Home » Sections » Arts » A maddeningly good TV drama series

A maddeningly good TV drama series

By Danielle Gewurz

Section: Arts

September 18, 2009

“Mad Men” is without a doubt, the best show on TV that you’re (probably) not watching. A gorgeously shot period piece set in the early 1960s at a dinosaur of a New York ad agency, “Mad Men” is a character drama that’s always placid on the surface, belying an extensive tangle of turmoil hidden just beneath.

The first two seasons dealt with the Kennedy-Nixon election and the Cuban Missile Crisis as they influenced this very specific group of people, but until this week’s episode, “The Fog,” it seemed like the show was foundering under the weight of the immense critical acclaim the past two seasons have provoked.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is an imposing figure, revered at agency Sterling Cooper and known for his ability to seduce clients, in more ways than one, with just a few words.

But this season, Don’s identity crisis has receded from the show’s focus, leaving it adrift in the confusing time of 1963. Earlier in the season we learned that ad agency partner Roger Sterling’s daughter plans to be married the day after the date of JFK’s assassination, and more hints of changing political issues cropped up this week.

After a lackluster opening run of episodes, “Mad Men” has ratcheted up the tension, and I hope we see many of these issues start to play themselves out as we approach the season midpoint.

This week Don’s wife Betty gave birth to her third child, and the show did what it does best, present practices that were unproblematic at the time without comment, while nonetheless conveying a clear commentary on the practice.

In this case, Betty goes through some of the most discomfiting, disturbing childbirth scenes I’ve ever seen on television. We see Betty restrained, bossed around by unsympathetic nurses, and drugged beyond reason into Twilight Sleep, even as she begs for her doctor and for her husband.

Most notably, we get the image of Betty “behind bars” in shadow at the end of the hour, when she wakes up in the middle of the night to tend to her newborn. Betty’s trapped in the role of housewife, all the more so with yet another infant, and clearly dissatisfied with the outwardly perfect life she’s found herself in.

More than ever this season, though, we’re finally getting a glimpse of how the turmoil of change in the early 1960s is being filtered up to these middle-class white creatives.

Racial politics are finally receiving more attention, after we’ve seen Sterling performing in blackface. This week account executive Pete Campbell tries to tell Admiral televisions that they ought to be directly marketing to blacks as a way of increasing market share, only to have his suggestion flatly rejected by his clients, and be dismissively referred to as Dr. King by his bosses. This comes in contrast to Pete’s attempt to speak to Hollis, the building’s black elevator man. Hollis tells Pete that bigger things are going on than worrying about watching TV, a reminder that all is not well in the larger scheme of things.

Sally, Don and Betty’s daughter, is also getting exposed to racial politics. We hear that she’s been asking about civil rights activist Medgar Evers’ murder at school, an event that would have been all over the papers. This is in addition to Sally seeing images of Thích Quảng Đức last week, a Buddist monk who self-immolated in protest of his treatment under the South Vietnamese ruling regime. For Sally, the loss of her beloved grandfather is echoed by increasing amounts of death and chaos in the political sphere. Her parents don’t discuss either event and pay little attention to her connection with her grandfather or her grief over his death. Everything’s changing, and Don and Betty Draper seem almost completely unaware that anything’s different at all.

Peggy Olson, Sterling Cooper’s first female copywriter, is also trying to buck the existing power structure, invoking the then-just-passed Equal Pay Act of 1963.

But as men like Dr. King and Hollis already know, she quickly learns that legal guarantees of fairness are meaningless while white men still control the power structure, and her bid for fair pay is summarily rejected by Don. There’s a limit to what even Don, the man who gave her the job, is willing to tolerate from a woman working in a “man’s job.”

“Mad Men” has hopefully begun recouping from a series of mediocre episodes to build on the momentum established in “The Fog,” a promising start to the rest of this season. “Mad Men” airs Sundays at 10 pm on AMC.

Menu Title