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Deliberatepixel / A Mad Men Primer

A Mad Men Primer

Mr Draper

So, Mad Men. You might have heard about it, especially if make a habit of hanging out around here, because I've long been of the vocal opinion it's the most worthwhile original drama out there now, regardless of medium.

This is for a few different reasons, some more valid than others. Due to the fact I'm a mid-century design and culture junkie, I was fairly certain, when I first saw the previews on AMC before the show premiered in 2007, that I would enjoy the series on basis of its setting and trappings alone. I expected it to be a prettily styled soap opera in which I could guiltily indulge. It then turned out to be an unbelievably well-written, beautifully-acted and culturally profound drama. And, indeed, still with nice dresses and sofas.

Now for two seasons, Mad Men has been deftly dissecting American popular culture and rebuilding it into a mythology revealing that, in many ways, not as much has changed for the better over the past forty years of our history as we might think. This is especially true when it comes to the treatment of the female characters. Naturally, this is the angle I'll probably linger on the most - even beyond my own sympathy to that topic, I think it's not only one of the most interesting points of the show but also its most finely and effectively drawn.

The third season premieres Sunday, August 16 at 10 PM on AMC, and I plan to be recapping each new episode. As a prelude, however, for the uninitiated, here's a quick primer to get you up to speed. This isn't so much a general guide as a introduction to the parts that interest me the most, which is relevant to my upcoming recaps. For a more general guide, try something like this. And if you're watching the first two seasons on your own schedule and need to avoid spoilers, you'll want to skip this altogether.

The Setting:

The series began in 1960 and season two left off in 1962. The majority of the action takes place at Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper, among the various executives, secretaries, and their respective friend and family spheres. At the end of season two, the agency has just been purchased by a London agency, and several individual professional fates are uncertain.

Beyond that, Mad Men is about early sixties' American history, sexual mores, gender roles and consumer culture. Placing it in the world of advertising isn't just an excuse to exploit the glamor of the hard-drinking lifestyles of that era's executives, but a platform from which to layer stories of perception, desire and reality, which advertising, then and now, often defines.

While I don't want to distract too much from the meat of the drama, it's true that the costuming, set design and prop details are exquisite. It would likely be material enough for a full new post to list all the instances of design worthwhile of attention. And maybe I'll just do that at some point. In the meantime - yes, it's pretty. Mid-century design fans will be in heaven. But if you are one, chances are you already know that.

The Characters:

Peggy Olson - At the start of the series, Peggy is an impossibly naive new secretary in for her first job at Sterling Cooper; at the end of the second season, she is a full-fledged copywriter with her own office, and clearest visible symbol of the emerging career woman. She also revealed at the close of the last episode to Pete Campbell, after an earlier extramarital affair with him, she gave birth to his child, which she then gave up for adoption. She, she said, wanted other things.

Pete Campbell - The most odious and easily disliked character, Pete is the precise counterpoint to the antihero Don Draper - where Don is confident, resourceful and self-made, Pete is privileged, entitled and still desperately uncertain of himself. The second season watched him slowly learning how to throw off many of the expectations with which he was pressured, which made him infinitely more interesting. But it's hard to tell what direction he's going to go next, especially after Peggy's bombshell.

Joan Holloway - Joan is the head secretary, office manager, the woman who knows everything about how everything works, especially men. But her skill at playing the game recently started to backfire - after helping review television scripts and discovering a new pride at using her intelligence in her job, she was dropped immediately once a man was hired for the job. She also became engaged to a doctor who alternately belittles her interest in working and insecurely chastises her for her past sexual experiences, which culminates in his rape of her. Peggy never played the game quite right, and ended up on top anyway. Joan played the game too well and is now trapped. (Also, about a million points to actress Christina Hendricks, who has no trouble setting the record straight on the fact Joan was definitively raped.)

Betty Draper - The classic Fifties' housewife metaphor ready to implode, pretty, perfect Mrs. Draper has been a little on edge lately. After throwing Don out for his affair with another woman, she discovered at the end of the last episode she's pregnant. Betty is not as easy for me to relate to as it is for the working women. Her particular battle seems like a story already well-traveled by the feminist movement. But she has a tendency to surprise, and it will be interesting if her growing ability to stand up to and challenge Don continues to grow past the birth of the new child.

Don Draper - Ah, Don Draper. He himself a cultural phenomenon. Don Draper is another topic that might need its own proper post. It would take a character as complex as he is to carry such a nuanced drama, and that's certainly the case with Mad Men. I don't think as much of the female fascination with him is as much about simple attraction, however, as it is often joked about, even by me. I think women are drawn to the character of Don Draper because they identify with him. Modern women's narratives have switched from Betty's housewife saga to a different story of figuring out identity and life-balance with far fewer avenues of support than women before were accustomed to have. Don, who fled New York towards the end of season two to revisit his past and consider leaving behind his present, came back to try to rescue his future life and family instead. But how exactly he can juggle his dissatisfaction, his responsibilities and his suspicion his life is supposed to mean something more remains to be seen - if he can manage to do it at all.

While this barely scratches the surface of what's going on in this drama, those are the main threads of the story and its themes, and the threads I'll be picking up on when writing about season three. Feel free to throw others into the mix in the comments, and watch for the recaps to start appearing the following weeks.



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