When I first saw the previews for Mad Men on cable’s AMC, I was sure it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. Too many smug white men chain-smoking, drinking, and enjoying their power. Women with Marilyn Monroe figures were on the fringes, minorities were invisible. In short, I didn’t think there was much to engage me. But I decided to watch the first episode, followed by “The Making of Mad Men” with creator, writer, and Executive Producer Matthew Weiner discussing his vision. I became totally hooked. Here was the type of show that invariably got yanked from network television for being edgy and cerebral. As I watched the series unfold, I realized that the show could be a window for today’s young women, illustrating the conditions that shaped previous generations of feminists, from whom they often feel estranged. It also forced me to look at and acknowledge how male behavior was constricted by their formulated societal roles. Where The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was a look at the mid-fifties simultaneous to the unfolding of the Eisenhower era, Mad Men is an examination in hindsight. Before anyone dreamed of a women’s movement, black power, or gay liberation, the show’s characters experience the first stirrings of awareness. We watch with omniscience, and are able to recognize the black elevator operator who is imperceptible to the employees he transports daily; the closeted homosexual who protects his true identity; and the unmarried Jewish female executive looking to reframe her father’s Manhattan department store without the pushcart stigma.
The program begins each week with a free falling man, accompanied by music with ominous overtones. The stage is set for a time of duplictiousness, when people were not sure of who they were, but knew who it was not safe to be. Weiner uses the Madison Avenue advertising agency, Sterling Cooper, as his setting. Their job is to sell the American public a version of what life should be. The team of executives uses its expertise to put forth a model where truth and deception are intrinsically intertwined.
Weiner treads the line between presenting male and female characters as stereotypes to be judged, and evolving personalities with deep, rich complexity. He explores each individual’s interior landscape, a place they are not yet willing or able to go to. At the center of the drama is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the quintessentially tall, dark, and handsome man. A strong, silent type who can’t express his emotions to his wife, the roots of his psychological conflict are revealed mid-season. In one of the last episodes, we see how while serving in the Korean War, he exchanges his name and dog tags with another soldier who has been killed. He takes on the dead man’s name, obliterating his birth history of origin. Draper invents a fabricated identity for himself in the same way he will later develop ad campaigns for clients. His personal story becomes a metaphor for the theme of the show. How we design ourselves to present to the world, within the context of our particular culture. The Fifties were the ultimate period of contrived appearances and deceptive artifice. That way of life had to lead to the explosion of the 1960’s, because so many people could no longer afford to implode.
In looking at the four primary female characters, we see a spectrum of types emblematic of the time frame. They are all white, reflecting the slice of pie Weiner has cut. One, Rachel, is Jewish – which puts her squarely in the “outsider” zone. When she comes to the agency looking for counsel on how to reposition her business, it is decided that a Jewish staff member should be present at the meeting. They finally locate an employee…someone who works in the mailroom. Rachel is independent, honest, and able to function as an equal in a man’s world, creating a counterpoint to Don’s wife Betty. When queried by e-mail about her character, actress Maggie Seff described her as “a woman ahead of her time.” It is significant that although she and Don are so obviously different, that they connect on a deeply instinctual level.
Betty (January Jones) is the classic Grace Kelly prototype. At the start of the series we see her suffering from numbness in her hands, a somatic condition that is the manifestation of her anxiety and emotional conflict. She begins seeing a classic Freudian therapist, who reports to her husband on her progress (a nod to the disregard of patient/doctor privilege). Betty knows that something is wrong, but she can’t put her finger on what it is. She has suffered the loss of her mother, and has incidents of behavior that raise serious red flags. She wanders around her suburban kitchen in the middle of the day smoking, drinking coffee, and wearing her nighttime negligee. You can palpably feel the suffocation of this mother of two, the proverbial canary in a gilded cage. Would this Bryn Mawr graduate be holding her personality together, instead of devolving into a woman infantilized by her spouse, if her circumstances were different? Not getting the companionship or passion she craves from Don, she is resigned to being another planet in his orbit. It is painful hearing him chastise her about allowing an air-conditioning representative into their home with the accusation, “You let a salesman into my house?” When wandering around a shopping parking lot, after learning that her husband has been calling her therapist, she despairs that she has no one to talk to. The perfectly captured colors of the cars, her shirtdress, the supermarket, and the boxy flatness of the scene, all contribute to a postcard vision of an American nightmare.
Within the office, two distinctly different “working girls” represent the old options and the new possibilities. Actress Christina Hendricks, who portrays Joan, qualifies her character as “a strong, bossy, organized, fashionable, lonely woman.” In the classic secretary vs. wife scenario, Joan offers the boss she is having an affair with a mirror from which he can admire his power and virility. The liaison comes to an end after he suffers a heart attack and reevaluates his lifestyle. When they meet for a scene of closure his emotional revelation is, “You are the finest piece of ass I’ve ever had.” Then again, this is a man whose philosophical musings include, “God closes a door and he opens a dress.”
Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) comes to the agency as the prototype of the young woman of the 60’s who will be challenged by the forces and turmoil that the decade will unleash. Without a college education, she will use her innate talent and ambition to rise above the limited expectations of the typing pool, and realize that despite obstacles there are other possibilities for her. She rejects Joan’s tutelage, and sees that the power of her brain can be as potent as her body and her looks. As described by Elizabeth Moss, Peggy is “very driven” and wants to “genuinely do a good job and prove herself.” As she evolves in the series, we see her leaving the female beehive and being given more responsibility when she is promoted to the position of junior copywriter. We later witness her hiring talent for a commercial. The way in which she handles the interaction raises the uncertainty of whether she is going to bring something new to the game, or handle situations with the same lack of sensitivity as the male paradigm.
Woven throughout the show are glimpses of behavior and trends that will inform our current way of life. We see the first selling of the presidency in the Kennedy vs. Nixon race, as candidates are packaged as a product. In a quintessential piece of symbolism, the final episode features Don selling the concept of the “slide carousel” as the epitome of how to capture those sequential special moments that make up a life. He knows better than anyone how the Kodak moment is just a doppelganger for the authentic truth, which lurks beneath the surface of the perfect photographic image.
Mad Men allows us to look back at our recent history, and see not only to what extent circumstances are different, but also the ways in which they are still the same. The media and advertising machines continue to grind, just the vocabulary is different. A woman and a black man are running for President, but inequities persist and abound. Abortion is perilously under attack, and Hurricane Katrina forced the nation to look closely at the part race plays in America. Gays and lesbians may be out, but the religious right is working hard to fight what progress has been made.
Matthew Weiner has created a “humanist” show that allows us to ponder our past, question our future, and hopefully bring those insights into our present. I am looking forward to Season 2.
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.