Agency of fools, the madness of Madison Avenue

Don’s been kicked out and is living in a hotel, Marilyn Monroe is dead, and there are tears everywhere.

Betty, alone at home choring away in S2E09 (Six Month Leave), sits down with a glass of wine and reads Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools.

Sometimes, the Mad Men reading list gives you a title that is so on the nose, the discussion about the book writes itself.

Ship of fools… Hmmmm. I wonder how that could relate to the series, characters, themes and plot?

You could really take the title of this book and say it’s a direct allegory of those that inhabit Sterling Cooper’s halls. They are fools wandering about trying to navigate their Madison Avenue ship amid storms and calm waters.

Let’s look at this episode.

Freddy Rumsen pees his pants while talking with Salvatore, Pete and Peggy, and then passes out drunk at his desk. He gets fired later in the episode.

“The agencies will laugh at this, but the clients, they already think we’re all like that,”

-Roger Sterling

In the next scene, Betty is passed out on the couch in the middle of the day, and spiraling. Later she sees Arthur Case, who has got eyes for someone else already. So goes that ship.

At the end of the episode, Roger’s wife Mona shows up in Don’s office disgusted that Don encouraged Roger to live his life. Roger interpreted that as meaning he should leave his wife and run off with Don’s secretary: Jane Siegal. SPOILER: that relationship begins and ends with a train wreck.

It’s your life. You don’t know how long it’s gonna last, but you know it doesn’t end well. You’ve gotta move forward… as soon as you can figure out what that means.

Don Draper

Back to Porter’s book:

Here’s the basic summary of the novel courtesy of Wikipedia: the tale of a group of disparate characters sailing from Mexico to Europe aboard a German passenger ship. The large cast of characters includes Germans, a Swiss family, Mexicans, Americans, Spaniards, a group of Cuban medical students, and a Swede. In steerage is a large group of Spanish workers being returned from Cuba. It is an allegory tracing the rise of Nazism and looks metaphorically at the progress of the world on its “voyage to eternity”.

The term “ship of fools,” however has a much longer history.

In Plato’s Republic, he writes about a dysfunctional crew as an allegory representing governance problems in a system not based on expert knowledge; you know, democracy.

This is Plato’s enlightened prince ideal.

Hmmm, is someone at Sterling Cooper an enlightened prince or is it a ship of fools. Yeah, I’m calling it the latter.

Ship of Fools, among many other references, was mentioned in 1486 when Sebastian Brandt wrote about a voyage of 111 madmen to a place called Narrangania.

Hieronymus Bosch painted the ship of fools.

Here’s an interesting discussion of the myth.

3 Lessons from the Ship of Fools Myth

I like the allegory of the ship of fools or mad men as an allegory for the series itself.

It’s exactly that. The madness that governs those at the agency is one of the intriguing aspects of the show.

The insanity in season two that characters try to steer through is epic. We’ve spoken about Peggy’s childbirth and discarding of her baby, Don and Bobbie Barrett’s affair and car crash, Betty Draper’s denial of a dalliance, Pete Campbell’s pre-marriage affair, Duck abandoning his dog and now Fred Rumsen has peed his pants.

Yikes! Madness indeed.

When I’ve spoken about Mad Men with people over the years, a number of them have said they started watching and then stopped because it got too depressing.

I get that.

Season two is dark and intense and hard to watch at times. You are screaming for characters to make the right decision, and then nope. They don’t.

The problem with calling to characters to make the right decision is that you are looking for sane characters that see clearly the right thing to do. When we are screaming at those who are mad, they often do not hear or hear on a different decible. They do not hear because they are mad.

Like when we compared Don Draper to Horatio Hornblower, we came against a wall, as writing heroes and anti-heroes start at a base that is completely different.

Rather than fall back on the idea that Don and the rest are anti-heroes to explain everything about the show, let’s think of them all as mad.

Mad and trying to pilot a ship.

Mad a trying to pilot a ship with a whole crew of other mad men (and women) who also think they are driving.

Ship of fools indeed.

Look closely and you’ll see the cast of Mad Men.

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