In a brief 2012 interview, "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner referred to incessant attempts by viewers and critics alike to pin down the main motifs of his successful series, as well as get a handle on its enigmatic main man, Don Draper. It would be best, Weiner suggested, if the viewing public abandon the struggle to find an outright interpretation of his work and focus instead on the kind of experience "Mad Men" provides -- the type of story it tells.
As an example of what that may mean, Weiner goes on to describe a scene in one of the opening chapters of Herman Melville's monumental "Moby-Dick," in which its narrator, Ishmael, stands facing an obscure painting hanging on the wall of the Spouter Inn, on his way to join the Pequod.
Following several failed attempts to make sense of the seemingly disparate parts of the painting – which, among others, includes what appears to be a stormy beach, mastheads and a whale – Ishmael settles. Arriving at what he calls "a final theory of my own," one "partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject," Melville's narrator describes the painting as representing
[a] Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.
A similar scene appears in the Mad Men episode "Gold Violin" in the series' second season. Several of Sterling Cooper's lower-ranking workers – Jane Siegel, Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove and Sal Romano – sneak into Bert Cooper's office to catch a glimpse of his newest, expensive acquisition – an abstract painting by Jewish-American painter Mark Rothko.
And like Ishmael and his fellow seamen who attempt, to no real avail, to interpret the vague work before them, Weiner's 1960s advertising workers react in varying ways to Rothko's abstraction:
Harry: Ten thousand dollars.
Jane: So, it's smudgy squares, huh? That's interesting.
Harry: Two possibilities. Either Cooper loves it, and you have to love it. Like, in an emperor's-new-clothes situation, or he thinks it's a joke and you look like a fool if you pretend to dig it.
Sal: Like you can pretend you understand this.
Harry: Maybe there's a brochure here or something that explains it.
Ken: I don't think it's supposed to be explained.
Sal: I'm an artist, OK? It must mean something.
Ken: Maybe it doesn't. Maybe you're just supposed to experience it. 'Cause, when you look at it, you feel something. It's like looking into something very deep. You could fall in.
Later on, Cooper adds his own take, by explaining his initial drive to buy the painting: "People buy things to realize their aspirations, it’s the foundation of our business. But between you and me and the lamppost, that thing should double in value by next Christmas."
Weiner may well be modeling his show after Melville's novel – a "Moby-Dick" for the television age. Something deep. Something one can fall into.
One point of such a connection is placing the onus of cultural production and influence squarely on the shoulders of the hobo – the vagabond, the wanderer and the survivor. In other words, positing Melville's Ishmael and Weiner's Draper as prototypes of survivors and artists.
However, to show that a 21st-century TV show is like a mid-19th-century novel, as entertaining as it may be, is a pointless exercise if without a message of a sort. Which leads me to this: Weiner's re-creation of "Moby-Dick" is decidedly a Jewish one, geared first and foremost to highlight the point in history where the hobos determining the thrust of America culture changes – from the Depression-era, white Christian hobo to a new multicultured America, led by the Jewish-American immigrant and Holocaust survivor.
But, to understand what the new America looks like, we must first see which America is on the decline.
* * *
The years following World War II seemed focused on an almost collective attempt to assemble the heterogeneous fragments that made up the United States of America into what would come to be called "America" – a unified, industrialized and repetitive product. Fragments of land, race and creed molded together by veterans of the Second and First World Wars – such as Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling – in an attempt to perhaps remold their own fragmentary experience into a unified, livable whole.
At the forefront of this new enterprise stand the captains of advertising industry, centered in New York City's Madison Avenue – a factory of words and images tirelessly working to invent an "America" that had yet to be. One for which the "pursuit of happiness" was achieved through the supermarket aisles, the family barbecue, and the cigarette clinging to half-smiling, sunburned lips.
But the rise of a new nation, one that seemed to be accompanied by the sound of a tearing plastic shrink-wrap, also signaled the end of a former America – the scattered and dispersed America of the Great Depression, an America of mastery and slavery, of struggle and survival.
Walt Whitman was perhaps the dominant poetic voice of that America. Whitman's sense of nationhood, then, wasn't of a brand name, but of a collection of heterogeneous parts, a sum that was greater than those parts. As he writes in "American Feuillage": "Always Florida's green peninsula! Always the priceless / delta of Louisiana! Always the cotton-fields of / Alabama and Texas!"
Whitman's concept of a dispersed, heterogeneous United States survived well into the 20th century -- all the way into the Great Depression, a cataclysmic era that strengthened, if anything, a sense of fragmentation and displacement. Woody Guthrie, the Everyman's Whitman of that era, sings of a land running from "California to the New York Island."
Thus, the "America" constructed and imagined in the post-WWII advertising world signaled an attempt to end, kill off an increasing sense of fragmentation. Tightly ironed admen, or "mad men," as they were called, served as the jugglers who attempted to fabricate a plastic alternative to Whitman's bleeding country.
Eventually, it would prove a futile exercise, as futile as chasing a white whale, as white as the void into which Don Draper drops in the now iconic "Mad Men" intro.
* * *
Don Draper's story is a kind of "Moby-Dick's" Ishmael – a survivor drifting to safety atop an ornate coffin following the deadly aftermath of Captain Ahab's pursuit of the white whale. A catastrophe's sole survivor turned vagabond, whose own body serves as a sole relic of a bygone era, covered by the artifice of a new identity.
Melville's Ishmael is one example of such a coverup job in two ways: first, the tattoos that cover Ishmael's body, recalling the ornaments carved on the coffin that saved his life (his tattoos are mentioned at the end of the chapter "A Bower in the Arsacides"); second, through the story of Moby-Dick itself, told, if not created, by the only man able to – the survivor.
In similar fashion, Don Draper is the one who drapes, so to speak, the man who once was Dick Whitman – a name linking Don to both Walt Whitman and Melville's magnum opus. When the real Capt. Don Draper dies in Korea, not far from the final resting place of Captain Ahab's Pequod, Dick Whitman dons "Don Draper," floating on his own coffin back to "America."
"Don Draper," then, is Dick Whitman's post-catastrophe work of art, a thing of vagueness and beauty – a Rothko-esque abstraction – that, through his body, both harkens back to an age of hobos and back-country whorehouses, as well as to the very personification of an "America" that would do anything to erase its fragmented past.
And just as Melville's famous opening lines, which both name "Moby Dick's" narrator and challenge the authenticity of that name – "call me Ishmael" – Dick Whitman introduces himself into the advertising world with an artistic flourish. In the second season's "Waldorf Stories," which recounts the first meeting between Roger Sterling and Don Draper, Don responds to the query regarding his name by simply saying: "You can call me Don."
"Don Draper" is a fabrication, a work of art created, however, not with an eye to ornamentation but out of necessity, out of a desire to survive a personal experience that remains beyond interpretation.
However, perhaps ironically, it is exactly the fact that Draper draped over Whitman that makes him, for those around him and to an extent for the show's viewers, into the epitome of the new American man.
Among the countless examples of this act of others interpreting Don as the American, we see Ken Cosgrove's wife calling him "superman" in "Signal 30," and Roger's quoting of his wife's first impression of the Drapers: "Didn't we see them on the top of our wedding cake?”
He is an object of observation and interpretation, a trait driven by the many other ways he is seen by other characters. Sometimes, he is the predatory man seeking cheap thrills, other times he is the creative genius. In "Seven Twenty Three" a couple of young hitchhikers ask him if he's "a spook," while Midge's beatnik friends call him anything from "Ad Man" to "Tin Man" in "The Hobo Code."
Not unlike Cooper's Rothko, or Ishmael's painting, he is "America" as an abstraction onto which anyone can project anything they wish. Like, say, money. For some, like Harry Crane's take on the neo-impressionist painting, it's all about money. (In the show's pilot Draper is said to look "like a hundred bucks" by both Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling.)
By some strange move of reinvention and artifice, Dick Whitman, upon his return home and the creation of his new life, seems to have attained traits reminiscent of his own near-death experience – as elusive and blindingly white as a deadly white whale.
One person who sees Don as Dick, so to speak, is Betty Draper. For years believing in the soundness of the outer shell she was used to, Betty is undone by the discovery of the Dick that lies beneath the "Don," forcing him out of her life.
Ultimately however, the replacements Betty tries to put instead of Don, including, in "The Inheritance," the young Glenn Bishop, whom Betty dresses in Don's white T-shirt, cannot hold, and Betty slowly develops a desire if not an obsession with pinning down her once husband’s now white whale.
This portrayal of Betty as a monomaniacal Ahab reaches an apex of sorts in the fifth season's "Dark Shadows." When going through drawings made by their youngest son Bobby she comes upon a sketch of a smiling white whale.
In yet another instance of interpretation when faced with a work of art, this time the seemingly innocent drawing of a young boy, Betty is, as was Ishmael, faced with the picture of a whale impaled by three harpoons.
There are two things that happen in that moment. The first is Betty's reaction to the whale, her own take – "It's very nice. Although I don’t know why he's smiling" – which seems to relate almost directly to Ahab's chase after Moby-Dick in the chapter "The Chase – The Third Day," during which he cries: "I grin at thee, thou grinning whale!"
The other is Betty's discovery of a love poem Don had written to his new, young wife Megan on the drawing's other side. The combination of both these facts – is this why the whale is smiling? Is it in love? – causes Betty to strike another harpoon in the elusive whale, this time by revealing Don's past to their daughter, Sally, while chewing on a celery spear.
* * *
Don's possible portrayal as both Ishmael and Moby-Dick isn't, again, something we can pin on the ever-elusive advertising man. That is since, in yet another twist, he is also seen as Captain Ahab as well.
"Captain Don Draper" is found throughout the series' lifeline. He possesses Ahab's charisma, often functioning as the undisputed leader of Sterling Cooper. In addition, he is perhaps the best whale hunter of the bunch, often seen pulling lines of copy from thin air in his attempt to strike the fat whales of the advertising world – rich accounts (in "Tea Leaves" Peggy Olson calls an important client a "big fish").
Indeed, it would be no coincidence that one of his most impressive strikes takes place during the series' pilot, "Smoke in Your Eyes," in which Don "hunts" Lucky Strike with what actually seems like a pretty lucky strike.
However, Don the able and magnetic leader is overtaken by a more Ahab-ian brand of obsession during the series' fifth season, for two main reasons.
The first is Pete Campbell's increasing reputation as a deft "whale hunter," able to strike down significant accounts such as the Jaguar Motor Co. Consequently, Don becomes obsessed with chasing down the one account he knows he can never have – Dow Chemicals, a company synonymous with Agent Orange and the Vietnam War.
In other words, Capt. Draper is steering the ship toward the white whale that is the Vietnam War, one of the cliffs against which "America" will crash against in the late 1960s, dispersing back to its heterogeneous components.
Watching helplessly as his friend and partner embarks on a dangerous hunting journey, Roger Sterling advises against the venture, saying: "I'm telling you, Ed Baxter is Moby-Dick. There are easier whales out there."
Eventually, the meeting takes place at the Dow building, located "three buildings" from the ad agency, an equivalent of the three-day chase after the white whale in "Moby-Dick."
One ingenious way in which the show's creators were able to incorporate Ahab-esque traits into Don's character is the addition of his secretary Dawn, which in effect allows Don to sound as if he is referring to himself in the third person, as Ahab does through the novel.
One such instance is Don's exchange with an off-camera and inaudible Dawn after he finds out from Pete that Joan has opted to sleep with a major client to order to close the deal.
"Don: Dawn, could you buzz Mrs. Harris ... Actually, Dawn, could you get my things?"
In another example, again from "Far Away Places," a distressed Don calls his office in an attempt to locate Megan after she had run off. As Peggy answers the phone, Don could be heard asking: "Did Dawn call you?"
However, Don's ultimate undoing, the undoing of the edifice of "America" to an extent, is only partly the result of competition and pride. The other part of that equation is the rising of a new force in the American landscape, one that will subsume the uniform whiteness of the whale – a multicultural Unites States of America, the voice of which is a Jewish one.
* * *
If Whitman's United States dies at war and returns under an assumed identity, or "draping," then the 1960s, the time of the "Mad Men," is where major cracks begin to slowly split the mask.
Riots, political assassinations, the civil rights and feminist movements, along with the Vietnam War puncture "America," bursting under the surface to expose a ghostly white whale that is the very idea of a unified, white America. Out of the disintegrated muddle that America is imploding into, a new force of meaning-making, one that replaces the Midwestern hobo with the eternal vagabond, an obvious antithesis to the unified image of WASP America – American Jews.
The rise and fall of the Jews in "Mad Men" can be coarsely drawn between two central episodes dealing with American-Jewish clients – the show's pilot, "Smoke in Your Eyes," and the fifth season's "Far Away Places." In both cases, Jews represent a clear and present threat to Don's hegemony as American meaning-maker and wordsmith, by precisely emphasizing that wandering part of the Jewish psyche, one essential to Draper's artistic prowess.
"Smoke in Your Eyes" finds Jews outside the walled-in, white city of "America." When preparing to meet with Rachel Mencken, the daughter of the stereotypical New York Jewish merchant, Roger asks Don if the firm has "hired any Jews," to which Don replies: "Not on my watch."
Following an argument during the meeting, in which Don continues to display disrespect toward a customer who is both a woman and Jewish, the two meet for drinks, after Roger urges Don to patch things up with a potentially important client.
This second meeting is perhaps the antithesis of the other meeting in the episode, the same in which Don puts his ability to "strike" the fat whale of Lucky Strike by spinning his yarn on "America" and "happiness."
In no time at all, Rachel, the symbolic bearer of the Jewish point of view, remains immune to Don's empty rhetoric ("what you call love was invented by the guys like me, to sell nylons "), directing her own harpoon at his "Don Draper" mask:
Rachel: Mr. Draper
R: Mr. Draper, I don't know what it is you really believe in, but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There's something about you that tells me that you know it too.
D: (Uneasy silence) I don't know if that's true. (Gathering himself.) Do you want another drink?
Interestingly, the omnipotent Don will, in a few episodes' time, be so enthralled by what Rachel represents that he offers to run away with her and leave his family. To find salvation through Rachel – the name of the ship that rescues Ishmael as he floats on his coffin after – and live his life as an eternal wanderer.
In "Babylon," coming later in the same season, Don again summons Rachel's Jewish wisdom, this time to help him better understand the concept of "Israel" – that place gathering those wandering from post-Holocaust Europe.
In the fifth season, however, there's evidence of a paradigm shift concerning Jews in America, one coinciding with the surrounding civil rights movement (hiring of African-American workers, such as Dawn) and increased American involvement in Vietnam.
In "Dark Shadows," this shift takes place along two parallel lines. The first is the increased power of Jewish business, shown through Roger's attempt to lure Jewish wine makers Manischewitz to the firm.
Aside from the Roger's somewhat comic self-definition as non-Jewish in regard to the new client ("They make wines for Jews and now they are making one they want to sell to normal people. You know, like me"), the episode more importantly involves the rise of the firm's Jewish copywriter, Michael Ginsberg, as the new Ishmael.
* * *
For Don, Ginsberg poses a threat through his inherently Jewish ability to beat the Depression-era vagabond at his own game. A game of wandering that is, at least from Don's American point of view and interpretation, being the point of view of Ishmael, essentially Jewish.
Don Draper, now missing the creative spark of the vagabond, following years of resting on his own laurels, now encounters a new, more modern Ishmael in the form of the Holocaust survivor Ginsberg.
Flipping through Ginsberg's work, Don is thunderstruck by another kind of humor and creativity, one that he both recognizes as good, and as threatening: a sketch for a Sno Ball ad featuring Adolf Hitler being hit in the face with a literal snowball.
Don instinctively laughs, an experience that germinates the seed of obsession, of outdoing. Working tirelessly all night long, Don, in a manner perhaps fitting his mental state, comes up with the idea of Satan drinking a Sno Ball in hell.
The writers, reacting more favorably to Michael's idea, politely announce Don's to be equally good, agreeing to let the client make the final decision. However, Don's envy overcomes him, as he deserts the Jewish version in the cab on his way to the meeting.
What Don sees and recognizes in Ginsberg's folder isn't mere copy, but evidence of the scar that drives the creativity of his Jewish copywriter – a force of innovation and creation that is the result of a personal disaster, just as Dick Whitman's disaster brought on the creation of "Don Draper."
Only, this time, the survivor, Ginsberg's version of Ishmael, is of an even more extreme sort. Later in that episode, Michael reveals his history, that of the 20th-century Jewish vagabond:
Peggy: Why didn't you tell me you had a family? Your father's nice.
Michael: He's not my real father. People don't understand.
P: You're adopted?
M: Actually I'm from Mars.
M: It's fine if you don't believe me but that's where I'm from. I'm a full-blooded Martian.
P: laughs again
M: Don't worry, there's no plot to take over earth. Just displaced.
P (smiling): O.K. ...
M: I can tell you don't believe me. That's OK. What a big secret. They even tried to hide it from me. That man, my father, told me a story that I was born in a concentration camp, but you know that's impossible. And I never met my mother because she supposedly died there. That's convenient. Next thing I know Morris there finds me in a Swedish orphanage. I was 5, I remember it.
P: That's incredible.
M: Yeah. And then I got this one communication. Simple order. "Stay where you are."
P: Are there others like you?
M: I don't know. I haven't been able to find any.
Michael's experience in the Holocaust, one that, strictly speaking, he never had or remembered but knows of only from stories, mold him into a man not just outside society, but outside. An encounter with Hitler, the comic figure on the receiving end of a snowball in Ginsberg's drawing, propels him not only to the borderlines of the American experience, as with Dick Whitman, but to the outskirts of humanity.
Michael is, then, the new or ancient wanderer, the Jewish voice that will take over the writing and rewriting of "America" upon the falling apart of the Draper-ian mask. The return, in other words, of a heterogeneous and dispersed "America" -- of difference, immigration, race and war.
Coincidentally, that is the America that boils over in the 1950s and 1960s counterculture movement, spearheaded by a self-proclaimed Whitman follower and Michael's namesake – Allan Ginsberg. A link, it should be said, made in the show itself, as Peggy goes over Michal's C.V. asking incredulously: "Allan Ginsberg!?" to which Michael answers: "Hey, he's the most famous Ginsberg there is! We must be related!"
Ginsberg, a poet, who himself spent a few years working for a New York advertising firm, is, along with the image of the beatnik hitchhiker, the Jewish voice -- the minority, dissident cry that has slowly become the very definition of America.
Unlike the Whitman-ian Ishmael, via Dick Whitman, who drapes himself with "Don," Michael is always exposed as a survivor, unable to escape or disguise his otherness. He is, in a sort of historical irony, a Jewish Ishmael, through whom a new American will be written, one in which the Jewish voice is no longer considered as outsider by the white, Christian establishment, but the mainstream and primary force of a minority-led culture.
And thus, taking a step back, we can now speak of "Mad Men" as part of this new America, tracing back its own history, the history of Draper's downfall and the rise of Ginsberg.
Interestingly enough, this notion of a new, nameless force taking over what used to be Draper's America is fleshed out late in the last season of the series, as Peggy, dressed like a sailor, stabs her Jewish boyfriend Abe with a homemade harpoon, blinded by the fear of a violent, and minority-filled outside.
* * *
The parallels I have drawn between "Mad Men" and "Moby-Dick" are not meant to elicit a final reading of the show. Even from a literary standpoint, Melville's novel is far from being the only literary or artistic reference in the show (spy novels, poetry, historical works and so on).
However, they are points of interest, I think, that aid in highlighting a principal element in the show's foundations, which is the link between the vagrancy of the survivor, he who is scarred by the white whale, and the connection between that hobo-existence and the need to cover one's self with art.
However, with "Mad Men" perhaps now at least initially categorized as a new "Moby-Dick," the question should be asked, why is this new Melville resurfacing at this point in time?
One possible answer could be that "Mad Men" serves as the final swan song of what could be termed as a decades-long Jewish cultural influence on American culture – as American Jews cease to fill the role of the American wanderer and survivor and the rise of new kinds of American Ishmaels.