Of Madness and Men: Loneliness and the Human Condition

Mad Men is one of my favorite shows ever, but sometimes it seems so Nautralistic. I finally reconcile this contradiction to figure out why the series is a masterpiece--and learn something about the human condition along the way.

“You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts.”
-Don Draper, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

My love of Mad Men has always confused me. The first time I watched the series, I couldn’t get into it. The plodding pace, which was so different from the current frenetic convention in our visual art, bored me. Then, for some reason or another that I don’t remember, I decided to give the show another chance, and as I sat there in my apartment with the lights off, the show finally clicked with me. I loved Peggy Olson. I loathed Peter Campbell. I admired Don Draper. These characters and their conflicts seemed to demonstrate a deep insight on the human condition, but they also seemed to reflect an obsession with the mundane, every day, and trivial.

One of the show’s aesthetic signatures is to let a scene “breath.” What I mean is, scenes have a tendency to start a little early or run a little long to give the viewer a sense of the life that surrounds them. Take, for instance, this phone call between Don and his ex-wife Betty in the series finale:

Notice how the scene is bookended auditorily. It opens with the phone ringing multiple times and Betty coughing as she slowly shambles across the room. It ends with blaring car and train horns from the traffic outside as Don sits on his hotel room bed. The writer could have written the scene, the director could have shot it, and the editor could have cut it any number of ways to minimize this “empty” time. Indeed, many writers, directors, editors, and viewers probably would have done so if they were in charge. And truth be told, though I always appreciated the technique, I never quite understood why I did and secretly feared it revealed a hidden aesthetic contradiction on my part as it seems to smack of Naturalism.

What always drew me back to the exploits of Don Draper though was that I was sure they were Romantic. The dialogue was too well-crafted, the music and art too specifically chosen, the conflicts too essentialized, for it not to be. The strongest evidence for the show’s style may be “The Suitcase,” which is also perhaps its best episode. The story focuses almost entirely on Don and Peggy as they struggle to come up with the right advertising campaign for suitcase manufacturer Samonsite. Their work and personal lives come into conflict as their deadline looms leading to one of the most iconic moments of the series, “That’s what the money is for!” The most revealingly Romantic moment, however, is a less quotable one:

“My Uncle Mac said he had a suitcase that was always packed. He said a man has to be ready to go at any moment. Jesus, maybe it’s a metaphor.”

This moment is deliciously meta–a lantern hung so high that its light is cast over the entire show. Every ad campaign in the sseries and its client was intricately designed to reflect and disrupt the lives and values of the character. In the case of “The Suitcase,” Don and Peggy had to figure out how to sell a product that they didn’t realize they were the embodiment of. Both characters used work to run from their personal lives, always ready to leave their emotional challenges behind in favor of an intellectual one. Sometimes Don would even run from work. The Samonsite campaign ironically forced the duo to address their longstanding coping mechanism.

Alcohol: Even in the 1950s, it didn’t solve problems

These seemingly obvious examples of Romanticism were still not enough to ward off my concerns about the show’s possible Naturalistic approach though, especially when people who share my taste in art couldn’t get past the slow pacing and slice-of-life focus. I was left at an impasse with one of my favorite shows, even as it ended.

Then someone said something to me–something that, believe it or not, has never been said to me before:

“You’re really lonely, aren’t you?”

My mind stopped. My eyes welled up. In one succinct statement the source of my life’s strife was summed up. A few weeks later, after accepting the fact and ruminating over it, I was able to express how revelatory the question was and how I was so accustomed to loneliness that I thought the difficulties I’ve dealt with throughout my life were the human condition. And I’m not the only person who has conceptualized humanity that way.

For almost the entirety of Mad Men‘s run, I thought the show was about how to be happy, about the madness brought about by that quest. But now I know that it’s not. (The real show about the quest to be happy is House M.D.) As part of my brain readjusting and restructuring following my realization, it addressed my open-contradiction regarding Mad Men. (Don’t ask me how exactly. I routinely leave important unanswered questions I have on the “back burner” of my brain to be heated up when I have new, relevant information.) Without forewarning or prompting, it was suddenly clear to me that my understanding of the theme of the series was incorrect, leading me to my mischaracterization of its style. Mad Men isn’t about being driven mad by being unable to attain happiness.

The symbolism is obvious, right?

Mad Men is about what drives men mad–loneliness. Every character is attempting to rid themselves of that feeling of emptiness by whatever means they can. The diversity of their coping mechanisms is what makes the show Romantic. Each embodies a different approach to combat the intense fear of never-ending solitude. Peggy, as I mentioned earlier, throws herself into her work to avoid dealing with the issue. Pete manipulates situations and people so that he can feel important. Roger Sterling makes himself the life of the party so all eyes are on him. Don, as the protagonist of any good work of Romantic fiction does, employs the most extreme methods.

Culturally known as a ladies man, there is much more to Don. He is an alcoholic, workoholic, attention-seeker, and con man. His real name is Dick Whitman, but he was so ashamed of his past and afraid others would dislike him for it that he stole another man’s identity in the Korean War. He’s always looking for the next woman to romance, a habit that caused him to cheat on and divorce both his wives, so he can reject the woman he’s currently with before she rejects him. In advertising, his MO is figuring out how to sell products as comfort objects. Initially, this behavior might seem like a manifestation of self esteem issues, but the psychology here is a bit more complex than simple self-loathing.



Because Don has always been lonely, he accepts the premise that something must be wrong with him to cause others to not want to be around him. That idea is what drives his philosophy of advertising–telling the consumer “you are ok.” Except what he’s really telling them is “you are not alone,” a fact that Don himself doesn’t realize until the series finale. During a confessional seminar at a spiritual (read: hippie) retreat, Don has a break down as he hugs Leonard, the stranger who brought it about. Leonard delivers the following speech:

“I’ve never been interesting to anybody. I, um, I work in an office. People walk right by me, I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down…It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me. Maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying. And you don’t even know what it is. I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling and they’re happy to see you. But maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. And then the door closes again. The light goes off.”
-Leonard, Person to Person

When Leonard says “it’s like no one cares that I’m gone,” he immediately has Don’s undivided attention for the rest of his soliloquy. As he cries, Don stands, walks over to him, hugs him, and cries with him. It is in this moment Don has finally seen the truth of what he really is. In any great piece of Romantic fiction, there is a “key” that shows you how to decode the symbolism of the entire work. This speech is that key in Mad Men. It perfectly captures the “logic” of the human mind trying to cope with prolonged loneliness.

Note how Leonard starts by doubting himself, just as we could assume Don does with himself: “I’ve never been interesting to anybody.” Though it may appear so, this statement isn’t a reflection of a lack of self esteem. It is Leonard’s mind grasping for an explanation as to why he is lonely. As humans, we naturally seek to answer the question of why. That search is the reason so many people fall into the correlation isn’t causality fallacy. In fact, Leonard’s explanation is an example of that fallacy in action.

Who would've thought Mad Men would come down to this guy?

Who would’ve thought Mad Men would come down to this guy?

Leonard is observing two things at once–he is feeling lonely and people are, seemingly, ignoring him. Because the appearance of those things is correlated, he assumes that one caused the other (the ignoring caused the loneliness). However, when he delves deeper into his thoughts he has a realization: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying.” It’s not that people are ignoring him. It’s that his feeling of loneliness caused him to be unable to recognize and reciprocate others’ attempts at connection (or initiate attempts of his own), which of course only reinforces his loneliness. But because Leonard could never identify this cycle, the explanation he conjured was that there was something inherently wrong with him.

Perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with life-long loneliness is that you get used to it. I don’t mean that the emptiness or hurt goes away. Rather, they become a part of your idea of what life is. You assume that loneliness is the human condition–a sick irony that developed with our brilliantly beautiful brains. We can understand the world better than any other creature on the planet, but part of that understanding is the knowledge that, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s impossible to truly connect with another human being because we can’t be in his or her mind.

And we’ve come full circle, returning to the seeming cynicism of Don’s quote from Mad Men‘s first episode that I started with: “You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts.” To Don, human society is designed to evade what he assumes is our shared loneliness. In this light, Don wasn’t actually bitingly critiquing our existence. He was celebrating what we’ve been able to create to comfort ourselves from what he saw as the human condition. In the world of Mad Men, Don Draper is truly a hero; it’s just that the world’s so sad he doesn’t seem so.


See? Hippies would be tolerable bad if they embraced consumerism.

I don’t find the real world to be anywhere near as depressing as Mad Men‘s, so I don’t know what the human condition is anymore. As a writer that’s a scary statement to make. I wouldn’t say I intentionally built my worldview around the idea that we’re all lonely, but it’s hard not to when loneliness is all you know. And that missing piece is my purpose in writing this post. No, I’m not crying out for you to help me figure out my loneliness, practically or theoretically. I’ve got that issue handled, and I’ll get where I need to be. What I’m looking for is my iconic Coke Ad.

Thanks to his realization, Don created the greatest work of his career–the famous “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” advertisement. Bill Backer the real life creative director of the real-life campaign the show utilized to cap its series finale described the campaign’s message, “So [I] began to see the familiar words, ‘Let’s have a Coke,’ as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment. They were actually a subtle way of saying, ‘Let’s keep each other company for a little while.'” Beside proving the genius of Mad Men mastermind Matthew Weiner, Backer’s description drives home what Don believed–what drives us mad is loneliness.

I admire Don and Weiner for their masterworks, but my realization has shown me I know there’s something else out there that defines what it means to be human. And I’m determined to find it and write about it.

Maybe that search is what the human condition truly is.