The Underground

 Posted by on March 29, 2011 at 7:29 am  Season 4
Mar 292011

Midge’s reappearance last season had me thinking about Bohemia, the Village, the Underground.

Mad Men Don and Midge Episode 4.12Midge is the former middle-class girl who wants to be an artist. We’ve all known someone like Midge and, often, she’s seen as a poseur. (Why is being middle class in and of itself is automatically considered suspect in artistic circles? Lots of great artists and revolutionaries came from the middle-class, after all. But never mind…) The idea of the pure artist is that you’re making art for no other reason than to put beautiful things out in the world. You don’t need to get paid for it. In fact, you shouldn’t. On the other hand, there’s that famous quote: Art without commerce is a hobby. Yet the contempt for money and business is still present in artsy and spiritual circles, as if being above the need to pay the rent and eat made us superior!

Midge represents the hobo side of Don. The side of him that is attracted to the edge, to the Other, to the Iconoclast. A world of free love, of freedom, of breaking society’s established mores. At first, she, too, was dabbling with that world. Now she’s delved into it so deeply that she’s gone over the edge. Midge and her friends have always looked down on Don. They see him as a guy in a suit with pretensions of being creative because he’s in advertising. The rub is that Don actually knows more about being down and out, a bona fide downcast outcast. (A perfect example of the arrogance of judging people by appearances.) Don comes from a much more hardscrabble childhood, that took place during the Depression, a time of true scarcity.

There’s a close connection between art and suffering. On some level a lot of us believe that in order to be true artists, we have to suffer. In the modern world, being homeless and hungry is true suffering. But it is the kind of sacrifice that often—though not always—people are more willing to make if they’ve never experienced lack or want in their lives. My artist friends from working class backgrounds don’t quit their day jobs. They keep creating but first they make sure they have enough to pay the rent and the utilities.

Don has graduated to a world into which he doesn’t have to worry about money. He is not rich but he’s well-paid and he’s assured of a paycheck. Nevertheless it is interesting to note that after his divorce, he chooses to live in the Village. Back in the 60s, Greenwich Village was still a neighborhood with Bohemian and working-class roots. Families could still afford the rents there. In fact, it was a bit shabby. Notice too, that the apartment he chooses is rather miserable. (Or is that just me who thinks so?)  Why didn’t Don go for the glitzy bachelor pad, like the ones pictured in the glossy pages of Playboy? He certainly looked the part, plus he had the salary, the career, and the tattered resume of a real ladies’ man.

Why doesn’t Don live in glamor? On some level, yes, at the end of his marriage he is lost. On some level, yes, he is returning back home. It’s the season in which Don first openly confesses who he really is to a woman he’s sleeping with and the season in which he comes closest to being found out. It’s as if he were moving closer and voluntarily toward the edge of destruction. And then he escapes into another fantasy, into the arms of another woman, one who will presumably balk at living in such dark and inhospitable quarters.


  12 Responses to “The Underground”

  1. Don told Midge he thought he would have run into her in the Village; he was always expecting to see her in the park. Might have been part of his thought in settling there.

    Don is a Depression kid, and was always wary of extravagance. He only bought the Caddy after Bert told him he had to look the part. As for a flashy pad, he doesn’t need one. He’s not some Rod Stewart wannabe, singing Do You Think I’m Sexy. He’s Don F’n Draper!

  2. Tattered is not a word for a swordsman’s ‘resume’. As repulsive as it may seem to one half of our species, EVERY guy wants that resume. Don probably chose the Vill because the very thought of suburbia, its chocking conformity, its redundant look, the pod people who are your neighbors, is the starkly in contrast to that other monotony. I don’t think it had anything to do with being lost. In fact he’s found the perfect place for his wanton appetites and endless curiousity.

  3. Marly, I love you initial point – the artist’s ideal is pure expression, devoid of commercial concern or validation.

    At the same time, the Sistine Chapel was a commission for Michelangelo, who constantly bickered with Pope Julius II over payments.

    Don belongs in the Village because of his creative/artistic sensibility, and identification with the burgeoning culture.

    Contrast Don’s semi-awakening (or is it near-awakening) throughout S4 with his disdain for the youth-culture in S2, particularly FTWTY (2.01).

  4. Hey B. Cooper! I think I failed in this post because I also wanted to fully express that art for art’s sake is just a hobby. Real art has a real money value as well. I fully believe in the artist’s right to eat and pay the rent on time. I’m not down with this idea of sacrifice as a path to saintliness and artistic excellence. Like you point out, true art has a much more straightforward path.

  5. Sorry, I meant that true art has a LESS straightforward path.

  6. I think there’s a parallel here with Peggy. At Joyce’s party, some of her friends looked down on Peggy because she was in advertising. Like Don, Peggy is drawn to those on the fringe, and somewhat outside the mainstream.

  7. Marly, I don’t think you failed at all … you make it clearly. Just because it’s the ideal doesn’t mean it exists or should be expected.

    For non-artists, too, not having to pay rent or for food would be an ideal. Just because it becomes a job doesn’t make it less-than-art.

  8. You know, I can’t recall anything indicating that Midge is from a middle class background.

  9. Love it any time a parallel is drawn between Don and Peggy, in a perfect world they’d be……….. Midge is mystery soup. Art is a moral responsibility to those who have talent. Why the hell shouldn’t you be compensated for it? I’ve yet to hear a good reason as to why not.

  10. That’s a good point, Deborah. She just seems like it to me, especially in the first season. This is entirely subjective but in my experience, people who were poor as children and who had to struggle to get a decent paying job as adults don’t give up their day jobs to pursue art. I’ve found them to be much more pragmatic about paying the rent. I get a sense that Midge is slumming.

    @retrogirl: Yes. Artists can be very snobbish about people who work in offices, etc. Advertising, especially. It’s considered “selling out”. There’s also a lot of disdain for being “bougie”.

    The funny thing is you just reminded me of this old time producer I knew who would be Don’s contemporary. He fought in the Korean War and was in advertising during the Mad Men era. He said that every copywriter he knew then had a novel stuffed into their top drawer. Hmm… These comments are making me think of yet another post to write.

    Full disclosure: I’m bougie.

  11. I think Don is his shabby apartment because he does not have any energy and mood for buying and furnishing a new apartment. I was too expecting to see some stunning modernist all white apartment. I guess he chose Village as he sees himself as an artistic and creative person. In my opinion, he is such a person: he has deep understanding of human emotions, appreciation of avantgarde poetry and movies, and he’d like to live among the same kind of people.

  12. I have always seen Don as a closet Stevenson Democrat in a corporate Republican world. (In effect, not literally.) He seems (very) slightly ahead of his time. It seems to me the bleak apartment is simply to establish his emotional desolation at the start of the season. As to Midge, I think she is one of Don’s most interesting ex-mistresses. I hope he doesn’t hear she O.D.’ed some day to establish some suicide-of-Adam style gloom. Incidentally how will Megan react when Don starts cheating on her, as compared to Betty? Any ideas?

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