The Return of "Mad Men"
Courtesy of Wikipedia
After an eighteen-month long hiatus, AMC's Mad Men, a favorite subject for historians and academics to get quoted in the media, finally returned to the airwaves last night. Culture writers can be forgiven for going a bit overboard with coverage -- there is a huge spread on Slate today, several at Salon, one at The Atlantic, and the show made the covers of posh men's magazines GQ and Esquire, not to mention the one-time competitor to Time as the premier middle-class weekly newsmagazine, Newsweek.
Obviously, the show has its fans. I even seem to remember The New Republic running weekly recaps of Mad Men episodes the last time the show was on the air. (Speaking of which, when did the recap, which is essentially glorified watercooler talk become the sine qua non of TV criticism?)
I'm a fan of the show, in all of its period-piece soap-opera-y goodness, but I'll leave the incredibly detailed character analysis to the Kremlinologists. (Was Don Draper two or three spots away from Brezhnev at the May Day Parade? Gasp!) Instead, I wanted to reflect a little bit on how the show, which has now spanned the time period from 1960 to 1966 (one prediction, which I happen to agree with, is that Matthew Weiner plans to end the series with Nixon's '68 victory, neatly bookending the opening season's Kennedy-Nixon storyline), reflects change over time, the quintessential ingredient of history.
Last night's episode was a perfect example of this, especially if you watched it, as I did, after doing a quick recap of the earlier seasons on DVD. Just the change in the set design and costumes shows the nearly breath-taking pace of change in the mid-60s. Gone are the dimly-lit, wood-paneled Sterling Cooper offices of season 1-3 ('60-'63, in the show's timeline) and Don Draper's suburban New York colonial abode -- hello, modernist, exposed-concrete office space (it's amazing to think that architects actually thought brutalism was a good idea -- and I'm glad to see, after Pete Campbell smacked his face into a bare concrete load-bearing in last night's episode, that I'm not the only one who's nearly broken his nose on one of those damn things), shag carpeting, and colorful mod furniture. Thin ties and gray flannel suits are still the in for businessmen in '66, but TV executive Harry Crane, he of button-downs and bow ties in the early seasons, was wrapped in a boa at a swanky apartment party. Characters who voted for Nixon in 1960 now wouldn't look out of place as extras in an Austin Powers movie. Some of the women even wore miniskirts, a practical heresy six years earlier.
Of course, Mad Men's greatest selling point has been its focus on the proverbial (and literal) One Percent of postwar America. (Incidentally, The Atlantic also had a good piece the other day on changes in American health care since 1965, pretty shamelessly connected to the show's premiere.) Ever since the show premiered, we've known that Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Pete Campbell, et al. are part of the class that, if it won't be destroyed (and it won't be), it's going to get its upper-crust WASP-y world rocked. Indeed, it already has. Don Draper himself is a deconstruction of the all-American self-made man -- he went from a impoverished illegitimate Midwestern farmboy to a rich, high-powered Manhattan businessman, but only by being a consummate liar. There's also Peggy Olson, a Catholic and a woman, no less, who went from Brooklyn to Madison Avenue.
One of the favorite guessing games of the show's fans is how specific characters will react to the inevitable social upheavals -- will Pete Campbell continue down the road to a full-fledged Great Society liberal? (Maybe, though judging by last night's episode, he may have reached his limits.) How will the characters react to Vietnam? It's probably the Cold War history nerd in me, but the my personal highlight of last night's episode was the cocktail-party debate between Peggy's radical journalist boyfriend Abe and Ayn Rand acolyte Bert Cooper about the domino theory ("[It's] not a joke!" he intones) and whether or not the increasingly uncomfortably looking sailor who's listening in on the conversation is coming home in a bag for nothing ("I thought there were gonna be girls here"). This was forcefully on display in the scenes which bookended the show: a group of young executives from rival firm Young and Rubicam dropped water balloons from their office building on black civil rights protestors below, a scene that sure does bring to mind the image of Wall Street executives drinking champagne on balconies while watching Occupy Wall Street below a mere six months ago. The show's resident cad Roger Sterling took out an ad in the New York Times in response proclaiming his firm an "equal opportunity employer" to tweak Y & R, a joke that was lost on the two-dozen plus black applicants who showed up with resumes at the end of the episode. Slate had an excellent quip: "Roger Sterling failed to see the consequences of his prank because it probably never even occurred to him that black people read the Business section of the New York Times."
There are dozens of other threads to pull on from the premiere (from Joan's panic attack at the prospect of being replaced due to her newborn baby, in spite of her extreme competence, to Harry Crane's casual and lewd sexism, to the existential angst of aging) but I do think that the new Ms. Draper's semi-striptease, which has been getting a lot of attention in the recaps, did throw a recurrent theme of the show into sharp relief. "Every generation thinks they invented sex," said Robert Heinlen, no stranger to human sexuality himself, and suffice to say Mad Men makes it explicit that the Baby Boomers, they of the free-love generation, were far from the first sexual innovators. What that scene, and the character of Megan generally, shows is that the sexual revolution (in carnal terms) was not so much the reinvention of sex as it was about putting female sexuality, and female desire, out in public. It's no coincidence that both the character Megan and the actress who plays here are French (well, French-Canadian). As Marlene Dietrich said, "In America, sex is an obsession. In other parts of the world, it's a fact." Even Don Draper, who for the past four seasons has been a serial adulterer and all-around sex maniac, looked like a prude by comparison.
I'm sure I'll have more thoughts as the season progress. For those of you who watch the show -- especially those who were actually alive during the '60s (I wasn't even around for Reagan!) -- please comment!