Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mad Men (Seasons 1-5)



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
When contemplating how to catch up on, let alone review a series that's been showered with over a dozen Emmys in six years, ranked amongst the greatest achievements in modern television, and has justifiably been credited for helping to usher in a new golden television age, I kept coming back to that light fixture. He's stated on many occasions that he feels as if he's making a time travel show and now after watching five seasons, it's much easier to understand exactly he meant.  Those living through history are never aware that their actions and behavior become a part of it. What they say, what they wear, where they work, how they talk literally gets logged for eternity. That's why at points it's difficult not to scream "What are you doing?!" at the screen while witnessing the frustrating actions of characters whose behavior hits so uncomfortably close to home.

Unlike it's AMC stablemate Breaking Bad, discussing the plot details of Mad Men serve little to no function. I could list what happens to every character and when and it still wouldn't do anything to harm one's enjoyment of the series. This is a giant, sprawling visual novel and a snapshot of an era in American culture we've mistakenly envisioned as something similar to a Norman Rockwell painting. The writers take that image and shatter it within its first few episodes and then spend the next couple of seasons trampling all over it.

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
The series opens in March, 1960 at the prestigious Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York City, run by the founder's son Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and wise, but grumpy elder statesman Bert Booper (Robert Morse). Its golden boy and eventual partner is creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who's a genius at his job even as his marriage to cold, repressed housewife Betty (January Jones) is slowly unraveling due to his infidelity and her immaturity. But while still going through the motions of what appears from the outside to be a perfect life with a beautiful wife and two kids in Ossining, he's actually living a lie.

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
The other key relationship is much more complicated. Starting as Don's secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) aspires to become a copy writer and blaze a trail for women despite the odds being stacked against her in every way. Her overeaching ambition and perfectionism eventually lead to success, but when she demands recognition and gratitude, it all too frequently clashes with Don's obsessive need for control. And then there's the weasely Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who wants nothing more than to command the respect that Don does despite never coming close. More accurately, he wants to be Don Draper and is willing to try every slimy scheme in his playbook to achieve it. Some succeed. Most fail. And after a while, just when we think he's finally found success and happiness and is acting like a normal human being, until his  pettiest instincts begin to rear their ugly head again.

A slow-burn, novelistic show with this much depth and complexity isn't easy to instantly fall in love with, but it's easy for me to name the two-episode arc where I eventually did and couldn't wait to see where things would go next. It comes toward the end of season 2 ("The Jet Set," The Mountain King") when Don takes a business trip to California with Peter only to abandon him in favor of running off with a beautifully mysterious hippie girl (guest star Laura Ramsey) and her wealthy, eccentric friends, before eventually leaving them to tie up loose ends as Dick Whitman, dropping in on someone important from his past. A past that turns out to be considerably more complicated than we thought. It's the first time the series truly leaves its comfort zone for another setting and the stakes feel higher than they ever have for Don, as we fully realize just how much he wants to run from his current life, yet feels almost obsessively drawn to it in order to prove his worth. It's really in these two episodes that the two dueling personae start to present themselves and inform the narrative and thematic drive for the rest of the series, proving that Mad Men is as much about Don Draper as Breaking Bad is about Walter White.

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"
The much heralded "The Suitcase" from Season 4, provides even more insight into Don's complicated feelings toward the opposite sex while also serving as another acting showcase, this time for Elisabeth Moss. The episode, focusing exclusively Don's relationship with Peggy, takes place over a single night as he detains her from a birthday dinner to work on a Samsonite campaign. Her desire for recognition and thanks collides head-on with what he perceives is her arrogant opportunism and ungratefulness. While both have a point, it's still hard not to see the mutual, begrudged respect that grows between them or view Don as a father figure she so desperately wants to please. But for an hour at least, they're complete equals.

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"
One of the series' finest hours comes in Season 5 with the Pete Campbell- focused episode "Signal 30," directed by Slattery, written by Academy Award winning screenwriter Frank Pierson and  featuring a powerhouse performance from the oft underrated Kartheiser. Having previously spilled Don's big secret, cheated on his obsessively loyal wife Trudy (Alison Brie), unwittingly impregnated a co-worker, shrugged off his father's death, and even engaged in office fistacuffs, this is the episode where we finally come close to understanding what makes Pete tick and why he's so deeply miserable. It's not until he reaches his apex of creepiness and sadness that the viewer finally realizes what he can't and ultimately sympathizes with him. He's just not cut out for this kind of life and no matter how many promotions he gets, women he beds, babies he fathers, homes he buys, sinks he tries to fix, or careers he sabatoges, he'll still never be Don Draper. And even worse, he can't seem to grasp that being Don may not necessarily be an admirable goal to shoot for.

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"
One of Mad Men's most impressive attributes is how its writers can seem to effortlessly shuffle characters on and off the show at the drop of a hat and manage to do it in a way that's organic to how it would actually occur in life. A huge character might just completely disappear for a few seasons only to return sometime down the line at an unexpected, but completely logical capacity. Meanwhile, barely noticeable periphery characters suddenly move to the foreground to become major players under unexpected but entirely realistic circumstances. The best case of the latter comes in the arrival of the future Mrs. Draper, French-Canadian aspiring actress Megan (Jessica Paré). She starts with just a cameo, then graduates to getting some lines until she becomes Don's secretary, then eventually his wife. All of this happens in only a matter of episodes, and yet it all completely works. When Don announces his engagement to her, Roger seems to take the words out of viewers mouths when he legitimately asks who the hell she is. And then we find out.

Megan's true introduction comes in one of the series' most famous moments, when she serenades an embarrassed and visibly uncomfortable Don at his surprise 40th birthday party with a seductive version of Gillian Hills' French pop hit “Zou Bisou, Bisou.” The show's most valuable asset in its best season, Pare gives a star-making turn, imbuing Megan with a coolness and kindness that Betty never possessed and Don seems incapable of appreciating. Her marriage to him far different (if not necessarily better) than his with Betty, who seethes with jealousy at the idea that she's been traded in for a younger model who won't have to work hard at all to be a better mother than her. While she also appears to have moved on with politician Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), there's no hiding that Betty is still as deeply miserable as ever. There's a good case to be made that Don and Betty's new spouses are their better halves and their daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) would be lucky to count either as a parent over the neglectful ones she's been saddled with.

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
The weight gain can also be viewed as a kind of karmic justice for Betty telling her own daughter she was getting fat, as well as a reminder of her own childhood struggle with food and body image she revealed on the therapist's couch in Season 1. Despite being remarkably strong-willed and tough, she's always been a grown child wrestling with an inferiority complex, and this arc only furthers that idea. In other words, it's a writing masterstroke that finally makes her, if not any more likable, at least more relatable and deserving of some sympathy. And by putting Jones in a fatsuit it forces her to bring the goods in a way she hasn't before. But the show truly hit the jackpot with their casting of Shipka as Sally Draper, as we've gotten to literally  watch her grow up before our eyes on screen, having been emotionally present for some of the show's most disturbing, uncomfortable moments from a very young age, only to emerge from the other side as an incredible young actress whose role grows exponentially with each season. In a show where it's right to hesitate calling anyone a "victim," Sally is the only character who actually qualifies.

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
It would almost be too easy for a series set in this era to use cultural touchstones as a crutch or jam certain social issues down our throats with heavy-handed symbolism. But the writers never take that bait or place any doubt in viewers' minds that  anything less than completely authentic. And they do it by organically incorporating everything into the creative fabric of the story they're telling. Feminism, sexism, racism and historical events like the Kennedy assassination are all there but instead of merely rounding the bases like most other depictions of the 1960's in media, they put us in the shoes of those who were there to witness them and recreate the feeling of what it must have been like to be there. The ad campaigns should feel like product placement but don't because their depiction relates to how we viewed consumerism both then and now, illuminating just how much has changed, while eerily other things stayed the same. Whether it's the sudden revelation that Lucky Strike cigarettes could actually cause cancer or Don's gripping Kodak Carousel pitch in the Season 1 finale, the show speaks to more than how these products were marketed, but how the memory of them makes us feel. And in way, that encapsulates the series.

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"
It's well known that the show's biggest influence in terms of theme and style is the work of author John Cheever, whose stories of hypocrisy and moral corruption in the Westchester suburbs and Manhattan made waves in the 50's and 60's. The shadow of his most famous short story, and its brilliant 1968 adapted film, The Swimmer, looms over the series in not just its depiction of the period and its values, but Don's career, alcoholism and womanizing. It all forecasts an eventual downfall that's starting to resemble that story's doomed protagonist. The similarities are even explicitly referenced in the Season 4 episode, "The Summer Man, " in which a contemplative Don journals his thoughts and takes up swimming, only to find that he isn't physically what he used to be. It's not a stretch to suggest that Don's series-long journey is so evocative and representative of Cheever's themes that Mad Men can be viewed as speculating on many of the details and unanswered questions that were left to the imagination in that short story and film. 

If the ultimate goal of the series is to tie the past to the future, and if that's the truth, you could argue it's already been reached. But it'll be interesting to see where things go as the series heads into what should be extremely fertile ground for dramatic potential in the late sixties. Despite being set in that decade for its entire run, there's always been this nagging feeling that the characters are holdovers from the fifties who still haven't found a way to adjust to the era they're actually in. The fifth season signaled that sea change, and if they can't catch up, they'll be left in the dust. The perpetually youthful Roger's experimentation with LSD was probably just a taste of what we'll see moving forward, as Don continues coming to terms with his identities and his marriage with Megan starts to show cracks. In the minds of many, the late sixties ARE the sixties, so the upcoming potential is great for a show where each season has consistently built on its previous one.

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.

3 comments:

Jennifer Aguiar said...

Mad men season 1-5 dvd box set is a drama about one of New York's most prestigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm's most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper. It tells the lives of the men and women who work in an advertising agency in New York in the 1960s. The agency is enjoying success, but the advertising game becomes more competitive as the industry develops. The agency must adapt to ensure its survival. Don Draper who in the Mad men season 1-5 dvd box set is a talented ad executive at the top of his game, but the secrets from his past and his present threaten to topple his work and family life.

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