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We Are the Hollow Men: Mad Men and the Flatness of Representation

1In a recent article about Mad Men published in The New York Review of Books Daniel Mendelsohn settles the score with the show’s writers and creators.2 Startled by the unanimous global praise of the show, and horrified by what he sees as an uncritical mass following (exemplified not only by the audience ratings, but also by the commercial success of Mad Men-inspired commodities), he sets out to solve the mystery of the show’s popularity.3

Mendelsohn’s opinion about  the show is best summed by this dense and jarring quote, which sets up the scene for the reviewers’ interpretation of the popularity of the show: “The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.” Since Mad Men, according to Mendelsohn, doesn’t fulfill any  standards of a good TV show, standards, he as a critic is qualified to assess, there must be some other reason for its popularity. Mendelsohn thus sets out to explain the Mad Men “craze” and “fad” (the choice of words already an indication of the author’s attitude towards the show), treating this cultural phenomenon as a riddle to be solved. Placing himself in the position of a psychoanalyst, digging deep into the unconscious of American culture and its representations, the NYRB reviewer locates the irrational desires and phantasies about the show in perhaps the most obvious regions of the country’s collective unconscious – childhood nostalgia. For Mendelsohn the world of Mad Men – “curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing” – is a world viewed through a child’s eye.

Seen through the lens of visual culture, however, Mendelsohn’s “pediatrization” of the world of Mad Men appears extremely precarious. By building his psychoanalytesque thesis solely upon Mad Men creator and producer, Matthew Weiner’s, childhood memories, Mendelsohn all but ignores the question of how one gains access to a child’s vantage point or, for that matter, how such a perspective might be translated into a visual image. Mendelsohn’s psychoanalytic mode is accompanied by a decidedly bravado embodiment of Adornian cultural critique, as he scolds the show for depending upon tropes of daytime television, with its emphasis on topics such as “adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancy, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction.” In Mendelsohn’s account, Mad Men is thus conveyed through two figures, both of which position the show in a cultural underbelly: as an unconscious childhood fantasy and (far more offensively) as a gaudy and licentious female impostor in the “golden age of television.”4

I am not bringing up Mendelsohn’s review in order to defend the show as a work of high art, as I think that the framework of value employed by the author is already based on a predetermined set of ideas of what a work of “higher cultural resonance” might represent. Instead I would like to treat Mendelsohn’s review as exemplary of anxieties, evoked by texts, which are simultaneously a part of the dominant model of culture and yet constantly point us toward its essential lack and the impossibilities of representing. In Mendelsohn’s article, the relationship between the viewers and the show is imagined as straightforward identification, making the reviewer wonder “just what in the world of the show do we want to possess?”. By assuming that the practice of watching television inevitably motivates a desire to possess a part of the presented image – “the clothes and furniture,” “the wicked behavior,” “the unpunished crassness” – one fails to acknowledge the extent to which the viewer may not be the only one wanting something. Mad Men might want something from us too. The goal of this article is to establish what it wants and how it both fails and succeeds in getting it.

One possible strategy for analyzing a cultural text, especially one as complex in its temporality as a TV show, is approaching it from an atypical point of entry – a crack on the surface, a trembling of the image, an untypical framing, a structural “mistake.” These breaches, accidental or purposeful, may provide a critical vantage point through which one can analyze the show. Such uncanny occurrences might turn out to be the structural condition for the text’s existence: an exception that proves the rule.

The Summer Man, the eighth episode of the fourth season of Mad Men, begins with a a sequence of images surprising for the attentive viewer.  We watch as a solitary Don Draper engages in a leisure activity, as an off-screen voice-over is introduced. In the first scene of the episode, Don Draper stands at the edge of an indoor swimming pool, preparing to dive. As he jumps in and starts swimming, we hear Draper say: “They say as soon as you have to cut down on your drinking, you have a drinking problem.”5 The scene cuts to a close-up of Don’s hand beginning a journal entry in a fresh notebook. The narration continues: “My mind is a jumble, I can’t organize my thoughts and typing feels like work.”6 The image of Don writing neatly rhymes with his voice.  Here, the two forms of communication are united in one linear mode of self-expression. After a few more sentences the viewer is transferred back to the swimming pool, where Don leans against the edge of the pool, trying to control his smoker’s cough, that slowly shakes and overcomes his body.  The next frame shows Don – his imperfect body covered only by a towel – hunched over on a changing bench. The 1965 Rolling Stones hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” plays in the background, as if coming from a portable radio. By the time we see Don standing outside of the New York City Athletic Club, the song blasts at full volume, becoming a part of the soundtrack (Fig. 1). The music continues as the sequence cuts back and forth from shots of Draper to images of people passing by on the street – two sailors, a hip African American couple – until his gaze finally locks on two attractive girls in summer dresses. Just as we expect a counter-shot to bring their backsides into view, we are instead presented with a shot of Don’s crotch as he strides down the hallway of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office.

Fig. 1

The playful Satisfaction scene is a throwback to the familiar portrayal of Draper – the source of the gaze, the active looker, the self-contained and non-self-counscious narrative agent. As the episode progresses, however, the unconventional, reflexive Don returns; we see him writing in his diary again, his thoughts conveyed to us through voice-over. Don expresses his concerns about the Vietnam War; he worries that he was not invited to his son’s birthday; he names and lists his desires (climbing Kilimanjaro, going to Africa, gaining control over the way he feels). The proceeding voiceover sequence appears almost half way through the episode and is therefore no surprise to the viewer who is familiar with the rhythm of Don’s narration in this episode. “She’s a sweet girl,” we hear Don saying as Bethany, an on and off girlfriend, goes down on him in a taxi cab. “And she wants me to know her, but I already do,” he continues as the shot changes to Don sitting at the table and writing his diary at night. “To be continued,” says Bethany as she steps out of the car. “I bet she was thinking of that line all night,” says Don, making the viewer retroactively view this scene as an illustration of Don’s journal.7 The final voiceover comes at the end of the episode, and accompanies the images of Don writing in his journal interwoven with scenes depicting his day. We see him picking up belongings from his old house (where his ex-wife now lives with her new husband) throwing the boxes in the dumpster outside his apartment building, and afterward pouring himself a drink. In the accompanying voiceover, Don tells us the story of a man, who “forgot where he was going and then woke up, (…) who dreamt of being perfect,” but then realized that “the world isn’t perfect.” The words tally neatly with the images of Don closing a chapter of his life and the nostalgic instrumental music provides a suitable soundtrack for this moment of sorrowful transition into the lonely life of a disillusioned middle-aged man.

The Summer Man directly follows the events (portrayed in the previous two episodes) surrounding Don’s mental and physical collapse. He gets visibly drunk at work, goes to bed with a complete stranger, gets into a fight with an ex-colleague, gets drunk again and ends up staying overnight at the office (vomiting in the restroom). The storyline and the somber atmosphere of the preceding episodes contribute to the fact that the opening of The Summer Man may easily be interpreted as signaling a breakthrough in Don’s life – a new beginning both for the character and for the viewers of the show – as Don finally opens up and reveals his inner world, shedding his opaque, callous surface for a transparent, true interior.

The introduction of the voiceover as a first-person narrative is a significant alteration to the previous strategies of focalization, [tabs] [tab title=”1. Tang commercial – a visualization of focalization”]

In this Tang commercial from the 1960’s the figure of the Mother is obliterated, her perspective simultaneously remaining present. The viewer is supposed to see through the eyes of the Mother and to fill her position within the presented world. As the camera looks at the child from above, slowly moves up and down, our gaze is stitchted together with the imaginary figure of the Mother. [/tab] [/tabs] or the perspectival techniques through which the story is visualized. The term focalization was coined by Gerard Genette in his 1972 book Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method, and has received an enormous amount of attention in the field of narratology.8 I use Mieke Bal’s revision of Genette’s term,  and employ it, like Bal, in the analysis of visual material. Focalization is, as Bal writes, “the narrative equivalent of perspectival centering;”9 it is a mechanism for presenting the story, filtering it through a certain vantage point. While I argue that the show is focalized through Don, this does not mean that his field of vision entirely overlaps with ours. Rather, Don’s perspective offers the viewer the most gratification and surplus knowledge; we know the most about Draper and he enters into a multiplicity of relations with other Mad Men characters. Draper is also the only character with whom the viewer leaves the spatial and temporal framing of the show’s setting, 1960’s New York City. One of the paradoxic focalization strategies employed by the show is naturalizing Don’s perspective by emphasizing scenes in which Don’s knowledge about the characters in the show catches up with the viewers. The scenes in which Don discovers facts previously unknown to him, but known to the viewer (such as Peggy Olson’s pregnancy, Betty Draper’s affair or Salvatore Romano’s sexuality), are moments in which Don’s perspective is stitched together with the viewers. This mechanism levels the knowledge of the main character and the viewer and thus further naturalizes the vantage point of Don Draper, as he is usually the only one who knows the secrets of the other characters (apart from the viewers).

[tabs] [tab title=”2. Two stills from episode Out of Town“]


The scene, in which Don Draper witnesses a sexual encounter between Salvatore Romano (the art director at Sterling Cooper) and a hotel bellboy is an excellent example of this strategy. Although the viewer was previously aware of the fact that Salvatore is gay, the scene is constructed as a dramatic moment of discovery, in which the viewer comes to occupy Don’s position through the camerawork and framing. We can only fully grasp the scene if we submit ourselves to Don’s point of view, seeing him see and appropriating the way he is seeing, that is seeing Salvatore as gay for the first time. After finding out about Salvatore’s “secret”, Don implicitly suggests to him that he should remain in the closet (by proposing a telling tagline for Salvatore’s artwork –“Limit Your Exposure”). Salvatore’s identity thus becomes marked as visible for Don and the viewer, but invisible and hidden for the rest of the characters of the show. See: “Out of Town”. Mad Men. Directed by Phil Abraham. AMC, 16 August 2009. [/tab] [/tabs]

If focalization, according to Mieke Bal, entails “seeing what they see,”10 it also indicates what we as viewers fail to see, and thus marks and interrogates a gap in the character’s own vision. In Mad Men this focalizing exercise is carried out to the fullest: we see the world through the perspective of Draper. This perhaps allows us to account for the glaring absence of African American characters, the lack of vantage points so common for other TV shows and films (such as a bird’s eye view of the city), and the shows prudery with regard to showing naked bodies or physiological activities.  These are elements of the visual field, which were either not interesting or not accessible for a white, heterosexual, middle-class male. We also catch glimpses of Don’s past life through the visualization of his memories. The breakdown of Don’s identity is quite literally a collapse of a stable field of vision: he is haunted by nightmarish and hallucinatory images from his childhood that constantly dwell on his constructed persona. But while the viewer is invited to see through Don’s eyes, he/she can never be certain of whether the images are “true” or “false” or what status they have in the character’s psychic economy. The show also denies the viewer the possibility of following Don’s story in a purely linear fashion: rather than collecting clues and piecing them into a narrative, the viewer can only access the story through fragmented and heterogenous images. And although it may seem that we are invited to seek out some psychic reality in Draper, similar to that of Freud’s dream reading, in which the dream constitutes a visual riddle, a rebus to be solved, it is nevertheless true that the sheer variety of images and their non-referential character would seem to point the viewer towards the very absence of identity—towards the psychic reality of Don as already evacuated.11 Since the patient (the troubled character) does not supply the psychoanalyst (the viewer) with a verbal meta-narrative to accompany the images, the psychoanalyst cannot pursue an in-depth analysis, make and verify his suppositions and come up with a cure. The fact that the viewer is denied this position is exactly what drives Daniel Mendelsohn to complain that “the writers don’t really want you to think what Betty might be thinking.”

Thus as a strategy of presenting a character to the viewer, the voice-over introduced in The Summer Man stands in stark contrast to the opaque visions of Don’s past from the previous episodes.  The voiceover complements the images and seems to provide an audial access point into the character’s mind. As a consequence it  constitutes a breakthrough in the construction of the character: we finally hear Don speaking about himself, his emotions, concerns, plans and opinions; we know what he is thinking. The image of Don writing, the voice-over and the background music dovetail neatly and all contribute to the linear narrativization of Don’s identity. The medium of a journal legitimizes his account as truthful, this effect is strengthened by Don’s initial coyness about this newly discovered  way of expressing himself, one that he is slightly ashamed of (“I sound like a little girl, writing down what happened today”).12 After the initial perplexity, the form grows on him and Don’s identity is reified before our eyes through common conventions of the genre: the listing of one’s desires, the clear temporality of the narrative, the constant back and forth between comments about ones personal life and observations about life in general. The journal also starts to affect the way we view Don’s life and the people he encounters.  His condescending tone turns Bethany into a “sweet,” but also naive girl.  The audible illustration of Henry Francis, Don’s ex-wife’s new husband and state politician, as the “man who dreamt of being perfect,” makes him seem pitiful rather than powerful. The journal pulls us in. We seem to be getting a sense, an understanding of the “true” Don and his “real” feelings. In the next episode, however, the voice-over focalization is relinquished and although we see Don considering whether to write in his journal, we are denied an access to his interior world. The journal returns in Blowing Smoke, the twelfth episode of the fourth season, making an unexpected comeback as a material object, a return that is representative of the constructed character of the journal and metonymically of Don’s identity. Its return is prompted by a series of events. As the agency loses their most significant client, Lucky Strike, other Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce clients consider taking their businesses to bigger ad agencies. After learning about yet another client leaving, Don comes back home, sits down at his writing station, flips through the pages of the journal, and rips out the ones that had already been filled. He tosses them into a garbage can and begins writing on a blank page. “Why I’m quitting tobacco,” we hear Don saying. He proceeds to write a letter explaining why he is relieved by the outcome of the situation with Lucky Strike, as he could no longer stand “pedaling a product, for which good work is irrelevant, because people can’t stop themselves from buying it [Fig. 2]. A product that never improves, causes illness and makes people unhappy.”13 As these words are spoken, Don types the text up on a machine, proofreads it and folds it into a letter format.  We cut to Don swimming.  This scene is followed in turn by a shot of Henry Francis reading the already printed letter in The New York Times. Here, the voice-over is doubled – Don’s familiar reflexive voice is echoed by a confident speech tone, the latter gradually quelling the former as a panning shot reveals the cover of the newspaper. As the voice-over continues, we cut to images of Pete Campbell and then Roger Sterling reading Don’s letter. We hear Don saying: “I realized here was a chance for me to sleep at night, because I know that what I’m selling won’t kill my customers. So as of today, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will no longer take tobacco accounts. We know it’s going to be hard. If you’re interested in cigarette work, here’s a list of the agencies that do it well.”14 He goes on to list his competition as his voice and the accompanying melodramatic soundtrack fades out and is substituted by one of the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce reading the letter to  colleagues gathered around him.

The material object, which previously played the role of a medium for a truthful self-inquiry, thus returns in a scene of faux confession and becomes a vehicle for a trickster advertising maneuver, a move so sly, that even his colleagues fail to understand it. And while Don’s journal was previously juxtaposed with the pretentious memoirs of Roger Sterling, which we see dictated to a secretary and then published in the form of a book,15 the sudden use of the material object of the journal, the already familiar and coded cinematic techniques associated with it, as well as the first-person reflexive content for a cynical ad move (punctuated by the fact that Draper smokes while writing the letter), constitutes a narrative jerk, which troubles the intimate interior world we were presumably given access to earlier. Instead of being a medium of self-reflexivity Don’s journal turns out to be a way of narrativizing ones identity within a dominant model of popular culture. By juxtaposing the opaque surface of Don’s dreams, memories and hallucinations with the luring self-reflexive narrative, the show works through the framework of a dominant model, which is simultaneously auto-critical, as it constantly points and hints towards the lack, a lack placed at its core. This self-referential and self-critical gesture is achieved both through the construction of the main character of the show, whose identity is based not on a lie, but on a lack and through such narrative sleights of hand, as the one described above. [tabs] [tab title=”3. The Sopranos allusion”]

A similar auto-referential model can be found in The Sopranos, in which the viewer’s position is mirrored by that of the main character’s therapist. Both the viewer and the therapist are pulled into Tony Soprano’s world. As they watch it unfold, they become emotionally invested. Although the fields of knowledge of the viewer and Dr. Melfi don’t entirely overlap (we see many scenes from Tony’s life and some images from his unconscious, which he decides not to share with Melfi), structurally they both occupy the same position and are both tricked into believing that they know Tony and can understand and anticipate his emotions; his past and future from the information that they were given – by Tony (Dr. Melfi) or by the image itself (the viewer). The image tricks us and reveals its sleight of hand in the nineteenth episode of the sixth season (two episodes before the show finale), in which Dr. Melfi is confronted with the results of a study on the effects of treating sociopaths with talk therapy. The study shows this form of therapy not only doesn’t help sociopaths, but enables them to further develop their conning skills. This information is “revealed” to Dr. Melfi by her own therapist, who accuses her of unprofessionalism and suggests that she continues seeing Tony only because the relationship gives her a “vicarious thrill.” While it could seem that both the viewer and Dr. Melfi have been conned (Dr. Melfi by Tony, the viewer by the image of Tony), it seems more interesting to point to the double consciousness of these relationships, which results in the “vicarious thrill,” the pleasure of believing in an image. This double consciousness is revealed to us by the show itself as the core of our relation with images. See: “The Second Coming.” The Sopranos. Directed by Timothy Van Patten. HBO, 20 May 2007. [/tab] [/tabs]

The dominant, yet self-critical model reveals the lack that it is based on – a lack fundamental to images and our relationship with them, one based on a “double consciousness,” a term used by W.J.T. Mitchell to describe “a deep and abiding feature of human responses to representation,” a simultaneous faith in the power of images and a critical awareness of their inanimate character.16 Yet Mad Men reveals not only something about our contradictory beliefs about images,  it also points to the constructed character of its own identity and thus the identity of the subjects that it has created. Mad Men is, quite consciously, a show about the images of the past and not about past itself, a show about seeing surfaces; an ambitious, but ultimately impossible, attempt of reconstructing the field of vision of the main character. [tabs] [tab title=”4. Kodak commercial – a metapicture commenting on the power of images”]



All America is Cameraland, a Kodak ad from 1961, reminds us of a now extinct form of narrating advertisements. A performance is filmed in an elegant television studio, where a female presenter tells the viewer the story of Camerland. As the narrative progresses the audience receives a series of moving images presenting people filming important moments of their lives, moments worth registering. The advertisement is an image about making images. Cameraland is all around you – wherever you go, whatever you do, says the narrator, unknowingly echoing Martin Heidegger’s seminal 1938 essay titled The Age of the World Picture. “Understood in an essential way,” Heidegger writes, “world picture does not mean picture of the world but, rather, the world grasped as picture. Beings as a whole are now taken in such a way that a being is first and only insofar as it is set in place by representing-producing humanity.” According to Kodak’s vision, the world – understood here, and visually rendered in the form of a map, as America – is made for shooting movies. “Because movies tell a story, as no other pictures can. Step by step, a lifelike story, that’s so easy to make and so wonderful to see”. However, reminding Heidegger’s essay here doesn’t serve the purpose of conveniently illustrating the video with a theoretical proposition. While the ad tempts us to perceive the commercial appearance of the new technological tool as a breakthrough, Heidegger situates the appearance of the change in perception much earlier – at the wake of the modern era (ca. 16th century), when the subject seperates himself from the world. This is not to say that home movies did not change the way we perceive the world, but, as scholars of visual culture have long noted, that the evolution of technology also mirrors our way of “grasping the world” visually. [/tab] [/tabs] The identity placed at the center of this narrative or more precisely at its vantage point, is an entirely constructed one. Don’s particularly complicated story of stolen identity, passing, being recognized and mis-recognized, an identity built on what Mendelsohn calls a fictional “overkill” is exemplary of the impossibility of representation, the ultimate flatness of both the medium and its subjects.

After Don gets scolded by his partners from the agency for publishing the already infamous letter, he’s approached by Megan, his secretary. In one of the typical secretary-boss encounters in Mad Men, always dependent on an unequal and gendered power structure, Megan praises Don for publishing the text. “I love that you stand for something,” she says.17 Don dismisses her and condescendingly explains that the letter wasn’t a true confession or an honest declaration of values. Megan replies that she knows what “it was about” and yet still “loves that he did it.” While recognizing the relationship between the form and the content of the letter, she allows herself to find pleasure in the form only, believing that the form itself, the empty signifier, can change “the way things feel around here.”18 While Megan’s approach can be seen as a model for inquiry into popular culture, in which one views its products  as being potentially performative and thus educational (as in the model of representational politics, in which an increased visibility leads to enhanced political power), the show itself seems to propose a slightly different, less hopeful path, one that would perhaps scare Megan and one that definitely disgusts Mendelsohn. For where he seeks depth and coherence, he will only be given surface and partiality; where he longs for a conversation with the past, he will only be granted its re-presentation and even though he desires to be given access inside the image, he never will, because this is not what this image wants. What Mendelsohn sees as the show’s creators inability of telling “us anything of real substance about the world it depicts” is actually the  show’s unwillingness, a conscious tactic, stemming from a representational model, in which there is no access to any “real substance” or to real and true identity.

– Magda Szcześniak

Magda Szcześniak is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw, Poland. She is currently preparing a dissertation about visual constructions of identity in Poland after 1989. As a Fulbright scholar she spent a year studying and researching at the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.


  1. T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men, makes a brief appearance in Mad Men. Its last two lines are recited by Paul Kinsey, one of the copywriters at Sterling Cooper, a Princeton graduate and wannabe beatnik. See: “My Old Kentucky Home.” Mad Men. Directed by Jennifer Getzinger. AMC, 30 August 2009.
  2. Daniel Mendelsohn, “The Mad Men Account,” in The New York Review of Books 58.3 (2011).
  3. See, for instance, here and this youtube video: .
  4. While Mad Men is characterized by Mendelsohn as a “soap-opera decked out in high-end clothes”, The Wire is described as having “darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures.”
  5. “The Summer Man.” Mad Men. Directed by Phil Abraham. AMC, 12 September 2010.
  6. “The Summer Man.”
  7. “The Summer Man.”
  8. Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1972.
  9. Bal, Mieke. A Mieke Bal Reader. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006, 304.
  10. Bal, Mieke. “The Laughing Mice, Or: On Focalization.” Poetics Today 2.2 (1981): 202-10.
  11. On Freud’s practice of deciphering a dream by treating it as a rebus and searching for the dream image’s “play of logical ruptures” see: Didi-Huberman, Georges. “Image as Rend and the Death of God Incarnate.” Idem, Confronting Images. Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005. 139-229.
  12. “The Summer Man.”
  13. “Blowing Smoke.” Mad Men. Directed by John Slattery. AMC, 10 October 2010.
  14. “Blowing Smoke.”
  15. The fact that a book identical to the one we see on the show was actually published by Grove Press is an accurate illustration of the difference in the construction of the two male characters in Mad Men: Don Draper and Roger Sterling, the latter being an ultimately knowable character, so knowable and transparent in fact, that he is able to exceed the constructed reality of the show and enter our “real world.” See: Sterling, Roger. Sterling’s Gold: Wit and Wisdom of An Ad Man, New York: Grove Press, 2010.
  16. Mitchell, W.J.T.. What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 8.
  17. “Blowing Smoke.”
  18. “Blowing Smoke.”

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