The last time we saw the mad men and women of the Sterling Cooper ad agency, it was late on Friday afternoon and things were really coming to a head. The Cuban Missile Crisis left many wondering if there would even be a Monday morning, while many figurative missiles were being fired from all directions: Teetotaler “Duck” Phillips (Mark Moses) finally succumbed to his liquid courage and tried to make a run around the enigmatic Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) to take control of the agency; voluptuous office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks) was raped by her fiancée to settle his feelings of inadequacy; Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) revealed the truth to Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) about that pregnancy we saw at the end of season one; and Betty Draper (January Jones), pregnant herself and unsure of what to do about Don’s philandering, seemed to find solace and a certain form of retribution by drunkenly engaging in the anonymous sex she had fantasized about since the beginning of the season. Just like the missile crisis, it all ended on a whimper rather than a bang with a series of quiet, poignant images: Peggy praying to God on her own terms as she turned out the lights, Pete alone in his office looking out the window and armed with his shotgun, and Don gently holding Betty’s hand.
The first episode of season three finds series creator Matthew Weiner doing what he always does: dropping all the cliffhangers and dramatically starting at ground zero. He jumps forward in time a bit and makes us play catch-up. The British are here, in the form of Putnam Powell Lowe, the firm that now runs Sterling Cooper and is in the middle of another series of “redundancies.” Duck is nowhere to be found and his replacement is now being replaced. Things appear to have returned to a glacial status quo at the Draper household where the children are still being sent off to bed, regardless of the hour. Betty is now showing, while Don, seeming to have forgotten any lesson he may have learned during season two, commands a stewardess to undress in front of him. The order of business this week is the client London Fog, which Putnam’s financial officer, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), says is a silly name, as there is no fog in London.
Mad Men’s first season saw Weiner doing one type of show and then suddenly finding another more interesting one hidden within it. The series began as something more or less from the files of Paddy Chayefsky, a satirical take on a time, place, and institution filtered through an almost Hitchcockian visual style. Weiner initially designed Mad Men around the ad world’s fascination with “The Look” and told the story as much through the fashions, cigarettes, and alcohol as the characters themselves. It was not a story that stood alone, but was constantly being viewed through the ironic lens of our contemporary time. There was a constant, silent commentary regarding how many cigarettes people used to smoke, the kind of drinks they had during lunch, the types of clothes “good girls” and “bad girls” wore, the very place that women had to accept in a male-dominated world, and a certain existential tone regarding the whole point of it all. All of this was presented in a humorous but quite cerebral manner.
What Weiner found at the end of season one was that the series worked better seen from within rather than from without. And with the Donald Draper/Dick Whitman storyline, Weiner found his hook. Draper would be the show’s mystery element, a mystery of character rather than a disposable plot. The show remains an ensemble piece, but Draper is still the spine. And in season two, we watched as Draper came apart and then put himself back together.
What the show turned into during the second season was something infinitely greater than that of the first. It replaced a faux-existentialism with a dramatic search for meaning by Draper himself. Ideas became embedded into character and each member of the ensemble was given complex motivations within situations that challenged their natures.
As the third season begins, we see that Weiner is committed strongly to going in this same direction with closeted homosexual Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) almost getting what he wants most—but has long denied himself—from a very willing hotel bellboy. The scene isn’t played for its sexual content, but for what the moment represents for Salvatore, a man who had been drowning and has finally come up for air. It is as direct a presentation of what everyone in this “mad” world is going through—a conflict between the person presented on the outside and the intense and often contradictory desires on the inside. As with much of the products being pitched on Mad Men, no one turns out to be exactly as advertised.