Commercial Break #1: Everything you wanted to know about Lacan, but were afraid to ask Mad Men

Sometimes I stop listening to music and checking online for remixes and I watch TV. Actually, scratch that. I watch TV often. So much so that I used to write about TV a whole lot. I’ve since stopped, but my immense frustration with Mad Men has led me to think that I might as well toss a few ideas out on this here blog. Consider it a commercial break from what normally appears here.

Last night was the finale of the fourth season. I’ve spent most of today (when not teaching, of course) reading and thinking about the darned episode. I was tremendously annoyed with the decisions on the part of main character Don Draper, but that’s relatively normal. I think the show displays, over and over, poor, amoral decision making on the part of Don, but oftentimes the viewing public simply ignores it in the face of the admittedly ridiculous good looks of actor Jon Hamm.

The show is incredibly smug in its portrayal of the gender, race, and sexual politics of the 1960s, always presenting itself as a mirror of the time, commenting by virtue of representing the era during which it is set. Where gender is concerned, through this lens, it becomes possible to see Don’s attraction towards his secretary Megan (as played by hometown favourite Jessica Pare) and away from PhD-holding Faye as a product of the times, but I think that the show has pushed it further than this. As Jill Anderson (@jillian6475) tweeted a couple of weeks back: “Can’t pretend it’s a show abt How Bad Off Women Had It with a tormented bad-boy predator as central character.”

I was therefore pleased and edified to read the following from NYT’s Ginia Bellafonte:


Whether it intended to or not, the show hasn’t merely commented on the reactionary gender politics of the 1960s and ’70s; it has also embraced them, exacting vengeance on Faye for her lack of maternal instinct and visiting cruelties on Betty for her horrific one. Faye doesn’t get the man in the end, and Betty has become an object of disgust to her new husband, who is furious at her for irrationally firing her long-term nanny when it will cause such disruption in her children’s lives.

Women live and die by their value as mothers, the series tells us. The season finale reiterated how hollow corporate victories are for them: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s superefficient (and now pregnant) office manager, Joan Harris, is promoted but gets no raise. Despite her successes as a copywriter, Peggy realizes that she is, in the eyes of the world, merely a single girl lacking a man. The days of Jill Clayburgh’s self-acceptance as “An Unmarried Woman” are a long way off.


Bellafante’s article was titled “Freud on Madison Avenue, Where Biology Appears as Destiny”, and I think she’s right, though I think it might be even better to analyze the show according to Jacques Lacan. The Awl and NY Mag’s Vulture did so a couple months ago, and I think it might be good to return to every English lit student’s favourite complicated French theorist. After all, we’ve got a main character named Draper. Hiding his quite literal lack of identity, he spends his life constructing himself as the advertisement for the person he wants to be. From his failed attempt to create a marriage and a family with Betty, to his serial philandering, to his relationship with Faye, to his marriage proposal to Megan–each step along the way has been an attempt to fill this void. “Without you I’ll be alone forever,” he writes to Betty in the season two finale. Think of this in the context of Lacan (here explained by my favourite Professor, Garry Leonard in Advertising and Commodity Culture in James Joyce):

“As Lacan would have it, language, symbols, and objects are all replacements for a permanent ‘lack-in-being’ that can be temporarily assuaged, but never eradicated. The object of our desire, he asserts, can never be what we want, but only that which causes us to want. Built into the sense of satisfaction and completeness that the object or message gives us is an inevitable dissapointment causing us to want again; this paradox of human desire makes a commodity culture both possible and profitable.”

We all are looking for meaning, and Don Draper is quite a heavy symbol of this quest–we relate to him because we, too, want to find happiness, to be validated and appreciated, to be fulfilled. Thing is, without getting to much into Lacan and lack, as Leonard writes above, what it is that people desire is to be fulfilled, not to possess that which we think will get us fulfillment, but that’s all we have. In another way, Don wants to feel like a whole person, but he mistakenly thinks he wants Megan. Just like all the other women in his wake, Megan suggests completeness, but will, of course, lead to “inevitable dissapointment causing him to want again”.

Don’s job is to create these illusions, making money out of the paradox of human desire, but his character is never self-reflexive (or possibly to afraid to be self-reflexive) enough to see this. He’s stuck in the same cycle–and it’s not even a unique cycle. Take one look at Roger Sterling and his similar brunette trophy secretary-cum-wife acting as foil to Megan and Don for the past few episodes.

This makes Don no better or worse than Betty, who is demonized for acting out the very same process. Her desire is to find fulfillment, but she is kept in the very same cycle…unable to recognize the futility of her actions.

What both Don and Betty return to is a childlike state–here also reflecting Lacan’s notion of the “mirror stage” in which children first begin to recognize themselves as individuals, and, perhaps most useful in this case, alone in the world. Don’s wistful comment to the American Cancer Society that teenagers are not yet “aware that they are going to die” can be viewed as representative of his desire to return to a time before his own awareness. There is a sense of innocence in childhood and, like Don, so too does Betty (whose childlike nature has been pinpointed as problematic by many), who fully wishes to “clean the slate” and ends up lying on her daughter’s bed in the dark, wishing that it would, in fact be possible to do so.

But Betty’s husband is there to tell her that there are no clean slates. Once the mirror stage is passed, you can’t go back. Thing is, Don has no one to tell him the same. The man whose brilliance is in creating ads that attract repeat customers through a understanding of the way in which desire functions cannot recognize the emptiness of his creations–it is his belief in the power of advertising that leads him to be like James Joyce’s boy in the Araby bazaar, constantly looking for the ideal product. Joyce’s boy, of course, has an epiphany. As the bazaar closes, the boy is thwarted in his efforts and looks down at the money in his hands: “I saw myself as a creature derided by vanity,” he writes, “And my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” The boy realizes the futility of trying to ever satiate his desire through purchase–the thought that it would be possible stems from his vanity.

Whereas women, however, like Betty and Peggy and Faye and, most likely, Megan, all are forced to come to this conclusion (often as a result of Don’s decision making), Don remains a creature of vanity and the show continues…the bazaar will not close for him. Mad Men does not, however, ever suggest that for men this search is futile, so Don is left to continue his constant searching, fuelled by desire that is deferred and deferred and deferred.


4 thoughts on “Commercial Break #1: Everything you wanted to know about Lacan, but were afraid to ask Mad Men

  1. Pingback: » Commercial Break #1: Everything you wanted to know about Lacan, but were afraid to ask Mad Men

  2. Oh, Dr. MacLeod, I love this post. If you have no objections, I will be quitting my job and moving to Montréal where I can become your full-time student. All I want is to be half as smart as you. Then I’d be golden.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Commercial Break #1: Everything you wanted to know about Lacan, but were afraid to ask Mad Men « Soundclash --

  4. What a beautiful post.

    I used to write blog entries about TV shows, too, until I found blogs and articles by people like you, who do it better than I could ever aspire. Now, I am content to read masterful words such as the ones you’ve strung together to make this piece.

    Thank you.

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