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Beyond retro: why do so many love Mad Men?

We see in its alienated characters, adrift in an age of insecurity, a mirror of our own troubled tim

"Enjoy the world as it is," an old woman tells a young one during the third season of Mad Men. They'll change it and never give you a reason." Unlike the series' characters, marooned in the early 1960s, we, the audience, can see the changes coming. We've either lived through them ourselves or grown up in a world shaped by them. Furthermore, Mad Men offers a litany of reasons why those changes had to be made; the series catalogues the many failings of pre-counterculture America for our amusement and head-shaking dismay. It specialises in a particular flavour of voyeuristic nostalgia: the chance to live vicariously through a period of acute uncertainty while nestled in the comforting knowledge of how it will all turn out.

About to embark on its fifth season, Mad Men has followed the fortunes of the advertising agency Sterling Cooper (now Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) from 1960 to 1965. The series is famous for its meticulous art direction, an assemblage of appliances and furniture and desktop paraphernalia of exactly the right vintage to be owned by an enterprise like Sterling Cooper - mid-sized, smug, slightly behind the times. Nothing is too old or too new. The completeness of this illusion, especially when abetted by the current enthusiasm for mid-century modern design, is notoriously seductive. So, too, is the confidence of the characters, particularly (but not exclusively) the men. "We're the best ad men on Madison Avenue," a junior account executive boasts to a couple of pretty girls in a bar in the first episode. They know, or think they know, just what they want and just how to behave. Above all, they seem to know what a man (or woman) ought to be.

Of course, they are wrong, which brings a deliciously ironic frisson to proceedings. None is more silkily sure of himself, and therefore more alluring, than Don Draper, the series' central character. He moves through his polished environs as if he were custom-made to set them off to their best advantage. He was. Don's identity is a facade, devised to conceal a miserable past, and to reflect the ambient dreams he taps into so adeptly as he concocts campaigns to sell deodorant or slide projectors or cigarettes. His wife, Betty, looks as perfect as he does - early on, someone compares the couple to the figures on top of a wedding cake - and she has manifestly been chosen for just that reason.

From its first episode, Mad Men has presented us with the spectacular illusion that is Don Draper; invited us to admire, envy and desire it, and then proceeded to dismantle it. At this point, on the brink of season five, Don is lying in pieces before us, his marriage demolished, his drinking intermittently out of control, his agency scrambling for accounts and his big secret perpetually threatening to get out. By proposing to his sweet young secretary, Megan, Don has become a cliché, an echo of his former mentor, Roger Sterling, an ageing executive trying vainly and pitiably to recapture his youth.

We knew something like this would happen; Mad Men would not work if it didn't happen. Don's seamless mastery of himself and his world, however intoxicating to behold, was also intolerable, as he (if no one else), seemed to sense from the start. Don has always yearned for bohemianism, from his affair with the beatnik painter Midge, to his fondness for foreign films and the poetry of Frank O'Hara. If season five, as anticipated, takes place in 1966, will he finally see the film that often seems to haunt Mad Men, Ingmar Bergman's Persona? With its enigmatic silences, its fluid identities, its tortured parent-child relationships, its self-lacerating depiction of the way "creative" people cannibalise the lives of those around them, Persona is like the whispering bad conscience of Don Draper's brightly artificial life.

(Sometimes, there's even an overt hat-tip to Bergman, as when Sally, exiled to the TV room for inappropriately sincere grief over her grandfather's death, sits transfixed by the image a Vietnamese monk burning himself to death to protest against the Vietnam war, just as Liv Ullmann did in Persona. In extremis, Don often speaks exactly like one of Bergman's alienation-maddened characters: "I have been watching my life. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't." And the domestic meltdown of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage is echoed in the disintegration of Don and Betty's marriage.)

Don's counterpart, and his only real friend, is his talented protégé, Peggy Olsen. What we know and they don't is that the world that once belonged to Don will someday be inherited by Peggy. This makes the indignities Peggy suffers in pursuing her career both more irksome and more tantalising: just wait until she comes into her own, you jerks! Don's fall - the eerie, vertiginous plunge a generically male figure takes through the skyscrapers in the title sequence - is the price paid for Peggy's rise. And that's OK. Really. Don, that mirage, may be untenable but Peggy, despite having a secret or two of her own, is a real person, not just a persona.

Through Mad Men, a modern audience grapples with its ambivalence about our recent past and its majestic, doomed complacency. Children played unreprimanded in dry-cleaners' bags, families blithely shake the litter from their picnic blanket on to a public park, men instruct their secretaries to show more leg. There's an illicit thrill in seeing these now-forbidden things done without any consideration - without any awareness - of the consequences, but it's not as if we can ever forget those consequences ourselves. These people are so innocent in their guilt. But guilty they are and so eventually they must pay. Viewers have revelled in the unthinking bravado of all that drinking, smoking and screwing around and then avidly speculated about how the characters will cope with impending traumas and upheavals - the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, The Feminine Mystique.

The show's creator, Matthew Weiner, has chosen to keep most of those historical tentpoles peripheral to the series' narrative. Mad Men is not a guided tour through the headline-making events of the early 1960s. The characters remain preoccupied with the small-scale landmarks of their personal lives: marriages and divorces, the births of babies and the deaths of parents, mergers and acquisitions, accounts landed and lost. Mad Men has been labelled a soap opera, and the label sticks. But while most prime-time American soaps take place in exotic or exciting milieus that viewers can simultaneously envy and judge - the rich (Dynasty), say, or the criminal (The Sopranos) - Mad Men is about office workers. The advertising industry, an occasional setting for television series, has always beguiled Americans with the dream of combining commerce with art, but it's difficult to imagine a series set in a present-day ad agency exerting the same fascination as Mad Men. No, the ambiguous, inaccessible fantasyland its characters inhabit is the past.

On the other hand, the future, in Mad Men, is like the monster in a horror film; the characters may be oblivious, but the audience expects it to spring out every time they round a corner. We know they're in for some trouble, but we also know that the best of them will survive. Managed fear is what makes monster movies so much fun. Actually battling a monster, or living through a time of profound cultural change, is another matter. Your profession might be transformed by technological innovation, the way advertising was by television in the early 1960s. Your nation might become mired in complex and seemingly unwinnable foreign wars. Your way of life might come under attack by an implacable ideological opponent. The everyday items you once thought of as comforting might turn out to harbour hidden threats. Will you survive? Who knows?

Some critics have accused Mad Men of resorting to facile social commentary, of using superficial, mildly shocking depictions of the prejudices of the past to feed today's viewers a cheap shot of superiority. We can congratulate ourselves on being so much more enlightened than our parents (or grandparents). But if this were the source of the series' appeal, audiences would not take Don and co so seriously, would not get so caught up in their relationships and careers, their secrets and lies. Even Roger, the silver fox driven to ground by the hounds of Lucky Strike, evokes more compassion than contempt.

Ultimately, we're in the same boat. We know that we, like Don and Betty, place too much faith in the shiny surfaces of things, that we think the past can be outrun or forgotten. We wonder if the attitudes we take for granted today may become a source of shame tomorrow. We know that we, too, are staggering through a world that keeps shifting under our feet.

When we go home at night, kick off our shoes and switch on the TV, we watch these people make their wobbly way into a future that is ours now and we tell ourselves that for us, as for them, it will surely, somehow, turn out all right.

Laura Miller is a co-founder of

Laura Miller is a co-founder of

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture