Mad Men closed as Mad Max: Fury Road opened—mere coincidence. There has been no shortage of spurious analysis regarding these two spectacles already, to which we will no doubt add. Most notable have been the inky debates as to whether Mad Max is a feminist action movie. We generally support armed women, but otherwise, not so much. This column holds that explicit politics are generally not the politically salient aspects of popular culture. The great equality out on Fury Road is that all are free to pay around 12 bucks for a ticket.
What binds the two Mads together is transition. For Men, it is a transition internal to its world, and ours: from Madison Avenue’s man in the gray flannel suit to the same man in the white flowy shirt at Big Sur. The world of Max offers an external transition, set largely in the future and, moreover, not within the current social order but from one to the next.
Transition is the air we breathe these days, contradictory and mystifying. Few today believe in the world revolution that seemed imminent to many half a century ago. And yet the sense that the current arrangement is eroded beyond recovery, that things can’t persist as they are, has seeped into our chests. It’s a singular truth of our times: Something has ended but nothing has begun. Or so it appears from here, which is why we can’t help but look from somewhere else.
The two transitions in question are too quick and too slow. The Mad Max universe leaps from half-familiar “deterioration of Australian society” and “bureaucratic restrictions” through “oil war apocalypse” to mutant-thronged wasteland in about 15 years. Similarly, in Fury Road, the “green place” yields to total desiccation in a couple of decades, while a despot commands all the “aqua cola.” A telescoped tour of climate collapse, sure—though director George Miller has been working this dry terrain since before Reagan’s election, long before Cinema Anthropocene arose. Regardless, the sense is that the collapse will proceed more swiftly than we like to imagine. We will live to see mass die-offs, the desertification of the world, and the models from David Fincher’s “Freedom! ’90” wandering into the video for “The Wild Boys.”
Mad Men, contrarily, tracks its one transformation practically in real time. Its decade featured the uneven emergence of the New Left and accompanying social movements; the show struggles to take gender seriously, struggles less ambitiously with race. In the end, we see these through the workplace, the office. Women’s Lib and Black Power appear largely as labor claims and as appurtenances of the counterculture to be mocked, puzzled over, and dallied with by our admen. And then, in the last moment, counterculture becomes simply the content of capitalism.
The transition that Mad Men narrates concerns what the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the internalizing of “the artistic critique.” The postwar workplace, limited from within by its own rigidities and challenged from without by claims that such a life deadeneth the soul, solves the former by taking up the latter, and so reforges the work ethic and the corporate structure. The new firm will be more agile, able to transform itself swiftly, imaginatively. Even better, human liberation will be expressed through work itself, now so creative and communal and free! Harmony not hierarchy, man.
This is the miracle of Don Draper’s last act, conceptualizing the famed “Hilltop” spot for Coca-Cola while fake-meditating at ersatz Esalen. He has transubstantiated the counterculture: not just the enlightenment of the California hippies among whom he finds himself, but the desires of Peggy and Joan, the travails of Dawn and Shirley. Their struggles are reborn, through Don, as raw material for the corporation’s soft-power victory over ’60s revolution. Coca-Cola, the universal solvent, will be not just the great commodity but the great figure of work, of flexible labor and synergistic teamwork. Coke will be code for the “perfect harmony” of free individuals all sharing a project and a vision, but each a special snowflake. Or perhaps each a magical, effervescent bubble.
If only there was a movie with charismatic Coca-Cola dealers entering into apocalyptic battle with local despots in the Australian outback. Bizarrely, this movie exists: The Coca-Cola Kid, Dušan Makavejev’s 1985 charmer about an American marketing whiz imported when it’s discovered that there is, in the wilds of Australia, a last Coke-free valley. Much of the film concerns advertising and how to pitch that most American of products. There is, it turns out, an artisanal cola-maker who guards his territory jealously; a small war ensues. Of course, it will become clear that our eponymous hero is the barbarian, though he gets tamed, romcom style. In the oddest coda ever, the final crawl informs us that the film’s events are later followed by a world war.
The film is about containment and colonization, and how for capital they are the same. Something about the way that Coca-Cola bubbles up in the bottle, dilates in your mouth—this is capital itself, its great sensual pleasure, how it must expand. A single closed market is anathema, is existential risk; it can be contained only by overcoming every limit, internalizing every recalcitrant territory. It’s not that I’d like to buy the world a Coke; I must. Otherwise, everything falls apart. But what about when there is no room to expand, no more frontier for the firm to internalize? You can try to manage your transition, try to keep internalizing, find a new harmony to keep the song going. But here things get volatile, and we do not get to choose freely. Then the wasteland.