Thoughts on Mad Men
Posted by therebelprince on August 15, 2009
Season 3 of AMC’s phenomenal Mad Men starts tomorrow, so here are some miscellaneous thoughts on the series to date, and what I hope to see when the show returns us to 1963.
It’s tough to write critical thoughts on a series such as this one, which is almost always perfectly written, styled and performed. So, I’ve decided to just do a dot point on each character, reflecting on any theme or idea of the series along with it.
* Don Draper (Jon Hamm): the centre of the series, a 1960s ad exec with the perfect life and family, only it’s a life that he stole off a dead man, and which he no longer understands. I found Don’s mysterious past a bit much to swallow in season one, to be honest. For a period show which so cleverly avoided the melodramatics of others – such as American Dreams – it seemed so overplayed. In season two, however, I’ve found him nothing short of fascinating. After years of successfully avoiding his old, humiliating life as Dick Whitman, the bastard son of a hick family, Don Draper has lost the interest in his new life. The neverending, neurotic perfection of Betty and his growing feelings of disconnection from those around him, are all coming to a head. The aspect I like least about the series are those moments that explore the “free love” movement of the 1960s: season 1’s Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt) storyline, and season 2’s “The Jet Set”. It’s not that I hate them, I just have such a love for the stylish class of Sterling-Cooper that anything else detracts from it. But the characters are on the border of a new world. John F. Kennedy is going to die this season, and Camelot is falling as much for America as it is for the men and women of Sterling-Cooper. So I can’t wait to see where Don’s life takes him. (Incidentally, it’s amazing to think that Hamm was languishing in minor roles for years, and was close to giving up acting before Mad Men: it really shows what a game of luck show business can be.)
* Betty (January Jones): I’ll concede that Betty was more fascinating in season one when the series explored her dissatisfaction with the housewife role and, more importantly, her inability to grasp this fact. She’s probably my favourite of the various explorations of women’s roles in this era, assisted by her duplicitous therapist (Andy Umberger), and divorced neighbour Helen Bishop (Darby Stanchfield). I really missed those suburban scenes this past season, and the absence was made painful by an all-too-brief return from Helen and her lonely son Glen (Marten Holden Weiner). Now that Betty is pregnant and Don has recommitted to her, I hope we see more of this again. (As well as more of Anne Dudek as Betty’s friend Francine.) But January Jones is simply amazing as Betty, torn between her own feelings of uselessness, and her innate desire to be the perfect wife and mother.
* Roger Sterling (John Slattery) will be an interesting character to follow this year now that his business has been sold out from under him. He left his wife Mona (Slattery’s real-life wife Talia Balsam) but is truthfully in love with Joan (Christina Hendricks) – who he couldn’t have before because of his own situation, and who he can’t have now because she too is stuck in the life she’s chosen. I doubt we’ll see much of Robert Morse‘s Bertram Cooper this season (which is a great pity, but he has essentially been made redunant), so Sterling is going to be the voice of old school advertising in the new world of Duck Phillips (Mark Moses). I don’t think that Duck got as much screentime as I assumed he would last year, but provided he remains around I hope we do see more of him. His new approach to the game might be startling, but Duck is a necessary reminder to everyone that the world is changing faster than anyone can imagine. As with the amazingly simple Popsicle advertising that Peggy conceived at the end of the season, they’ve always been dedicated to presenting nostalgic and kind reminiscences of life for advertisements. Now, there’s a world out there of free love, and teenage freedom, and class inter-mingling. Again, this is why I found Don and Betty’s suburban life so fascinating.
* Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is Don’s opposite in the series. While he is continually paring down his constructed identity, Peggy has been building hers since her arrival in New York in the series’ first episode. Her development throughout the series has been wonderfully natural. She was never an idiot, but it took Peggy some time to learn the social mores of this culture. Peggy’s relationship with Pete and her subsequent pregnancy thankfully didn’t derail her character. Underneath, Peggy still is the good little Catholic girl – which well meaning Father Gill (Colin Hanks) is trying to reinforce – but my interpretation of the end of last season is that she’s made her choice. Her office and her partnership is what Peggy wants, which is somewhat ironic given the transition of Joan.
* Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks, above) is my favourite character on the show, and Hendricks is going to have a lot to do this year. She’s engaged to a handsome but loathsome doctor (Joan’s rape scene last season was one of the most harrowing) and she’ll do anything to convince herself that this is what she wants. Joan and Sterling are certainly an unconvential will-they-or-won’t-they couple, but both are going to be heading down unexpected life paths this season. In a series about the conflict between internal and external identity, Joan always seemed to be the one most completely aware of herself. Now, she’s entering a strong denial and I’m not quite sure how she’s going to escape.
* Pete (Vincent Kartheiser). Thanks to Duck, he’s stepped up as Head of Accounts under the new Sterling-Cooper regime. It’s somewhat ironic, given that back in season one he retained his job solely because of his social connections, namely his father-in-law and the Clearasil account. Even as Sterling-Cooper loses the account – over Pete’s rough treatment of his wife (Alison Brie)’s desire for an adopted baby – Pete rises in the ranks. He’s always been on the edge of the gang, and I think that this new promotion is only going to isolate him more from the rest of the employees. I never saw Kartheiser on Angel, although I’d only heard bad reports, so I’m relieved to state that he’s doing well here. Particularly in his scenes with Brie, which have developed greatly over the course of the series, Kartheiser presents that side of Pete still wanting to impress everyone even as he can’t quite break away from his dislike of most of them. Like Betty, he’s struggling with the difference between his public identity and the truth of his somewhat dark nature. It’s going to be a fascinating season for Pete, but I hope we get to see some of the other “boys” get their dues.
* Harry (Rich Sommer), Paul (Michael Gladis) and Ken (Aaron Staton) have remained strong but secondary performers over two seasons, and I’d like to see more of them next year. Harry has probably got the most exposure, taking over the fledgling television department, while Paul has been given the least. He had a brief storyline this season with his African-American girlfriend, but I still feel like he’s the character I have least of a grasp on. Meanwhile, aspiring writer Ken is my favourite of the three. So, while I’ve little to say on these guys in general, I hope that Sterling-Cooper’s “little guys” aren’t lost amongst the politics at the top this season.
* Meanwhile, poor Salvatore (Bryan Batt) got gypped this season. Aside from a few painful moments during the public awkwardness surrounding a colleague’s homosexuality, Sal barely seemed to be around. I really liked his growing crush on Ken and the brief glimpses into his homelife, so I’d like to see that explored more. He’s yet another example of identity vs. truth, and while I don’t think Sal will ever be able to escape his situation, I’d like to see him try.
Mad Men is, simply put, the best show on TV at the moment. It has an intelligence that rivals its predecessor, The Sopranos and is immaculately styled. (Not knowing many of the cast before this show, I’d always assumed they were cast based on their period look: having since seen their photographs out at awards ceremonies, I’m duly impressed with the costume and make-up departments!). The cold war politics of the second season are about to give way to a nation of mourning in the post-Kennedy era. This isn’t a series about the period events, but it uses them to reflect our characters and the changes they – and their society – are undergoing. I look forward to exploring the journeys of our main characters, but I also hope that creator Matthew Weiner and his team give the deserved screentime to Sal and the boys. Also, I wouldn’t mind seeing the return of Rachel Mencken (Maggie Siff), whom we saw briefly last season. She was the most fitting of Don’s lovers, and I originally assumed that her leaving Don’s life was to return him to a relationship with Betty. Now that it’s blatantly clear that the Drapers will remain together only because they’re both so lost, I’d much rather see Rachel than the coldly manipulative, but much less interesting Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw). In the end though, both women were insightful in a way he wasn’t ready for (he’s been able to repress Betty’s insights just like her family and friends always have). Where he goes next is anyone’s guess.
Well, I’ll hold off on any more thoughts for now since we’re about to begin the third season. See you soon for the season’s first episode, “Out of Town”.