Throughout the entirety of the Mad Men series—I have currently watched up through Season 5—the BBC’s four-part series The Century of the Self has never been far from my mind. For those who have not seen it, the series explores the impact of Freudian psychology on the way that corporations and governments viewed the masses throughout the 20th century, especially by tapping into the work of people like Freud himself, his daughter, Anna, and his nephew, Edward Bernays. The first installment of the BBC series, “Happiness Machines,” especially informed my viewing.
“Happiness Machines” begins by explaining the sea change that occurred because of psychoanalysis and the attendant preoccupation with the self and one’s happiness. A Viennese woman interviewed for the program (who could certainly be accused of employing a broad generalization) explains how—before Freud ushered in the new era—a person simply did not stop to consider her sense of her own inner well-being, and that she certainly did not discuss such things with her friends and family. To do so would be to lower others’ respect for her. It could also cause her to have to question so much about her surroundings and herself. Thinking this way, it is explained, would have been destructive to the community. However, with Freud’s theory of the subconscious and psychoanalysis leading the way, individualism became transcendent.
With WWI lending credence to Freud’s idea that lying hidden inside people were destructive and uncontrollable forces, governments and corporations became wary of the potential power of the subconscious minds of people. The rest of “Happiness Machines” is spent looking at the ways that these institutions attempted to manage those forces in order to maintain power structures and sell goods. Because people may vote for the wrong man or desire the wrong things (or not desire them enough), governments and corporations made it their business to discover ways to trigger and channel the powerful sexual and aggressive impulses hidden in people. Turning people into consumers instead of citizens would allow elites to “manufacture the consent” of “the bewildered herd” while corporations would train people to respond to their desires over their needs. Looking down at people from on high—working to understand their psychology not as individuals but as a hoard—would allow the forces of power to channel these little “Happiness Machines” where they needed them to go to protect them from themselves and the danger of too much democracy.
The camera in “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” illustrates the ascendancy of the “Happiness Machines” view of people in the world of advertising, as do the characters and their plights in this superb introduction to one of the finest series to ever appear on the small screen. In the world of Mad Men, the offices of Sterling Cooper ad agency hover ominously over Manhattan’s citizens as they blithely follow the whims of their subconscious desires. Inside that agency are Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), whose business is triggering and manipulating those subconscious desires using powerful advertisements.
At the same time that their work is aimed at the passions, drives and fears of the hoarding masses, the advertising work of Sterling Cooper also nods at the inner lives of its employees. Don Draper is the man who has all the trappings of the American Dream—a high-paying job with power, a charming home in the suburbs, a beautiful wife, two healthy children—and yet he feels that he has nothing. Pete Campbell is trying to become Don Draper: however, he senses he is walking into a void but can’t yet see its full extent. Peggy Olson is walking into a working environment soaked in an inescapable lurid male gaze that transforms her into an object to be advertised much like Lucky Strike. And threaded through the episode is Sigmund Freud’s theory of the sublimated human death wish, which frames these inner conflicts and the Lucky Strike advertising campaign that troubles Draper throughout this episode.
It is 1960 as Draper frets over Lucky Strike’s new campaign, and the United States government has begun to cinch down on tobacco advertising. It is now too risky to dispute commercially the claims of health professionals and their linkage of smoking with lung cancer. Putting a filter on a cigarette and calling it safer could also bring expensive lawsuits. With these options gone, the consistently-brilliant Draper is struggling to create a fresh approach to pitching Lucky Strike’s product. In the middle of this struggle, Dr. Greta Guttman—Sterling Cooper’s in-house psychologist—sits down for an adversarial meeting with Draper and his art director Salvatore Romano. Dr. Guttman, referring to her work with Dr. Alfred Adler and Freud prior to WWI, suggests that Draper’s campaign connect in some way with the theory of the subconscious death wish.
Received by both Romano and Draper as a “perverse” idea, the characters of Mad Men respond very similarly to the way that psychiatrists and the culture at large responded to Freud’s theory of the death drive. At one time, Freud postulated that the mental life of human beings is driven by the pleasure principle alone. At its most basic, the theory explains that people do what they do to maximize pleasure and/or avoid displeasure. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, however, Freud pointed out that there are several tendencies in people that cannot be explained by the pleasure principle (among these tendencies is the reënactment of traumatic events in the mind, often seen in soldiers returning from war). While recognizing that his theory was quite speculative, he felt that there must be an oppositional force in people that is aligned against the life forces inherent in the pleasure principle (the drives toward sexual reproduction, creativity and pleasure) which is more elemental and primitive. He argued that there must be an “urge in organic life to return to an earlier stage of things”; an urge to return to the dust from which that life came. A death drive, or as Dr. Guttman calls it, “a death wish.”
Romano says in response to Dr. Guttman, “So we are supposed to believe that people are living one way and secretly thinking the exact opposite? That’s ridiculous.” Setting aside the irony of placing those words in the mouth of a closeted gay man, it is clear that Draper and Romano protest too much. That the two of them might be driven by a subconscious death wish is too much for them to consider, but Dr. Guttman’s research says otherwise. To drive this point home, writer Matthew Weiner immediately follows this scene with a scene in which Draper engages in a “reënactment of traumatic events”: he lies down for a nap in his office, drifts off to sleep and dreams of the report of machine gun fire and bomb blasts that recall his time in the Korean War. Weiner plants this death wish in Draper.
And Draper feels the accompanying existential dread that one would expect in a man who exemplifies Freud’s theory. Near the end of the episode, he meets with another Sterling Cooper client named Rachel Menken. Earlier, Draper had treated the department store heiress unkindly in a meeting, and now he has taken her to dinner to make amends. The conversation quickly turns to the personal. He asks Menken why she’s not married, and she explains that she’s never been in love. The viewer then witnesses the following exchange:
Draper: “She won’t get married because she’s never been in love.” I think I wrote that once to sell nylons.
Menken: For a lot of people, love isn’t just a slogan.
Draper: Oh, you mean love? You mean big lightning bolt to the heart where you can’t eat and you can’t work and you just run off and get married and make babies? The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.
Menken: Is that right?
Draper: You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.
Draper lives in a godless world situated in the shadow of World War II, a moment in time that illustrates, perhaps more than any other, Freud’s idea about what the human psyche, in toto, does to mitigate the effects of the death drive. To wit, Freud later theorized that a human being’s death drive has to be managed by the libido (the instinctual sexual impulse), lest that human being actually follow through and destroy himself. As a result, the libido diminishes the effect of the death drive on the individual by turning its destructive impulses outward toward the external world. The Holocaust was a testament to that idea.
Draper and his coworkers at Sterling Cooper operate in the wake of the Holocaust, and in 1960 America, they live on the cusp of an enormous cultural shift that’s about to subvert every aspect of social relations. In the face of such destruction and uncertainty, what can a person do but seek happiness by attaining the finer things in life? Draper is a man who has gathered every totem of The American Dream that the post-WWII culture said would make him happy. Draper’s colleagues—the Peggy Olsons and Pete Campbells—are nipping at his heels, trying to get a piece of the same thing he has. Together, they’re working with corporations to create advertising that “is based on one thing: happiness.” Speaking with the owners of Lucky Strike, Draper asks, “You know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with assurance that whatever you’re doing; it’s okay. You are okay.” And down on the streets below, the people of Manhattan are hustling about, drinking down the elixirs of Sterling Cooper, hoping that those potions will transform them into the little Happiness Machines who are nothing if they’re not okay.
And yet no one’s happy. In preparing to write this analysis, I was reminded of a review of Economics After the Crisis that I recently read in The Times Literary Supplement. Robert Skidelsky, in reviewing the book by Adair Turner, explains that Turner found that governments “making increased GDP per capita the overriding policy objective” is problematic because doing so “doesn’t deliver the increased happiness or welfare it promises.” Skidelsky continues:
Why, above a quite low income threshold, does a person’s happiness not increase with more income? The intuitive explanation must be that rising incomes produce dissatisfactions which offset the pleasure which the increase affords. Turner discusses some of the ills of wealth. The richer societies are, the more ‘status’ goods people want, but because status is relative there is never, so to speak, enough of it to go round. The same is true of ‘positional’ goods. ‘If the supply of pleasant homes is restricted then you have to seek to win in the relative income competition.’ But there are only a few winners.
In “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” account executive Pete Campbell exemplifies this dissatisfied man chasing status symbols that will never actually fulfill him. Throughout the episode, Draper is pursued by Campbell, and even when Campbell is off-screen, he is never far from Draper’s mind. Speaking with his mistress in Greenwich Village about his inability to come up with a fresh campaign for Lucky Strike, Draper says, “Next time you see me, there will be a bunch of young executives picking meat off my ribs.” Campbell is one of those young executives, and he comes by Draper’s office every day “to see where he’s going to put his plants.” He’s a young man (26 to be exact), and to him “the whole world looks like one big brassiere strap waiting to be snapped.” He wants Draper’s job and he even admits to it while chasing him around the office seeking his guidance and approval. But the unease in him is unshakeable.
On the phone with his fiancée (who seeks an affirmation of his love for her after expressing concern about his upcoming bachelor party), Campbell assures her of his dedication by saying, “Of course I love you. I’m giving up my life to be with you, aren’t I?” It’s as if he already expects to be trapped and unhappy, but he has no idea what else he could pursue. He sees Draper, wants what he has, will persistently chase it until he gets every facet of that life, but already senses that it won’t be enough. And after leaving his bachelor party at the end of the night, he shows the viewer that this will most certainly be so as he arrives at Peggy Olson’s apartment door.
This is as good a time as any to step away from Campbell’s story to consider Olson. We meet her on her first day at Sterling Cooper, and it doesn’t take her long to realize that she is there solely for the benefit of the men who work in the office. From the moment she steps into the elevator, every aspect of her body is evaluated and leered at by the men and women of Sterling Cooper. In one of the up-and-coming advertising agencies on Madison Avenue, Olson is an up-and-coming product herself.
In one short day learning the particulars of her new job as Draper’s secretary, Olson is instructed to go home after work, put a bag on her head and stare at herself in the mirror so that she can objectively evaluate her physical flaws. She is instructed to wear more revealing clothing and is accused of being Amish for not doing so. She learns that Draper’s previous secretary was shown the door because he wasn’t interested in her sexually. She learns that this is the kind of place where a man has “gotta let ‘em know what kind of guy you are so they’ll know what kind of girl to be.”
Joan Holloway, supervisor to the office pool, even sends Olson to her gynecologist so that she can be prescribed birth control. After all, as a sexual object whose value exists in her ability to please the men with whom she works, she needs to be ready to please when she’s lucky enough to be selected. But the gynecologist warns her that he’ll take her off The Pill if it turns “her into some kind of strumpet.” After all, Olson shouldn’t think she has “to go out and become the town pump to get [her] money’s worth.”
And as if unrelenting objectification isn’t enough, Olson has to deal with Campbell as well. After sexually harassing her in Draper’s office, Campbell shows up at her door looking for sex. Mere hours earlier, he referred to his fiancée as the “great gal” who “stole my heart,” and now he’s looking for love in the arms of a total stranger. What Campbell is running up against is exactly the problem that the executives at Sterling Cooper are hoping that the targets of their ads are going to run up against: what he has can never be enough. What Draper has can never be enough. What Olson is can never be enough. And what the Sterling Coopers of the real world are hoping is that what you have can never be enough.
This is not simply a reality brought about because there aren’t enough status symbols to go around in this affluent society that leads us to want it all and then some. It is our basic hostility toward civilization itself. This is a civilization that recognizes these subconscious aggressive and sexual impulses; impulses that we want nothing more than to exercise at the expense of our fellow man (recall the image of the young executives who will be picking the meat off of Draper’s ribs). That civilization creates laws and societal and familial institutions to force us to swallow those impulses and express them far less often than we’d like. Because we can’t take and do what we want whenever we want, we will always be discontent (see Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents).
Which should keep the Sterling Coopers of the world in business for a long time to come.
Stray Observations & Quotations
- “You’ll die in that corner office a mid-level executive with a little bit of hair who women go home with out of pity. You want to know why? Because no one will like you.”—Don Draper to Pete Campbell
- “Manipulation of the media!? That’s what I pay you for.”—Lee Garner, Sr. of Lucky Strike
- “We’re sellin’ America. The Indians gave it to us for shit’s sake.”—Lee Garner, Sr.
- If I had all of the alcohol poured into drinks that people don’t finish in this show, I’d never have to buy a bottle again.
- “Fear stimulates my imagination.”—Don Draper
- “I love this place. It’s hot, loud and filled with men.”—Flirty girl at the strip club; ”I know what you mean.”—Sal Romano
- Don drinks an Old Fashioned and rye whisky.
- “You know the rules: I don’t make plans and I don’t make breakfast.”—Midge, Don Draper’s mistress
- Pete’s picture of Trudy isn’t Trudy.
- “He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress. And the rest of the time, well…”—Joan Holloway to Peggy Olson
- Joan “made a mistake” with Paul! I forgot this detail.
- Peggy Olson: “I always try to be honest.”
- “The men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”—Joan Holloway to Peggy Olson
- “I want your kind of people, Mr. Draper.”—Rachel Menken
- “It’s not like there’s some magical machine that makes copies of things.”—Don Draper
- Themes established in this episode that will be explored throughout the series: marriage as trap and infidelity as escape; sexism; racism; alcoholism; homophobia and closeted homosexuality; politicians as product; existential dread; pursuit of happiness as fool’s errand