The generation gap of the 1960s plays a major role in this week’s episode of “Mad Men,” “Lady Lazarus.” Don’s isolation from the changes of the 1960s, a central theme of season five, comes further into view.
The evolving rock n’ roll music of the decade has figured heavily in recent episodes and this dynamic continues, as a client wants Beatles music for an ad based on scenes from the Fab Four’s 1964 film, “A Hard Day’s Night.” While the younger members of the firm like Michael Ginsberg spout off the names of bands that could serve as stand-ins, Don appears completely flummoxed. “When did music become so important,” he asks Megan. “It’s always been important” she responds as Don says he has “no idea what’s going on out there.” Later on, Don listens to music that he thinks sounds like the Beatles, but Ginsberg says it’s thirty years old and hurts his ears.
Meanwhile, despite her success with the Heinz account, Megan is unhappy with advertising and quits the firm to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. Don pretends he’s not upset, but is clearly unhappy about this turn of events. “She’s following her dream,” he says with a tone of condescension, “I was raised in the 30s. My dream was indoor plumbing.”
The exchange reveals a key difference between Depression-era Americans and younger people who grew up during the affluent 1950s. Those who suffered through the privations of the 1930s experienced limitations that gave them a different perspective from those who came of age during the Eisenhower era, as the economic boom of the postwar years gave people options that were simply unimaginable a generation earlier. By the mid-1950s, teenagers had as much disposable income as families had before World War II; compare Don’s incredibly poor rural upbringing with the opportunities that Sally Draper has in the prosperous suburbs.
This divergence would become key as youth protests grew over the Vietnam War and other issues in the late 1960s. When students at elite campuses like Columbia University protested the inequities of American society, many older Americans saw them as spoiled, self-indulgent and unappreciative of their opportunities. “Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world,” President Richard Nixon would say a few years later in 1970. Nixon, whose poor childhood mirrored Don Draper’s, expressed his frustration that the antiwar protesters were “going to the greatest universities and here they are burning up the books, storming around about this issue, I mean—you name it. Get rid of the war and there’ll be another one”
Speaking of Vietnam, the war appears in a couple of news reports in the background. Listening closely, the television news mentions various events from the conflict, with American ground troops in their second year of combat. Though a majority of Americans still supported the war, disaffection was growing despite the Johnson Administration’s repeated declarations of progress. At the end of one segment, the television news reports Vermont Senator George Aiken’s famous suggestion that the U.S. simply “declare victory and go home” in October 1966.
In fairness, Don doesn’t seem completely out of touch with the new realities, as he reluctantly embraces Megan’s pursuit of her new career. While he will never be confused with AIan Alda, Don sounds almost feminist, declaring, “Why shouldn’t she do what she wants?” adding, “I don’t want her to end up like Betty… or her mother.“ Thrilled by her husband’s acquiescence, Megan cooks dinner and gives him a copy of the Beatles’ “Revolver” album (1966) and tells him which song to play. He starts to listen to John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but stops the record halfway through. With its Timothy Leary-inspired lyrics of “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” it is clearly not Don’s kind of song. Maybe Roger would be interested.