I’m probably the last person to see Mad Men. I can’t even claim to have jumped on the bandwagon as soon as it came to Netflix, because my initial attempts to stomach it there met with failure. “Shitty people leading shitty lives,” was my verdict. And to be fair, that’s still going on. I certainly don’t feel good after watching it; it’s such a downer. I suppose since my own prospects have plummeted since the last time I tried to watch it—job contracts ending, with no new ones in sight no matter how many applications I fill out—there’s a bit of schadenfreude going on now. Though really, if that is why so many other people watch it, they should’ve cobbled together funding to bring it back during the worst of the recession, no?
Anyway, I don’t have any long-winded not-exactly-revelatory things to say about the show. I’m only midway through season two, and progress is still slow because, as I said, it’s not exactly fun to watch. There’s the usual relief that I wasn’t born a woman in that time, the belated but heartfelt respect for those women who did survive it and manage not to go batshit crazy, etc. etc. I, like many others I’m sure, am impressed by the show’s highlighting of Draper’s datedness even when he’s in his prime, what with his morals and values (when he has them—which is to say, as regards his work) are already old-fashioned, and he’s only in his thirties. The focus of society has already shifted to the young and their mores, and all of this before Vietnam and the social revolutions that surrounded it, which is the usual line we are given to explain the societal shift toward youth.
All that stuff’s been said, I imagine, and so probably has this. But the song that plays at the end of season one is more than just a knife-twist to the gut. It’s not the collapse of what you think is happening—something, good, finally!—and then the shatteringly empty reality devoid of all that warmth you thought was just filling this world you’ve been watching. It’s a startling reminder of the existence of so many other worlds during the same time the world of the show is taking place. Elsewhere in the series we see bohemian apartments and moody artistses, sure, but they’re set pieces, and trite before they open their mouths. Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” though, like all the songs they play in the show, actually came out during the year the show is supposed to be taking place. That delicate thing took to the airwaves at the same time Draper watched his boss ride a drunk twin across the carpet of his corner office; the same time Betty posed with a plasticene smile in front of innumerable backdrops of cheery picnic-strewn nature for Coca-Cola. If Draper’s worldview has already become something other than the dominant, desired one, he’s hardly alone. Listen to this song that existed at the same time as those sneering assholes making cracks about lobster women, and doctors condemning mothers as crazy if they don’t want their babies, and the necessity of veiling attempts at pleasure as attempts at weight-loss. Part of the show’s appeal, I gather, is the inevitable “this is how it was” portrait it is thought to paint of that past time. But Draper, even with all his privileges, is going to be joining a jostling crowd of the tossed-aside, who never made it into that portrait.
(May I quietly, because it’s too beautiful for me to want to knock it much, say that this is rather a passive-aggressive song, too, and it’s quick to blame relationship problems all on the girl, and for it to play as Draper is the one who feels shafted and abandoned, is a bit of a thumb in the eye of, yes, “the patriarchy,” that I confess to relishing. Good fucking job, producers. I mean it.)
Bob Dylan is one of the shrines I tried to worship at and never managed to. I respected people who more than respected him, but I just couldn’t transfer the feeling. He rang too distant for me. What did this scratchy-voiced man my father’s age know, or care to know, about being an ugly little girl in the 1990s? It wasn’t that his being a man made me resentful; I had more distrust toward my own sex growing up than I could bring to bear against his. But it made him distant; irrelevant. I knew of the dogged fandom surrounding him, and something of the fractured splinters that composed it: the folk people vs. the rock people vs. the dylan-at-any-cost people. But though I bought a couple albums and tried to like them, they slid off me like water off a duck.
Maybe I just needed context. (And, sure, age.) Because this is beautiful. I’ve listened to it 20 times since it played at the end of season one. This song falling where it did, in such an empty, horrible moment of that show, makes it hit me the way I fantasize Dylan hit people in a better place to relate to him. More receptive. Less cold, maybe. This song existing, not that Draper hears it—it is for us—makes Draper’s collapse, and his retreat into the rough-shouldered masses of those who don’t move and shake the world, welcome. Not in a vengeful way, but because it restores the hope that—even if the show chooses not to show us this, and really why would it, given its tone—even Draper, that sorry son of a bitch, might turn into a better person, once he loses his power and everything he has used it to achieve. If the people who don’t move and shake the world produce music like this, maybe the sooner Draper falls, broken, into their ranks, the better.