Image Is Everything
The climax of the first season of Mad Men, set at the dawn of the 1960s at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is actually a brilliant anticlimax—a revelation swiftly followed by a re-veiling. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a clumsy striver at Sterling Cooper, attempts to topple the resident alpha dog, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), with what looks to be a career-ending disclosure: Draper, the firm's dazzling creative director, is living under an assumed name; he's a fraud, likely a Korean War deserter, and possibly worse. Campbell blurts it all out to the avuncular overlord, Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse), while Draper stands by silently, poker-faced, hands steady enough to light yet another cigarette. The elder statesman Cooper considers, waits an agonizing long beat, and makes a purely utilitarian reply.
"Mr. Campbell, who cares?" Cooper asks calmly, his voice burring with pity and disdain for the youngster's naive theatrics. "This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you've imagined here."
"The Japanese have a saying," Cooper continues. "‘A man is whatever room he is in'—and right now, Donald Draper is in this room."
This marvelously tense scene—from the season's penultimate episode, titled "Nixon vs. Kennedy"—is Mad Men in a nutshell. (The AMC series has its second-season premiere on July 27; the complete first cycle of 13 episodes is now out on DVD and Blu-ray disc from Lionsgate.) The televised Nixon-Kennedy debates are generally acknowledged as the moment when image overtook content and began supplanting it; for the hard-drinking, impeccably tailored men and women who populate the randy, smoke-filled offices of Sterling Cooper, the self is a performance, adjusted according to the demands of The Room. Context is everything. Everyone leads at least a double life. (For the men, juggling a wife and mistress is practically a job requirement.) Denial is enormously useful. (One character was pregnant all season and didn't know it.) But it's the dashing über-WASP Don Draper—né Dick Whitman, son of a prostitute, orphan of the Depression—who most fully embodies the idea of the self as a brand that can be revamped on the whims of the market, without remorse or apology. He is what he does. (And why is Donald Draper in this room? Because he generates revenue.)
Draper's underlings see him as an enigmatic superhero. ("No one's ever lifted that rock," says one junior staffer. "He could be Batman for all we know.") He's a swami of the sell, able to bring grown men to tears with his pitch for the Kodak Carousel slide projector, which he fills with happy photos of his unhappy family. Draper is a stoic, obnoxiously so. "Mourning is just extended self-pity," he tells his wife, Betty (January Jones), a Grace Kelly look-alike who is grieving for her mother. He's a cynic, or wants to be. "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons," he tells his client Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), with whom he is in love. (Rachel is a Jewish businesswoman, and thus a doubly exotic specimen within the sexist, anti-Semitic country club that is Sterling Cooper.)
But Draper is not cynical about his work. It only enhances his Bruce Wayne mystique that the dark art of advertising can send him into a meditative semi-trance; during a brainstorming session for a men's deodorant marketed toward wives, he drifts into a hilarious spoken reverie: "You think they want a cowboy," he murmurs to the assembled peons. "He's quiet and strong. He always brings the cattle home safe...What if they want something else, inside some mysterious wish that we're ignoring?" (Incidentally, the Lionsgate DVD extras include some delightful ads from the period, among them a spot for Blatz beer that stars harmonizing bowling pins shaped like beer bottles.) At a Lucky Strike pitch meeting gone awry, Draper saves the account with a Hail Mary pass in the form of an epiphany—one that's directed as much to himself as to the client: "Advertising is based on one thing: happiness...It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams, ‘Whatever you're doing, it's OK. You are OK.'" Here Draper gives us the marketing slogan as illocutionary act, like a wedding vow or a daily affirmation: I now pronounce me OK. Saying it makes it so.
That word screams is telling, though—it hints at the frustration and anger and hysteria burbling beneath Mad Men's good-enough-to-eat surfaces. This has got to be the best-looking show on television, with its structured tailoring, Art Deco geometries, luscious palette, exquisitely precise compositions, and masterful use of depth of field, which gives some scenes the glowing, eerie ambience of Kubrick doing Caravaggio, or vice versa. (Mad Men's formidable brain trust includes several alumni of The Sopranos, including creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, frequent director Alan Taylor, and original director of photography Phil Abraham; secret weapon Katherine Jane Bryant, the costume designer, is late of Deadwood.)
Riotously handsome and successful, Draper is a psychological basket case. He loses Rachel to panicked impulse; he's haunted by his loveless, impoverished childhood; and he lives with no end of blots on his conscience: the ugly circumstances that allowed Dick Whitman to become Don Draper, his brother's suicide, his inattention to his kids, his adulteries. (Before Rachel there was the downtown bohemian Midge, played with splendidly offhand gusto by Rosemarie DeWitt.) His marriage to gleaming blond Betty, the ex-model and mother of their two small children, is at turns impassioned and detached. It's Betty, not Don, who lands on the psychiatrist's couch, and who gradually realizes that her life and marriage are an elaborate lie; as she reaches a desperate clarity by season's end, she begins to evoke the tragic and resolute April Wheeler of Richard Yates's 1961 masterpiece Revolutionary Road. (And when she strolls onto her lawn one weekday afternoon with a rifle—clad in nightgown and shades, cigarette dangling from her lip—and starts shooting at her neighbor's pigeons, she looks like she's just walked out of an A.M. Homes story.)
It's a man's, man's world, where sexual harassment is simply a daily annoyance—perhaps comparable to the loud cubicle-neighbor of today—and where women must carve out their own little dominions within the macho kingdom. The flame-haired, gloriously pneumatic Joan (Christina Hendricks), red queen of the secretaries, plays courtesan to second-in-command Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and alternately mentors and torments the new girl, the earnest and affectless Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). ("I'm from Bay Ridge," Peggy tells Joan, who stares at her with hungry feline boredom. "We have manners.") Peggy vaults from Draper's typist to junior copywriter in tandem with her rapidly expanding waistline, and submits to the advances of the newlywed Pete, callow scion of a fallen blueblood family, who seethes with the indignity of kowtowing to a plebeian imposter like Draper and to his bride's rich, condescending parents. Jon Hamm owns Mad Men, but Vincent Kartheiser's portrayal of the ultimate undermining toady borders on the selfless. Every syllable Pete utters is choked with an inner struggle between petulant entitlement and incurable self-loathing. And every time this passive-aggressive pup leaps at Draper—whether in supplication or attack, or both—Draper swats the spoiled brat aside a little harder than he needs to: a show of strength that betrays a weakness.
Pete has clearly gotten under Peggy's skin, too, one of several symmetries that suggest her emergence as Draper's opposite number, and as Mad Men's second most fascinating character. She is, like her boss, intensely ambitious, insatiably curious, and—as we discover in the season's big semi-surprise—in possession of an alarming ability to compartmentalize. She can, as Draper is the first to realize, play the correct role. ("You presented like a man," Draper tells her after she pitches the Rejuvenator, a sexual aid masquerading as an exercise device. "Now act like one.") She is not yet in the right room, but she yearns, stoically, to get there. On a date with a guy who scoffs at her big-city pretensions, Peggy from Bay Ridge fires back with a touching show of urban chauvinism. "Those people in Manhattan, they are better than us," she says, "because they want things they haven't seen." Some mysterious wish. That's the gorgeous, hollow, irresistible phenomenon that drives this extraordinary series: the invention of desire.
FURTHER READINGTroy Patterson on Mad Men (Slate)
Heather Havrilesky on Mad Men (Salon)
Alex Witchel on Mad Men (The New York Times Magazine)
Jessica Winter is a writer in New York.More articles by Jessica Winter