Of Mice and Mad Men
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 fiancé 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.
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