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.
"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.