Most of us were drawn to Mad Men by the amazing set design and the stunning wardrobes. It is a show that simply looks fantastic. It’s a show packed with beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes speaking beautiful dialog. The bitter irony is that this dream assignment for advertising and marketing professionals—a product that looks so good you can’t help but crank out beautiful, portfolio-worthy creative—is not a smash hit. Not even close. It’s with more than a little self satisfaction that us true believers joyfully scoff at you poorly dressed masses who answer with bewilderment at the question, “What Would Draper Do?”
And so it was with great hype (among a small crowd) that we welcome the season three debut of the best show on TV. You’d think from the cross-promotional and advertising efforts exerted this year that Mad Men is the most watched TV show in America. But like so much in this show, things are not how they appear.
The early 60s were a long time ago. The beginning of this show was full of funny little examples of how different things are compared to that foreign land of America’s Golden Age. But regardless of time, some things never change and this year opened with tough times at Sterling-Cooper. We seem to be in the midst of a long and painful round of layoffs. Bought by a British conglomerate, the folks who answer to Burt Cooper are finding out they are “redundant” and being let go. The replacement to Draper’s main antagonist last season, Duck Phillips, is summarily dismissed with a severance check and best wishes. The hapless Burt Peterson’s dismissal also introduces the cultural difference pulling at Sterling-Cooper’s staff and their new Limey overlords. Yes, even in Don Draper’s high gloss and clean-lined world, foreign agents are taking our jobs.
Every turn of events leads to a new opportunity though and our boy Pete Campbell is informed that he is to assume responsibility as Head of Accounts. For the ever ambitious Campbell, this is just short of a hand job from Don Draper for ego boosting events. But what does poor, unloved Pete think of first? “I should call my mother,” the woman who doesn’t even think he’s capable of overseeing his father’s funeral.
Fear not, Pete hater, much to his chagrin and shock, Campbell is splitting the job with the charming and much more easy going Ken Cosgrove—the anti-Pete. Talk about a blow to an already diminished ego…
Even those who are not regular watchers of the show have probably heard that Don Draper is not who he appears to be. Both figuratively and literally. He was born a poor dust bowler named Dick Whitman who assumed the identity of a comrade killed in the Korean War. Last season we found out he has a financial arrangement with the original Draper’s wife. This year it appears as though we might find out more about the real Dick Whitman. Seems he is the unwanted bastard offspring of a whore who got knocked up and named after her wish to exact revenge on the absent father by “chopping his dick off and boiling it in pig fat.” Get it? “Dick?”
Dick/Don is more than just a name squatter though. He’s also, simultaneously, a lout and an honorable man; a philanderer and caring husband; a scofflaw and a dedicated father. Don Draper is…complicated. We see him genuinely and with care comfort his pregnant wife Betty when she can’t sleep and then effortlessly slide into lady killer Draper when flying to Baltimore to meet with the London Fog account. Of course, who can blame the guy for caving to a hot southern stewardess hell bent on getting some New York meat? He may be Superman in the pitch, but he’s still only human.
Office politics, depending on your personality, are either a mind numbing and endlessly tiring drag on productivity or a deep well of hilarity and entertainment. I fall into the latter group and love to watch how it all unfolds on Madison Avenue. Cosgrove and Campbell come out like pros—not swinging but slow walking. There are backhanded compliments and condescending nods to each others’ best qualities. That is until Pete finds out he’s splitting the job with Opie.
Oh wait, did I mention that Sal, the forever latent and oppressed gay illustrator almost got himself a hand job from his bell boy and that Don basically busted him for it? Oh, that’s because I am going to let it lie just like Don did when he next has a private moment with Sal. Is it a mutual respect for a man living a lie or is it that Don is infinitely more progressive than 99% of his contemporaries and simply doesn’t care what Sal does in his off time? Kind of like when Old Burt Cooper dismissed Pete Campbell when the Boy Wonder tried to out Don as an impostor in Season One? If you do your job and add value, you can get away with anything.
It will, however, be interesting to see how the writers handle Sal’s struggle as a closeted gay man in a decidedly sexed up profession in a less-then-accommodating era.
Best scene of the show? When the southern stewardess drops trou and gives us a lovely display of early 60s underoos. Do you need another reason to watch this show?
Most annoying plot device? A fire alarm going off in the hotel, thus interrupting both Sal and Don’s chance of getting some action. A fire alarm? For a show that is so seamlessly written, that seemed a bit gimmicky. Gotta love that Don heads to the fire escape like a character in a safety film strip. I have never even been on a fire escape but leave it to Draper to find the most dramatic exit.
Has secretary heavy and corporate bombshell Joan met her match in British Man Friday, John Hooker? For some reason I get the sense that this Company Man and chick magnet is a tattle tale and likely to be the source for a lot of friction, and not just between the sheets. Hey-o!
When Joan reads off the list of the accounts Pete and Ken will split, we get a look into not only how each man will handle this obvious play to divide and conquer. Ken says he refuses to play into the game while Pete wants nothing more. Can someone say “Daddy Issues?” But we also get a better sense of the type of agency Sterling-Cooper is in the early 60s. They have big names like Cadbury, Campbell Soup, Chevron, Dunkin Donuts, and more make up the client list. We also lean that the once bumbling Harry Crane who head up the after-thought “Television Department” is now responsible for more than forty cents of every dollar the agency bills. The rise of television looms large, kind of like digital marketing is taking over budgets at traditional agencies today. See how much we have in common?
If you aren’t touched by the scene in which Don turns to Sal and says, “I’m going to ask you something and I want you to be completely honest with me” to which Sal nods in almost defeat only to have Don give him a pitch idea—thus confirming that he’s not going to openly judge Sal—then you have no heart and should join the Republican party now. They both know what they’re not talking about and the sense of respect that washes over Sal is worth the millions of dollars spent promoting this show.
The unsung hero in this show is Joan. She can maneuver with the best of them, she’s just trapped as the head monkey in an office pool. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have power or know how to wield it. In a classic SunTzu move, our girl Joan sets up the self-important and condescending John Hooker with his own office. Hooker is a secretary like the other girls, despite his protestations that “secretaries” in Britain are different than what we know here in the states. So Joan plays into that ego and secures an office for “visiting superiors” from overseas but suggests he occupy the office in the meantime. Too bad Hooker’s boss is into your run of the mill old school British mind fucks and promptly tells his Uni Boy to sit out front, lest it look uncouth to elevate one of their own whilst dismissing the yanks. Back to the ladies lounge for you, Poncey!
The episode ends much how it began, with a story of birth. Sally Draper, apologizing for bashing daddy’s luggage, asks about the day she was born. Don begins the story but then drifts, as if forced to acknowledge that he now has responsibilities that his own parents resented. Don has spent his whole life running away from that past, will he be able to run away from that last remaining bit or will he ultimately end up running away from his own family? He’s come close before.