Mad Men: Season Three

It's not for nothing that the bleak, animated intro shows a man in a suit falling from an office tower into a heap of broken images, only to wind up sitting comfortably, smoking, staring away from us into a blank nothingness.

Mad Men: Season Three

Distributor: Lion'sgate
Cast: Jon Hamm, January Jones, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss
Network: AMC
Felease date: 2010-03-23
"You have everything... and so much of it."

-- Peggy to Don

Mad Men probably won’t change television, but it’s hard not to wish it would. Matthew Weiner’s sly love letter to the early '60s is simply unlike anything else on TV in this era of rapid-fire edits and unreal “reality”. Thankfully, buoyed by amazing performances from Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and January Jones, Mad Men continues to dazzle in its third season. Though some missteps mar an otherwise ingeniously-devised structure – the John Deere scene is, in a word, preposterous – the good stuff far outweighs the bad. Working relationships become knottier, lies become more complicated, and illicit entanglements still scintillate even as they grow ever-more disappointing.

Challenging its viewers to keep pace (and rewarding the assiduous with oblique nods to then-current events), Mad Men asks a lot of its audience, but promises vast payouts in return. Theirs is a painstakingly constructed world, a boozy and ashen culture of suits and skirts, of ossified roles and the people who (with varying degrees of success) inhabit them.

The genius of the program is not only that it so carefully portrays an era on the cusp of second wave feminism (i.e., a social order on the edge of traumatic upheaval), but also that it demonstrates just how thorny this prior age was for those struggling to live within it. While it could have been a winning study of a pre-Friedan and pre-Watts “Organization Man” America – a real-life Invasion of the Body Snatchers or some such thing which portrayed a people cowed into conformity and prescribed life patterns – it instead emphasizes the performative, constructed aspects of identity that underwrite said same -- and it is all the better for it.

Developing not-always-likable characters slowly, meticulously, allowing them their secrets, Mad Men worms around in the layering underneath the façade. Don Draper, the central sphere around which the other characters develop their orbits, is himself an invented man. Born Richard Whitman, Draper has assumed another man’s identity, built up a studied version of the person he thought he should become, and elided the past to the point where, as he puts it, “it will shock you how much it never happened.”

What does this very literally self-made man do for a living? He lies. He invents the idea of the things that people want, and he offers it to them in a way that they find irresistible. What we come to understand is that what he is really offering them is himself, what he has, what he represents: The Good Life.

Therefore, the show makes all of its hay in asking: What lies beneath that ideal of The Good Life?

While the surface reveals appearance, consumption, success, advancement, and (as is pointed out numerous times by numerous characters) “what people do”, the depths below are (more often than not) comprised in doubt, insecurity, faithlessness, and existential dread. It's not for nothing that the show’s bleak animated intro shows a man in a suit falling from an office tower into a heap of broken images, only to wind up sitting comfortably, smoking, staring away from us into a blank nothingness. The Good Life is a struggle against that falling feeling, the threat of exposure, of admission. It's the never-ending construction of an ever-stronger version of oneself; it's a refusal to fully engage, to fully commit, to fully give of oneself. (Recall how difficult it is for Don to bring himself to sign a contract at Sterling-Cooper.)

The ironies abound as these purveyors of The Good Life and of “what people do” continue to struggle with individualism, iconoclasts, and rebellion. In a telling scene, Civil Rights firebrand Medgar Evers is suggested to have been murdered not for what he stood for but because he refused to play his role. ("You see what happens to people who speak up?” counsels Betty’s dead mother in a dream sequence. “Be happy with what you have!")

In one extraordinary arc early in the season, three distinct stories approach the problem of identity and “replacement”. In the first, Peggy’s initial (and honest) attempt to advertise for a roommate is pilloried for being too boring, so she changes it (with some help from Joan) so as to demonstrate a playful version of herself.

In the second, the Sterling-Cooper ad men work to recreate the opening sequence from Bye Bye Birdie for a commercial, but even after filming a shot-by-shot version of it, fail to impress their clients. “It’s not Ann-Margaret,” understands Roger Sterling.

In the third, Betty’s father dies, and she names her baby after him, causing her daughter Sally to become terribly upset. The replacement is simply not the original, no matter how much we might want it to be.

As the season wears on, Draper’s version of The Good Life, his elaborately constructed “replacement”, begins to unravel. As his agency undergoes a series of disruptions (culminating in a major change) and some of his colleagues and friends turn away from him, his own past begins to resurface in catastrophic ways. Since, so often on the show, “what people do” looks alarmingly like “how people cope”, when things change for the worse and his carefully constructed performance begins to break down, Draper’s coping mechanisms elude him. It’s a harrowing ride, but in every way a worthy journey.

This box set includes copious commentaries (most episodes have two distinct commentary tracks) and a few impressive documentaries on the historical context into which Mad Men is placed. That they are willing to eschew the expected gag reels and other ephemera for such genuinely usefully and viewing-experience-enhancing extras is just one more reason to celebrate this, the smartest show on television.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.