Creator: Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Robert Morse, Jessica Paré, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Kiernan Shipka, Christopher Stanley, Ben Feldman, Jay R. Ferguson
Original Airdate: 2007-2012
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
I was watching this interview with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner about a moment in the series' pilot episode in which 60's ad man Don Draper is lying on the couch in his office looking up at a bug in the light fixture. He said everyone kept asking him what it symbolized. Is he trapped in his own existence? Is it some kind of metaphor for how society is imprisoning us? But Weiner's explanation for the scene was spectacularly simple and equally thought provoking. He just wanted to show what a light fixture looked like in 1960. And that's the show in a nutshell.
|Mad Men opening title sequence|
As much as nostalgia can plays tricks, things weren't necessarily "better" back in the day. In many ways it was worse and in showing those battle scars in all their ugliness we get an appreciation for the time and its people that couldn't come with a more reverential, nostalgiac depiction. Historically authentic to a fault, the most revelatory moments come not in all the period details the series so frighteningly nails or even in how much we thought we knew but didn't. It's in those scary moments where we completely forget we're watching a show set in the 1960's because of its pertinence to how we live now. The clothes and technology may be different, but the problems in some ways remain almost exactly the same.
|Betty takes aim in Season 1|
Don's real name isn't "Don Draper," but actually Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute who died during childbirth and grew up in a poor, abusive household with his father. Through flashbacks we learn that Draper was really the name of his lieutenant in the Korean War whose identity he assumed after an accidental explosion injured him and killed Draper. It's a secret that defines Don but wisely not the series as eventually a handful of people discover the truth. But it does seem to inform or influence every decision he makes either at work or home, as there's a constant inner struggle between his desire to to leave that old life behind, and his reluctance to truly embrace that of "Don Draper's" because he knows himself to be a fraud unworthy of it.
Don's guilt and identity crisis lead him to drowning his sorrows in booze, tobacco and women. But he's hardly alone in that. The workplace is full of it and initially the most jarring aspect of the show is all the smoking, womanizing and rampant sexism that takes place. But merely calling the behavior "sexual harassment" doesn't even begin to do justice to the verbal (and in one key instance even physical) rape that takes place, most of which is deemed completely acceptable during this period. The real miracle might be how many characters drink and smoke their way through five seasons with only two heart attacks to show for it. So far. Don's frequent partner in womanizing and late night debauchery is the charismatic Roger, who (kind of) hired him and with whom he shares a friendship. At the series' start, his marriage is also on the rocks as he carries on an illicit on-again, off-again affair and friendship with vuluptuous, red-headed office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), who struggles to be taken seriously as a professional power player when every week there's a new secretary for the men to sleep with or marry. Her bond with Roger is a permanent fixture on the show, popping in and out at the most necessary times and without missing a beat from where they previously left off.
|Pete, Don and Roger try to land a new account|
It's almost a full-time job for viewers to keep track of Don's numerous extra-martial affairs and mistresses. They range from a beatnik artist (Rosemarie Dewitt) to personality challenged Jewish department store owner (Maggie Siff) to a "cougar" wife (Melinda McGraw) of an annoying comedian, and even his daughter's elementary school teacher (Abigail Spencer). And when the latter seems to be the least impeachable moral offense he's committed, it's probably as good a sign as any that his marriage is in crisis mode. And then the series undergoes a seismic shift that completely changes the game, as Don reaches a crossroads. His marriage to Betty implodes. A buyout forces him and a select few at Sterling Cooper to abandon ship and go into business for themselves. Sterling Cooper is now the new and modern looking, but comparatively smaller and fledgling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce located in the Time Life building as we head further into the 60's. Everything changes, as it seems almost to have become an entirely different (albeit funnier and more entertaining) show with the core characters being forced to rebuild their personal and professional lives, as well as their relationships with each other. It's a fascinating transition, but also one that somehow makes the show even better producing many of the series' strongest episodes.
|Don and Peggy crash at the office in Season 4's "The Suitcase"|
If Don he must adjust to his new role as mentor and ad legend at the firm, Roger must deal with his own diminishing power, as a man who once commanded such respect is now relegated to paying off employees to just do their jobs and suffering through a mid-life crisis with his trophy wife. Slattery's so good here, going from playing a powerful character who seems to be on top of the world to suffering an almost comical loss of status. And once considered the Marilyn Monroe of the office, Joan too is getting older and adjusting to the responsibilities and pitfalls that come with being the eyes and ears of the workplace when all eyes used to be on her. Joan's probably the smartest character on the show and the one most underestimated by men because of her looks. They'll learn.
|Pete Campbell hits rock bottom in Season 5's "Signal 30"|
If there's a common thread amongst the great TV's dramas, it's a cast comprised of actors who each fill their niche so perfectly that you cringe imagining anyone else in the roles. Leading the charge is Jon Hamm, whose staggering work as the enigmatic Draper has still shockingly gone Emmy-less. The easy answer as to why is that he's been up against Bryan Cranston, but the better explanation is that he's just so subtle and convincing as a regular guy internally wrestling with all these emotional demons that it isn't the kind of performance that necessarily jumps out in your face. He makes it impossible to categorize Don with easily identifiable labels and refuses to make him either "likable" or "unlikable." He isn't a woman hater or a racist, which for this era should qualify him for sainthood. He's generous, but incredibly disloyal and selfish. He's an egomaniac, but incredibly insecure and secretive. Yet he also operates within this strict moral code that's mostly fair, never hesitating calling out those abuse their position despite having done so numerous times himself. Don's full of complicated, sometimes inexplicable contradictions and in Hamm's hands it all makes perfect sense. And even when it doesn't, we don't care, and are fascinated to see where he'll take the character.
It's been the general consensus that Hamm carries a weaker January Jones through the first few seasons, which isn't completely fair. While Jones is clearly the beneficiary of having the perfect look for a frustrated 60's housewife to the point that her image could have literally been ripped from Life magazine, it's hard to look at the totality of her work throughout the series, as well as the times she's had to go toe-to-toe with Hamm, and argue that it hasn't been impressive. Is she a gifted actress? Possibly not overall, but within this very specific zone and character she's asked to play, she sure is. Weiner takes traits (like her stilted line delivery and apathetic demeanor) that on any other show would be exposed as weaknesses, and converts them to strengths, all while convincing us there may be better actresses, but capable of playing Betty exactly how Jones does.
|Megan Draper performs "Zou Bisou, Bisou"|
It's Betty's chronic misery that leads to the infamous and controversial "Fat Betty" storyline,which was creatively concocted by Weiner as a solution to Jones' real-life pregnancy. The character begins eating herself into oblivion, with the actress even donning full body padding and facial prosthetics that recall an Eddie Murphy movie. Previously a young, beautiful trophy wife for Don, she's now a depressed, overweight politician's wife living in a big, dark, empty home in Rye. She goes from Grace Kelly to Eleanor Roosevelt. Was Jones being punished for her pregnancy? Does Weiner hate her? Neither I'm sure. More likely, he seized the golden opportunity to take away the one thing that's defined Betty (and by extension January) since the series' inception.
|January Jones is Betty Francis in the controversial "Fat Betty" storyline|
It seems the easiest characters to relate on this show are the fringe ones who are on the outside looking in, mostly because they at least outwardly appear to be the most well-adjusted, despite being far from it. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), who, under somewhat unusual circumstances, becomes a named partner and financial officer at the new firm is one of them. His arc might be the most heartbreaking in the series since no matter how hard he works or tries to fit in, he must deal with demanding wife and abusive father who go out of their way to make him feel worthless at every turn. As a result, he does. And the holes he digs for himself professionally only get deeper until there's no escape. It's hard not to look at him as a good, honest man undone by a sad series of events that spin out of his control. Under pressure, he also makes some really bad decisions that were within his control. Harris was deservedly nominated for an Emmy for his performance, which still finds a way to stand out amidst a brilliant ensemble.
The same amount depth is attributed to even supposedly minor players like Aaron Stanton's Ken Cosgrove, who's everyguy normalness and interesting side career as a published author stand in stark contrast to most of his delusional, career driven colleagues. Or nerdy head of TV, Harry Crane (Rich Sommers), pipe smoking Orson Welles lookalike Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), closeted homosexual Sal Romano (Bryan Batt), alcoholic ad rival "Duck" Phillips (Mark Moses), brash art director Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) and extroverted, off-the-wall copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman). Some stay, go and even come back again at various points but they all feel as important as any of the lead characters, even with significantly less screen time. The great thing about the show is that you can't forget about any of them at the risk that they'll pop up and play a pivotal role when it's least expected. But one of the most intriguing recurring characters is actually a kid. Sally's eccentric friend Glen Bishop (played by Marten Weiner, son of creator Matthew Weiner) first shows up in Season 1 with a crush on Betty and it's almost too bizarre for words how that arc plays out, giving us our first real indication of just how irresponsible and borderline abusive a mother she can be. Glen's occasional reappearances only get stranger from that point on, saving his absolute weirdest for last.
|Don's unforgettable Kodak presentation|
This approach also extends to the music, which doesn't the feature big, obvious, soundtrack-ready choices we're used to getting whenever the 60's are presented on film. When songs shows up you know it means something, their placement is carefully considered and, it has something important to say within the show's context. The two most notable are the uses of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" when Don comes home to an empty house on Thanksgiving and the unforgettably shocking inclusion of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" in the Season 5 episode "Lady Lazarus." The latter is definitely a big deal, representing only the second time an original Beatles recording has been licensed for use on a scripted television series. And it was worth every penny they paid for it, replicating the experience of what it would have been like to hear to the group's most progressive song when it was released. When Don drops the needle on Revolver at Megan's urging, it's of little surprise he can't make it through. Of course he wouldn't get it. It's one of those moments where the future meets the past, and if anyone's in danger of being left behind, it's Don Draper. Previously a forward-thinking creative genius, he closes the fifth season as a shell of himself, increasingly unable to relate to a rapidly changing culture he used to have his finger on the pulse of.
Beyond the use of music, the costume and production design of the series is astounding in not only its authenticity, but how it constantly keeps up with the changing aesthetics of the decade. That's never more obvious than when we get a glimpse of the new SCDP offices or Don and Megan's Upper East Side apartment, which is so uniquely laid out and designed you'd swear it hails from another planet rather than a different era. Touches like that and even the Saul Bass-inspired, retro opening title sequence (rightly considered one of TV's all-time greatest intros) only begin to scratch the surface of all the rich details Weiner fills the series with.
|Don goes for a swim in Season 4's "The Summer Man"|
The tagline for AMC is "Story Matters Here," but looking at their two most creatively successful dramas, it's easier to argue that character matters much more. It's one thing to be popular with viewers, win some awards or get strong critical notices, but it's another entirely to create a work of art that's both historically and culturally significant. One that tells us where we were, how we got here, and where we're going. With movies there's always disagreement as to what will hold up over time or how something will age. Not this. It's a lock that we'll still be talking about and analyzing Mad Men years from now. Whether or not Don Draper would be able to appreciate that is another question entirely.