On Watching Mad Men in the Middle of a Pandemic

Peggy, Don, the moon landing. Photo: Courtesy of AMC

“There are people out there who buy things,” Don Draper tells Peggy Olson in “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” the season-three finale of Mad Men. “People like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that.” Then he adds, looking Peggy in the eye, “But you do.”

This is one of countless Mad Men moments that resonated with the experience of the 2020 pandemic. It strikes a nerve today, just as it did in 2009, when the episode first aired, but for different reasons. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” is set around Christmas 1963, weeks after President John F. Kennedy’s murder plunged the nation into grief and paralysis. The Mad Men episode premiered in late 2009, and the timing created a historical hall of mirrors in the mind. At that point, we were a year into a worldwide economic crisis — the worst since the Great Depression, a period that the 1960s period show regularly revisits via flashbacks — and we were also embroiled in two Vietnam-like quagmire wars/occupations, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The emotional power in the scene came from the sight of a mentor reaching out to a younger writer in a humble, vulnerable way and telling her, “I need you on the team.” But there’s an ironic undertow, as there always is on Mad Men — and it comes from realizing what Don is asking Peggy to do: figure out a clever way to push American consumers’ buttons and get them shopping again, which would create a feeling of “normalcy” but also benefit the new ad agency that Don and other executives had invented days earlier.

And this is where the historical hall of mirrors comes in. During the early years of the Great Depression, it took a while to figure out that it wasn’t a crisis that the nation could buy its way out of — at least not in terms of going into stores and purchasing consumer goods. It was only after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress spearheaded massive “make work” programs that things began to improve, albeit slowly. But the reflexive, nostalgic impulse to rush back to “normalcy,” even if it wasn’t possible, persisted, and recurred after crises in future decades, because it was a human impulse. On September 28, 2001, as Ground Zero smoldered and families tried to figure out how to bury nearly 3,000 people whose remains hadn’t been recovered yet, President George W. Bush advised Americans to “go about their business.” He said, “We can’t allow the terrorists to frighten our nation to the point where people don’t conduct business. Where people don’t shop.” Flash-forward to 2020: A nation of shut-ins watches and rewatches Mad Men during a pandemic. The crisis is so unnerving that some Americans wear gloves and masks whenever they leave the house, to protect other people from catching it, and others push in the opposite direction, refusing to take precautions out of defiance, a belief in “herd immunity,” a desire to troll the libs and signal that they “aren’t afraid” of a contagious virus that can kill, and most of all, a wish to return immediately to “normal” — that vanished world of Applebee’s and Subway sandwiches, bars and nightclubs, and cookouts on the beach.

You can see our world’s present-day crisis peeking through the negative spaces in Matthew Weiner’s 1960s saga, which, like so many period pieces, is as much about the era in which it appeared as the era in which it was set. If I ever had any doubts that the show was an all-timer, this rewatch cemented it. I thought I’d had my fill after having recapped its fourth through seventh seasons for The New Republic and Vulture, then going on to write the critical companion Mad Men Carousel. But I ended up watching the whole thing yet again because I was in lockdown while serving as a caretaker to my wife, Nancy, who was declining from metastatic breast cancer and would die of it in late April. We were joined in our rewatch by two of our five children, ages 22 and 17. The elder had already watched Mad Men, the younger was a newbie. Our three other teens dipped in and out; to my surprise, they were able to understand and enjoy individual episodes despite not having followed the story in detail, perhaps because the writing staff knew how to supply important bits of backstory without being obvious about it, and letting the characters’ personality quirks tell you more about the plot, and their own development as people, than blatant exposition could. As I wrote in the concluding essay of Mad Men Carousel, “the show is built to last.” It’s built to last because, among its many other virtues, it makes these 1960s characters specific enough — and sometimes mundane enough — to become general, so that we can connect their experience of history to our own, whatever and whenever that may be.

When Don entreated Peggy to help him figure out how to make traumatized Americans get out there and buy things again, my wife and I looked at each other sardonically. We’d been following the news and had seen the same stories of people marching — sometimes with firearms and often with face masks, ironically — to pressure local and state governments to “reopen the economy” to hasten a return to normalcy. Obviously, not every circumstantial detail from the 1930s, the 1960s, the early aughts, and today is exactly the same — to name one big difference, in those earlier eras, even if you had no money to spend, you could still go into a store or restaurant without worrying that you’d bring back a virus that could infect you or your family. But from decade to decade and crisis to crisis, the American psyche — the understanding of how this country thinks of itself and conducts itself — never changes.

Mad Men got that and found truthful, clever ways to articulate it while focusing mainly on the characters. It showed how the individual travels through history, their own story mirroring the national story in ways they might not grasp, and how people keep doing the same things over and over again. The details change, but human psychology remains the same.

On some level, Don’s drive to figure out how to sell things during a national catastrophe (via a new ad agency, spontaneously reinvented from disaster, in the spirit of Dick Whitman on the battlefield) was an expression of another great Don-Peggy moment, this one from season two’s “The New Girl.” Don visits Peggy after she’s birthed an out-of-wedlock baby in secret and given it up for adoption. He tells her, “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” That controlled, willful amnesia is intrinsic to Don, Peggy, and other Mad Men characters and expresses a survival tendency in humans that persists throughout geography and time. It’s an emblem of strength but also tactical coldness, at times cruel indifference. And it’s often rooted in a refusal to truly confront one’s mistakes. Returning to business as usual is less traumatizing, even if it inflicts damage on others.

Sometimes we watch Mad Men characters as they watch history: the assassinations of JFK, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; Vietnam and domestic riots; the moon landing and the election of presidents. Television and radio coverage of 1960s markers contextualize the characters’ daily lives but only sometimes grind it to a halt. The hall of mirrors adds one more glass pane: Here we are in the pandemic of 2020, watching Mad Men, and then pausing to check out our own national catastrophe on a different kind of screen. Then there’s the integration of tedious but necessary everyday work: the cooking, the feeding, the conversations (and arguments) about relationships, our kids, our parents, our friends. And now here’s a shot of some men dressed up like terrorists invading a state capital with guns; and now here’s pasta with primavera sauce, and apologies for forgetting to include bread in the most recent grocery delivery order. We still have to refill the gas tanks of our cars as needed (gloves or bleach wipes before handling the pump) and enter grocery stores for emergency purchases (forgot to reorder dog food, where’d I put my mask?), and confer with other parents about whether it’s safe to let neighbor kids come over for visits and, if so, for how long and under what conditions. Is the rest of the house in play or only one room?

Mad Men got this, too: how mundane everyday existence continued back then, as well as in its designated flashback era, the 1930s, another period of massive unemployment and anxiety about the nation’s survival. The daily slog continued for Don and Peggy and Betty and Roger Sterling and Joan Harris and Harry Crane and every other character on the show, no matter what world-shaking event was happening beyond the front doors of their homes and workplaces. Harry spent the days following Kennedy’s death worrying about how it would affect his TV accounts. Five years later, he fought with Pete over whether considering the financial impact of King’s murder was practical or callous. As the U.S. sank deeper into Vietnam’s jungles and buried its murdered leaders back home, Don and Betty continued to needle each other over child custody, discipline, and pickup times. Peggy and her boyfriend Abe worried about crime, noise, and vermin in their new apartment. Pete destroyed his marriage to Trudy and tried to repair it. Teenage Sally Draper worried about clothes and boys and her place in the world and took care of her mother as she struggled with cancer. She kissed a boy on the night of the moon landing. Even when life stands still, it goes on.

On Watching Mad Men in the Middle of a Pandemic