Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: A Man Out of Time

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Losing his tight grip on the short hairs of the public imagination? / AMC

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, finish your Valentine’s Day shopping and watch the season two premiere of Mad Men.

Because Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner wrote for The Sopranos, the comparisons between the two shows tend to get overdone. But the opening of Mad Men’s season two brought to mind, for me, nothing more strongly that the beginning of The Sopranos’ season two. That show started off with a montage of familiar characters—returning after the show became a pop-culture sensation out of nowhere—set to the song It Was a Very Good Year (an ironic choice, since the previous year had seen Tony nearly offed by his uncle and attempting to smother this mother). Likewise, playing Let’s Twist Again over scenes of Don, Peggy, Joan and Pete seems celebratory and self-congratulatory—Mad Men’s back, people! Good times are here again!—but the episode quickly makes it clear this is no dance party.


You may have heard that there is a Presidential election going on now. With it, there’s a lot of talk about change—change, referenced as if change, in and of itself, is a good thing. So it’s timely, yet counterintuitive, to watch an hour of thoughtful TV all about people for whom change is, if not a bad thing, a scary and suspect thing. Look at Joan, staring down that new photocopier, trying to act collected and in control, but regarding it like some deceptively tame beast that will at any minute pounce, eat half the staff and befoul the hallways.

Or maybe it’s a reminder of how she came to Sterling Cooper herself, once young and shiny and attracting attention, now getting older and watching Valentine’s Day come and go without a proposal from her doctor boyfriend. “I think it looks good now. But it will become messy.”

Don, too—36 years old, and feeling like an old man—getting told by the doctor when we first see him that he has high blood pressure (foreshadowing?) and needs to cut back. At work, in a youth-fixated business, he can hear the rumblings of change: Duck (shaping up to be this season’s adversary?) going over his head to get him to hire younger creatives to pitch coffee to the kids. “We’re a young country. The president has a baby.”

As I said, it’s easy to overstate the modern political parallels of a show like Mad Men. The scene of Jackie Kennedy on TV, in particular, suggests the transformative power of a charismatic, pop-star couple coming to power, and the social pressures on those who aren’t swooning over them. I don’t think Don Draper is John McCain, nor do I think Weiner intends the show as a comment one way or another on current events; he’s after bigger game here. But this does get at a point I was making in my review of the new season for Time, about how Weiner manages to wring fresh interest out of a period in American history, and American pop culture, that’s been done to death. (The ’60s and the Kennedy Era: see under Innocence, America’s loss of.)

TV shows and movies about the ’60s tend to focus on, and to be told from the perspective of, people who were involved in and in favor of the numerous changes going on at the time. Either they’re about characters who were protesting, turning on and tuning in, etc., or they’re written by people who came of age at the time and are writing it’s history as a story off progress that culminates in, well, themselves.

I don’t know Matthew Weiner’s exact birthdate, but at 42 years old, he was born a couple years after the end of the Baby Boom. He has no vested interest in writing another hortatory history of the ’60s and social change. This is not to say that he’s reacting against it or doing some sort of conservative revisionism. It is to say that it frees him as a writer to do the less-done, more interesting thing: to focus on characters who stood outside the various changes going on around them.

When I interviewed him last year, we talked for a while about how the obvious thing would have been to make Sterling Cooper one of the hot, revolutionary ad agencies that were changing the business at the time with ironic campaigns like VW’s Think Small. That didn’t interest him. Quite the opposite, he counterintuitively makes the protagonist, and in some ways hero, of the show a man who quite seriously argues that “There has to be advertising for people who don’t have a sense of humor.” We’re not diving into the welter of change with Elvis, Kennedy and (eventually) the Beatles, but seeing the world from the point of view of those who were threatened by it.

My favorite scene in last night’s episode both illustrates Mad Men’s point of view, but also shows it’s further genius: it doesn’t choose the most obvious ways to advance its nonobvious perspective, either. When Sterling Cooper has to come up with a new ad campaign for Mohawk Airlines, Don dismisses Paul’s glib suggestion of ads based on Indian jokes. He suggests a campaign that plays up the stewardesses and the idea of travel as sexual adventure. (A hint of the Don Draper from last season, who seems now to be trying to behave and cut the skirt-chasing.)

But then Peggy comes back with the kind of ad he asks for and Don realizes that, in his way, he was being just as glib as Paul was. He ends up having an argument with Peggy against his own idea, which she finds herself advocating for (“Sex sells”). He’s not just annoyed at her spouting the “Sex sells” cliche—he seems personally wounded by it:

DON: Says who? Just so you know, people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and stick it in their briefcase, completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. You are the product. You, feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do. And they hate us for it.

PEGGY: “Welcome back, Daddy”?

DON: Is that a question?

PEGGY [Pauses; then, confidently]: “What did you bring me, Daddy?”

DON [Nods]: You put that in your book.

This is what people who think Mad Men is slow and boring don’t get. Look at how much is going on in that exchange. First, Don persuasively arguing against his own idea. Don, in the process, articulating something of what’s bothering him about the changes at Sterling Cooper, and by implication, the world outside (see the incident in the elevator): the vulgarization of life. On the other hand, Peggy, who’s just broken through the glass ceiling to become a Sterling Cooper copywriter (she’s told she “doesn’t count” as a younger writer because she’s a woman), is arguing for the ad that portrays women as sex objects. But does she believe it, or is she just telling Don what she thinks he wants to hear? The obvious thing, again, would be to make Peggy some kind of advertising prodigy—to show she has to be twice as good as the other guys to get half as far—but instead, we see that, just like any other junior copywriter, she’s still trying to figure out what ideas are her own, and she’s more than willing to repeat cliches and try to parrot the boss in order to make it.

And also: we see that the junior writer Don clearly feels most invested in is a woman that he doesn’t want to sleep with. Who’d have thought?

A lot of other threads and storylines addressed last night, which we’ll handle hail-of-bullets style:

* Yes, that was Salvatore’s wife.

* What do you think was going on in the scene between Betty and the tow-truck driver? Why is it important to her to charm and tease him into changing the belt for three bucks? Is she intrigued by meeting her former roommate turned call girl, and testing her own sexual power? Is she determined to get herself out of her fix with the car without having to depend on Don? Does she feel herself a kind of prostitute for putting up with Don? A little of each?

* Love the scene of Pete giving his wife the Valentine chocolates: “Open it. I want one.” Whatta doll!

* And I’ll leave off with the big question: Whom is Don mailing the O’Hara poem to?

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