Commodifying the California Dream

In our latest guest post, Ann Davis of Travelbloom explores California’s significance in the AMC drama Mad Men, including the cultural contrast between east and west in the 1960s and 1970s.

By Ann Davis

Warning: this article contains spoilers from Mad Men, including its seventh and final season.

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay”. In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper establishes his personal ethos when it comes to advertising. Unbeknownst to his peers, this ethos rests in stark contrast to Don’s personal struggle: he is unable to accept himself, represses his past, and is therefore a profoundly unhappy person. So where does one go to find acceptance in the 1960s? Not to New York City, where the majority of Mad Men takes place, but rather west, to California. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, California became emblematic of modern thinking and bohemian ideals, a hotspot for counterculture, the way of the future. Likewise, in Mad Men, Los Angeles is a city full of hope and potential, a symbolic contrast to New York.

Don’s New York style is entirely out of place in California, showing the culture clash between east and west coast. Photo: Screencap from Mad Men

Don Draper is an east coast ad man who struggles to adapt to a changing industry, as his internal struggles inhibit him from changing with the times. During periods of duress – marital issues, career trouble, identity crisis – he goes west, seeking escape in the Sunshine State. California is depicted as an idyllic dreamscape, both within the universe of Mad Men and on a meta-textual level. It’s aesthetically beautiful: sunshine, palm trees, blue skies, swimming pools, bikinis, bohemian fashion. Bohemian is a key word when it comes to 1960s California. Don’s first visit to Los Angeles is disrupted by his involvement with a group of people who encapsulate this California fantasy: wealthy, educated drifters who lounge poolside, take drugs, and have casual sex with each other. A woman invites Don to join them. “Who are you?”, he asks. “I’m Joy”, she replies (S2E11). When the Madison Avenue ad men need to escape reality, they go west to the fantasy world of California.

Part of what makes California so idealized is that it’s a place of acceptance. Behaviour that deviates from the status quo is part of the west coast fantasy. But for Don Draper, California is home to the ultimate symbol of acceptance: Anna. Anna Draper knows Don’s biggest secret: he is not Don Draper. During the Korean War, he stole the identity of his dead commanding officer (Anna’s husband) in order to secure a better life for himself. Anna’s forgiveness and reassurance that what he is doing is okay allows Don to be at peace with himself when he visits her. However, acceptance from others does not equate to self-acceptance, and Don struggles to capture the same feelings of acceptance in California after Anna’s death in Season 4. After visiting California for a highly unsuccessful business trip in Season 6, he laments “I don’t know what happened … I usually feel better out there” (S6E10).

It is only with Anna that Don is able to reconcile with himself. Photo: Tumblr

He tries to reconstruct the California fantasy with his secretary-turned-wife Megan Calvet. Though initially living and working with Don in New York, Megan moves to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Through her own participation in the California dream, she transforms from Don’s idealized wife to a self-actualized woman. When Don is fired in New York, he seeks solace in California, offering to finally move in with Megan in Los Angeles. By this point, Megan does not offer Don the same unconditional acceptance that Anna Draper offered, and he is not welcome. The two divorce. Without unconditional acceptance from another, California is no longer refuge for Don, and he must seek this acceptance elsewhere.

Megan’s character transformation is emphasized through costume design. As she embraces the California lifestyle, her fashion follows suit. Photo: Screencaps from Mad Men

Don’s search begins on the east coast, where he opens up about his past in an effort to pitch an ad to Hershey’s. Rigid east coast companies are unwilling to accept deviance from the status quo, and Don is subsequently suspended from his ad agency. With nowhere else to go, Don ventures west one final time, eventually following Anna Draper’s niece to a spiritual retreat in the hills outside of Los Angeles. The Esalen-like retreat exemplifies California’s bohemian, progressive attitudes of self-acceptance and spiritual enlightenment. It is here, during the series finale, that Don bares his soul to Peggy, his protégé, and experiences catharsis during a confessional seminar. It is here, in the sunshine of California, that Don accepts himself and is able to reassure himself that what he is doing is okay. He is okay.

Don achieves self-acceptance by embracing California. The strong visual cues in Mad Men’s final scene emphasize this shift to the west coast. Photo: AMC

It is here that he realizes the value of self-acceptance, the bohemian movement, and the California fantasy.

The California fantasy will sell Coca-Cola, and we will buy it.

This Coca-Cola advertisement is the final impression we’re left with, at the end of Mad Men.

Ann Davis is a digital content creator from Ottawa. Currently based in Nottingham, England, she founded Travelbloom in 2019 to document her move from Canada to the UK. You can find more of her work here.

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