Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mad Men: Season Two

THE BEST CHARACTER ON Mad Men is not a man and is only a little mad. While the men do dominate the main text, the more interesting, more nuanced women, rule the roost of the subtext, effectively taking over what passes for the primary narrative. Joan Holloway, played exceeding well by Christina Hendricks, is the first character viewers see in the opening frames of the premiere of season two of the show, and she functions as a metaphor for all of the women torn between their dependence on and frustration with men.

Set in a Manhattan advertising agency in 1960 (last season) and beginning in February of 1962 (this season), Mad Men has garnered positive critical remarks for its portrayal of open sexuality and sexism in the office. Indeed, there is hardly a scene featuring a woman and a man in which either positive or negative sexual tension is absent. It's always there--sometimes ambiguously positive and negative--spilling over onto the floor and staining the fabric of the co-ed but not co-equal work place.

One of the themes is the effect that men and their decisions have on the women in their lives--whether they are lovers, wives, or colleagues. With almost no agency and even fewer options, the show's women are forced into perpetually reactive positions, sometimes with dire consequences. When Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)--one of the young women from the vast secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper--discovers that her one night stand with an engaged male colleague has resulted in her pregnancy, she makes what appears to be a shockingly unsentimental decision to give up her baby; a decision prompted largely by her promotion from secretary to copywriter. Similarly, Betty Draper (January Jones), the attractive and polished wife of the lead character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has all the right things and does all the right things but suffers from a perpetual ennui. She loves her life. She hates her life. She loves her husband and his salary. She hates her husband and his infidelity. But, what are her options? In a great scene from the Season Two premiere, Betty runs in to a former roommate who is now a call girl. There but for the grace of Don goes Betty?

Last season, the feeling of being trapped, of being confined within a system and the anxiety and frustration that elicits was the sole domain of women. But, now, it's 1962, and last night's episode suggests that in this season such emotions will cross the aisle and sidle up to both genders. The surprising use of Frank O'Hara's small but revolutionary collection of poems Meditations in an Emergency is a bellwether both for the characters in the show and, for the viewers who know the book, for the audience itself. O'Hara's funny, iconoclastic, non-poetic book of poems signals the end of what Tom Brokaw has called "the Greatest Generation" and heralds the beginning of what we now know as "the Sixties." What this means for Draper and the rest of the men at Sterling Cooper (read: typical white Republican men in America) is that all of the easy assumptions he has been making about gender roles, capitalism, equality, and progress, will soon butt up against the century's most revolutionary decade. Like his wife and his former secretary, he, too, will feel passed by, out of control, even paralyzed.

Alessandra Stanley argues in The New York Times that Mad Men "became such a critical hit last summer is that it glows with amused nostalgia for a lost but not-so-distant era."

I disagree.

In fact, TWR was the first to argue that Mad Men's real draw is the dialectic between nostalgia and interrogation. It's wrong and simply too easy to claim the show uncritically sentimentalizes the 60s. Rather, the show reminds us how lazy and perhaps even how dangerous facile nostalgia might be. At a time when Americans find nostalgia for a plurality of eras, Mad Men might just prove to be its generation's Meditation in an Emergency.


  1. Very nice post. Just started watching.
    Any suggestion on the significance of the pink elephant in the scene in the "drawing" room?

  2. Hmmm . . .good question. Maybe their Republican values? Maybe a comment on gender and politics?

  3. I think they went to some effort to include it and draw attention to it. That whole scene was a little off-center.
    I just thought you would have had an immediate answer.
    Found you through POP.
    Keep it up

  4. Thanks . . . to be honest, nothing really comes to mind, though, I do remember the scene and its weirdness.

    Mmmm. . .professor of pop . . .he owes TWR a guest post on music vs. poetry . . .

  5. Mad Men is so brilliant on so many levels. Visually it evokes the best of Hitchcock and the brilliant graphic designers of the era. the acting is the best thing any of the actors have done. The writing is as tight as "The Closer" which I consider a high mark, and the little touches like the featuring of "meditation in an emergency" now add a reading list to suck us deeper into the culture.
    My grandmother was an art director at BBDO in NYC in the 50's and 60's and the stories she told me about that era were like Mad Men episodes.

  6. "The Closer?" Really? I've never seen a full episode, but now, clearly, I'll have to check it out.

    I've been thinking a lot about the overlap of Mad Men & Swingtown, which I also like. It's not as smart as Mad Men, but its interest in a time and place is similar.

  7. I watched only because I love the period covered. Call me old-fashioned,The set designs and costumes are great, and they really seem to capture the era they represent very well, but the acting and story lines leave much to be desired.try to Download mad men episode tv show