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Cowboys versus astronauts: The frontiers of Mad Men

From its earliest episodes, Mad Men meditates on the frontiers of the past and the future, juxtaposing the pioneers, farmers, and cowboys of the Old West against the astronauts, engineers, and spacecrafts of tomorrow. Horses and rockets, cowboys and astronauts appear throughout the series, in pitches and research and conversations, as toys, on television, as background props. They’re images of opportunity and freedom, but they’re also potent fantasies of escape—from everyday boredom, from societal strictures, or from melancholy—that raise a question central to the show: Do people really change?

Bert Cooper draws a straight line from the farmstead to the rocket ship when he eulogizes executive secretary Ida Blankenship. “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.” Even the antiquated sage of Mad Men, who saves his affections for the cattle on his Montana ranch, sees the future as a horizon of almost miraculous opportunity and limitless change.


Don Draper rejects the contemporary ideal of a future rendered clean and spare by engineering, yearning instead for the romanticized past of the Wild West. In Mad Men’s second episode, the creatives of Sterling Cooper frame a Right Guard pitch around the marvels of aeronautics, associating the product—its packaging “nothing short of space age”—with a visionary future. Don dismisses both the association and the glamour of the astronaut, jeering, “Who is this moron flying around space? I mean, he pees his pants.”

Where others see freedom and opportunity, Don sees shame and peril. Paul Kinsey envisions the future as “a place so close to us now, filled with wonder and ease,” but Don’s vision of change is darker. “Some people think of the future and it upsets them. They see a rocket, they start building a bomb shelter.” For him, aeronautics means missiles, an association established in the show’s earliest days, and the moon—and the militarized, engineered enterprise of reaching it—is synonymous with the hellishly personal toll he’s seen war take, including the agonizing demise of the real Don Draper.

“Total annihilation.”

It’s no accident that Don’s two brushes with exposure come through the Department Of Defense, first when Pete Campbell’s friend does some digging, and later when Don unthinkingly signs security clearance applications in pursuit of the $4,000,000 North American Aviation account. Don looks ahead and sees not advancement, but annihilation, both personal and global. The aerospace presentation he attends in Los Angeles confirms that nebulous anxiety in terrible detail, triggering an existential panic that sends him fleeing for weeks without word to his work or his wife.


Even without the looming threat of nuclear annihilation and the hubris of reaching for the moon, astronomical events rock the world of Mad Men. The eclipse of “Seven Twenty Three” creates a vaguely apocalyptic mood, giving characters license to seek escape in their desires. Betty Draper swoons for Henry Francis, Don and Suzanne Farrell set the stage for an affair, and Peggy allows herself to be seduced by Duck. (Not everyone on Mad Men is so susceptible. When Don begs Rachel Menken to run away with him, she’s appalled, demanding, “Is this like some solar eclipse? It’s the end of the world, just do whatever you want?”)

Cosmic images and ideas as expressions of existential crisis suffuse the show. Pete’s suburban mistress compares his eyes to the then-new photograph of the Earth in space, asking, “It didn’t bother you to see the Earth tiny and unprotected, surrounded by darkness?” Michael Ginsberg, an outsider even among the outsiders of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, tells Peggy, “Actually, I’m from Mars.” When she scoffs, he reassures her. “There’s no plot to take over Earth. We’re just displaced.” Anna Draper’s seen UFOs, saying “it knocked me sideways. I started thinking of everything I was sure was true and how flimsy it all might be.” Don Draper, who’s seen two men die in an instant before his eyes, who took a dead man’s name and made a new life from nothing, responds, “You don’t need to see a UFO to know that.”


Don knows how fragile the seeming certainties of life can be, and he tries to quash that disquieting truth with an illusory sense of progress. “I have a life, and it only goes in one direction: forward,” he tells Adam, but Don is unwittingly drawn to repetition. When he instructs the Right Guard team to “bring it down to earth,” it’s more than a pithy rejection. He’s redirecting them in language that explicitly returns the imagined astronaut to his place of origin. Replacing their astronaut with a strong, quiet cowboy, Don muses, “He always brings the cattle home safe.” It’s a well-worn advertising image, and one that speaks evocatively of coming home, a notion Don doesn’t realize he cherishes.

These superficially discordant visions of cowboy and astronaut are fundamentally similar: exploring a frontier, expanding the mapped world, and returning home to tell the tale. Astronauts orbit and return to Earth. Cowboys ride the range and bring the livestock home. These connotations of repetition and return undermine the frontier’s twin promises of opportunity and escape.


That contrast is at the heart of Mad Men, which asks whether people are capable of change—and whether they want to be. Amid the show’s flamboyant parade of changing styles and social mores and its characters’ shifting families and career trajectories, it’s easy to ignore how often they lapse into repeating old patterns and recreating the relationships they learned in childhood, no one more than Don Draper.


Dick Whitman grew up destitute on a Depression-era farm, dreaming of escape from grinding poverty and abuse. Even the horseshoe, symbol of good luck (and the insignia on Don’s coveted NYOC award), meant misfortune in that miserable home. In the words of Abigail Whitman, his reluctant stepmother, “Life is like a horseshoe. It’s fat in the middle, open on both ends, and hard all the way through.” The crescent scar of the horseshoe mars his last memory of his father, fatally kicked by the horse he was harnessing when Dick was just 10 years old. Don changed everything about his outward self, sacrificing his name and his brother, to escape that hardscrabble life.

Don’s image of the cowboy reshapes his lifelong alienation into an iconic image of individualism and independence. In his (and Peggy’s) Glo-Coat commercial, it’s further transformed into a picture of acceptance and love. A boy in a cowboy costume sits imprisoned under a kitchen table, the spindles of an upturned chair enclosing him like the bars of a jail cell, until his mother announces, “Footprints on a wet floor? That’s no longer a hanging offense!” This fusion of ideas simultaneously taps into Don’s childhood sorrows and his adult anxieties, signifying both the maternal love he craves and the absolution for desertion he needs.

“Get me outta here!”

Mad Men doesn’t pretend this fantasy overcomes a history of childhood neglect or decades of dread. Don still needs the false escape of playing the cowboy. At the episode’s end, Don describes the origin of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as a gunslinging adventure. “I could die of boredom or holster up my guns,” Don tells the Wall Street Journal reporter, and as he grins, “Tobacco Road” begins to play: “I was born in a trunk / Mama died and my daddy got drunk.” Despite all his external polish, even at his most assured, Don Draper never leaves behind the tragedies and trauma of Dick Whitman.


In Rachel Menken, Don sees both the motherless child he was and the loving mother that child dreamed of. Rachel gives Don Draper cufflinks in the shape of a medieval knight, but Don is no chevalier. He’s a serial adulterer, a daydreamer and a cynic, a man who denies the existence of love and searches for it endlessly. When the Menkens resist Sterling Cooper’s campaign, Roger instructs Don to “ride bareback” over father and daughter. In the same episode, Don chuckles to see Roger riding a hopeful model like a pony (“Don’t make me use my spurs on you!”). Bert Cooper lectures Don over his relationship with Rachel, dismissing him with a stern, “That’s it, cowboy.”

In Conrad Hilton, Don finds a father figure who replaces Archibald Whitman’s drunken disdain with respect. Connie doles out fatherly advice, shares rare liquors, and calls Don at all hours, and the two successful men bond over their secret sense of being outsiders. “No matter how expensive my cufflinks,” Hilton confides, “I feel like I’ve got the head of a jackass.” He tells Don, “you’re like a son… sometimes more than a son.”


Don loses the Stetson cufflinks Hilton gives him, just as he loses Hilton’s avuncular approval. Despite his frontier background, Connie Hilton has his eye to the future, not the past, to the cosmos, not the backwoods. He wants “a Hilton on the moon. That’s where we’re going.” Don doesn’t include that idea in his Hilton campaign, leaving Connie “deeply disappointed,” rebuffing both Don’s explanations and his hunger for validation. “What do you want from me, love? Your work is good. But when I say I want the moon, I expect the moon.”

Conrad Hilton (Chelcie Ross): “What do you want from me, love?”

Connie Hilton is right to expect the moon. With every passing year on Mad Men, it’s more within reach. The frontier of space, and the inescapable future of Don’s fears, is opening up just as the unmapped land of his Western fantasies is exhausted; even Hilton’s roots in New Mexico Territory “before it was a state” hint at the finite nature of the nation’s frontier. In his pursuit of escape, Don soon turns his reluctant imagination to the skies and the moon. Megan even makes it palatable for him. Her Heinz campaign portrays a mother serving baked beans to her son throughout the ages, ending at a kitchen table on a moon colony, with the tagline “Heinz beans: Some things never change.”

Megan’s pitch transforms the encroaching future Don dreads into the promise of a mother’s eternal love, infusing his image of the space-age future with the warmth and tenderness he aches for, and giving him new terrain in which to seek escape and play out his fantasies of maternal acceptance. But Don Draper doesn’t need escape. He needs acceptance, and since he can never have it from his parents, he must give it to himself. To find any peace, Don needs—or, more accurately, Dick needs—to stop running toward escape, to face himself and his history, and to make peace with both his past and his future.


By season seven’s midseason finale, he seems to be doing exactly that. Don makes incremental but substantial attempts to confront his secret past. He declares his history to his children and his colleagues, revisits the house where he spent his wretched teenaged years, and struggles (and fails) to curtail the drinking that anesthetizes him from daily pain and makes denial possible. Sometimes impulsively, and sometimes with devastating effects, he’s making an earnest effort to change his ways, and Mad Men shows what arduous work change can be.

Fittingly, Bert Cooper—who can look at an executive secretary and see an astronaut, who clings to the niceties of the past and looks to the glories of the future—articulates Don’s gradual acceptance of the space age and the inevitable future that ushers it in. In Don’s last bittersweet vision of his late partner and boss, Bert reminds him that the moon isn’t only about hubris; it’s a symbol of the simple beauties available to us all: “The moon belongs to everyone / The best things in life are free.”

The moon belongs to everyone, and family is where you find it.

Over six and a half seasons, Don Draper makes an uneasy peace with astronauts, aeronautics, and the moon—and with himself. He’s able to to embrace wonder in what once made him sneer or shiver. When Sally echoes her crush’s facile scorn of Apollo 11, Don cautions her against cynicism, for her own sake and her brothers’. Away from his children, his home, his wife, and everything he knows, Don gathers with Peggy, Pete, and Harry in a single hotel room to watch the moon landing, sharing the moment as an ad hoc family. And as the first man sets foot on the moon, for once Mad Men depicts a monumental event, not a catastrophic one, drawing a nation and a world together in awe.


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