As a series which is considered by many to be the most important of our time, and which arguably captures the psyche of 1960s America in an unsurpassed intricate and nuanced way, it was very interesting to see how Mad Men will tackle the psychedelic movement. Matthew Wiener, the series creator does such a thorough job of commenting on various aspects of 1960s culture and society that there was really no doubt that psychedelics will make an appearance at some point.
Mad Men, whose first season took place in the year 1960 reached the psychedelic years 1966/1967 in the fifth season which aired this spring. And if you have been wondering who will be the first character to go on an acid trip, you are in for some surprise. Of all the possible suspects it is none other than Roger Sterling, probably one of the least spiritual and more cynical figures in a show whose characters are mostly Madison Avenue advertising agents.
What does he experience on his trip? Well, the scene is definitely very well-conceived in terms of bringing the psychedelic experience to the screen, and giving the part to the smug conservative and suave account man Roger Sterling certainly makes it more interesting than watching another teenage hippie trip.
The whole scene is set in a New York apartment, and takes place in the company of a group of established middle-aged people who experiment with LSD. At a period when LSD was not yet a youth-countercultural symbol older user groups such as the one in the scene were a substantial part of the LSD user demographic.
The scene begins with a reference to the long period of waiting for psychedelic effects at the start of an LSD trip. “Well, Dr. Leary, I find your product boring” is Roger’s first reaction to the acid trip.
However the trip soon becomes much more interesting to Roger as well as for the others. Looking in the mirror Roger sees himself in a new way. Then he will have a outer body experience, where he watches himself dancing with his wife Jane. And at the end he will hallucinate the 1919 world series to himself.
Other references to the psychedelic culture of the time include the “Guide” who makes references to the Bardo Thodol, and the Tibetan book of the dead which became popular in the psychedelic scene of the mid 1960s following Leary’s publication of “The Psychedelic Experience”, a psychedelic interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead which Leary called the translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to “modern psychedelic English”.
The scene is cut short in this YouTube video, so if you want to watch the whole thing, you are better advised to watch the episode itself.
Series creator Weiner characterized Roger’s acid trip as an experience of “complete honesty” and an “experience of empathy, something he’s probably never experienced in his life. He doesn’t see the world through other people’s lives and that kind of epiphany to me is very beautiful”
John Slattery who plays Roger has said about the scene: “It gave him [Roger] the assurance that it isn’t over. Roger doesn’t have to work. He has a lot of money. You could argue he’d be happier elsewhere. But that experience gave him the insight that he’s too young to give up. It isn’t time to quit. He has this experience where the whole world isn’t revolving around him. People can be looking at you but they’re not thinking about you. To Roger, that’s very profound even if everyone else in the world has already thought of that.”
All in all, the scene presents a pretty positive portrayal of LSD, which leads Roger to new realizations and understandings and allows him to look truth in the eye and take a bold and important decision in his life. (I’ll omit which decision to avoid a spoiler).
It will be interesting to see if and when psychedelics will make more reappearances in the next seasons of Mad Men which are set to cover the central years of the psychedelic era of the sixties: 1967, 1968 and perhaps also 1969.