TV Club

A grand theory of Mad Men: Dawn, Joan, Harry, and Megan just want to be seen.

Characters fighting invisibility: A grand unified theory of Mad Men.

Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Nikki (Idara Victor).

Jordin Althaus/AMC

Paul, Seth:

Paul, your inspired riff on blank spaces got me thinking: Maybe the struggle for these characters is just not to be invisible. Maybe that’s the struggle for all of us.

You are right that Dawn has too pure a heart for this wicked place, but you have to ask yourself, why does she keep coming back every morning? I think it’s because at SCDP she is seen. As she complains to her girlfriend, in her own world, no one pays attention to her and she can’t get a man because she’s too good and plain. “I can’t stand out in that crowd of harlots,” she says—of church. But once she gets below 72nd street everything changes. The black crowd gets thinner and thinner and suddenly she is noticed. There is power in that difference, even if it’s uncomfortable. Something similar is operating with Joan: She may be wearing a scarlet letter, but will never be invisible again.

Harry Crane, on the other hand, is just another charisma-free guy who happened to land at the right department at the right time. So he has to get his attention by clumsy force, and when it comes, it’s an envelope of cash to buy him off. And yes, Seth, you are allowed to admire him. I depend on you always to stand up for the hapless and cruelly misunderstood.

In his wonderful novel Mr. Peanut, Adam Ross makes this point about marriage: Over time, husbands and wives become invisible to each other. One wife in the novel refuses to get out of bed, just because she wants her husband to see her. Something like that seems to be happening with Don and Megan. He is receding into the blank space, lurking behind doors, even subsuming himself into his mistresses, as Margaret Lyons argues. Meanwhile, Megan is becoming threateningly vibrant and independent. When he comes home from work she doesn’t zero in on him like she used to; she creates a little coq au vin kitchen theater of romance, a late-‘60s version of “date night,” which he sees right through.

One thing we haven’t discussed much is how politics seeps into the work culture. Each man’s position on the war seems to perfectly reflect his character. Ken’s anti-war sentiments are petty and personal, driven entirely by his hatred of his father-in-law. Michael’s views stem from jealousy; he complains that “Project K” must be a military account because “Stan has no conscience.” Harry’s are cheerful and commercial, as he plans a variety show for Dow Chemical starring Joe Namath in a straw hat. And Don’s are judicious and psychological, as he instructs the writer on Megan’s show that people don’t want to hear political satire on a wholesome TV show. I don’t expect any flag burning at SCDP, but since this era marks the beginning of our obsession with subliminal messages, I would love to see something subversive emerge from Stan’s tinfoil lair.

OK boys, gotta go, I think I see a friend.