"I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times": Mad Men Searching For Truth In Time
I’ve never taken any hallucinogens myself, but I’ve heard and seen plenty of stories, from tales friends have told, to any number of “drug freakouts” in movies and on TV. From these vicarious experiences, I’ve gathered that there is a large emphasis on “time” and “truth”. Given those themes are extremely prevalent in this season of Mad Men it makes perfect sense that its most recent episode was structured around a LSD trip.
“How can a couple numbers contain all of time?” asks Jane Sterling, nearing the end of her trip, laying on the ground with her husband, Roger. She’s referring to the time of day, but the implications of that question go much further than the clock on the wall. There is the number of days we have been alive, the number of years since we were born, and the discrepancies in those numbers between lovers. The characters on Mad Men are all aging, and none of them really care for it. Earlier in the season, an episode closed with “Sixteen Going On Seventeen”, as Betty Francis went in for another bowl of ice cream. Sally was used as a symbol for adult nurses, murdered by Richard Speck. Pete unsuccessfully flirted with a teenage girl. How can mere numbers capture the horrors, the disappointments, the tragedies that come with aging.
Aging represents two things to the characters on the show, and to us in reality. There is the crawl towards death that can be felt in the “ripped from the headlines” plots like Richard Speck or Charles Whitman, and Betty’s cancer scare. Then there is the sense of loss, which is something Mad Men has been dealing with since day one. As we grow older, as we exist for one day more than the day before, things shift. There are momentous shifts, such as the JFK assassination. And there are more subtle ones. As Megan says after Don chases her through her apartment, in the shows most horrifying scene yet, “every time we fight, it diminishes”. Their marriage is built on the same foundation as Roger and Jane’s (which ended tonight), but it is crumbling much more quickly. Time will not be kind, as it will make Megan more free and liberated, and Don will become more crazed and sad. We become more of who we truly are each day, which makes us that much more distant from those we are not.
Time does not heal all wounds though. In another incredible scene from the episode, Ginsberg reveals that he was born in a concentration camp. He deals with this soul-crushing truth by pretending that he is a Martian. This revelation snaps Peggy out of her high, and sees her calling Abe, her boyfriend that she doesn’t really seem to care much for. But in that moment, she needs him. In that moment, she needs somebody. Not because of time necessarily, but because of the season’s other theme, truth.
Peggy realizes multiple truths within her scene with Ginsberg. She simultaneously begins to understand that in their tragedy they may be similar, more so than she previously thought. She also learns that she will never really understand him though. His tragedy is that much greater than hers. Ginsberg’s coping mechanism links to a scene from Roger’s story. Roger is at a dinner with his trophy wife Jane’s therapist, and her friends. Before they take LSD, the table has a very philosophical discussion concerning truth. Truth, one man argues, is completely relative. Every planet has its own truth, he claims. The truth of Mars, that Ginsberg is an alien, whose parents are alive, is much different than the truth of Earth. Neither of these truths are false, however. Reality is completely subjective, from the actuality of love in a relationship, to the passage of time. Each moment passes from one to next, of that we can be sure. But the individualities of those moments are impossible to understand.
One major question this season of Mad Men has asked is whether we should seek that truth or not. Roger has always been content to let reality pass him by, staying in a loveless marriage and no longer contributing at work. He finds happiness, though, when he admits the truth and accepts it, breaking off his marriage. “Today is going to be a great day,” he tells Don, who couldn’t agree less. Don and Peggy are still lying to themselves about their relationships, and can’t find real happiness. In a generation of “keeping up appearances” and lack of equal rights, people were forced to hide away the truth in favor of maintaining a status quo.
Here’s where this season’s two themes fit together. These characters are slowly realizing that they don’t have all the time in the world. They are also, much more slowly, seeing that honesty is the only path to peace of mind. The first truth means that they don’t have much time to become honest people. But maybe they do stand a chance. Look at the shows oldest characters, the only partners of the firm that began the series. Roger Sterling ends the episode the happiest he’s been in years. He’s found truth, and within that truth, he’s begun to accept time. Cooper is not nearly as joyful as Roger, but one can surmise that telling Don the truth about his behavior was a load off his mind. The eldest characters of the show end the episode with moments of truth. The rest of the characters have to catch up.
This isn’t to say that Roger will be a happy character from now on, or that Cooper is perfectly fine. The characters of Mad Men are restless. The mid-60’s were a point between the “nuclear family 50’s” and the “swinging 70’s”. Some characters wish they were living a decade or two ago, while others view the future with optimism. No matter which side of the divide they fall on, none of the characters feel at home in the moment. They either see the past through the tinge of nostalgia, or the future through the guise of hope. Given today’s meshing of vintage & retro fashion, and the constant search for better technology, this theme isn’t limited to 1966. As Brian Wilson sings during Roger’s drug trip, none of these people were “made for these times”. Were any of us?