Elisabeth Bronfen’s 2016 text Mad Men, Death, and the American Dream is slim for an academic volume, but this doesn’t mean that it’s lax in its critical analysis of AMC’s hit show Mad Men, which follows advertising executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm) through the social turbulence of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. While the show is primarily concerned with the vicissitudes of Don’s personal life and his attempts to come to grips with deep-seated pain and insecurity, it’s far from ahistorical. The personal dramas of individual characters are always embedded within the social world that their real world analogues would have inhabited, and actual historical events, such as the Kennedy assassination and the moon landing, become genuine milestones for characters and audience alike.
This seamless integration of such a rich, fictional world into the real one that it mimics invites both psychoanalytic readings and cultural ones, which is precisely what Bronfen offers here. While her topics vary from chapter to chapter — ranging from a Foucauldian analysis of the show’s prominent use of elevators to the terror and promise evoked by the moon landing — Bronfen’s through line is always the same: “[a] blind trust in the future has, as its toxic underbelly, the premonition that this dream may soon be lost or has, in fact, already been lost” (22).
If one accepts Bronfen’s arguments — and I think that they are utterly persuasive — then the brilliance of Mad Men is its ability to see the connection between the American Dream, which found its quintessential image in the years immediately preceding the show’s start, and the rise of consumer culture. Indeed, this connection is, as Bronfen shows, explicit within the show as consumer commodities and strategies for selling them are conflated with larger principles of patriotic pride and nationalist identity — as one executive puts it (of a cigarette brand), “We’re selling America.”
If forced to quibble with the text, I would say that its main weakness is how mismatched its language and approach seems with the style of the show; it contains little of Mad Men’s wit or élan. Clearly, there’s a difference between popular entertainment and academic scholarship, and I’m not suggesting that the latter necessarily aspire to the former in this or any other instance. However, there’s something of an uncomfortable fit between the sometimes unnecessarily elevated language that Bronfen uses to analyze her material and the material itself. There’s a plainspokenness to Americans that, whether affected or not, is central to both the style of the show and the uniquely American spiritual dilemma Bronfen analyzes.
As such, the psychoanalytic approach that Bronfen privileges in reading the show, while not unwarranted, does seem to miss capturing something essential about the existential crisis at the heart of American consumer culture; namely, that we would never understand it in psychoanalytic terms. This American hostility to digging too deeply into the psychological processes that structure the social and affective world we inhabit is something that show creator Matthew Weiner clearly understood, as it’s introduced in the show’s pilot episode through a confrontation between Don and a European psychoanalyst named Doctor Guttman (Gordana Rashovich), who suggests that he make use of the concept of the “death drive” in an ad campaign for the aforementioned cigarettes. Bronfen analyzes this scene, and while she rightly reads Don’s emotional rejection of what he describes as a “perverse” approach as evidence of anxiety about his own self-destructive impulse, she seems to miss the larger implication, namely, that Don is also rejecting everything the doctor represents: European sophistication, academic elitism, and the psychological professions.
That said, as Bronfen clearly shows, both Don and the American psyche could stand to benefit from some psychologizing. Making use of an array of sources that range from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Lauren Berlant, Bronfen meticulously builds an argument for reading Don not only as a product of his time (and place) but also as a cypher for that time. This idea is most persuasive in the chapter “Beyond the Happiness Principle”, which focuses on Don’s almost neurotic obsession with the past despite its ability to derail his attempts at creating new identities and lives for himself. She writes:
If the American dream thrives on the conviction that happiness and moral perfectibility can be achieved in the future, what, in turn, propels the archetypical American hero in the opposite direction are the very memories of past events that are meant to be surmounted, and thus left behind. Refusing to let go of what happened in the past is, ironically, the reason the archetypical American hero needs to constantly move on in the first place… Thus, potentially threatening to his self-fashioning is, above all, the fact that he clings to the very paraphernalia of the past, whose concealment is the precondition for his current success and happiness.(78, 80)
It’s difficult not to read Bronfen’s argument in light of current political events, in which our collective efforts to “move past” (often through mere concealment) America’s violent, traumatic past seem only to return us to the scene of those same initial crimes. But this has always been one of the political uses of period dramas — they’re just far enough away from the current social moment to be able to show us to ourselves without our quickly, violently rejecting the image that we see.
If Mad Men’s slick visual style and mid-century cool allow us to enjoy the existential emptiness at the heart of American identity and culture without being implicated in it, Bronfen’s small volume works to close that distance. It submits the show to rigorous, critical evaluation, drawing connections between its ideological content and the ideological work that it does as a piece of entertainment.
Like a successful ad campaign, Mad Men tickles our anxieties in order to appease them, but it always does so intentionally and with a healthy, sense of irony. For those interesting in buying the American Dream, it’s perhaps best not to look too deeply into the conditions under which it’s being sold… but if, like Don, you’re always a little suspicious of the pitch, Mad Men, Death, the American Dream will give you the tools to begin to figure out why.