Footnotes of Mad Men: The Delinquent Hero on Hands and Knees

by Natasha Vargas-Cooper


For drama, in the Greek sense, to resonate with the modern viewer it needs have three elements: Acknowledgement of the universe’s benign indifference, recognition of the utter loneliness of human existence and a commitment to something or someone outside oneself even in the face of those two principles.


• The philosophical underpinnings of modern drama stem from the myth of Sisyphus. This is what Albert Camus described as the conflict between what we want from the universe (such as meaning, order, explanation) and what the universe gives us (a big rock that never makes it uphill). The great art produced in the latter half of the 20th century and this last decade embodies this existential stance.

• The exact moment of no spiritual return would have to be the use of the atomic bomb. In 1957, Norman Mailer diagnosed the unfathomable havoc the atomic bomb wreaked on the human psyche:

For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our hair would be saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city; and so if in the midst of civilization-that civilization founded upon the Faustian urge to dominate nature by mastering time, mastering the links of social cause and effect-in the middle of an economic civilization founded upon the confidence that time could indeed be subjected to our will, our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop.

The bleak realities of World War II, the camps, the annihilation of millions, according to Mailer, “presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded anyone who looked into it.” The traditional values and expectations-the guilty are punished, the virtuous are rewarded, the authority of the church and state stand as legitimate-could no longer hold the same guarantee.

• A secular world is a lonely world. Isolation, the absence of wholeness; the longing for some structural integrity to the psyche permeates modern drama. Nietzsche said that once we reject the Christian myth, chaos ensues inside of us: “Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up and down left? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing.”

Science then validated our sense of isolation and insecurity with two words: kinetic theory. The discovery that solid objects were comprised of negative and positive electrons bouncing off one another in a constant state of gyration destroys the assumption that we can trust what we see or touch in front of us, let alone what we feel in our own bloody hearts. This insecurity translates itself, in narrative, into an identity crisis for our heroes, the very essence of himself questioned and unknowable.


• How did you feel when Don wolfishly smirked at his next possible sexual conquest? If you’re like me, it was a twinge of disgust, then a rallying sense that “we got our boy back.” While the afternoon of spooning post anxiety attack seemed delightful, it’s Don’s delinquency that enthralls us. Characters with mass appeal win their audiences not by demonstration of their heroic dimensions but through their display of weaknesses and ambiguities. When we get glimpses of nihilistic, fuck-all instinct in our hero, it’s difficult not to feel twitches of worship. Pauline Kael, in an essay on appeal Dean and Brando called this certain kind of charisma “the glamour of delinquency”:

One thing seems evident: when the delinquent becomes the hero in our films, it is because the image of instinctive rebellion expresses something in many people that they don’t dare express…these kids seem to be the only ones irresponsible enough to act out, not the whole system of authority, morality, and prosperity.

If we know that attempts at individual decency go unrewarded, then it’s up to the delinquent hero to test our limits of how much self-indulgence we can stomach. Kael points out that we’re uneasy about the rebel’s moral indifference. “When he attacks the weak or destroys promiscuously” then we realize what are necessary values. Otherwise it’s all just too grim and disturbing. So we formulate our own ethical schema through their folly, always a bit on edge that we’ll unwittingly beg our hero to go too far. Anyhow, that’s why last night’s episode was so damn good.