Part of the Mad Men Moments Video Essay Series
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This video is inspired by the famous "Carousel" presentation in the finale of season one of Mad Men. In this scene, Don Draper uses idyllic images of his family to sell Kodak's new slide projector as a "time machine" taking us from one perfect moment of our life to the next. This video re-imagines the scene as a time machine journey through the life of Don Draper, with moments that are anything but picture-perfect. It asks the question that has run through the entire series: "Who Is Don Draper?" and explores the gaping chasm between the man he has been and the man he wishes to be.
The original sequence is embedded below, and is further explored by Tommaso Tocci in the following essay.
The 'carousel scene' was one of the moments that helped define the first season of Mad Men. The series had made a strong first impression on its 2007 debut and had consistently built on that over the course of the twelve episodes before 'The Wheel'. Many of the seasonal arcs had already reached their conclusion in the penultimate episode, 'Nixon vs. Kennedy', leaving this one as a sort of offbeat climax covering emotional grounds.
The season finale finds creative director Don Draper in charge of a pitch to Kodak executives for the marketing of their new projector. The client request is to work the technology angle, emphasizing the automated capabilities of the device.
Except that Don Draper doesn't really trust technology, or even the future. Earlier in the season (ep. 1.2), he dismissed a space-themed campaign because 'some people think of the future and it upsets them'. As much as he doesn’t like thinking of himself - and his agency - as 'traditional' (ep. 1.6), he always goes searching for his ideas in the past, because that’s where the emotions he’s drawn to really are.
'Technology is a glittering lure, but there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product'.
When we met him in the pilot, we took his boyish smile at face value. We could believe his free-spirited nature, his philosophy that what we call love was invented by guys like him - to sell nylons. He lives like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one. It’s only at the end of the episode that we learn how heavily Don had invested on an idealized, prefabricated version of tomorrow (and love). We discover that there's very little we can take at face value in this show. After thirteen episodes spent trying to stabilize this fracture, it's clear that something has gone wrong in the process. By the time he gets to work on the Kodak pitch, Mr. Draper is no longer a happy customer.
The carefully crafted ‘love-doesn’t-exist’ fiction is consistent with the way he approached his first challenge of the series: the creation of a new slogan for Lucky Strike. Claiming that advertising is only based on 'happiness' ('a billboard screaming with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s okay. You are okay' - it’s worth noting that Jon Hamm was instructed to say the line as if he was telling that to himself), in a fit of genius he abandons any thoughts of complexity and just focuses on immediate pleasure: 'It’s toasted'. Don’s discomfort throughout the episode is mirrored by the setting of the scene when he walks into the meeting. He sits alongside Roger in a fully lit, unforgiving room, desperately scrambling for inspiration. He’s just scratching the surface of himself, like a patient on the first session with his therapist.
Thirteen episodes later, with an extremely messier but more acute self-awareness, he owns the Kodak pitch. He's the man behind the curtain, now. He's getting closer to the darkness that's being eating at him while simultaneously distancing himself from it by literally projecting it on the wall. Look how he disappears in the dark background of the room, firmly in charge of the narrative. Confident, composed, assured while he exposes himself. He is a man with a plan, and his plan is so effective because it feeds off everything that’s happened to him in 13 episodes.
Over the course of the season, we’ve seen flashbacks of a forgotten childhood emerge through the cracks of a crumbling conscience. As in a twisted psychoanalytical process, Don refuses to acknowledge his past on a conscious level, but he allows it to re-surface in his work. Indeed, it’s the only place he ever goes to - his secret emotional goldmine.
'A deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It's delicate, but potent'.
The story he tells about his first job, 'in-house at a fur company' with 'this old pro copywriter' Teddy, is a convenient half-truth (we’ll find out only in episode 4.6), just like the Greek etymology of 'nostalgia' that he uses as a gateway for his carousel allegory: 'nostalgia' is not 'the pain from an old wound'; it’s actually the pain caused by the desire to return home. But for Don Draper, the thought of returning home IS an old wound, and a very painful one.
As the plastic of the projector rotates, echoing each of Don’s increasingly assertive statements, we go back and forth between full-frame family pictures and Don’s face. It’s almost shot-reverse-shot. Note how the pictures are kept in motion and in contact with the scene by the cigarette smoke blowing in front of the projector ('Smoke gets in your eyes') and how Don’s dark, austere frame is dynamically countered by the abstract painting in the background.
The first slide with Don and Betty - playfully biting the same hot dog - is a recreation of an actual photo of series-creator Matthew Weiner’s parents on their first date. Beyond the autobiographical detail, this also reinforces the notion of Mad Men as a ‘time machine’ for the people who are now 40-to-50 years old. A way for that generation to come to terms with their parents’ time. This is interesting because every major character can be examined through the lens of its child issues (Don, Betty, who’s always been a child, Peggy, who must fight to no longer be considered one). Mad Men is full of irresolvable controversies and contradictions – simultaneously stigmatizing and fetishizing the customs of the 60s, hating and loving its anti-hero protagonist, believing in his emotions or regarding his whole identity as a ploy, and ultimately being in itself a meta-meta play on the ambivalence of advertising. It's epic turned parody turned irony turned postmodern epic. A rational centrifuge of polar opposites spinning faster and faster until you need a different set of eyes to make sense of it. Reconciling such opposites is the way in which we make peace with our parents, with their world. It’s how we put them to rest. It’s probably the only point of view from which Mad Men can be experienced as a whole - rather than as an eternal duality.
That’s why the carousel scene has made such an impression - it encapsulates not only the themes and storylines of every character in the first season, but also the different layers that the series has taught us to look out for. People ‘buy’ the scene for its straightforward, raw emotional power, or they choose to see it as the ultimate manipulation. It can be a psychoanalytic struggle or an historical rollercoaster. It can be earnest or cynical, cathartic or parodic.
The 'place where we ache to go again' also complements another etymological quirk that appears earlier in the season (1.6), when Rachel explains to Don that ‘Utopia’ means both ‘the good place’ and ‘the place that cannot be’. Another double definition perfectly fitting Don’s search for his past AND the time of Mad Men in its entirety. A magical Babylon. Has it ever really existed? Or did we collectively imagine it? Is it just some good memories of a child mixed with the rational judgment of a man? 'It was good, but it cannot be' would make a great caption for the show’s attitude towards the values and customs it depicts.
Tommaso Tocci is a freelance writer and translator currently based in Italy. Follow him on Twitter.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.