observations and opinion
How Mad Men asked, and answered, the question of an Age.
Recently – very recently – someone said that her favourite Sinatra was named Nancy. And that’s because? I asked.
Because of “You Only Live Twice” she said.
I know it. Penned by John Barry for the last installment in the original Sean Connery era of 007 films, it’s a brilliant song (better than the movie). The record has a sultry, hauntingly moody production.The strings give it a kind of desperate ache.It has always been, for me, the greatest Bond song (better even than the one I sing) 🙂
But that’s not what attracted the woman to the song. The attraction was Don Draper.
If you know Don Draper, you may know the scene at the close of Season 5 when he places his new young wife Meghan on a soundstage set, to begin her television career in a commercial. He strolls away, the camera pans back, Draper is in the dark and the song begins. Then the camera comes back in closer and he’s in a bar – naturally – ready to order his Old Fashioned. Quickly, a 60s beauty glides next to him, looks purposefully and asks him the question, “Are you alone?”
That of course is the whole question for Don Draper, protagonist / hero / anti-hero of the Mad Men saga: are you alone?
It is the question too, for the age in which Matt Weiner set the show – the age when the old America, the one of corny tradition and sticky social bonds, began to break up into a country full of lone wolves – of James Bonds. The Sixties. Seen in retrospect, following Mad Men is like dropping an old gold watch in solvent. While the souls of the individual characters may be little altered, the world in which they operate is profoundly fragmented and re-shaped.
The Don Draper character is an avatar of this process, after all. He starts out as Dick Whitman (surname borrowed from the University of Texas sniper) and, through fear and clumsiness, he blows up his commanding officer. Seeing the chance to break free of his grim past, Dick assumes Lieutenant Draper’s identity. And with the guise, he becomes a new man – no longer a moody moke with a bad haircut, but dashing, impossibly handsome and stunningly confident. He’s Don Draper.
When he enters that bar, when the song swoops in and seizes your mind, its oddly constructed lyrics suddenly are the map into the man with many names:
You Only Live Twice or so it seems,
One life for yourself and one for your dreams.
You drift through the years and life seems tame,
Till one dream appears and love is its name.
What Don Draper does in Korea – acquiring a new exterior and with it, some kind of new interior – is what we watch unfold over ten years, to other characters – just as it unfolded for America itself.
It hits young Peggy Olsen early, when a moment’s indiscretion sends her careening towards the destruction of her dreams (and her sanity). In that moment of defining crisis for Peggy – the moment when she and Don become the central “couple” of the series – what Don says to her is his credo, his Hobo’s Code carved on the fencepost:
That was the promise of modern America – that the past never happened, that you can become someone else, that You Only Live Twice. It is the power and the affliction of the Mad Men characters, like their country, that they can become someone else – if they pay the price.
The price of having to answer, “Yes.”