Of Mice and Mad Men

by Kathryn Smith

So, I’ve discovered the grooviness that is Mad Men. I came late to the party, having missed season one entirely. I found season two On Demand and figured I’d give it a go. I devoured all 13 episodes with the same gluttony with which the folks at Sterling-Cooper toss back scotch and light up Lucky Strikes.

It’s difficult to sum up the fabulousness of the show into a few words, but if I had to pick one thing that makes it so great it would have to be the characters. The writers of the show are some of the best in the business in my opinion, and the actors who give life to these flawed and compelling creatures are extremely talented. No one is totally good. No one is totally bad. But everyone is intriguing, and everyone is a player.

Take Don Draper for example. Played by the iron-jawed John Hamm, he’s the golden boy of the Sterling-Cooper agency. He’s movie star handsome, has a gorgeous wife and two kids (a boy and a girl). He’s living the American Dream. He’s also a fake. He’s not really Don Draper at all. We know he stole that identity years ago and that he’s really Dick Whitman -- illegitimate, poor white trash. Don’s whole life is about the conflict between who he is and who he aspires to be. He desperately wants to make his marriage to the ‘perfect’ Betty (January Jones) to work, but he debases that illusion by having meaningless affairs with women who appeal to his darker side. While you cannot condone Don’s adultery, you can’t quite damn him for it either. He’s still our hero, something that confounds me given that I write about monogamy on a daily basis. What does it say about me that I absolutely love Don Draper even though he can’t keep it in his pants?

Betty is far from being as perfect as she seems. The end of season two finds her having revenge sex on Don before revealing to him that she’s pregnant with their third child. There’s something very vulnerable about Betty and I cheered her for being strong enough to kick Don out, and yet I can’t bring myself to like her because there’s something twisted about her Grace Kelly prettiness and June Cleaver housewife-ness.

And then there are the people who make up Sterling-Cooper. There’s Joan, the head of the secretarial pool, built like the prow of a war ship. She’s played by the gorgeous Christina Hendricks. Joan struck me from the beginning as a strong woman, who knows how to play the system and get what she wants. Imagine my surprise when she is raped by her fiancĂ© and she doesn’t bash him over the head. She goes on like nothing happened. There’s Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), the odd little duck who gave away the baby she had with the petulant, but ambitious Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), and is slowly becoming the very embodiment of the E.R.A. movement. Watching her find herself is like watching that little duckling grow into a swan, and she’s blossoming under Don’s wing. And then there’s Sal (Bryan Batt), the closeted homosexual trying desperately to live straight. Last season it seemed like he was about to have a hot and steamy encounter of his own – and then the fire alarm went off. What does season three have in store for him?

There’s a strange innocence to Mad Men. JFK is still alive as season three begins. Everyone smokes and drinks and nobody wears seatbelts. Bras were pointy and garter belts were for function rather than titillation. Women were expected to be wives and mothers and men were expected to be… well, men. The threat of nuclear war has the entire country afraid. The south is rife with racial conflict and the only place where black and white seem to exist in perfect comfort in on TV – squiggly, flickering, get-up-to-turn-the-channel TV.

It’s an era not unlike the late Victorian, or even our own. We worry about The Market and losing our jobs just as the characters on Mad Men do. The world seems headed for destruction and it’s scary, but we cling to hope. A new era is dawning and with it comes the undeniable resilience of the human spirit. It’s an age as wondrous as it is frightening. That’s the appeal of Mad Men. Despite being set 40-some years in the past, we can relate to its players and their struggles because their struggles are our struggles. They’re just a bunch of messed up people trying to find their place in the world, trying to build something worthy of a legacy. Trying to make a better life for themselves. Surely there’s no madness in that?

I want to know who else is watching Mad Men. Are there other shows out there (past or present) that seem timeless despite their settings?

Kathryn Smith is the USA Today bestselling author of more than 20 books including the popular Brotherhood of the Blood series. Her next book, When Seducing a Duke (Sept 29th), is about imperfect characters trying to find their place – and love -- in Victorian England.

* All Mad Men photos property of AMCTV.com


  1. Hey Kathryn

    I am dying to watch Mad Men. Yes, I'll confess, I haven't seen it but that's because it does not air in Mauritius, not even over French television which we get via satellite. So the best I do is read about it online and pray I get to find it on DVD.

    Speaking of timeless TV shows, I think Dynasty does it for me. You could transpose that family into today's world and still have the same conflicts. All the characters have their double even today, and the conflicts of family, love, trust, betrayal and scandal are still very much present in our world.

    Loved the post! It gave me another look at Mad Men!



  2. I haven't seen it yet either! I'm always late to everything (sigh) but I'll catch up eventually. Saturday Night Live has intriguing skits about Don Draper and Mad Men, which also piqued my curiosity. (And still haven't seen Wanted yet, though it's on my nonexistent list! lol)
    Great post, Kathryn! It's always interesting to see what type of characters catch the imagination of the public.

  3. I was there for Season 1 but haven't gotten around to Season 2 yet - thank the Gods for On Demand! woohoo! So working my way to that. But I LOVE LOVE LOVE the JON HAMM and of course the mysteriously appealing Don Draper. I loved his guest host appearance on SNL - they did a few send ups of his persona and the show - very funny! and his stint on 30 Rock as Liz Lemon's boyfriend priceless! He is just too goodlooking! Great post Kathryn! Looking forward to your new book - "When Seducing A Duke"!

  4. OMG, I just love this show - so much, I turn my computer off when it's on. Jon Hamm is wonderful as Don Draper (and Dick Whitman!) And you are spot on with the writing - It couldn't be better.

    My favorite female character is Joan. Regarding the rape, I was surprised too, but when I think of how stalwart she acts, and your comment "built like the prow of a war ship", that could explain it - the 'prow' is damaged on the ship, but she moves on.

    Oh, I could talk about the characters in this series for days. Is there another one like it? No, but I'm as hooked on Sons of Anachy. Now, that's another story altogether.

    Great post, Kathryn!

  5. All I can say is LOVE IT!!! It's slick, glamourous, depressing, emotional, twisty, I want to love/hate each character. In my next life I want to be in advertising-not 1962, with the way women were viewed, but in that rat race.
    Just finishing up Season 2 so I can't read any of the new stuff yet!
    Can't wait to join the cool cats who are already for Season 3!


  6. Personally I can't wait to see what happens with Peggy. I hear she starts to play the game with the big boys!

    And you're so right about Joan moving on. I love that analogy.

    Sign me up for the John Hamm fan club.

  7. I'll join with you, he is sexy in a 'real' way, not too pretty boy but darn good to look at and listen to.

    Peggy I think is going to surprise a few of us.

  8. Oh, how I love Mad Men! We caught the first show right at the beginning and have been hungry fans ever since. The various characters are fully dimensional and always intriguing.

    Yes, Joan seemed to take the rape in stride, but will there be repercussions? There's fire in the heart of that mighty ship, so we may see some sparks flying before long.

    Will Peggy's ambition push her to compete higher up the ladder? And how will those like Pete take the competition?

    Don and Betty seem back on track for now. Let's hope there are no issues with the third child. Anything can happen.

    Now for those who adore Jon Hamm (and honestly, who wouldn't? The man has the classic handsomeness of Cary Grant, and appears to be intelligent with a great sense of humor) do check out his comic stints on NBC's 30 Rock (Tina Fey referred to him as the 'handsomest man on the planet'. Who am I to disagree?) particularly The Bubble episode. I tried to find a link but it's been removed from Hulu and other spots. Probably because it's too freaking popular!!! I recorded the rerun and now refuse to delete it from my DVR. *grin*

    No doubt he landed that guest spot by proving his comic chops in the ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS spoof he starred in: Don Draper's Guide To Picking Up Women. If you haven't seen this, Watch it now. He's spot on.

    I dedicated my own blog post to him *chuckle* when I nominated him for the The Total Package: http://www.popculturedivas.com/2009/05/total-package.html

    Again, I LOVED this post. Not only did you touch on one of my favorite shows, you really dug deep creating a comprehensive glimpse into the heart of this top-notch drama.


    --Chiron O'Keefe
    The Write Soul: www.chironokeefe.blogspot.com

  9. Chiron, thanks for the great reply! I'm off to check some of these links!

    And John Hamm is delicious!


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