and carefree. This, you sense, is the kind of life moment the Drapers have always imagined for themselves. It's like one of the TV commercials from the era, in which lovers share a slow-motion embrace in a meadow full of flowers.

What haunts me about the scene is the way it ends. As the Drapers pack their picnic things, they blithely fling away their trash. Bits and scraps of newspapers used for wrapping sandwiches blow across the grass.

Then they climb into Don's Cadillac and drive away.

This scene, of course, is a perfect metaphor, not just for the quality of the Draper's lives, but their American era. After living through a Great Depression and a World War, the country was booming. Americans had more of everything than anyone else in the world. We had a feast of houses and food and cars and endless amounts of entertainment. We had so much, in fact, that we could waste it, could live as if someone else would pick up after us.

If this wasn't freedom, what was?

The underlying theme of Mad Men — and the reason this series is about a lot more than the groggy joys of lunchtime martinis, office trysts and smoking three packs a day — is about what happens when people confuse freedom with excess.

Freedom is a word that's easily said, but hard to actually understand. It's an abstraction that can mean different things to different people. Freedom means one thing if you live in a country that outlaws blue jeans and rock and roll. It likely means something else to a person with unlimited Internet access and a Nordstrom's charge account.

But anybody can understand the freedom to throw their trash out a window, smoke or drink whenever and wherever they damn well please, or dump whatever bores them, be it a meal, an outfit or an unruly pet.

It was in the ‘60s that rock bands began making a sport of trashing hotel rooms. Some bands were notorious for the lengths they'd go to in systematically ruining the spaces they rented for a night or two. Was it because the room service was bad, or the mattresses too lumpy? No, bands did it because they could. Their managers paid for the damages. This was freedom.

America calls itself the land of the free. Lacking a definition for what this might actually mean — or the discipline to come up with one — we have, like the characters in Mad Men , hit the default button in favor of excess. Through various forms of government subsidy we have willfully manipulated our supposedly “free” marketplace to artificially suppress the prices we pay for fuel and food. We wonder why our air isn't better or how so many of us got to be obese. But heaven help the fool with the impertinence to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we might be better off if the prices we paid for things reflected what they actually cost.

The same thing applies to one of our most cherished freedoms, the freedom of speech. People pride themselves on being “free speech absolutists,” thereby lending cover to commercial interests that use this freedom to send heaping doses of graphically portrayed sexual violence into peoples' homes via an increasing array of media at all hours. Whatever the consequences of this stuff may be, its purveyors say it's not their problem. You see, the rest of us are free to steer clear of what they do — if, that is, we can.

The poet William Blake once wrote words to the effect that we never know what's enough until we experience too much. That is probably true. But the problem with defining freedom in terms of our excesses is that it substitutes imaginative impoverishment for genuine abundance. It doesn't take imagination to keep doing the same thing again and again until exhaustion sets in. On the other hand, a creative leap is required to envision all that might be possible should we set about trying something really new.

In Mad Men , Don Draper, quintessential imperial American male, goes to extraordinary lengths to maintain his false front. This front, he thinks, has liberated him from a suffocating past. We can see, though, that he's running himself into the ground. Whether he has the capacity to change, whether, that is, Don can ever truly be free, remains to be seen.