This place has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich.
Not everything is resolved, but debts are paid. But then again, I'm not a person who is giving you justice on TV. Don't watch my show for justice. Life's not fair.1
Mad Men depicts a corner of an empire during the height of its power and decadence. Matt Weiner conceived of the show many years ago; his work as executive producer and writer for The Sopranos bought him the influence needed to sell it. It made its debut in the summer of 2007, and its first season ran for thirteen episodes. It since has had two further seasons and will run for at least one more.
We're in New York City, 1960, at Sterling Cooper, a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency. The men and women who work there connive and lie: the job requires it. Clients include a tobacco industry embattled by recent charges that the product can kill people and presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon. Nearly everyone smokes, heavily. The men drink in their offices and harass the secretaries. The only Black employees work as a janitor and an elevator operator; they are summarily fired after a petty theft to which they have no connection. The show regularly references events that will influence the future. Irony abounds because, as in Sophocles, the audience knows how history turned out.
The principal Mad Man is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the agency's creative director. Draper plays like someone from an ad, with his chiseled features, tailored clothes, beautiful wife, and two children. In fact, he's his own best creation. Born out of wedlock and in poverty, he took the name of a fallen man during the Korean War and created a new persona and life. His tale reflects the more commonplace tendency to reinvent oneself over the course of one's life and to edit the personal histories which shaped us. The resulting secrets and inner turmoil sometimes threaten to overwhelm Draper, and under pressure he commits acts of quiet cowardice and desperation. He has come close to fleeing his current life, abandoning his wife and children in the process. Hamm gives a fascinating but understated performance.
Three women occupy Draper's attention during the first season. He has a wife and a regular mistress, but he also begins a dalliance with a female client.
Betty Draper (January Jones) looks beautiful, but lives a life of increasing isolation, a June Cleaver whose Ward does not consistently return. As the series develops, she turns inward, takes pills, and walks on the edge of madness. Possibly named for Betty Friedan, she demonstrates the alienation many women experienced at the time.2
Midge Daniels (Rosemarie DeWitt), a Greenwich Village artist with beat friends, sleeps with Draper but doesn’t "make plans or breakfast." They share a relationship of convenience which appears to be ending. Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), has inherited her family's store and turns to Sterling Cooper to ensure its continued success. Jewish and female, she faces a double prejudice, particularly acute in her early encounters with the agency. Both women represent the changes which will forever undermine the white male privilege enjoyed by the Mad Men.
That male privilege can be seen in the senior partners, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse). Cooper's success permits him eccentricities. He's the only member of the agency (in the first season) who is not clean-shaven; his prohibition against shoes in his office becomes a source of humour. He's a practical man, however, willing to tolerate deviations from the norm if they yield good results.
Roger Sterling appears more often in the first season. The degree of his drinking and philandering shock even his colleagues, while Sterling notes that Cooper smokes excessively. He has grown distant from his family and increasingly bitter about the world. With two heart attacks in the first season, his future remains uncertain.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), boyish of appearance and attitude, in his mid-twenties, has come from a wealthy, established family and expects to hold rank. The actor does a remarkable job of depicting Campbell's self-image, insecure yet self-aggrandizing. He wants to be a Don Draper, but he cannot keep seeing himself as a kid, and his ruthless but inept pursuit of power makes him enemies among the executives. For all his faults, he sees the future. He compares Kennedy to Elvis, and correctly identifies a major obstacle that the Nixon campaign will not overcome. He also is the future, the spoiled self-esteem junkie who assumes the world owes him success.
Draper's other male coworkers have been developed less completely, though we're starting to see their personalities and stories. More often, they function as a Greek Chorus and a representation of a dying corporate culture. They include Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), and Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), and Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis). Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), the token non-WASP, also appears to be secretly gay, though the first season does not really develop this aspect of his character.3
Among the office women, two have significant roles and they rank among the show's most interesting performances. Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), the pilot episode's new girl gives us a rude introduction to Sterling Cooper, as she faces first-day sexual harassment. An ingénue, she proves intelligent and quietly ambitious. While she remains a secretary throughout the first season, she has started writing copy for the company and plans to rise in the ranks. Her weight gain (created through a partially-convincing fat suit and make-up) has become a point of discussion. Does she use food to assuage her loneliness? Or is she trying to make herself less conventionally attractive and therefore, in the eyes of the men, more competent? The final episode of the first season offers a problematic response.
Her best episode in the first season involves a dubious "exerciser" which has no apparent weight-loss benefits but which has proven popular with some female consumers. Peggy tries the device and realizes these women are using the vibrating item as a masturbation aid. She then must explain this fact to a group of less-than-sensitive male colleagues and determine how the company can advertise this fact without violating the public mores of the times. It's a very funny episode handled with beautiful understatement.
Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) runs the office. A voluptuous woman who accepts harassment as the order of the things, she uses her sexuality to gain favour. Sterling calls her "the finest piece of ass" he's ever had and she takes this as a compliment.4 A rivalry develops in the first season with Peggy, who clearly does not respect Joan's methods, and may find her own way through holes in the glass ceiling.
Aging ad men have both defended and attacked the show's reality. I cannot say how many offices were this wild. It's axiomatic to say that any given historical drama depicts the birth of the world we now inhabit. This is true, to some degree, of Mad Men. It also presents a world that, for better and worse, we've lost. Public manners are impeccable—private actions less so. The second-nature sexism and racism feels disturbingly accurate, and I can vouch for one thing: the world looked like this when I was a kid. This is the post-war culture Mad Magazine existed to parody. This is the era that transformed us from citizens to consumers.
This is not to say that every episode seems equally convincing. I find it hard to believe that an award-winning ad man of the era would direct both anti-Semitic and misogynistic remarks at a female, Jewish client at their first meeting. Draper might have both attitudes, but he's not going to alienate a wealthy client in such a ham-handed manner.
Fans online have identified (as fans are wont to do) a number of anachronisms. Some are clearly errors. Others strike me as artistic choices. Peggy Olsen, for example, goes on the Pill in the first episode: a problematic development for 1960, since it had only just been approved as a contraceptive and was not yet widely available. Mad Men regularly references developments which will make a significant impact, and oral contraceptives have particular relevance for Peggy.
The writers and directors generally do an excellent job. Plot development occurs slowly, however. This will doubtless drive away some viewers, and the comic and satiric undercurrent may not be strong enough to hold them. Like The Sopranos, this is an adult drama which for some may also represent a dark fantasy, a look at a world more glamorous onscreen than it would be to actually inhabit. The show has reached its fifth season, and we may not know its impact on television for some time.
1. Quoted in Kristin Dos Santos and Kristin Dos Santos’s "Mad Men Will Make You Skinny and Desirable" (Watch With Kristin October 12, 2007. http://www.eonline.com/gossip/kristin/detail/index.jsp?uuid=613d3f36-f673-4a9c-ac29-55e9d17243a7)
2. At least in the first season. She grows increasingly one-dimensional and unpleasant as the series progresses, in what by the fourth season seems like a lapse in the quality of the show's writing.
3. Later seasons develop this aspect to good effect, though the character later disappears from the series.
4. jmpz disagrees, saying that "the actress did a great job of subtly playing Joan's disappointment at his crass comment on such a potentially tender moment."