On Mad Men, the drama proceeds directly from the characters. That there are so few external circumstances weighing on them takes some getting used to, especially if you’re more used to shows where the plot twists and turns, zigs and zags. Mad Men does some of that, for sure, but it mostly moves forward, head down, faithful to its vision of these people and the times they live in. To that end, it can be hard to surmise just what the interest in the show should be until you realize that all of these people are headed directly for a big, brick wall.
Mad Men is, to some degree, a show about the disguises we hide behind when we’re trying to better ourselves or make more of our lives. Everyone has to do this to some degree—I hate cleaning, but I know that if I don’t want to live in a sty, I’m going to have to, and thus, I alter my key being just a bit to tolerate cleaning—but the characters on Mad Men are endlessly inventive. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finds a way to blend her traditional femininity with the harder edge she needs to survive in the office. Pete (Vincent Kartheister) keeps his sniveling contempt for everyone around him buried as deeply as he can (which isn’t very deep some weeks). And Don (Jon Hamm), of course, used to be an entirely different person. Creating and maintaining these disguises has made all of these people slightly more resistant to change than they might usually be. Even Don, who seemed on the brink of ditching it all to become a wholly different person again during his interlude in California last season, came back to New York, retook his old job, recommitted himself to his wife. He’s spent so much time as Don Draper that he would have trouble becoming Dick Whitman again. And that may be Mad Men’s true message: To wear a disguise is to eventually be forced to become it.
At the same time, Mad Men draws its dramatic strength from what we know is coming. Set in the early ’60s as it is, the series is counting on us filling in the blanks to create its central conflicts. The interpersonal conflicts are done very well, and the stories in the office have the usual business intrigue, but because so much of the drama in Mad Men stems from stories of people trying to define who they are and forcing themselves to hide bits and pieces of their souls, the series’s potency comes from wondering just how prepared these people are to face the changes of the ’60s. Creator Matthew Weiner and his writers haven’t had to do big, twisty-turny masterplots in the series because we know that the big twists and turns are coming and will be forced on the characters we’ve come to know and love. Furthermore, Sterling-Cooper, the advertising agency at the show’s center, is an old-guard advertising agency (though Don’s pitch for a London Fog ad in the premiere seems slightly influenced by the new kinds of ads starting to filter through the popular consciousness in 1963). They’re too entrenched in their old ways and their small-time milieu to really change with the times when they need to. Much of the series’s tension is derived from that simple fact: These are people ill-prepared to deal with what’s coming, but they have no idea. We are the only ones who do.
It’s probably significant, then, that the series’s third season premiere situates the season in the early months of 1963, the final year of the good old ’60s, the time that looked more like the ’50s of nostalgic memory than even the ’50s did. Weiner has made much out of his desire to stay away from the Kennedy assassination, since it’s a story that’s been told time and time again, but in the opening months of 1963, there’s no real way to avoid it, even if the series significantly slows down its standard time jumps between episodes. It’s also the year of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, another galvanizing event of the decade. But despite being set in a year that the audience knows is momentous, the show doesn’t bother to act as though it is, which is one of its strengths. After the first season’s occasionally labored moments when it reminded us over and over that it was set in the ’60s and things were different then, the series has mostly labored to make its seemingly otherworldly milieu seem completely normal, and it’s been the stronger for it.
“Out of Town,” written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham, features nearly everyone in the cast getting what they think they want and then realizing that it wasn’t quite what they wanted in the first place at all. “His name is Dick ... after a wish his mother should have lived to see,” says the midwife to the young woman who would become Dick Whitman’s mother, and it seems like a key to unlocking the episode. There’s been some criticism of these half-imagined vignettes from the episode’s beginning, as Don considers the circumstances of his birth as he approaches the birthday only he knows about, but the ways the early ones are framed play up an important thematic point of the series as a whole.
These early vignettes are framed in such a way that the Depression-era dominate the major portion of the screen, but in the lower right quadrant, the milk that Don is making for his pregnant wife to help her sleep sits in the foreground of the frame, surrounded by the trappings of suburban domestic bliss. The era of the late ’50s and very early ’60s was the time when the dream of the American suburb was essentially born, sold as much by the ad men Don counts himself a member of as by the actual reality of the suburbs. But the American impulse toward this domestic bliss has always been built upon our more fiery past, on a land of traveling hobos and vagabonds, a place where small town gossips sent news of illegitimate births dashing through the grapevine, a place of somewhat raw and elemental passions.
Try though Don might, his suburban wonderland can never wholly blot out his past, just as America can never wholly blot out that past, try though it does. At all times, it threatens to rise up and consume, and the trappings we’re holding it off with—bottles of milk and the accoutrements of a quiet, domestic life—don’t seem adequate. The central conflict of Mad Men is predicated on the idea that the raw passions of the past are always waiting there to devour us. (Notice how one of the scenes almost immediately following this suggests an over-romanticizing of a past that didn’t actually exist. Surely this is a bit of meta self-parody to a degree, but it also plays in to the ideas of a young country, formed by criminals and religious outcasts and merchants, playing at dress-up.)
Compared to the prior two season premieres, “Out of Town” fairly rockets along, as though the show took the harsh criticisms of the slow-burning season two opener, “For Those Who Think Young,” to heart. The second season of Mad Men is one of my favorite television seasons ever, and I thought the slow ease into the season’s storylines and the almost pathological refusal to deliver straight answers on the questions left over from season one was one of the season’s strengths, so I actually find the amped-up pacing of the premiere a bit discombobulating, though not to the point where I found the episode actively off-putting. Still, at times, the desire to just toss the audience into the deep end and expect it to swim feels a bit like over-confidence, as though the show brashly thinks it can get away with pretty much anything at this point. Furthermore, it’s slightly disconcerting to realize how funny the premiere is. The series has always had a wicked and sly sense of humor when it wants to, but season two was so brooding in so many places that to see the series embrace that sense of humor like this suggests that season three might be very tonally different, at least until Camelot falls apart.
Or maybe not. As mentioned, the episode is all about getting what you want. Advertising is based on both creating and satiating desires, but the desires that seem to be satiated in “Out of Town” are more primal than simply getting a raincoat that keeps out the damp. They’re about questions of whether you’re going to give in to your sexual desire or hang on more fully to the family life you keep falling off the wagon of. Or maybe they’re about questions of whether you can open yourself up to a part of your own desires you’ve kept walled off for a long, long time. Or maybe they’re about whether you finally get the promotion that makes you feel like you have some amount of self worth. It’s not wrong to want things, not even in the world of false desires, but the wants created by advertising don’t cut as deeply as the wants that push past the disguises you erect and cut to the bone.
The best example of this is probably in the surprisingly visceral sequence where Sal (Bryan Batt), on a business trip in Baltimore with Don, finds himself engaged in a steamy makeout session with a bellboy, who’s soon pulling off his pants, reaching into his boxers. The shot of Sal that closes out the first act—a man, finally alone, finally able to let down his guard and just flop down on his bed uninhibited—is a very good one, but so is the whole sequence with the bellboy, especially that opening shot where Sal is counting out the money to tip the guy and then his feet come very, dangerously close. But the capper is when Don sees the two from the fire escape, a fire alarm having interrupted their session (as well as Don’s night with flight attendant Shelly, and the somewhat haunted expression on Hamm’s face as he realizes the secret Sal hides just goes to show how much this guy could carry the show all by himself if he resolved to). As Sal spends the rest of the trip stewing about what Don might say to him, Don, in Don fashion, leans over on the airplane and pitches to him a campaign for London Fog that’s all about limiting exposure. Who you are when you’re alone is one thing, but keeping the disguise up at all times is paramount. Strangely, this advice seems to liberate Sal, who’s able to stride back into the office and proclaim that he wants a “handsome” man for the ad campaign the company is working on.
In the end, in spite of all of the period trappings and terrific production design and office politics and snappy dialogue, these are the things I most love about Mad Men. I love the way the show never quite goes where you think it’s going to and yet heads in that direction all the same. Once Don sees Sal, he’s naturally going to have to say something about what’s going on. A lesser show would have Don lean over on that plane and have a lengthy conversation with his co-worker about how important it is to keep certain things close to the vest. Instead, the series has Don say much the same thing via an ad pitch that simultaneously advances the plotline in a completely separate storyline. This is delicate, impressive writing, which always keeps its characters humming forward but also makes them play things close to their vests.
Mad Men saves its revelatory moments for the occasional scene or moment—Don with the carousel in season one or Peggy telling Pete how she could have had him in season two. It’s a series about how increments add up to sweeping change, how certain things feel inevitable in retrospect but don’t seem that way when you’re in the midst of them. And then, you wake up one day, and you’re far, far away from where you started, just like a country that started out a loose conglomeration of states and ended up a world superpower. Everyone in Mad Men is lost in the midst of a world they don’t completely understand, but they plunge forward as best they can. Or, as Don says, when he meets with the London Fog people, “There will be fat years and there will be lean years. But it is going to rain.”
Some other thoughts.
1. I haven’t seen the next two episodes, as some critics have, but many are describing the British owners of Sterling Cooper as villains for the season, and I can see where that would be the case. Already, Pryce (Jared Harris) seems to be relishing the ability to rather toy with the people in his office, like how he sets up Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) and Pete to compete for the Head of Accounts job. I also like the quick contrasts drawn between the Americans and the Britons in the office.
2. We don’t get a lot from the women of the cast in the episode, which may seem sort of odd considering just how much of season two was turned over to their storylines. But Peggy seems to be moving up in the world, while Joan (Christina Hendricks) is looking for her exit and Betty (January Jones) is very, very pregnant.
3. Looks like Robert Morse has been promoted to a series regular as Bert Cooper, which is great. Any time the old guy can hang around to talk with his employees about how he’s buying art where tentacle beasts have sex with Japanese women is a good time in my book.
4. Roger (John Slattery) also doesn’t get a lot to do in the episode, but I did like him walking into the meeting with Burt and realizing what was going on, followed by saying, “Oh. Sad meeting.”
5. Favorite lines: Betty, on Sally’s attempts to break into Don’s luggage: “She’s taken to your tools like a little lesbian.” Don, to Shelly when she bemoans her impending nuptials: “I’ve been married a long time. You get plenty of chances.” Bert Cooper: “I don’t care what they say. London Fog is a great name.”
6. An observation I cannot take credit for but, rather, which I steal from Keith Phipps: Don and Sal spend most of the episode dealing with people in rigid, intractable uniform while their identities shift and change. Thoughts?
7. Much as the big jump between seasons one and two managed to drive a lot of the season’s conflict, I rather like that the series stayed unpredictable by only jumping about six months between seasons two and three.
8. Finally, this will hopefully be up in a timely fashion from week to week, though I may end up having to split duties with another House contributor in the weeks to come. Paying work is keeping me occupied most Sundays, though Lord knows I love you guys. We’ll work something out. And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to dedicate coverage of this season to Andrew Johnston, whose writing on the show is something I have to live in the more than estimable shadow of. Furthermore, his knowledge of the cultural details of the show’s period work is something I can never hope to match. His writing on this show (and so many shows) was consistently terrific, and I hope I can be one quarter as good as he was.
For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.