The banality of the suburbs is the central theme of this week’s Mad Men episode, “Signal 30.” Pete Campbell is horribly unhappy living out in Greenwich and he and Trudy have become the new version of Don and Betty. They are the couple that appears to have everything on the outside: a plethora of consumer goods, a nice home, and a child. The reality, however, is not nearly as pleasant, as Pete tells Don, “I have nothing.”
Suburbs have a long history in the United States dating to the late 19th century, when streetcars enabled people to escape the congestion and crime of the city for the more rural life of the suburbs. It almost seemed that Americans had a Jeffersonian urge to return to something resembling the agrarian ways of their ancestors. Of course, some native-stock Americans had less high-minded motives and were simply trying to escape the diverse immigrant population that increasingly dominated urban life in the early 20th century. With the emergence of cars, suburbs grew significantly during the 1920s although their rise stalled during the 1930s with the onset of Great Depression.
After the end of World War II, suburbs expanded dramatically. Assisted by the postwar economic boom and federal housing loans, millions of middle-class Americans left the cities in the 1950s and purchased their first home, with 83 percent of population growth occurring in the suburbs (Patterson, Grand Expectations, p. 333). New York City witnessed particularly dramatic change, as the suburban population rose by 58 percent as urban dwellers left for Westchester County, Long Island, and Connecticut (Polenberg, One Nation Divisible, p.333). Some whites also moved because of the black and Puerto Rican migration to the city during this time. Faced with the loss of a significant portion of their middle-class fan base, the city could no longer support three baseball teams and the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left for California in 1957. The Yankees did not have the city to themselves for long, though, as major league baseball created the expansion New York Mets in 1962 (note the conspicuous placing of Lane Price’s Mets banner in his office)
Critiques of the suburbs are almost as old as the institution itself. During the 1950s, many intellectuals viewed the suburbs as bastions of homogenous thinking. “The suburb,” the sociologist David Riesman wrote in The Lonely Crowd, was “like a fraternity house at a small college in which like-mindedness reverberates upon itself.” Betty Friedan went further, calling them “comfortable concentration camps” for housewives in her classic feminist tract, the Feminine Mystique (1963).
From the outset, “Mad Men” has featured a heavy dose of the anti-suburban ideology. Since season one, Betty Draper has seemed completely unhappy in the ‘burbs and I have always thought that her first name was an homage to Friedan. Furthermore, Don seems much happier in his city life with Megan and doesn’t even want to go to the Campbell’s suburban home for a party on a Saturday night, saying, “that’s when you really want to blow your brains out.” Afterward, he declares, “when I close my eyes and then I open them I want to see skyscrapers.”
Though Pete and Trudy’s relationship had been the strongest of any couple on the show, the birth of their first child and the move to the suburbs seems to have wrecked it. She probably has postpartum depression and he appears miserable to the point that he makes a pass on an 18 year-old girl in his driving class (he never learned growing up in Manhattan). In a move reminiscent of Don in the old days, he also has a liaison with a prostitute while wooing a client.
”It seems like time is speeding up,” says Jenny, the student Pete is pursuing. Though a few contemporary events are mentioned, such as Charles Whitman’s mass shooting of students at the University of Texas, this episode focuses less on the social changes of 1966 than the previous four. Instead, it centers on the age-old theme of the unhappy suburbanite, which has been a standby of film and television for over a half-century.
For more on the history of suburbs, Kenneth Jackson, The Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York, 1985)