Don Draper’s Wild West Show
I’m hooked on Mad Men.
I’d watched the show on and off in the past, but delved in about two months ago and have been trying to figure out why people love the show so much (myself included) ever since. Overall, not much happens over the course of a typical Mad Men season. Sure, the acting is great and there’s sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll (though the latter seems a bit pricy), but this isn’t the first show to have good production value and a handsome, charming leading man (Star Trek only got two seasons!) So why do we care so much whether Don Draper is shagging secretaries and Peggy Olson is shattering ceilings?
A thought struck me today as I was reading for a class on the history of entertainment in America: It’s because American’s will always long for the undeveloped frontier.
I’ll back up a step: In the late 19th century William “Buffalo Bill” Cody engineered a traveling variety show called Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Cody’s menagerie featured death-defying stunts on horseback, tales from Indians and frontiersmen alike, and the feats of sharpshootress Annie Oakley. As the effects of the Industrial Revolution triggered urbanization and forced civilization upon a relatively young, rugged nation, city dwellers flocked to Buffalo Bill’s show for a renewed sense of adventure and intrigue (if only Ralph Wilson would capture some of that…). Mainly, however, the increasingly effeminate and inactive male population just wanted to feel rugged and manly again. Their ancestors had voyaged into uncharted wilderness occupied by a hostile indigenous people and had crafted societies out of nothing. They built their own homes, grew their own food, and defended themselves and their families from constant dangers. Urbanization, however, had created lives full of routine and had replaced physical danger with daunting economic hardship and dreary monotony.
Our ancestors spent generations trying to evolve from the roughnecks who settled the Wild West, only to then romanticize and pine nostalgic over the loss of our more rugged roots.
A little more than 100 years later, the effeminization of our society has increased exponentially and, along with it, has our penchant for nostalgia. The frontier of the Wild West is something of legend–inaccessible to the modern man who has been removed from such a lifestyle for generations. Matthew Weiner, however, has captured our need for adventure with a similar frontier: the 1960s.
The 60s workplace was a jungle, unencumbered by the rules and lawsuits that now dictate nearly all interactions. The social landscape was even more chaotic as women struggled to determine their place in society and blacks fought just to have a place. America was prospering, and in comparison to today’s over-legislated society, there were few rules to tell people how to treat that prosperity.
To men like Don Draper (who most men wish they could be) the 60s were a playground. Noticeable throughout the series is a lack of police presence. For the amount of trouble the characters create, their actions are rarely met with serious consequence (aside from ruining their own lives). The characters govern, police and punish themselves and each other. Like the Wild West, it’s a self-sustaining society they created themselves, and their survival is totally dependent upon self-sufficiency. I’ll spare you my politics on the ethics of self-reliance, but will mention that Burt Cooper’s favorite book is Atlas Shrugged–a piece of literature emblematic of the show’s overall theme (read it–especially if you’re a recent college grad).
It’s no coincidence that Don grew up on a farm in a working class family; He is the ideal self-made man. He embodies all the qualities of a Wild West pioneer: he’s a hardworking man of few words who drinks whiskey and lives by a code (even if that code is fatally flawed). Most importantly, he wants to create. He tells Cooper at the end of season three that he’s not content taking a pile of money to sell the company: “Don’t you want to build something?!” he asks incredulously. Like the frontiersmen of 100 years prior, he wants to make something from nothing.
Once the West was settled we were able to look back on it affectionately when it was, in reality, a violent, turbulent time in our nation’s history. The 60s, too, were marred with political instability, rising tensions with our enemies abroad and violent struggles against racism and sexism within our borders. Yet we’re now able to look back with a glint in our eye at the “simpler” times when white men ran the workplace and smoking was acceptable on an airplane.
What, then, will be our grandkids’ great era of nostalgia?