One of the most famous scenes in AMC’s Mad Men comes at the end of Season 1. Don Draper’s been having a hard time of things lately - his marriage is falling apart and his relationship with his coworkers has taken a major downwards trend. To keep those plates spinning, Don gives the pitch of a lifetime.
This is one of the most famous scenes of the series, but after having rewatched Mad Men a few times I’ve come to a really bleak reading of it. All the pictures of his wife are from their courtship and he’s just spent the last 13 episodes ignoring her, either by not being around, or by gaslighting her concerns about her life and their marriage. After the scene he tries to go home and live it and Betty’s gone, having taken the kids away for Thanksgiving (there was an argument earlier in the episode about this). Don might want to use nostalgia to go that place where he knows that he’s loved, but that place doesn’t exist inside of him. He can only summon it into being as an abstraction that he can use to land an account.
I found myself thinking about Don Draper’s Carousel after watching the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I grew up a Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood kid and if you also watched while young, just try to make it through the trailer without tearing up a bit:
Something that the documentary addresses is the everpresent question “Was he really like that?”, to which the answer appears to be “Yes”. Mr. Rogers wasn’t a Navy SEAL, he doesn’t have tattooed arms underneath his sweater, and the closest we see him get to angry is in a clip of him talking about how we are letting our children down. Mr. Rogers really was just a person who cared deeply about children, thought they had something to useful to say, and wanted the rest of society to care as much as he did.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is uses the same tools as Don Draper’s Carousel (nostaglia), except that instead of the fictional Don Draper using it to make you buy something, it’s summoning into your adult consciousness the perspective of a child and a language that makes the emotional issues we deal as adults super-explicit.
At one point they sing Sometimes I Wonder If I’m a Mistake. Daniel Striped Tiger vocalizes all these uncertainties and anxieties - he’s so different from everyone else and he can’t do anything right.
In the documentary, the Lady Aberlin actress points out that Daniel doesn’t “snap out of it” during singing - the fear doesn’t go away just because you’ve had someone tell you you’re better. And of course, the fears of Daniel aren’t just the anxieties of a child - adults have these same anxieties and just because you’re a little bigger, that doesn’t mean you don’t need someone to accept you just as you are.
Later, there’s a scene where various people who worked with Mr. Rogers think back to someone who helped them, someone who was there for them - their parents, old teachers, old friends and loved ones. They’re there, inside of you, and the documentary bought to life for me how important that emotional place is to maintain as an oasis among all the struggles of adulthood.
It’s powerful stuff, but the nostalgia is what makes it even more powerful: these songs and characters still rattle around my brain thirty years after the last time I sat down to watch an episode of it, and the documentary reframed all those songs and characters in a way that was really impactful to me as an adult viewer.