Mad Men, Sad Men


When first viewing Mad Men, it’s difficult not to be initially drawn to the design of its mise-en-scène. With a look and feel that is both glossy and authentic, the show’s production values and period detail are more attuned to what one expects from film than TV, especially on a network, AMC, not previously known for original programming.

Next to being how struck with how good it looks, you’re struck with the behavior of the male characters: they drink on the job and at virtually all hours, smoke freely, speak bluntly about and to women as if they are objects, or, at least, other than fully human. While there are lines that can be crossed, these behaviors all appear to be accepted as norms of the era. Looking at the actions of the men quite naturally draws attention to the show’s women and their reactions to the male characters, and at that point the show’s layers and complexities begin to reveal themselves.

The series’ title, Mad Men, is taken from Madison Avenue in New York, where many of the world’s top ad agencies and their offices reside. Set in 1960, the show largely takes place at the fictional Sterling Cooper agency and the Westchester home of protagonist Donald Draper (Jon Hamm), where he lives with wife, Betty (January Jones), and their two children, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Bobby (Aaron Hart). Betty, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Sterling Cooper’s office manager, and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Don Draper’s secretary, are the show’s principal female characters. Collectively they provide one view into Mad Men‘s exploration of the cracks and fissures under the glossy surfaces of its sets, and of America at the end of the Eisenhower administration.

Betty and Joan both appear to be well settled in the male-dominated word of the late ’50s and early ’60s. They’ve both “made it”, albeit in different ways. Betty is a cool, Hitchcockian blonde (and she is, in fact, compared to Grace Kelly at one point), who went from modeling to suburban housewife in short order. She lives in a big house on a quiet street, has a handsome husband who is also a good provider, and two adorable moppets for children. Betty is the epitome of the female American dream for her time. In contrast, Joan represents the successful career girl. She isn’t married, but she does run a major office. Redheaded and curvy, she is also a central object of desire for the men at Sterling Cooper. Both through her professional position and her sexuality, she strikes an image of feminine power in the same way that Betty embodies the domestic dreams of everywoman.

In episode two, “The Ladies Room”, we see that despite her apparent perfection, Betty is wracked with anxieties, anxieties that manifest physically in her hands, preventing her from holding onto things like the steering wheel of her car. She is anxious both about keeping the life she has and whether that life provides her with enough meaning. Despite Don’s skepticism and resistance, she enters psychotherapy. Her initial visits are tentative, touching on safe subjects like the death of her mother, her hopes for her children, especially Sally, and mild articulations of her desire for something more than the husband, the house, and the kids. However, after confronting the realities of infidelity through best friend Francine (Anne Dudek), and learning that Don has been secretly phoning her psychotherapist for regular reports, reports that she does not get, she begins to openly discuss her fears about Don, who is in fact cheating on her, and, at one point, even contemplates leaving her. The flaws in her life, particularly her utter dependence on Don, are very real, and Betty knows it. [Notably, though many characters are rather cavalier about infidelity others, such as Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) is wracked with remorse after an alcohol-soaked office party leads to a brief indescretion.]

While Joan seems initially more self-possessed than Betty, her encounters with Peggy coincide with a re-examination of her life. Unlike the other two women, Peggy has little reason to think that she should be satisfied with her lot in life. Possessing neither Betty’s prettiness nor Joan’s sexiness, she isn’t able to earn rewards from within the masculinist order in the same manner as those characters. While initially attempting to play by the rules as laid down by Joan – act as a mother to your boss, dress for men, parlay the job into marriage — she consciously and unconsciously subverts gender expectations. Whether this is because of force of personality, or some emergent political consciousness, or because the man she finds herself involved with is the insecure, soon-to-be-and-then-newly-married, and entitled Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), is hard to tell, but Peggy charts her own path at Sterling Cooper. She dresses modestly, deflects the attentions of (most) men, does not hide her intelligence, and while punished socially, professionally she ends the season with an almost unprecedented promotion to junior copywriter.

She also learns, after a long period of denial and perhaps too, some naiveté, that her liaisons with Pete have left her pregnant — in spite of an embarrassing episode where she bravely endures humiliation from an insensitive male doctor to get herself put on birth control. Her pregnancy is not reveled to us (and clearly, its growing reality is deeply denied by Peggy herself), until she’s in the throes of labor pains. The men in the office and other gossips assumed all along that she was going to fat. Alone in New York City and with no real friends but what might become a “real” job (Peggy clearly has pre-feminisit movement inclinations toward making a career for herself), she chooses to give up her baby to keep her job. Clearly, the outcome of this difficult decision will be more fully explored in season two. [As, too, will the subject of closeted homosexuality, touched-upon in season one in gently agonizing moments by Salvatore (Bryan Batt).]

Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)

Peggy’s seemingly inexplicable success at copywriting for the agency shakes Joan’s confidence in her own position as office manager / double as just another pretty piece who sleeps with the boss. Peggy’s rejection of Joan’s advice regarding life at Sterling Cooper — the truly important things for women in this firm goes on not from the neck up, but from the waist down — is a source of tension between the two characters, and the fact that plain, dowdy, Peggy is able to “get ahead” in ways that Joan could never makes Joan visibly angry and jealous. For Joan, Peggy’s success implies that she is not exercising the only power available to her as a woman (her sexuality), but dares to think that there could be other options available for women who work “from the neck up”.

In one of season one’s best moments, Joan tangles with boss and illicit lover Roger Sterling (John Slattery) about The Apartment (1960). Seeing herself in Shirley McClaine’s Fran Kubelik, she challenges Roger on their relationship. Roger tries to lightheartedly brush off the comparisons between himself and the men who exploit Fran, but the meaning of Joan’s baiting him into this conversation seems all too clear: she isn’t altogether happy with their arrangement, and she’s particularly wary of Roger’s attempts to pin her down for himself absent marriage.

Of course, one of the central differences between Betty and Joan is that Joan hasn’t landed a husband, an interesting contravention of her advice to Peggy. One can read this as failure or, and this would be my preferred interpretation, as a matter of choice. Joan’s greatest secret may not be her affair with Roger, but the fact that she doesn’t want to be married, at least not at the cost demanded by society. She values her power and her freedom. She is, perhaps, happy enough to be Roger’s mistress, but the more he wants to ensnare her in a marriage-like exclusivity and dependency the less comfortable she is with their arrangement. Peggy’s ability to be openly unconventional, and be rewarded for it in certain ways, is likely why she unsettles Joan.

What all three characters are negotiating is how to be a woman in a world made by and for men. While male privilege is the central theme of Mad Men, other forms of privilege, particularly those that intersect with being male, also figure into the season one narrative. Heteronormativity and white, or, more precisely, WASP, privilege are critical, if sometimes token, subthemes. However, the most important secondary problematic is class. Just as the relationship between Joan and Peggy reveals much about the show’s exploration of gender, the relationship between Don Draper and Pete Campbell is at the center of its examination of social class in America.

Pete is a young account executive, while Don is the agency’s creative director, and, by season’s end, is made partner. Whereas Pete is from New York aristocracy, Don comes from rural poverty. While Don has gone to great, and not entirely legal, lengths to obscure those roots, he does not masquerade as upper class, but as a modified version of his “true” self. This is made evident when Don compares Nixon to Kennedy, and he identifies personally with Nixon as a self-made man from modest means. Of course, if Don is Nixon, then Pete is Kennedy, and the implied animosity is clear almost every time the men interact. Two episodes in particular illustrate how the show views class in America through Don and Pete.

In “New Amsterdam”, the season’s fourth episode, Pete pitches a client behind Don’s back. This move is simply one of the more egregious signs that while Pete may understand that Don is his boss, he does not really think of him as a social equal. Pete wears his sense of entitlement on his sleeve, and this ensures that he gets under Don’s skin. In response to this very clear professional offense, Don fires Pete. Shortly thereafter, he is called into the office of senior partner Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), where he is informed that Pete cannot be fired as his family connections are too important to the agency’s bottom line. Roger Sterling simultaneously needles Don and helps him save face by pretending to Pete that Don got the younger man his job back. So, here, class privilege does matter. Pete’s sense of entitlement is at least partly grounded in social reality. The system works for him better than it does for others, even other white, heterosexual men. However, as events in the season’s penultimate episode demonstrate, the show’s angle on class is not as simple as that.

After Don is promoted to partner, and Roger is sidelined by a heart attack, an opening for head of accounts is created. Pete not only desperately wants this job, but feels it is his due. While indulging his fantasy in Don’s office, he falls into possession of a box of family photos and mementoes that reveal “Donald Draper” to be “Richard Whitman”. Through connections in Washington, D.C., Pete is able to figure out that Don Draper is an assumed identity. He attempts to blackmail Don into the promotion, but only succeeds in making the other man nervous. He brings his discovery to Cooper, who responds, “Mr. Campbell, who cares?” He continues with what he claims is a Japanese saying, “A man is whatever room he is in”. The subtext here is that the real value of any individual at Sterling Cooper is in the profit they generate (this is also an important insight for understanding Peggy’s rise at the firm). Ideally, the agency would have both Pete and Don, but if it’s a matter of one or the other, Don’s skill with words and with clients are more valuable than Pete’s family connections. Both men keep their positions, but Pete does not get promoted.

The realization that profit is what makes people valuable points to further ambiguities in the social world of Mad Men, even for the white, heterosexual, bourgeoisie males most advantaged by that world.

Mad Men‘s very mod opening credits

The opening credits for the series start with a faceless, black-and-white paper doll figure, clearly a businessman, in an office made of line drawings and cut outs of furniture, liquor bottles, etc. The office falls away and the man tumbles through a forest of skyscrapers adorned with advertisements that hold out promises of wealth, sex, and happiness. But these images are unattainable, beyond the grasp of the falling man. At the end of the sequence (which evokes Hitchock’s style), the man comes to rest on a large chair, back to the audience, and cigarette in hand. On the one hand, this implies a safe landing, but it doesn’t erase the fall. Nor does it change the man’s essential isolation as he sits alone with nothing more than a cigarette for company. Eventually, the cigarette which is known, even in 1960, to cause potentially lethal health problems will be reduced to ashes. The satisfaction offered by this “safe” landing is fleeting at best, and it is not accidental that the figure falling from the sky and onto the chair is not a woman, but a man. The man be able to access forms of relief and respite denied to women and to less privileged men, but the world in which he lives, as friendly as it is for him, is still not fully his own.

The ads on the skyscrapers in the credit sequence are particularly important, not merely for the way they foreground the show’s setting, but also as pointers to one of the first season’s insights into advertising, namely, that it works largely by making people feel dissatisfied with their lives and with themselves, or, at least, that even good lives can be made better with the right product. Linking the popularization of psychotherapy to the increasing prevalence and sophistication of advertising as a social force in American life is a subtle device for making this point, a point underscored by the ironic pairing of Don’s clear awareness of how advertising works with his skepticism about psychology and psychiatry. That nearly everyone on the show seems not quite as happy as they think they should be isn’t surprising in a culture where grasping after more is seen as natural, if not the central fact of human existence. The fact that Don seeks out affairs with women who are virtually the opposite of Betty in their apparent unconventionality and outsiderness is partly due to his own history as an outsider, but also serves as a potent signifier for the gnawing emptiness of American capitalism, an emptiness that is not easily filled with the good life promised in the ads that Don conjures for clients.

The season one DVD set for Mad Men is generously provisioned with extras, including commentary tracks for each of the 13 episodes. In most cases, a choice of two commentaries is provided. These tracks feature different combinations of creative talent, from actors, writers, and directors to production designers and editors. From a viewer’s perspective, and considering individual episodes, any particular commentary maybe more or less ideal, but for the course of the season, the set makes it possible to hear from just about every significant contributor to the show, and it’s hard to find fault with that effort.

In addition to the commentary tracks, the set also includes a number of short features, including: a conversation with series composer David Carbonara; Advertising the American Dream, a critical history of the industry; Pictures of Elegance, a set of narrated animated galleries on costuming, hair, and production design; and Establishing Mad Men, an hour-long presentation of the series’ creative lineage and production process focused on the making of the pilot. Disc one also includes two promotional extras, a “Music Sampler” advertising the official soundtrack and a season two preview.

All of the short features are well-produced, but the most innovative is Pictures of Elegance (disc two). As noted in my introduction, the stylized look of the show is one of its most notable attributes, and the fact that the DVD producers not only acknowledge that in the extras, but go a step further with a relatively fresh presentation of the subject is appreciated. However, the feature is set up such that it disables or redirects standard DVD controls. On both my laptop and TV player, the only way I could find to get out of a gallery during playback was by resetting the disc.

I am similarly ambivalent about the season one packaging. The case for the four discs and related print media is made to look like a silver Zippo lighter. There’s no denying the kitschy coolness of the concept (and its appropriateness, given the ubiquity of cigarette smoking throughout the show), but, while some clever design went into making it work, as a practical matter, it’s not the most functional DVD storage. Getting discs in and out requires some precision, and it’s virtually impossible to see at a glance which DVD is which before pulling one out. I also quickly learned to be careful about closing the lid so as to avoid catching the lead disc with the edge; of course, part the problem I have here maybe due to the fact that my set arrived dented. If you see yourself pulling these DVDs out on a frequent basis, I’d consider alternative storage.

A few minor flaws in the DVD extras and packaging hardly takes the shine off of the whole set. Most importantly, the show itself remains one of the brightest gems on the televisual landscape. One index of how successful Mad Men‘s makers are in crafting and sustaining the show’s layered and complex story world is to consider how well the season one ending works.

The final scene is presented in two versions. In the first iteration, Don comes home the evening before Thanksgiving to find wife and kids at home. He surprises them with the news that he will be going with them to Betty’s brother’s house, after all – affirming his need for and support of family. Everyone embraces in joy. In the second ending, he comes home to an empty house. What could have been a stunt, comes across instead as an artful summation of a first season in which the principal characters repeatedly confront whether the life they have is the one they want or not.

Even better is that it follows a day in which Don pitched a campaign to Kodak based on nostalgia, using family photo slides as devices for reminding people of home, of feeling wanted and safe, thus equating the Kodak product with that warm feeling. The look of disappointment and resignation in Don’s face and body in the second version of that final scene suggests that he not only affected his co-workers and potential clients with the pitch, but also himself.

He and his fellow Mad Men may exploit such needs and desires, they may intensify, heighten, and channel them, but that doesn’t make them any less real. The nuance and subtlety needed, both behind and in front of the camera, to carry off these alternate endings, is a rare and beautiful thing in any narrative art, let alone American television.

RATING 9 / 10