Inside A Scene: Mad Men (Season 1 – The Wheel)

Film Fisher Blog

Inside A Scene: Mad Men (Season 1 – The Wheel)

Over the next several weeks, FilmFisher will be proud to host a collaborative series of “Inside A Scene” essays on the television show Mad Men, covering crucial scenes from each of the show’s seasons. 

The Carousel pitch from the first season finale of AMC’s Mad Men is perhaps the most famous scene in the entire series. It is probably the greatest pitch of the myriad pitches given throughout the series. It acts as a microcosm not only for the concept of the ad, but for the series as a whole, and even art in general. The lure of technology and the deeper, delicate pull of nostalgia are stand ins for a truth that is the same now as it was fifty years ago, and probably since man was created. At its core, the Carousel pitch is about finding yourself through signifiers that make you feel emotions – that define who you were, and continue to define who you are. The concrete signifier is Kodak’s new slideshow product, but it symbolizes the artistic vessels of television, and even of art in general.

This scene being a piece of Mad Men’s first season finale puts it in a prime position: the show’s creators are looking to give the audience a sense of its identity. It makes sense that what they would want to firmly grasp what the show is about – and is going to be about – just as Don needs to figure out what the Kodak wheel (its name at the time) is about. Ultimately, the conclusion he comes to defines his actions (and subsequent disappointment) for the rest of the episode, but it also defines the entire series from this point forward. There are three main themes that the writers of the show follow throughout the entire series: technology versus nostalgia, identity through childhood, and the desire to be loved. Of course, there is so much more one could find and write about, but these three themes seem the most important.

What is meant by technology versus nostalgia? We are introduced to this premise by the men from the Kodak account. “Did you figure out how to work the wheel into it?” a chubby, turtley looking man asks Don. They are worried because the wheel is no longer exciting, as it was “the original” technological achievement. This points to a core truth behind the interest in technology: that while the technological edge is exciting, the actual technology is not. The technological achievement itself is impermanent, lasting only as long as it is new, and then the excitement moves on to the next big thing, but the idea of technological achievement continues to be “a glittering lure.” Don sees this problem, and instead of simply catching the wave of technological hype, he wants to engage it at a level “beyond flash.” He calls it nostalgia, but I am going to generalize and call it emotion, or the ability to move the audience. It is what Don claims the product can do, it is what he does with his pitch (both to his audience in the show and the audience watching from home), and it is what Mad Men, good television, and even art in general do. In this case, technology can be used as a vessel to move the audience, not in space, but in time – through empathy and memory – to feel what was once felt. This is what Mad Men does at its core. Not only is it moving its audience through symbols of experiences that they can relate to because of their past (this relying on the premise that the audience empathizes with the characters and the story being told to engage it on an emotional level), it is also a show that is about the past itself. Being set in the 1960s, Mad Men reflects on a pivotal decade in America, but instead of looking at the events themselves, the show looks through the lens of the lives of its characters to form an idea of what the decade was like. Nostalgia: the pain from an old wound.

Thus we are brought to the second key theme: finding identity through childhood, or more generally through one’s past, but since the formative years are the most influential to identity, that is what Don focuses on, or, you could say, what Mad Men’s creators choose to focus on. The name of the wheel becomes the Carousel, because that is the way “a child travels, around and around and back home again.” It is the return to the familiar – a return to the self. This is what nostalgia – and Mad Men, and art in general – aims to do with the feelings it invokes. Good art, which I would argue Mad Men is a prime example of, seeks not only to draw an emotional response from its audience, but to move the audience to introspection, to point them toward the things in their past that cause the emotional response.

This brings us to the last theme, the desire to be loved. Don states that “the way a child travels” leads back to “a place where we know we are loved.” Thus we find that identity in the past comes from the affirmation of self (in contrast to the Hegelian notion of self: dialectic through mutual negation of others). And this is the trajectory of the entire series. Don is a bastard, he never knew he was loved – certainly not when he was “back home again.” He sells this lie – even believing it himself – but when he goes home at the end of the episode, it is empty. His family is gone for Thanksgiving and he is left alone, a decision he made because he refused to accept his in-laws as his own family. This theme is crucial for the series, as it keeps going to look back at Don’s childhood, and it all eventually catches up to him. The lie about his life destroys his marriage with Betty, and the series ends with him running back towards California (where he came from before he moved to New York) and finally finding happiness through the affirmation of others. Since I do not want to spoil much, and since this is not an essay on the entirety of Mad Men, this is a good point to end on. And if you find yourself going through the series, it is an important theme of which to keep track.

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