For those of us who can’t get enough of this Emmy-award winning drama with its seductive and complex characters, the slick and subtle depiction of the sixties, and plot twists for our favorite actors to navigate, it’s worth a few minutes to muse on why we’re addicted to this elegant show.
For some of us it’s about memory and nostalgia. For others, we ease ourselves into the mythology of what seems like a simpler and certainly more glamorous time.
But what else appeals to us so much about these characters and their stories which are far from simplistic?
Some of us remember the 1960s. We may have been the age of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), wife Betty (January Jones), Christina Hendricks (Joan Harris) and others among the adult cast. Or we may have been children of the sixties, as I was. We have vague recollections mixed with points in time, like November 22, 1963, clearly imprinted in our minds.
The attention to set detail and clothing design heightens our experience as we watch, triggering strong memories and associated emotions. This is not nostalgia; substance is plumbed while surface remains intact.
Certainly, I recognize men and women I knew in these portrayals. Much is held back and never spoken. Sexism is blatant. Roles are seemingly more definitive.
Don and Betty Draper
Don Draper as the morally ambiguous breadwinner reminds us of latitude afforded to the “father figure” in the household. As for Betty, she epitomizes the Grace Kelly cool beauty of the time, along with the tedium of housework, a vague malaise, and a sense that there is something “more.”
I recall my father’s distance during the sixties and seventies. He came and went as he pleased, and was typically not questioned. It was the norm, not the exception. He had freedoms my mother never did, as she and her coterie of friends were expected to raise the children, wear a placid smile, white kid gloves, and put on a public face that all was well – regardless of the reality.
Other than wardrobe, I wonder how much has really changed.
Myth of 1960s glamor and ease
Part and parcel of the effectiveness of this show is the way it touches on cultural myth and personal truths – familial roles (father, mother, patriarchal society), and the reality beneath. What we see is not what we get behind closed doors.
Instead, we believe in what we are told to believe, a sort of perpetuated myth that is part of every society – the myth of celebrity (Marilyn Monroe), of Camelot (JFK and administration), the myth of American supremacy (arms, technology, consumerism – all represented in agency clients and dealings with them).
More personal institutions are not left untouched by Mad Men – marriage, politics, religion, big business itself – even as we know that the comforts of the sixties (yet another myth) are crumbling as social change rises to the surface – race relations, the Women’s Movement, and Viet Nam.
Mad Men Season 4
What will Season 4 have in store, after the revelations of our Madison Avenue ad execs, the dissolution of both Sterling Cooper, and Don and Betty’s marriage? How will Viet Nam play out for Joan, with her doctor-husband joining the Army as a surgeon? And what about Betty, as she embarks on a new life? How will her desires manifest as women begin to speak out?
What artistic treats are we in for – in terms of modern art on the walls of the new advertising firm? Especially knowing Bert Cooper’s art collecting habits? What fashion and style delights will we enjoy, moving into Mod, and more?
We have glimmers of what the show’s creators intend, as photo galleries reveal stern and somber looks – in clothing styles, colors, and lighting. Starting a new agency is serious business. Yet Betty looks anything but happy, and likewise, the exceptionally capable Joan. Her usual bright colors are muted, her hair slightly out of place, her stance softened and slightly beaten down in the series-provided portrait.
In contrast, Peggy Olson, the up-and-coming copywriter, stands with increasing confidence. Will she continue to stare down convention and make her own way?
More Mad Men Season 4 clues in the photo galleries?
What else might we imagine for Season 4?
Do we see a different sort of loneliness in Don? Regret in the eyes of his soon-to-be-ex wife? Uneasy alliances among some of the new partners at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? Could there be something stirring between Don and Joan?
(Isn’t that a delicious prospect…)
I know I’m not alone in counting down the hours until the season premiere, looking forward to what’s next for these fascinating characters in which we recognize elements of ourselves – or at least our desires.
Whatever is in store, I anticipate being surprised. One of the greatest pleasures is the writing, and a refusal to push the pace or to tie up scenarios with a neat little ribbon. This intelligent handling allows for infinite possibilities, an authentic taste of the sixties – and of the relationship scenarios and ethical questions that any of us may face, even in the 21st century.