Mad Men returned this weekend and it’s one of the few television series currently airing that I follow religiously. As a writer myself, nothing is more frustrating than when a beloved show takes a turn I don’t approve of. But Mad Men is an interesting case, because it never does what I want it to do, but it’s still incredibly satisfying. The show’s strength is its rich cast of characters. All are supremely flawed in one way or another but each is played with such respect by the actors, that you can find something to love about all of them. Well, except maybe Betty.
Jon Hamm plays advertising genius Don Draper, who won’t let anyone get too close out of fear they will uncover his less than admirable past. While I love Jon Hamm and thinks he does a great job in the role, I find the Don-centric parts of the show a little boring. What I’ve always found interesting, is his taste in women. He married a model who quickly conformed into the classic Donna Reed housewife (despite it being a less than perfect fit) but he tends to favor career women. He clearly wants to be the dominant one in any situation, but perhaps likes the challenge a more independent woman presents. What I love about the pilot is that when we first meet Don, he seems to be a fairly modern man. He has a cool girlfriend who has a solid career and is the only one not telling the new secretary to show her legs more, even shutting down her advances. You find yourself really liking this Don Draper. But in the episode’s last minutes, you learn he has a wife and children waiting for him at home. He’s just like the others.
The character I find the most interesting is Pete Campbell. He’s petulant, he’s awkward, and I find him fascinating. He can’t help himself but express his every annoyance and concern. He often seems to be trying to figure out what he’s supposed to be doing or feeling. He’s super ambitious and hard-working and you can see how frustrated he is that success in the advertising world is based on charm, something he can never have. His wife is played by the always adorable Alison Brie. Trudy started out as a rich brat, but over time has become a wife who truly understands her husband and will always provide him with the support he needs, whether he deserves it or not. I would love for Vincent Kartheiser to get more props for his portrayal of Pete Campbell, but John Slattery seems to be the go to guy for the best supporting actor nominations.
John Slattery’s Roger Sterling is a perfect supporting character because he always gets the best lines. However, his main character trait is how incredibly shallow he is. Born into privileged, working a job he got because his daddy started the company, he has gotten by on his charm but as he gets older and times change, it becomes clear he needs to start trying once in awhile and he is never able to step up to the challenge. When he comes across a problem he throw money on it instead of pausing for self-reflection.
While the show has a lot of boys behaving badly, a lot of attention is paid to the women they use and abuse, as it feature several strong female characters who are all taking different paths in life. Most of the women are kept very separate. The only two who have frequent interactions are Peggy and Joan, who women who started out in similar position but took very different paths. Peggy has focused on her career and has worked her ways up the ranks in a male dominated field at the expense of her personal life. Joan is extremely competent and dedicated to her job, but she has a non-threatening job for a women to have and has that magic touch where she has power, but the men around her still feel like they are the ones are in control. Joan is now trying to balance work with family and is finding it harder than she expected. Probably the saddest thing about Peggy and Joan is how little has changed. We act like we live in such enlightened times, but society still prefers Joans to Peggys and everyone woman has to decide for herself whether work or family will be her focus.
As I hinted at before, January Jones’ character Betty Draper is a very polarizing character among fan. When we met her, she was fairly sympathetic. She obviously unhappy in her role of housewife and was resentful of her husband’s infidelities. However, over time the writing has highlighted what a bad mother she is, making her the show’s closest thing to a villain. Also, I find myself unclear what she really wants. She doesn’t like being a mother, but she doesn’t seem to have interest in going to work in an office everyday. I’m left feeling like she wants to be pampered and complimented 24/7, which makes her a hard character to get behind.
I’ll admit the show is not for everyone. It’s a slow burn and audiences are used to dramas that end every episode with a big reveal and a cliffhanger. However, if you’re a fan of deep character studies and multilayer writing, it’s a treat. As we get to know the characters and their relationships, every line of dialogue has more and more meaning. It’s also a show you have to pay attention to. Mad Men does not do info dumps, so often the audience is not privy to important conversations, instead getting a throwaway line from a character that tells the audience “Yeah, that happened when you weren’t looking”. It asks more of its audience than most rewards, but it also rewards viewers time and time again.
Favorite Episode: Shut the Door. Have a Seat.