Modernist Ideas in the TV Show Mad Men and T. S. Eliot’s Poem The Waste Land

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In Mad Men and The Waste Land there are many examples of modernist ideas. A central thought in modernism is multiple layers and meanings to make one image. Throughout every episode of Mad Men and in The Waste Land, many ideas are layered upon each other to create the final picture.

Season 3, episode 10 of Mad Men is called “The Color Blue.” During one of Don Draper’s affairs that he is having with a teacher, she recounts a question a student asked her: “How do I know if what I see as blue is the same as it is to you?” She did not know how to answer, but Don says, “People may see things differently, but they don’t really want to.”(“The Color Blue” 00:04:18-00:05:22) This conversation is important to the whole episode, as many perspectives work together to make the whole picture.

In a similar fashion, The Waste Land uses multiple perspectives to create a blended image:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain. (Eliot, 1-4)

The lines from the poem are a good representation of modernism. On the surface, it appears that Eliot is simply speaking about the springtime. However, with looking more closely, I could see that there is another layer that focuses on human life itself. Again, there are multiple perspectives in one poem that show a key attribute of modernism.

During this whole episode of Mad Men, the rivalry between Peggy and Kinsey is seen. Kinsey is always suggesting that Don Draper favors Peggy over himself when it comes to new advertising campaigns. Peggy insists that this is not true. When Kinsey, while drinking heavily, finally comes up with a brilliant idea late one night, he forgets to write it down. The next morning he confesses to Peggy:

I’ve got nothing. No, I had something, something incredible, but I lost it. …You know how it is. There was nothing, and there was it, and now it’s nothing again. … The faintest ink is better than the best memory.” (“The Color Blue” 00:39:52-00:41:20)

In spite of their differences, Peggy tells Kinsey to tell Don what happened with his great marketing idea. Don is forgiving, and Kinsey is surprised. I feel that again I could see modernism here. Kinsey is so concerned about his petty rivalry that he overlooks the bigger picture; he and Peggy are a team who are trying to get the advertising contract. Again, the layering of different ideas creates the complete image.

In The Waste Land, I looked to the end of the poem and again I saw modernism. Eliot returns to a similar thought from the beginning of the poem:

‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed? (Eliot, 71-73)

Here, I saw layering of ideas as Eliot is simultaneously referring to human life and the planting of the flower bulbs for spring. As a reader, I thought it was clever how Eliot used the lives of flowers as a comparison to human life.

Considering the examples I used from these two works, I could see how someone else might read them as postmodernist, as opposed to modernist. Both Mad Men and The Waste Land presume that you already know the references to the past that they mention. In that way, these references could be seen as postmodernist.

Mad Men and The Waste Land share many similarities, in that layers create the complete image. In this way, the reader is always pushed to consider each work in multiple ways. As a result, both the television show and poem present a modernist perspective.


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