Category Archives: Poetry

Falls the Shadow: ‘Mad Men’, T.S. Eliot, and the Problem of Perception

Contains spoilers for all five seasons of Mad Men

There’s a scene in ‘My Old Kentucky Home’,an early episode from Mad Men‘s third season, in which Paul Kinsey, copywriter and Sterling Cooper’s resident pretentious pseudo-intellectual, quotes the famous closing lines from ‘The Hollow Men’ while high on marijuana (as you do):

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.[1]

It’s a haunting conclusion to a haunting poem, but Kinsey’s apropos of nothing recitation lacks any real relevance or meaning, and fellow copywriter Smitty calls him out on his posturing: “We get it. You’re educated.” In contrast to the treatment of Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, which is pretty explicitly placed alongside both the Cuban Missile Crisis and Don’s personal issues, there’s no larger thematic point being made here. It’s just Kinsey being Kinsey.

I Tiresias

Yet there is resonance between Eliot’s poem and the show’s themes, I think. Kinsey, being a snobbish blowhard, gravitates towards the most overtly apocalyptic, portentous section of a pretty apocalyptic, portentous poem.[2] But in doing so, he misses the point, because Eliot wasn’t really writing about the end of the world, just as Mad Men isn’t really about advertising. That’s simply the imagery, the lens through which the poem’s (or the show’s) point is conveyed. ‘The Hollow Men’ is really about death, despair and the disconnect between the way we imagine things to be, and the way they actually are.[3] Or, as Eliot himself put it, between the idea and the reality.

Mad Men is hardly the first drama in history to play on the differences between perception and truth. Dramatic irony, that device where one character (and, by extension, the audience) knows something the other characters don’t, has been around for thousands of years – just look at the role of Tiresias in Oedipus Rex, who’s pretty much there to emphasise what the audience would already have known about Oedipus.[4] Today, I suspect it would be impossible to find a scripted show on television which doesn’t use dramatic irony at some point in its run. But through its setting, characters and themes, Mad Men actively explores the disparity at work here, rather than simply using it as a mechanism for drama.

The Hollow Man

Don Draper is not who he says he is. He was born Dick Whitman, and took the identity of the ‘real’ Don Draper after the latter died during the Korean War. Meanwhile, in the very first episode of the series, we’re introduced to Don the high-powered ad-man, the creative genius, the womaniser, and only at the very end do get a glimpse of Don the family man, the husband, the father. It’s a structure which works to subvert the audience’s expectation of Don, but it also means that, by the end of the episode, the audience knows more about Don than his family, even his wife, does. He leads a fractured life, and that’s part of what makes him a fascinating character – especially since he seems to prefer it that way.[5]

In a sense, Don has more than a little in common with Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, who was one of Eliot’s inspirations for writing ‘The Hollow Men’ and is referenced in the poem’s first epigraph: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” Kurtz, like Draper, is known in-story for his powers of persuasion. He convinces the natives of the Congo that he’s a god and virtually comes to believe it himself, even while his physical form deteriorates. “He was”, Marlow observes, “very little more than a voice.” Has Draper become a hollow man like Kurtz, all grandeur and performance with nothing left inside? Not quite – at least, not yet. He comes close during season 4, becoming almost delusional about his appeal to women, even as his drinking problem takes a toll on his health. Only the death of Anna Draper pierces his armour and makes him comprehend how far he has fallen from his vision from himself. The shadow, temporarily at least, is lifted away.

The Carousel

The double life, the problem of perception, the disconnect between fantasy and reality, these are ingrained in the DNA of the show’s protagonist. By inserting him into an advertising agency, however, these themes are given room to be explored outside of Don’s own psyche. Don himself is profoundly aware of the power of self-delusion, just as he is certain of its necessity. Shortly after the depiction of the Kennedy assassination towards the end of season 3, Don comes to Peggy and explains why he wants her to work at SCDP:

Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do.

The assassination of President Kennedy was, to the American people, as Anna Draper’s death would shortly become to Don. It stripped away the idea, leaving the cold reality in full view, that, as Don tells his mistress’s beatnik friends, “the universe is indifferent”. What Don sees in Peggy is someone who, like him, can recognise and make use of this problem of perception, even if she’s no more immune to it than he is.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding one of the most powerful scenes in the series to be the pitch Don delivers to Kodak (link: here), in which he suggests nostalgia as a way of selling a slide projector. With scenes taken from his own family album, Don illustrates the concept of the projector as a ‘time machine’.The irony is, of course, the Don’s marriage has already begun to fall apart, and the slides represent a reality that doesn’t exist anymore and can’t be retrieved. This is all thrown into sharp relief by Harry Crane, who leaves the presentation in tears because he has cheated on his own wife earlier in the season, and recognises in Don’s pitch the gap between the idea of the idyllic family life on display and the reality of his own behaviour. Between the emotion and response, as Eliot says, Falls the Shadow.


[1] This probably qualifies as an excessively tangential observation, even by my standards, but “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper” fascinates me as one of those phrases which seems to have gotten caught in the collective psyche of critics everywhere, and inevitably gets trotted out when, for example, the last film in a series performs underwhelmingly. See also: Macbeth‘s “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”, which crops up with alarming frequency whenever a Michael Bay film is released.

[2] Naturally, Kinsey also fails to realise the irony of quoting from a poem called ‘The Hollow Men’ when trying to impress people with superficial intellectualism.

[3] And possibly the Treaty of Versailles or Eliot’s own dissolving marriage, depending on who you ask.

[4] Eliot’s own fascination with Tiresias is, I think, not coincidental, especially with lines like “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives / Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see”. While, on one level, this is simply a reference to the myth about Tiresias being transformed into a woman for seven years by Hera, I wouldn’t be surprised if Eliot saw Tiresias’s double life as connected, at least thematically, to his ability to understand the ‘doubleness’ of existence, the perception and the truth.

[5] One of the emerging themes of the show’s current season seems to be how different elements of Don’s life are starting to converge, since he now has a wife who both works with him in the office and knows his original identity. Given Don’s response to the party Megan threw for him, with most of SCDP in attendance, a more integrated life might not suit him very well.