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Television

Beyond Don as Dorian: Fin de Siècle, 'Mad Men', and Aesthetics

Elizabeth Howells

Given the parallels between Dorian Gray and Don Draper, can we use the lesson of the former to predict the fate of the latter?

Don Draper Is Our Portrait in the Attic

In his 2013 article “Mod Men”, published in the Duke University Press collection Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s, Jim Hansen situates Draper in a long line of dandies. His discussion plants the root of this family tree at the feet of Oscar Wilde, his Bunburying and his Dorian Gray, also referencing the Advertising Age article. Other critics (Hogue, Mendelsohn, Rao) have also made passing reference to the Wilde precedent. As critic Mary McNamara puts it, “[Don Draper may be the devil incarnate] but he manages to look Dorian Gray-great doing it”, unlike TV’s many other antiheroes, such as Tony Soprano or the recently wildly popular AMC program Breaking Bad's lead, Walter White.

However, Hansen’s epigram also situates us in the world of Wilde with his aphorism: “Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style.” Perhaps this connection should be extended: while the Draper/Gray connection offers a commentary on character, the show can also be understood in the context of the Aesthetic movement and Fin de Siècle era in terms of style and thematic concerns. Take note of the extravagant color, excessive sexualities, and extreme fashions. Note the emphasis on style. This rebellion marks a kind of revolution. The end of the 19th century was characterized by the self-conscious artistic movement of aestheticism, which sought to redefine art, its style, and its purpose. The Longman “Perspectives on Aestheticism, Decadence, and the Fin de Siecle” defines it as "a distinctive era in which the aesthetic and moral values of the nineteenth century were twisted or transmuted into the revolutionary forces of modernism, in a blaze of daring new styles, attitudes, and modes of behavior."

Part of understanding this period of time is in terms of the sophisticated decadence of Wilde and Beardsley, the dandies and aesthetics. In the 1892 treatise Degeneration, Max Nordau defines the term fin de siècle “as a pathological sensibility of modern urban life by which jaded voluptuaries and delusional artists seek novel sensations in ever more bizarre, irrational, mystical, immoral and disgusting ways.” However, Nordau’s contempt for the time period overlooks another characteristic of the era: a kind of anxiety about the intersection of the past and the future in the present moment. Damrosch in the Longman history asserts,

As the Empire reached its peak, Britain’s self confidence eroded under the stress of maintaining its military might and economic supremacy against competition from the US and Germany. About 1890, the general sense of fatigue and anxiety found expression in the French phrase fin de siècle—the "end of the age". The term suggested that Victorian values and energies had become exhausted and that an unsettling, amoral, post-Darwinian world was emerging in which contradictory impulses vied for attention.

So along with the flamboyance and decadence, the allusion to Gray, and the legacy of Wilde is also this idea of weariness, this fear of decline and degeneration, and perhaps even an anxiety about social collapse and apocalyptic change.

As the 1890s waned and a new century dawned, insistent questions about gender, sexuality, and aesthetics arose. As poster child of the movement, Wilde and his contemporaries confronted nature and art, gender and sexuality in plays and paintings, novels and poems, music and fashion. Questions as to fundamental ideals and values were prevalent. In a conversation with Lady Narborough in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry and Gray assess the era:

Lady Narborough: “Nowadays all the married men live like bachelors, and all the bachelors like married men.”

“Fin de siècle,” murmured Lord Henry.

“Fin du globe,” answered the hostess.

“I wish it were fin du globe,” said Dorian, with a sign. “Life is a great disappointment.”

Part and parcel to these gay 1890s is the restless discontent reflected here. The patron saint of the era, the aesthetic philosopher Walter Pater, in a mantra for the time, recommends: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” "But what if it isn’t", Gray laments, as Draper also seems to. If excess isn’t enough and excess isn’t success, what is?

If Draper alludes to Gray, then the end of the '60s might remind us of Wilde’s fin de siècle. As the curtain falls on the '60s and the Age of Aquarius is dawning, we witness weariness, fear, and anxieties. Production designer Dan Bishop described the visual grammar of the current Sterling Cooper Draper offices as reflective of the changing times: “Weiner wanted the new offices to have a more open, ‘rabbit warren’ look, to get across a historical idea that ‘the control and precision of the 1950s is breaking down.’” More than a character, however, Draper himself serves as an emblem of the '60s. Things are not what they seem: the ideals are unrealistic and limiting and debilitating for whole swaths of society in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.

While Draper found success and rose to success at the beginning of the '60s, as that star declines, must his too? Camelot is no longer; the illusions and ideals of the '60s have been found false, unrealistic, and untenable, and now we have a new era: the '70s, with its decadent fashions, its countercultures, and its new sensualities. These changes are phasing out what defined Draper in the absence of a real past. Draper is out of sorts with the Beatles, threesomes, and these cutting edge creatives. We see him struggle here throughout last season not for success -- just relevance. Weiner himself makes this connection: “…And by the time 1968 comes, an international revolution is going on. There is chaos. And my take was, people think Don is going to just retract. But actually, society is in the same state Don is in.”

The first episode of season six, “The Doorway”, emphatically sets the tone for these fin de siècle themes. We hear echoes of Dorian Gray when, in attempting to capture Draper’s portrait, the firm photographer ironically requests, “I want you to be yourself.” This era is harkened to even more overtly when Draper is faced with the need to read the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in an ad campaign, interpreting Aloha as both hello and goodbye, a beginning and an ending. A Rolling Stone feature encapsulates this brink:

The Season Six premiere was fraught with death. But nothing brought Draper closer to the opening-credits image of a man falling from a building than his latest ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian hotel. His slogan of "Hawaii: The Jumping Off Point" was plastered across a sketch of a man's jacket, tie, and footprints on the beach, leading toward the water. He viewed it as a man freeing himself, but the clients -- and anyone else with a pair of eyes -- saw a man committing suicide. It was one of the first times when Don was incapable of closing a deal with his powers of persuasion, and it was the apex of an episode that promised a season of mortal reminders lurking behind every corner of Don's existence.

This episode resides where 31 December 1967 becomes 1 January 1968, a fin d’annee. Not unlike Gray’s “I wish it were stopped for ever” (155), Draper laments “I want to stop doing this.” Draper's emphasis veers from Gray's. He doesn’t seem to want to stop forever; rather wants to stop this. And what is this?

In the final episode of the season, Draper celebrates the authenticity of the Hershey bar: “You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is, he already knows.” As Entertainment Weekly writer Keith Staskiewicz assesses it, “The scene contains such a catharsis not because it’s about the other characters realizing the truth about Don, but because it’s about Don realizing the truth about Don.”

This is a new era for the show and for the character. In this liminal space, where does one find oneself? This is the question for the final season, and for us.

The interwebs has been on fire with speculation as to what next season holds. One compelling premise that has become incredibly popular is that Charles Manson and the Sharon Tate murders will make an appearance. This storyline has Megan murdered at the infamous August 1969 party. Tumblr posts dedicate themselves to proposing futures for Sterling, Pete, Betty, and Draper. However, the show’s slanted approach to other major historical moments suggests another tactic and an important distinction. The assassination of JFK, of MLK, Vietnam and the Cold War aren’t their own dramas, but are rather subsumed in the everyday dramas of the characters. This idea of Draper as the everyman and the show as emblematic of the crisis of the present is affirmed in this representation of history. In other words, the finale of the show won’t be about how it approaches history but about how our history approaches us.

What ensures Draper’s success is his ability to morph, to embody these new selves. What he ultimately fears, as seen in the opening episode of last season, is a fear of death and extinction. In an early episode, he himself discusses this fear of change when he cautions the creatives to avoid using outer space imagery in a deodorant ad, saying, “Some people think of the future and it upsets them. They see a rocket and they start building a bomb shelter.” This adaptability and fear are not entirely unlike our own concerns, we might recognize. These concerns that were prevalent at the fin de siècle of the 19th century and the end of the '60s are incredibly present today when, in a world of rapid-fire change, we are always on the brink of something new, always facing revolution and obsolescence.

Therefore, the struggle for relevance and a kind of reckoning commences for the characters, the setting, and perhaps us, the audience. Critic Adam Hogue asks, “What will become of Draper in the '70s?” He elaborates, "We continue to reflect on what it looks like to die. Better than any show I have watched, Mad Men accurately captures and plays out the biggest fear of the collective human experience with subtlety and brutal honesty... Don Draper is leading us down the rabbit hole of what the aging process is. The fears of being rendered obsolete in the face of newer models comes to permeate the surface of Mad Men.” Thus, this archetype and this anxiety comes to represent our own realities, quests, and struggles. Wilde claimed that “the books that the world calls immoral books are books that show the world its own shame.” We are Caliban, he warned us. In this way then, Draper, like Gray, is exactly what Wilde foretold: a new kind of archetype, a kind of man in which one sees not only one’s own sins, but one’s own anxieties.

Season seven seems situated to address what happens at the “end of the era”, the title itself of the upcoming second part of the season to air in April 2015. With the shift into the '70s, we wonder if Draper will be able to stop doing this and morph, change, and find success. The show’s fashions this season and the trailer’s focus on planes set in what appears to be Los Angeles may suggest to us that while the show is about a character’s identity, it is also about our ability to identify as an audience. As Jim Poniewozik asserts in the aforementioned Time cover story, the style is part of the substance: “Re-creating the '60s as lived, rather than an idealized version… helps Mad Men get its universal themes right about conflicts and struggles that resonate in 2014.” The story of Mad Men is about revolutions for characters, the 60s, and also for us as TV viewers. In Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution from The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Brett Martin summarizes this perspective: “Mad Men is about a transitional generation -- caught between the upheavals of WWII and the youthquake of the 1960s -- written by another such generation, one growing up under the shadow of the baby boomers’ self-mythologizing, but too near to claim something new as their own” (262). This self-consciousness emphasized is also our own as viewers.

When Weiner was aggressively engaged in situating his new show in 2007, he described it as “science fiction” set in the past; just as science fiction uses the future to discuss the present, “his show uses the overtly sexist and racist atmosphere of 1960s New York... to talk about issues that persist today but that we are too ‘polite’ to talk about openly.” As Poniewozik puts it, “Mad Men is a period piece, but one where the past haunts the present and the present haunts the past. It resonates with themes as old as the frontier and as current as today’s gender politics.”

Much has been made of the show’s attention and neglect of race. Earlier this year, President Obama got a lot of press in the 2014 State of the Union when he proclaimed, “It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.” But here is how creator Matthew Weiner describes the implications of the show’s contemporary commentary in last spring’s Time:

I think the show resonates because of this. We are living in an absolutely culturally catastrophic moment. “Catastrophic” makes it sound negative -- that’s the wrong word -- we are living in a tumultuous time of change. You couldn’t stream anything on the Internet that was longer than three minutes when this show went on the air. There’s a moral loosening at the same time as there’s been incredible repression. We have the biggest porn consumption in the world and yet at the same time we’re fighting for gay rights, gay marriage. There’s a prudishness at the same time as there’s this access.

Like Draper, like the '60s, like the idea of our righteousness, things are not what they appear. What Weiner reminds us is that just like the fin de siècle was the end of an era, the '60s marked the end of Camelot. Just as we faced Y2K and have now entered into this 21st century, what fascinates us is this negotiating and reconciliation of past selves, hidden selves, emerging selves, and the next big thing. This involves a kind of truth and reconciliation, seeing the this as it really is, something real, not ideal, and recognizing that it is fleeting.

In some interviews, Weiner has identified the message of the series in the vein of Wilde’s description of his novel as a story about the possibility and impossibility of redemption. He suggested in a 2014 interview with Hanna Rosin that the final episodes “will be about the consequences of past behavior [asking] ‘Can you undo something bad that you’ve done? Is that possible?’” But just as Wilde created the archetype anew, or perhaps established a prototype, so has Weiner in his series. This broader summary of the show’s message, offered in another Weiner interview, captures the local and global reach of the ideas: “The world is changing. That was the original intention of the show. And change makes everybody feel out of place.”

As last season’s opening episode "Time Zones" emphasized, we have to be ready to travel, to board that plane, to cross over into that new century or that new time zone because that rapid pace of movement is the only thing one can be sure of and ultimately perhaps that the more things change the more they stay the same. As we face that change and reconcile our old selves with our new selves, perhaps the truth is Don Draper serves as our portrait in the attic, who with his retro fashions and regressive politics keeps us from really looking at ourselves and growing weary.

Elizabeth Howells is the head of the Department of Languages, Literature, and Philosophy at Armstrong State University in Savannah, GA (USA), where she teaches literature, composition, rhetoric, and gender studies. Recent publications include articles on mommy blogs and Charlotte Bronte, as well as a textbook entitled Literature: Reading to Write (Pearson, 2011).

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