Mad Men - Season Three
Taking full advantage of the void left by the conclusion of The Wire, Matthew Weiner’s riveting picket fence tragedy has quietly and without fuss taken ownership of that show’s throne and now wears the crown of the best show on television. A sharpened skewer aimed at the dark heart of our nation’s romanticized past, Mad Men follows the exploits of Manhattan advertising agency Sterling Cooper, and it’s employees as they busily work to promote the American dream while simultaneously coming to terms with it as a fallacy in their own private lives.
While it might sound as dry as a mouthful of prairie dust, Mad Men, just like the real business of advertising, is all about the disconnect between perception and reality. Key to the show is that absolutely everybody is hiding something; Whether it’s mousey copywriter Peggy with an illegitimate child, secretly gay Salvador from the art department, or buxom office queen Joan and her abusive fiancee, life at Sterling Cooper is a careful balance of rotating indiscretions. In an era defined by stifling conformity, rigid gender roles, and the dedication to a single, solitary way of life – The American way – Mad Men casts the viewer adrift in a sea of intrigue. The wall of grey-flannel suited gents indicating happy cogs in busy machines, while at home perfectly feminine women wait, quietly going mad in prisons of domestic dissatisfaction.
The world of the Mad Men is a gleaming, confident America, reveling in a post-war economic boom where there is no such thing as too much. Everyone smokes like a chimney and drinks like an Irish dockworker. Season two opened with thirty-six-year-old Don Draper nonchalantly shrugging as he received a health assessment from his doctor that would alarm a man in his late fifties. The central personification of the manufactured nature of the Eisenhower era, Don, as we have learned, is really Dick Whitman, the child of a prostitute and an abusive alcoholic who assumed a dead man’s identity in order to escape the horrors of war.
In its essence Mad Men is a show about role-playing and about image. It’s about maddening contradictions; America is literally shooting for the moon, yet the civil rights movement is in its infancy. Couples are encouraged to settle down young and start a family, yet the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation hangs over their heads. A serial adulterer, and head of Creative at Sterling Cooper, Don is essentially paid to tell lies and manufacture perceptions while simultaneously living out one himself.
After last season’s delicately poised finale that saw Don banished from his own home, season three opens to find Don and Betty enjoying a reconciliation of sorts following Betty’s surprise pregnancy. Still Don’s impulsive liaisons continue, with a young stewardess the bi-product of his latest business trip to California. Peggy meanwhile transforms from the shy little girl of season one into a confident executive, gradually learning to utilize the power of her sexuality. Pete Campbell, played with just the right amount of weasel pomposity by Vincent Kartheiser, still struggles to assert himself in his marriage as he and his wife continue to try for a baby. The Greek chorus of the office staff continues to enjoy much more prominent and rounded roles this season; Campbell and Ken Cosgrove pitted against one another for the position of head of accounts. There is also something of a youthful air to the Sterling Cooper offices of late, as clients want to capture a younger market and so young people, “kids,” are drafted in to assist. Asked how best to get young people to buy a certain brand of coffee a fresh faced copywriter flatly replies: “Well our generation doesn’t want to be told what to do.”
Of course we know where all this is heading; The Kennedy assassination, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, the counter culture movement, and the birth of the sexual revolution. The dramatic irony drips off this show like delicious syrup. But ultimately Mad Men belongs to Jon Hamm and January Jones, who as the slick Don and wife Betty perfectly encapsulate the delicate sensibilities of a nation on the edge of a precipice, populated by millions upon millions of couples drifting emptily through the hollow bowels of the American dream – strangers to themselves and strangers to each other.
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery
Created By: Matthew Weiner
Showtime: Sunday, 10:00pm EST
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