Mad Men — An Existential Antidote (or, In Defense of Betty)

“Freedom does not mean whim….feeling is free when it does not depend on any outside command, when it is lived in sincerity without fear…”

It’s a rare and remarkable thing when you fall into a story that almost eerily seems meant for you, the way you are right then, in that very moment of consumption. I’m talking about seeing Frances Ha (2013) in the middle of months of doubt over what always seem to be failing friendships, or hearing “Heaven” by the Talking Heads in an instant of drunken bliss, wondering if you’ll ever have as much fun as you are then, doing absolutely nothing. The pieces that come to us in such unconscious moments of need are, more often than not, the ones that become our favorites: the books, songs, and movies that we depend upon for the sake of our own ever-changing definitions of ourselves and others.

Mad Men (2007–2015) came to me at such a moment, though it had been a long time coming. One month into college, I ended my toxic three-year high school relationship, then promptly embarked on a journey through a perpetual string of much shorter, unofficial, yet somehow equally agonizing relationships with men who (I imagine) were as unconsciously drawn to my unending sadness as I was to their many lovely dysfunctions. I studied abroad in the fall of my junior year to escape the latest heartbreak — my most agonizing yet — and avoid returning to the school where most of my closest friends, all graduated seniors, would no longer be waiting for me. I spent four months in England and heard “Heaven” for the first time, and as much as I desperately wanted to remain surrounded by strangers who made me feel adventurous and interesting, I came home in December filled with detached anxiety and dread thinking of my imminent return to school — and this was the moment I started watching Mad Men.

A few episodes deep, I couldn’t believe I’d never bothered even looking into the series before. The 1960s setting fueled my fetish for a decade I will never experience but always believed I should have, and reinforced my firm conviction that I simply did not belong in the time and place in which I had landed. More than this, though, I was endlessly struck by the measured and sprawling approach to the complex cast of character narratives. Each episode of Mad Men reads like a visual short story — a narrative that must be taken in one sitting, in which no word or action is unimportant (contrary to opinions of the series’ detractors, who frequently complain of slow pacing and melodramatic fluff plots). In just the right kind of low, distant mindset ideal for receiving something quietly life-changing, I began to look at the show through the only philosophical lens I knew anything about, and the perfect existential precision of each character’s struggle become more focused and remarkable with each installment.

The evidence of creator Matthew Weiner’s deep existential awareness is clear, and in absolute abundance, playing out in the issues of inheritance which plague the obnoxious yet pitiful Pete Campbell; in the abyss of death looming over ever-playful and insecure Roger Sterling; in Don Draper’s unwavering resolve to make himself a new man and redefine his life; in the struggle to determine the meaning and value of one’s own name, which all three of the show’s leading mad men confront. Unsurprisingly, for a series mainly focused on uncovering the psychological damage white men inflict upon themselves (and, consequentially, most everyone else), these particular existential struggles all come from positions of great privilege, especially when compared to those faced by the real heroes — that is to say, the heroines.

As we learn in our observations of three very different women — Peggy Olsen, Betty Draper/Francis, and Joan Holloway/Harris (along with the various other equally interesting women who drift in and out of these characters’ lives), the burden of existential awareness is a universally human struggle — but it is not equally distributed to every human. Women’s “lot” in life, as writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir attests to in her pioneering book The Second Sex (1949), is to bear all the weight of existence men must bear in addition to one crucial difference: the ability to bear children. What men rarely seem to realize (at least in the era of Mad Men) is that this physical ability — the literal responsibility of continuing the human race — also brings the uniquely female experiences of menstruation, pregnancy, and birth; the roles of daughter, mother, and wife; and the possibility of choosing abortion and divorce at risk of losing the respect of the society around her. In this way, the fundamental human experiences of men and women are hardly even comparable, and although Mad Men has been criticized for largely excluding characters of depth who are not white, heterosexual men and women, the show might be seen as an oblique tribute to those beyond its focused binary demographic — for if these are the internal troubles of the most privileged people on earth, can those in similar positions even imagine the struggles faced by people outside these margins?

Of course, I was not yet thinking about the show in this way on my first viewing. Unsurprisingly, as a white woman with routine sadness yet few real reasons to complain, Betty was the character who struck me most. Though I didn’t stop to consider why exactly I liked her so much for quite a few episodes, it was the simple act of asking myself the question that began to shed light on what I realized was my — the dreaded word — I hate to say it — depression. Like Betty, I had been vaguely aware of my sadness as a recurring (if not enduring) quality of my nature, but was slow and reluctant to see it as something worthy of attention. Her struggle to connect with the adults around her paralleled the disconnect I felt from my own peers, which seemed to grow only more severe as time and college went on. She was a perfect embodiment of bad faith, the existential term for a lie to oneself, evidenced by one’s denial of possibilities beyond the plain and simple facts of one’s identity. Betty lived in, as Beauvoir wrote of the 1940s housewife, total immanence, denying herself the ability to transcend this role and become anything more than the life in front of her had to offer. What did this say about me? Highly aware of the internet’s view of Betty as childish, moody, boring, and (worst of all) annoying, my reaction to the series wavered between being deeply comforted by seeing a character I so strongly related to, and even more deeply discomforted at the notion that my peers saw me the way the general public seemed to see her.

Although this is the biggest difference between me and Betty — while she desperately tries to continue living in blissful ignorance about her unhappiness, I live in a state of social paranoia and high-resolution self-consciousness — upon further examination of her connection to The Second Sex, I found that Beauvoir’s perfect articulation of the midcentury woman’s mind and attitude toward men was often an equally (even shockingly) accurate representation of my own feelings toward…well, at the time, nearly everyone: “When confronting man, woman is always onstage; she lies when pretending to accept herself as the inessential other, she lies when she presents to him an imaginary personage through impersonations, clothes, and catchphrases….When with other women, the wife is backstage” (Beauvoir, 556). For one in a constant state of the typical cynicism and dismay that surely overcomes everyone at some point in their early twenties, the discovery of a text — nay, two texts! — that seem to speak for you can be somewhat stunning. Whatever embarrassment had existed for my likeness to Mad Men’s melancholy housewife slipped further away with each eloquent explanation The Second Sex had to offer me.

My fascination with Betty and Beauvoir grew in equal measure. Beauvoir, one of the overlooked founders of the existential philosophy, is still frequently buried beneath the reputation of her lifelong partner, Jean-Paul Sartre (despite the fact that her seminal work was published nearly a decade prior to his definitive 1956 text, Being and Nothingness). Though Sartre asked her to marry him many times, the pair maintained an open relationship for most of their lives, and never lived together. The combined influence of a woman like Beauvoir and a woman like Betty, and knowing that one understood the other so well, illuminated the inherent contradictions I began to see and accept in everyone, myself included. Although, admittedly, my immersion in Betty’s universe did coincide with a period of despair and sometimes debilitating depression — as I ignored obligations in order to lie in bed and look at the ceiling, withdrew from those around me in favor of fictional characters’ company, dragged myself to class only to walk out and cry on the sidewalk for its duration — I do not associate Mad Men with my fall into the rabbit hole but, instead, the climb back out.

Existentialism, which I credit the show for teaching me more than any class or text, is not a “gloomy view of things,” exclusively obsessed with annihilation and meaninglessness; on the contrary, as Sartre argues in his 1946 essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” the philosophy is an unshakably positive one, offering a view of one’s individual life and world which is completely in her hands. It is a blank slate but it is not empty; the world is free and open to become as meaningful or meaningless as she chooses to make it, to become defined as she would define it. This is not to say that existentialists do not fixate on the anxiety, dread, and hopelessness that plague us all at some point, for it is undeniably difficult and even impossible at times to observe the apparent falsity of those around us and not wonder why we must carry on as if death weren’t inevitable, as if we aren’t capable of evil, as if anything we do will ever matter to the obscure forces of the universe. This is all true, and these are the facts that can keep existential thinkers in the state of angst which they are so often reduced to by others or in popular culture — but if one can accept these realities, not as grim or hopeless, but as simple truth, the rest becomes much easier to bear.

“No doctrine is more optimistic,” Sartre goes so far as to claim in his defense of the philosophy, for “the destiny of man is placed within himself.” Once you try to abandon the feeling that you are, like many characters on Mad Men feel, “the plaything of obscure forces” (Beauvoir 538), passively accepting the fate that seems to be in the hands of others, and rather, start to see your own behaviors as you, an individual, making active decisions in an effort to create the person you would like to be and the life you would value as meaningful, the situation of your world may suddenly seem far less troubling than it did before. When your head is firmly grasped by a cloud of depression or anxiety, whatever it may be that disturbs your well-being to the point of dysfunction, it isn’t difficult to allow pessimism and despair to hide the infinity of possibilities that we are capable of with our minds and our bodies.

It is a physical sense of freedom that existentialism and Mad Men has instilled in me, as we see every character discover by the end of the series: Pete realizes that he won’t let his name or anything else influence his actions, and decides to create the picture-perfect life with Trudy and Tammy that he may not deserve, but discovers he is fully capable of making; when Joan feels unable to continue in the job where fate has placed her, she decides to create the business she wants to be part of instead. And though you may not feel like every decision necessarily moves you forward, they are active and valid decisions nonetheless, for the choice to stand still is still a choice in itself; though Peggy is offered the chance to be her own boss and have her name on the door, she chooses to remain at McCann in order to further her career in the long run while staying close to Stan; though Roger has tried to deny the looming threat of old age by pursuing much younger partners in the past, he chooses to finally settle with someone on his same page, who will move at the same pace; and Betty — oh, Betty. Who on the show is a better model for existential optimism than she? Though as much a little girl as Sally is a young woman, Betty faces the abyss head-on, and chooses to go on with her life and her studies in spite of the end’s imminent onset, smoking cigarettes all the while.

It sounds melodramatic, but — in the spirit of Mad Men — I’ll say that my head is no longer firmly grasped by a cloud. This is not to say it may never again be fully caught in that heavy net of nothing, but now I hold the cloud at arm’s length, and although there are times when it becomes too draining to keep it away and sometimes I allow it, even for a minute, to drift overhead, I know that it is within me to push it back. Even seeing it from the corner of my eye is far better than allowing myself to fully fall beneath it. While there are undoubtedly still some ancient moments, conversations, and relationships that I continue to turn over in my mind, what I once thought were failures I can now see are just ellipses, dashes that both separate and string together the fragments of myself. I try to no longer be dismayed looking at those around me who I see as acting “fake,” exhibiting the bad faith embodied by Betty in her quest to convince herself and others that she is the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the ideal woman; nor am I disgusted with my own fakeness anymore. Of course we all want the same thing — “the real thing,” to quote the final words of the series — and it’s silly to think both that perfect authenticity is achievable, and that we aren’t all striving for something just like it. Bad faith is only bad when you continue to lie about lying to yourself, but when you realize that this “fakeness” is the only universal way we could possibly all get along, it becomes far easier to forgive, in yourself and everyone else — because, really, everyone’s reality is much too harsh for us to face every day, and one can still be genuine in the “fake” and mundane small talk which fills so many of our seemingly meaningless moments.

Mad Men has convinced me that the cynicism which drives us to believe we know more than anyone else, that no one can possibly understand what we think and how we feel, is as close to innocent sincerity as love is to hatred. It is the same feeling, the same awareness of ourselves and others flickering back and forth between two attitudes; between isolation and inclusion, skepticism and trust. (I think this is why others seem to view me as alternately sharp and sarcastic, or childish and naïve…but I also try not to think about that as much.) “Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves, and everybody else can see it right away” is one of Mad Men’s defining lines, and one which beautifully articulates the situation we are all in together and one desire we all share, even if it hasn’t occurred to us in so many words: to know ourselves as well as everyone else seems to. When Betty goes back to school to get her Master’s in Psychology, the existential intention of the series comes full circle as its least self-aware character finally embarks on that mission to start to see clearly — to see herself for the first time not for others, but for herself — leaving the rest of us here in the real world to stretch our real limbs, feel the space we take up, take another tiny step into the life we imagine and try to make it the real thing.