A parable, let’s say. You’ve got a house, and you want to build it on a firm foundation, right? The wise man built his house upon the rock and all that. But let’s say I want to make your house come tumbling down—like the man who built his house upon the sand—and I’m stymied by your rock basis. Obviously, I could attack the house directly, but so long as it’s firmly rooted, so to speak, it’ll be easy enough for you to defend it or preserve enough of the structure to rebuild or what have you. But if I attack the foundations direction, if I bore holes through the rock, if I figure out a way to turn your biggest strength into your biggest weakness, then maybe I can prosper and defeat you where you stand. If the wise man builds his house upon the rock, then the wise opponent directly attacks that rock, rather than the house. Weaken the rock enough, and the house falls down regardless of what else happens.
The idea of attacking your opponent’s biggest strength head on is an old one. You’ll see it in everything from politics—where Karl Rove made a science out of turning a political opponent’s strength into a weakness (as when he made John Kerry’s military service somehow a liability in 2004)—to TV scheduling—where it’s all too common for a network to take one of its upstart hits and program it directly opposite a much bigger hit in the hope of weakening it enough to eventually deliver the killing blow. And it’s all over the place in Mad Men’s third season, a season that has prompted some grousing from various corners of the Internet, especially in its first four episodes.
The main complaint has been that the series has slowed its already deliberate movement to a snail’s pace, burying all plot development in a tidal wave of atmosphere and tiny moments that add up to something larger that still remains cryptic. Every season of Mad Men is somewhat similar to a puzzle where all of the pieces don’t make immediate sense, but they do once you have the season finale there to pull them all together, but this season eschewed the previous seasons’ structure—where the plotlines started slowly but were at least introduced in the first handful of episodes and then deepened through episodes that mostly took time to examine the series’ characters before closing out with a bang—and jumbled it all around. Even the individual episodes occasionally feel like episodes of some other series. In this season alone, “My Old Kentucky Home,” “The Fog,” “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” and “Seven Twenty Three” have either made minor or fairly major changes to the typical underlying structure of a Mad Men episode. Mad Men is deliberately mucking with its foundations, which is apropos because this is a season about what happens when your foundations erode out from under you, when your strengths become your weaknesses.
With the third season of Mad Men almost two thirds done, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the series has flipped its usual structure on its ear. The first four of the season, while entertaining and engaging, were all character deepening episodes that contained the minimum of plot scraps that such episodes usually required. “My Old Kentucky Home,” for example, was almost entirely about getting lost in the world Mad Men has created on one long, lazy weekend day, as the characters attended a variety of social functions. A lot of the stuff that happened in the episode (such as the arrival of Conrad Hilton on the scene) has paid off in future episodes, but at the time, it was just an hour of luxuriating in the world this show has meticulously constructed. The next four episodes—the four I aim to primarily cover in this essay—were then the episodes when the plot got moving in earnest, as we learned the primary battlefields that the season will be fought on and just where the characters stand in relation to each other.
Perhaps fittingly, then, all of these episodes have had structures that play with the idea of just what a Mad Men episode is in some very real and intriguing ways. “The Fog” is interspersed with dream sequences that stay just this side of on-the-nose and abandons Sterling-Cooper for a long stretch of its action. “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” sets up what looks like an epic story arc before just as quickly subverting it through one of the most outlandishly inventive plot devices the series has come up with yet. “Seven Twenty Three,” which I’ve been calling one of the best episodes in the history of television to anyone who will listen, subtly jumbles its timeline around as it tells the stories of three people who are backed into corners of their own making. And “Souvenir” primarily follows two men who are flip sides of the same coin, then shows how one of them seems to screw everything up only to win everything back at the last minute while the other seems to do everything perfectly, only to be rebuffed in the end because of things he’s not even aware of.
The central gamble in Mad Men’s third season has been that the show knows you know that the Kennedy assassination is lurking somewhere near the season’s end (in episode eight, we’re up to August, while the assassination occurs in November). The appearance of the invitation to Roger’s daughter’s wedding—scheduled for the day after the assassination—early in the season is one of those increasingly rare tips of the hat that Mad Men makes to its audience about the story. “Yes, we know this is coming,” it says, “and if you’ll hang on, we’ll get to it.” The entire season, then, has been an exercise in foreshadowing something we already know is coming. If JFK’s death left the entire country reeling, then the purpose of this season is to leave as many of the individual characters as possible reeling from personal crises that come from moments when their foundations begin to crumble. Those first four episodes were all set-up, sure, but they were also episodes that saw Matt Weiner and his writers poking as many holes in what the characters were standing on as possible.
The most obvious example of this is with Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a man who started the series having it all and is now having that “all” assaulted on an almost weekly basis. From the moment his daughter’s teacher first showed up, it seemed obvious that Don would eventually sleep with her. While he still might, the one time he tries to talk to her one on one, she snipes at him to stop hitting on her. His friendship with Roger Sterling (John Slattery), once one of the things that kept him in good standing at Sterling-Cooper, despite the air of casual menace underscoring it, is essentially dead after Roger mistook his advice last season as an excuse to leave his wife and after he made too aggressive a play to get Don under contract at the agency. His marriage to Betty (January Jones), something that occasionally seemed just for show in the series’ first two seasons, is nearly in tatters as she realizes that her happiness in it is necessarily limited and tries to stretch her wings in self-destructive ways, even as Don is trying harder than ever—maybe for the first time ever—to be a good husband. Even his much vaunted ability to run away, to be free at any moment, is imperiled by the contract Roger and Bert (Robert Morse) want him to sign. He eventually does, tying him down to one life, one world, something he tried desperately to avoid in the first two seasons.
Don has always been the series’ point-of-view character because he most readily embraces the contradictions of enjoying Mad Men. In his ambivalence about the traditional institutions he participates in outside of how those institutions can serve him (best expressed through his “Hobo code”), he reflects the modernist sensibilities that would engulf the ’60s in the latter half of the decade. But he’s also somewhat charmingly retrograde. One of the things about Mad Men that has taken some viewers a while to get used to (and one of the things about it that seems to appeal to some of its newer fans in a less savory fashion) is that it doesn’t really do anything to point out its political incorrectness anymore. These people are sexist, racist and a variety of other things just because they are. To watch Mad Men is both to get wrapped up in the story of how Don Draper becomes someone else but also to get just a little wrapped up in the idea of BEING him to some degree, of getting lost in his world with all that entails.
Don’s not the only character having their foundations eroded, though. Betty is increasingly realizing that the life she’s leading is mostly devoid of love, no matter how hard her husband tries, and not terribly fulfilling for her. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finds her previously unimpeachable relationship with her mentor and boss, Don, to be challenged when she can’t quite get on the same page as him in regards to her worth to the agency, all of which leads her to a flirtation with Duck (Mark Moses) that first just seems to be a business thing and then turns disturbingly literal. And Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) both damaging his marriage via flirtations (that lead to more) with German nannies and attacking the very underpinnings of the advertising industry as he knows it by randomly inventing demographic marketing in the only way he knows how—as asshole-ishly as possible. Every character—Roger, Joan (Christina Hendricks), even little Sally (Kiernan Shipka)—is trapped in a situation where everything they believe to be true is coming apart at the seams.
Mad Men’s third season, then, is about the build-up to an event we know is coming, even more than any season of the show was previously, but it’s also about attempting to clue us in to that event on some metaphorical, thematic level. Most works that incorporate the Kennedy assassination in some way use that as a way to spur their characters to some sort of realization that Nothing Is As They Thought. When Kennedy is killed in this season of Mad Men, though, it’s going to be different, because it will only provide a new context for these people to realize that the lives they’re leading have brought they decreasing amounts of happiness. It’s an interesting strategy—using an event the audience knows is coming against itself—and it perhaps explains why the entire midsection of “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” is devoted to an extended, roughly symbolic recreation of the Kennedy assassination involving a secretary on a lawn tractor.
We cling to the ’60s as a point in our collective memory as a country because it was a time when the truths we accepted to be self-evident were all put on assault by people who dared question them, who dared say that all men might be created equal, but we certainly weren’t treating them as such. The ’60s setting of Mad Men has always been something of a red herring in the show’s development, I think. It’s a way to contrast the series with the present day, yes, but it’s also not as important as a lot of the show’s critics want it to be. The period detail is impressive, but it’s ultimately something that distracts from the universality of the story at the series’ center. The third season, though, is different. Every single one of the characters has become a microcosm of America itself, perched on the edge of a time when every single thing that the country believed to be true would be shown to be at least questionable as truth. Now, all of these characters find themselves questioning the things they believe to be self-evident about themselves. We like to live in certainty because that means we have all of the answers. When something comes along to rattle the status quo, it frightens us less because of its implications for society as a whole and more for its implications for our very selves.
Some other thoughts:
1. Sorry this took so long to throw together. I was planning on doing four separate essays that became two that became one. But I was amazed just how often I kept making the same points as I started up those essays, so I think this works. The middle four episodes of this season work remarkably well as one, cohesive unit.
2. So what’s everybody watching this fall season? Since I so rarely turn up here anyway, I thought I’d toss in a vote for ABC’s new sitcom Modern Family, which isn’t perfect yet, but has the potential to be the next great network sitcom. It has a warmth and generosity toward its characters that the best sitcoms all had, and I look forward to seeing where it goes next. The whole run, so far, is available on Hulu.com
3. One of the things I love about the character of Pete is just how desperate he is to appeal to the old ways, to the older generation he feels like he has been cheated out of resembling in some ways, even as most of the actual advertising ideas he has are so ahead of their time that he’d be a Don Draper in the ’90s.
4. I didn’t get to say a lot about Peggy and Joan, who’ve both seen pretty seismic changes happen to them in these four episodes. Your thoughts?
5. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do week-by-week reviews for the rest of the season to come, but if I can’t, Luke de Smet is all caught up, and he and I may alternate heading into the season finale. We’ll see how it all plays out.
House contributing editor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet. His writing also appears at The A.V. Club and Hitfix.