Watching "Mad Men" During the Pandemic

Why "Mad Men" is especially compelling during quarantine.

Posted May 24, 2020

What are you watching?

That’s like a front-line question these days. All these odd gatherings on computers and iPads, all this staring at each other like we’re making contact from the International Space Station, all this bumbling forward into the “new normal” of social interaction. 

(As an aside, it is worth noting that we are not just suffering from a shortage of viral testing or personal protective equipment. We are also in dire need of adjectives. Yes, I know. The situation is unprecedented, fluid, unpredictable, novel. This is the new normal.  C’mon, people. We need some new words.)

Here’s what happens on at least my typical non-work related zoom interaction: There are the smiles and the checking-in, followed closely by the inevitable freezing and unfreezing of images. After these niceties have been dispensed, we move onto the meat of the conversation.

What shows have you binged? Does your wife like that show? Your kids? 

I’ve been happily reminded of forgotten television programs. Banshee, Peaky Blinders and Avatar, the Last Airbender have been mentioned more than once. Episodes of The Office and Parks and Recreation are consumed like biscuits and gravy, the visual comfort foods of quarantine, the elixir for a world that seems at times like it is treading water.

What I'd like to do is tell you about the show that I cannot stop watching. I’m hoping that readers will offer their television addictions as well.

I would like to confess that I am addicted to, and smitten by, and consumed entirely by Mad Men. This, oddly enough, is a show that in the past I always guiltily felt I ought to like more. The aesthetics are gorgeous, the acting outstanding, and the writing, well, the writing is second to none. None of this is revolutionary. I am hardly going out on limb when I sing the praises of Mad Men. Oodles of Golden Globes, Prime Time Emmys, acting and writing and screenwriting equally lauded, the show is a masterpiece. That’s not what I’m here to tell you.

Instead, I’d like to ask why.  Why am I hooked on this particular show at this particular time in my life? I watched Mad Men off and on through the early 2000s and I always felt as if I were fudging my understanding of the ebbs and flows of Don Draper’s life. I always felt as if I were about to get busted, found out, revealed even, as a loathsome Mad Men pretender.

“Hi, my name is Steve, and I have been pretending to watch Mad Men.”

But something about the tepid waters of this long-haul virus has thrown me headlong into 1960s America. I cannot stop watching. I reluctantly go to bed as the little countdown begins in the lower left corner, telling me that the next episode will start in five seconds, four seconds, three seconds.

The show makes me crave scotch. After all, that’s how Don Draper tolerates the starch in his shirt. Thank goodness that the characters in Mad Men do not have to make do in a global pandemic. Their masks are purely metaphorical. The show is a feast to the eyes, even when the sound is off.

But again, I must ask: Why this particular program? There are plenty of binge-worthy shows that I have not yet seen. Why is this show sticking to me like nothing else amidst the oodles of shows from which to choose?  

More to the point, I must ask myself why now?

“Why now” is a pretty classic question. It came naturally to me long before I became a psychiatrist. Asking "why now" helps me to tie meaning to time and place. In the case of Mad Men, asking myself why now has become my elixir for the pandemic. The question has allowed me to grapple with the uncanny intermingling of foreboding and ennui that daily characterize by thoughts. I feel trapped by this pandemic. And Mad Men is all about being trapped. 

The characters in Mad Men are not stuck by a quarantine, but in many ways their lives are stifled by a different kind of pandemic. Their social roles are as tight as a Victorian dress, their infidelities as scripted as liturgy. You can never tell whether they are pitching an ad or pitching themselves. The stories of Madison Avenue are the embodiment of all that they cannot say or admit that they think unless it is in the service of commercialization. Overtly political moments are rare, but politics themselves are pervasive. There are secrets everywhere, but these secrets are also paradoxically universally known. It actually feels like a betrayal when Don openly tells others about his hidden past.

All of this speaks volumes to me as I muscle through the oddness of the current world crisis. I also feel trapped, frozen in thought and action, unclear of what or whom to believe. What secrets am I missing? How do some people walk into stores with neither mask nor gloves, whereas others wander their houses with unending supplies of Clorox and Purell? This weekend, as the state where I live “opens up,” I feel uncomfortably exposed walking so close to others. I imagine Peggy Olson or Don Draper feel similarly when they encounter those who have shed their corsets and stiff shirts in favor of being free and able to move. 

Like Don (though I have no illusions of ever looking like him) these days I try most of all to be bemused. I watch for changes in social behaviors. I try not to feel trapped. I try to decide if I am ready to walk away from my sterile confinement.  

Most importantly, I am reminded that change comes slowly. I used to think of the ‘60s as an explosion. All at once, I imagined, there were flowers in everyone’s hair and joints on everyone’s lips. Mad Men reminds me that social change is more often glacial. We crawl forward and morph even when it feels as if we are stagnant.

Don Draper’s nemesis is the moment. He is addicted to the discrete experience, as if each undertaking exists independent of one another. But we can see that he is changing.  We can tell that Don is on a journey.

Tolstoy purportedly said that there are only two kinds of stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. (I know – if you look for this quotation on the Internet, it is attributed to lots of writers. Tolstoy seems to come up most often. I’m going with him.)  

Here is our story: 

A pandemic came to town, and it has set us all on a journey. This journey will be long, and it is best that we settle in for a lengthy haul. Mad Men has helped me to see that despite my concerns, we are in fact moving forward. Time has not stopped. In fact, soon I will need a new show to binge. Do you have any suggestions?