Navigate to News section

Mad Men’s Mixed Jewish Blessing

Mad Men lived up to its promise of a Jewish sixties, the tradeoffs of assimilation included.

Irin Carmon
June 11, 2012

Your guest-Scroller has none of the rancor at Mad Men shown by the usual dweller here, even if most of yesterday’s finale was (deliberately?) unremarkable. So let me take this morning-after to note, happily, that our own Rachel Shukert called it from the start: This season, We were going to witness 60s-era “Jew-ing of America,” both in professional myth-making and in a newly frank public kvetching. The tension was going to be between eternally dissatisfied striving and what happens once you can pass, if you can. And no matter what CUNY says, white Jews still can. As Rachel put it, “Eventually, the outsiders become insiders, leaving a new class of people on the outside that may not have quite the same, shall we say, nuance.”

That’s the difference between Peggy, another white ethnic arriviste whose loss was lamented by a client in last night’s episode, and Dawn, the new black character whose interiority we barely glimpse but whom the same client referred to dismissively as “black coffee.” The king of passing, of course, has always been Don Draper, an immigrant from working-class masculinity and a shameless manipulator who all season has been alternating between emulating Roger’s patrician complacency and remembering what it feels like to sweat and scramble because nothing is ever enough. Matt Weiner, never one to refrain from overt interpretation, has said that “Don’s a Jew in the sense that he is a white person who is an outsider.”

He’s not an outsider to Jewish-drag striver Ginsberg, of course, on whom he pulls rank. But he forgets his own hunger at his peril. As Sarah Seltzer poses it in her take on the show’s insider/outsider trope in the Forward this morning, “When, if ever, can those outsiders stop viewing themselves as alien? And should they?” They should when they cast their own sons, as Weiner did, even when they’re plainly terrible actors. Maybe Weiner was laying an Easter egg for himself when, last night, Megan gave up on her own striving to do it on her (heavily subsidized) own and begged Don for nepotism instead. It was probably the death knell for their relationship, which has always worked best when he has to work a little harder to keep her in his grasp.

And that’s fair enough. If, as Rachel contended, “we did kind of invent Hollywood. And Broadway. And popular song,” it’s worth remembering, and trying to hold to, another basically Jewish invention: Meritocracy.

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.