Footnotes of Mad Men: Full of Demands, Empty of Offerings

by Natasha Vargas-Cooper


Don’s right-about one thing, at least: teenagers are sentimental. The cynicism with which adults rebel comes from the nihilism of doing what you know is bad for you because you’re old enough to understand that these things usually go unpunished. The kind of joyless self-indulgence that adults traffic in doesn’t exist for teenagers. For the young, it’s unfathomable that act of self-indulgence can bring anything but joy. In the twilight of childhood, you’re not sure what’s like to be an adult but you know what it feels like to not be a child. Every brush with adult behavior-anything from smoking, to sneaking out, to driving, to fucking-is wrapped in a gauzy, loving haze. (It’s bittersweet though: as the twilight of childhood dims, there is within the heart of every teenager a dull throb that comes with the mourning of lost innocence.) What’s alarming, then, is when grown-ups act like teenagers: denying themselves nothing, cherishing their transgressions like merit badges, constantly chasing the beginning of something, unable to parse the sensations of joys from despair.

• At the close of season two, we see Don greeting the Pacific Ocean with his arms outstretched. Wading in Southern California’s baptismal waters, it seemed as though Don had found himself. But unlike prior visits, where Don has slinked out of the life he’d constructed on Madison Avenue, this time Don carried visible markings of his inability to conduct his life back home. There’s Don on a California poolside patio, one of the most informal settings in the world… wearing a hat and a tweed jacket. By 1965, this outfit was severely old-fashioned and out-of-date. But it’s not really a fashion faux-pas. It’s Don’s crisis: he’s so hermetically ensconced in his own emotional life and its decadent dramas that he seems to have lost that once-sure grip on the world around him.

• Oh, Betty! We leave her sprawled out on Sally’s stripped bed after getting (at last) reprimanded by her husband for acting out (“There are no fresh starts!”). One of the problems posed by the increased spending power of middle class families in the post war era is that they could now access the services once reserved for the aristocracy-namely, servants! Is Carla a nanny or a cleaning lady? A babysitter? Betty once said she didn’t allow Carla to take the kids to the playground but does allow her to take young Sally to her shrink’s office. Before the economic boom, nannies and maids were worlds apart. The sole responsibilities of nannies was the care of the children-like Marry Poppins! Some were formally trained to be maternal surrogates, while maids kept the house in order. The two were separate and there was a whole Victorian caste system and social mores about dress, expectations and wages to keep the whole thing in place.

In Maud Shaw’s memoir about serving about serving as a nanny to Caroline and John Kennedy Jr., White House Nanny, she wrote, “The seven and a half years I was with her, [Jackie Kennedy] never as much asked me to pick up a pin for her. Even in the White House, she never once asked me to do anything that was not strictly within my province.”

While Betty is from money and had a close relationship with her own nanny, she hasn’t in her married life had the means to have a full-time live-in staff member. What you see transpire between Betty and Carla, with full-time, non-live-in domestic workers occupying the space between homemakers and housekeepers,creates the terrible and volatile dynamic that plays itself out in millions of homes today.

• In this season’s penultimate episode, Don sat across from Midge and asked her, in earnest, why she didn’t ‘just quit’ heroin. Her response later inspired Don to write his full-page-Times-ad tobacco letter. But we know something that Don may not have the wherewithal to recognize. He’s an addict too. When Don doesn’t have booze, and even sometimes when he does, he medicates with women.

In 1965, Life magazine did multi-page photo spread on two New York heroin junkies named John and Karen. Accompanying the shoot was James Mills’ famous account of life in Needle Park (it would later become The Panic in Needle Park, staring Al Pacino).

Mills wrote:

Almost all addicts are childishly immature; full of demands, empty of offerings. When they want something, they it want it yesterday, and they want it effortlessly. Nothing is their fault-the addiction, their degradation, their desperation…. Psychiatrists who have studied them over long periods know that most of them are extremely narcissistic, that their intense preoccupation with heroin is a surface manifestation of a more profound emotional preoccupation with themselves.

In his village apartment, Don’s fiancée sleeps in the crook of his arm. Outside, New York City is beginning to slip into one of its darkest periods. But not to worry. There’s a lovely haunted house in Ossining that just went on the market.

You can always find more footnotes by Natasha Vargas-Cooper right here, or, you know, you can get a whole book of ‘em.