Mad Men won 2010 Emmy Awards for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. The show is about the world of advertising; a world of illusion, sleight of hand and outright deception. It is a quintessential Power of Truth story and is anchored by a wonderful Power of Truth protagonist, Don Draper/Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm). Surface laughter, glamour and the sophisticated tinkle of ice in a cut-glass tumbler of scotch obscures the dark and tangled subterranean underpinnings of both the man and the profession.
The show follows Don, a man with a shadowy past who stole another soldier’s identity at the end of the Korean War. He is an ad man, a slick master of mis-direction in an industry that thrives on selling half-truths and the manipulation of perceptions: “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” He is adept at deception (and self-deception), twisting words and images to suit clients’ sales pitches. This is especially true with main client Lucky Strikes. He and his client both know the product is poisonous but Don finds a way to make it attractive: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.” Don, himself, is anything but OK.
He has trouble coming to terms with the truth about himself, his failed marriage and even one of his target markets: ”What if women want something else? Inside. Some mystery wish that we’re ignoring?” He is acutely aware that more lies beneath the surface of things than he understands or is willing to inspect. When the new firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce brings in a female psychologist and focus group expert, Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), to help determine what exactly women want, Don is hostile. He refuses to participate in her work or answer any of her survey questions. He rejects her notion that people’s childhoods are a predictor of who they are and what will influence or inspire them. Dr. Faye defends her research and says she can’t change the truth: “That Glo-Coat ad came from someone’s childhood.” Don cannot afford the truth. His entire life is based on the desire to make something true that isn’t, and vice versa.
In addition to issues of perception, illusion and deception, Power of Truth stories are also about issues of loyalty and betrayal. They ask: What exactly is loyalty? What is betrayal? How do we betray ourselves? How do we betray others? Can you be loyal to someone and betray them at the same time? When should you let go of old loyalties and move on? How is the ground shifting beneath you? Who or what can you trust? When does loyalty look like betrayal? When does betrayal look like loyalty?
These themes are especially relevant to Don’s evolving relationship with Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss). Their relationship is quite similar to one in another Power of Truth story, Million Dollar Baby. Frank Dunn (Clint Eastwood) and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) also have a powerful mentor/protege bond. Frank is a Power of Truth protagonist who is hiding from his past as well. His parish priest observes: “Frank, I’ve seen you at Mass almost every day for 23 years. The only person comes to church that much is the kind who can’t forgive himself for something.”
Initially, both Frank and Don are skeptical about a woman being able to “do the job” no matter how hard she works. But both grudgingly admire the tenacity and raw talent they see in their young protege. They want to toughen her up but yet somehow protect her. They berate her and insult her but genuinely care for her. Neither man is able to show affection that doesn’t also include harsh words (or hard truths). Their relationships have a Father/Daughter dynamic that is profoundly meaningful to them both. In making Peggy into a brilliant advertising executive Don could almost be following the advice of Eddie Scrap-Iron Durpis (Morgan Freeman) as he describes Frank’s coaching techniques:
Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris: “To make a fighter you gotta strip them down to bare wood: you can’t just tell ’em to forget everything they know, you gotta make ’em forget even in their bones… make ’em so tired they only listen to you, only hear your voice, only do what you say and nothing else… show ’em how to keep their balance and take it away from the other guy… how to generate momentum off their right toe and how to flex your knees when you fire a jab… how to fight backin’ up so that the other guy doesn’t want to come after you. Then you gotta show ’em all over again. Over and over and over… till they think they’re born that way.”
The technique works on Peggy, who says to Don after a particularly rough exchange: “You know something. We are all here because of you. All we want to do is please you.” Those words are truest of her. Peggy only really hears (or cares about) Don’s voice. But Peggy is no push-over and that is what will make her great in her own right someday. Eddie describes that quality: “All fighters are pig-headed some way or another: some part of them always thinks they know better than you about something. Truth is: even if they’re wrong, even if that one thing is going to be the ruin of them, if you can beat that last bit out of them… they ain’t fighters at all.”
Peggy has her own stubborn streak and sense of independence and fairness. She confronts Don over her lack of credit on the Glo-Coat ad, talks back to him, refuses to get him coffee and is the only one who seems able to see and accept him for who he is. She is the only one Don trusts enough to share bits of his past.
Peggy would rather be at work with Don than doing anything else. His world is the only world that truly interests her. It is the only thing she really wants: “I know what I’m supposed to want but it never feels right or as important as what happens in this office.” Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) says basically the same thing to Frank Dunn: “Problem is, this the only thing I ever felt good doing. If I’m too old for this, then I got nothing. That enough truth to suit you?”
Here is a wonderful montage of clips that clearly delineate Power of Conscience character Peggy Olson. Notice how many times the issues for her are fairness (or unfairness) (“I don’t know if you read in the paper, but they passed a law that women who do the same work as men get paid the same thing. Equal pay.”); integrity (“Pete, just tell the truth. Don’t worry about the outcome. People respect that.”); propriety (“I’m from Bayridge, we have manners”); judgement (“I know what people think of you. That you’re looking for a husband and you’re fun. And not in that order.”)
Peggy is a good girl who sometimes does bad things. She is definitely the moral compass of the show. She even goes so far as to confront Don and demand that he hire the smarmy kid whose tag line Don drunkenly misappropriated for a Life Cereal campaign.
Hillary Swank is a Power of Idealism character. She is much more passionate than Peggy and much more willing to bet everything on a single glorious moment. Peggy is more grounded and controlled even when she is acting out or being rebellious. When she strips to call a lazy unctuous creative director’s bluff, it is about doing the work (and her work ethic) not being seductive. Her sense of morality may be the one thing that Don can’t beat out of her. Even if it is the ruin of her it is also what will make her great.