I just finished the third season of Mad Men—my new favorite TV series. The last time I watched this much TV-on-DVD was when I purchased the full box set of Twin Peaks. Mad Men is not only visually stunning and addictive in every way a top-notch drama should be, it also speaks to a fundamental theme in America—something so all-encompassing that it may be the single most powerful concept in American history.
The series centers on the character of Don Draper, the enigmatic, abrasive, yet oddly likable ad man. Draper’s past is told through a serious of flashbacks, and the viewer eventually discovers that Don Draper adopted someone else’s identity to escape a difficult past of poverty and war. He runs from his family ties and former life to establish a successful career in advertising, supporting an affluent suburban lifestyle characteristic of the American dream. Yet his past comes back to haunt him, and he watches powerlessly as his domestic life dissolves.
While on one level I enjoy Mad Men for pure entertainment value, I also connect with Don Draper’s story. While I didn’t adopt a new identity, I did move from California to New York City in the wake of a personal tragedy, in hopes of starting over, so to speak. I, too, have had relative success so far, but my past is always there with me. It was through this personal connection with the series that I uncovered the quintessential American theme of starting over, of reinventing yourself.
As a student of American history, I am well versed in many atrocities that have occurred throughout our collective past—from slavery to the plight of the American Indians, bloody foreign interventions to indirect support of brutal regimes. Learning about all of this in detail is such a harrowing experience that it drives one to look for what, is anything, is redeeming about America. I believe that it boils down to this: everyone is allowed a second chance. When you look at the narrative that built the country—men and women fleeing from religious persecution—you see individuals running from something, eager to start over. The subsequent waves of immigration were inspired by the very same idea. Even within our borders, Americans for two centuries flocked to the West, the geographic representation of new beginnings and endless promise.
Really what I’m getting at here is the American dream. I speak from my own experience, but I believe my generation has grown up with the failure of the American dream all around us, surrounded by wars, debt, and decaying culture. It’s true that the American dream is really something of a nightmare, but that doesn’t take away from its power to inspire. It’s really a life-giving theme, one that I believe will continue to inspire until the country or the earth dies, whichever comes first. There will always be people who move from a war-torn country and build a comfortable life for their family; who come up from poverty to make millions, only to help oppress those who are poor; who drop all their obligations as fathers and mothers and head to Alaska. It’s not whether it’s good or bad—it’s thats it’s always a possibility.
So that’s why I like Mad Men. It hits on the essential theme of American life—beginning again in the pursuit of a dream, even if you’re still haunted by the past, or the dream turns out to be a nightmare.