Mad Men’s Commune

In episode 4 of the current season 7 of Mad Men, one of the central characters in Roger Sterling has a run-in with a hippy commune in upstate New York. Sterling’s daughter has run away, leaving behind her five year-old son to find happiness in a new living situation. The episode brings up some simple yet potent points about the family structure and hierarchical structures in general. The presence of hierarchy and the father figure have been important themes of contention throughout the show, as seen in the intricate dynamics of working at a New York City firm and living in a 1960’s white suburban household at the height of American power. Generally, the show has handled the trials of women and minorities in a male-dominated world very well, with moments of subtle and not-so-subtle imbalances in gendered power relations. But this episode was especially eye-opening for its giving the viewer a glimpse at an alternative living situation outside of the city and suburbia that actively tried to counter family-based power structures. At stake is the morals attached to such a patriarchic family structure and how well Mad Men’s commune subverts them.

Roger Sterling first gets word of his daughter Margaret’s flight to utopia at his office from both his ex-wife Mona and his son-in law who married her. The two are in conflict about whether to even enlist Roger for help and Roger ends up siding with his son-in-law: he should go as the husband to fetch Margaret back and reunite the family. Mona tries to push Roger to head the retrieval party: “A father is a powerful thing”, she says. But Roger abdicates and agrees with his son-in-law: “Let the man be a man!”, he fires back at his ex-wife. But the husband fails and instead of convincing her to come and resume her duties as mother he gets in a fight at a bar and winds up in jail. So Roger and his ex-wife journey through beat-up country roads to try and pull their daughter off of the commune and back into her family role as a mother.

The two together fail as Mona is far too insistent, laying guilt upon her daughter for abandoning her son (breaking the family line, so to speak), but Roger is far more suave. As an accounts man at his advertising firm he is responsible for smooth-talking clients and wining and dining them to give the diplomatic “human-touch” to the business interaction. Some of his one-liners are pretty sharp, but more importantly he has also experimented with LSD many times. As we learn from previous episodes in the season, he has been shacking up with a hippy girl and sharing the bed with random drop-outs of the sixties era. So when he sees the commune his daughter has been staying at, he takes the opportunity to get a taste of the country-hippy culture to go along with his greater goal of bringing back Margaret.

In the car ride, the family-based morality of where Margaret came from is layer bare:

“It was my fault.” Mona says, “She only had one job and that was to find a husband and she mucked it up.”

The two seem only capable of diagnosing her problems as a wife or a mother or a daughter. The family nucleus is the bedrock of happiness, and any deviations from that path to familial bliss can be corrected by family intervention.

Mona goes on: “She has been a little bit strange lately…” “And a little bit philosophical?” Roger interjects. “Yes…” she replies, “I thought she was finally happy.” End scene.

The blindness of the two to is exacerbated by the fact that they divorced when Margaret was young. They come charging out of the city to pull their daughter back to the family, having already displayed the harshness of their own separation . The family is their conceptual limit of the good life, despite their own failures. A bad conscience is shared by everyone in this episode, a perfect tool for keeping all personal and social problems within the realm of the family.

When they arrive, they find Margaret has changed her name to Marigold and she is steadfast about staying. She stares at them with big bold eyes in layered ponchos and moccasins, dishing back the guilt they try and heap on her. Mona demands be responsible and devote her life to her son, when Marigold reminds Mona of her own depression and heavy drinking problems. Roger mostly stands by and offers money – another sign of his absence as a father and devotion to his work.

“I’m tired of accepting societies definition of me,” says Marigold. “I don’t pray to that anymore.”

Her rejection of the family comes with strings attached: the morality of individualized guilt and innocence is kept in breaching the family structure. When the two parents try and convince her to come back, the moral arguments they use are spun right back in their face. It becomes a stand-off over “who is the worse family member?” instead of a competition of living styles. Mona gets fed up and leaves, convinced her daughter is lost, while Roger stays to try and meet her half-way.

It is the short, yet impactful lines on the porch of the commune that lay bare the motivations for leaving behind the family life. They peel potatoes in an old white farm-house with a few other escapees, passing around a joint.

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The man who first met Roger and Mona and tried to direct them away says, “There is no hierarchy here man.”

Roger fires back, “Believe me, there is always a hierarchy.”

Another proclaims, “we do things by true consensus here. If we can’t all agree, we come up with something else.” Marigold adds on: “Everyone does what they want.”

“I haven’t felt this at one with nature since I was in the Navy.” Replies Roger.

Roger is critical of the commune’s logic, but he hangs with it throughout the night. He and Marigold rest in sleeping-bags outside, staring up at the stars and chatting. Eventually, she says, “I’m really glad you’re a daddy.” (not “I’m glad you’re *my* daddy”). Margaret is Roger’s only child, so she subtly cuts off her position in the family line but simultaneously affirms his. She’s looking for a way out of family-centered life, but only seems to be able to judge Roger based on his position as a father. He either fails in his duty as a father or is praised as a father, a kind of judgment that Marigold is seeking a way out of, yet having a hard time voicing it.

In the middle of the night, Roger is awoken by Marigold running off into the house with a man. In the morning, the same guy who first greeted Roger and Mona at the entrance to the commune walks out of the house right before Marigold. This is also the same guy who had short words with Roger about hierarchy on the porch. It isn’t much of a leap to say that Roger’s presence on the compound was a threat and the hippy-guy made a play to steal away Marigold from she and Roger’s night under the stars. This is perhaps an instance where “everybody does what they want” becomes troubled: desires and power-plays will forever disrupt a simplistic idea of full-consensus.

When Roger wakes up he is through playing games. He forcefully grabs Marigold and leads her away from the house to leave. He picks her up and carries her kicking and yelling, like a patriarch asserting his dominion over his daughter. “I don’t care what you want”, he says before making his move. In the struggle he slips and they both fall in the mud. He makes one last plea: “How could you just leave him? He’s your baby.”

Marigold responds by essential saying “you where a bad father, it’s your fault as well.” She speaks about the times he was never there, working or screwing around himself without paying any attention to her. “Your conscience must have been eating you alive.” she says. The two only seem to be able to hurl blame at each other. Whose fault was it for ruining the family? is the only question they can seem to ask each other.

Earlier in the season, Margaret has an awkward lunch with Roger in which she forgives him ambiguously. He’s confused as to why, but it is clear: Margaret is seeking the moral high ground and forgiving him prematurely for his sins. The communication between the two is in shambles. They are both experimenting with the radical attitudes of the sixties by taking drugs, having multiple partners, and living communally but are unable to relate to each other’s experiences because of the father-daughter relationship. Both are kind of ‘bon vivants’ but cannot find a way to share those life-altering moments together because of the moral imperative imposed on the family structure. He’s the father and has obligations as head of the household (mostly by providing security in wealth) and is reproached for not fathering enough. Marigold is chastised for abandoning her family role as mother. Her flight to the commune comes off as a moralistic rebellion against her father in Mad Men, framed in terms of who is in the wrong? who is to blame?

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The family structure is exactly what communes help subvert and attempt to find a genuine alternative to oppressive patriarchic life and its morality. When the two parents go out to the rustic commune full of hippies to pull their daughter back into that life, they run up against logic constraints that prevent them from adequately expressing themselves to each other. They throw around guilt to justify their actions or else the father resorts to forceful aggression. Even in his attempt to understand the culture and have an experimental moment his Marigold, the father-figure haunts Roger, coming from Marigold’s own voice and the (soon-to-be) dominant hippy-guy’s subtle challenge.

Breaking down those moral-familial relationships is difficult in a society like our own, but Mad Men is unclear in its message as to whether this can or should be done. They often laud the responsible father for reassuming their role in the family as teacher and provider when they have previously been indulging. The father figure haunts the country commune house in this episode, but must it? Living in such a way can seriously and effectively change the patriarchic structure, but all we get is the same moral assertions about who’s family role is performed well and who has a bad conscience. This episode could stand as a warning that escaping patriarchy is more difficult than idealistic youths from the late sixties in America thought, but it could also be a way to load down Roger with blame for not being a good father.

Where the show’s writer and director stand about hierarchy, the family, and communes I still cannot tell. Is Roger asserting the universality of hierarchy merely coming from his embedded and privileged role as successful business man and father? Or is the commune’s free-love idealism and unwillingness to use “technology” misguided simply misguided? Of course, assigning blame to one or the other – the father/businessman or the idealistic hippies – would be to fall for the same moral logic that keeps tripping up Roger and Marigold. I would pinpoint the failure of Roger and Marigold’s relationship there on the moral-ground, but it is unclear as to whether that is the intended message. Seeing as they are both experimenting in the burgeoning counter-culture but cannot communicate except in those terms (“pray”, “conscience”, “forgiveness”), the break-down of their relationship is due to the vain attempt at achieving moral purity or pure happiness instead of just spending time together.

The moral-familial system is the real culprit for preventing Roger and Marigold from sharing their fun-loving experiments in liberation together. This episode was especially powerful in showing this because the commune tried to create an alternative to it, but, like so many communes of the era, failed in confronting the specter of moral purism – one used chiefly for the desire to control populations – but also one that Roger’s business in advertising is helping to perpetuate in the image of the happy, consumer family.

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One thought on “Mad Men’s Commune

  1. Pingback: “Who Is Donald Draper?” | Critical Fantasies

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