Last year one million people like me took a weekly trip to 1960 where we interned at the Madison Avenue advertising firm, Sterling Cooper. Most of us were originally drawn in by the hype surrounding the attention to detail the creators of Mad Men applied to the wardrobe and set design, but we stayed when the writing grabbed us and promised to expose as a misogynist fraud of the idyllic America sold to us by the real life ad men who make up the cast of characters. Guess what, Ward Clever fucked his secretary.
Season one showed us how 1960 was an ad man’s world in which the rest of us lived. They had the coolest jobs and biggest expense accounts. They wrote the copy that convinced us to Walk a Mile for a Camel and the jingles to Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz away those Tuesday night card games. America in 1960 was flush, maybe for the first time, with disposable income and these guys were going to tell you how to spend it. But men who wrote stories for a living struggled to write their own in the shadow of the Greatest Generation—really just a half-generation removed—and the idea of women in the workforce required a fair amount of adjustment. The protagonist, Don Draper, best personifies America at the dawn of what would be arguably its most turbulent decade–a country with power and money, but troubled by its sense of self. The conflicts that defined our national personality were over, replaced by a whispered “cold war” and internal growing pains. America had secrets that were about to be exposed.
Draper also has secrets, but who doesn’t? That Draper’s secrets are the core of his character is the lifeblood of the show. Season one slowly unwinds the layers of his story to reveal that he’s not who he claims to be. That his boss, when confronted with reality, doesn’t care because Don Draper does a good job, is the essence of the world in which these characters live. All’s fair in love, war, and advertising.
So it’s with a special bit of genius that season two opens with a montage of the characters as they are today, 14 months after the close of the first season, set to the tune of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” which cracked the top ten in both 1960 and 1962. That song also signified a break in the generations and showed the world once and for all that America was ready to have a good time. It was a nonsensical song that captured everyone’s imagination, including First Lady Jackie Kennedy who was famously snapped twisting in the White House. Yes, things have changed.
We open with Draper taking his shirt off as a women’s voice says, “That’s it.” Another girlfriend for the Boss? Nope, an annual insurance exam. Draper’s 36 now and taking things considerably more seriously, a fact that seems to be weighing on him.
His wife, the amazingly Grace Kelly-like Betsy, has taken up horse riding, but we get the idea that it’s more than horses she’s considering riding. Bets is getting bored living her perfect life in the suburbs and I only pray that I am the pony she picks.
A new copy machine shows up and the office girls are a twitter. Where will we put it???
Draper’s secretary from last year is now a copywriter, a fact that seems to baffle and irritate the rest of the Boys. Speculation abounds as to how, and why, she seems to be a rising star at the agency. Never mind that she displayed real talent for pithy copy in the last season; she MUST be bonking the boss. And what about all that weight she lost? “Fat farm!” declares Pete Campbell, the Account Exec who knocked up young Ms. Olsen last year but remains oblivious to that fact.
Roger Cooper, one half of the agency’s namesake, is having a hard time with the fact that his office honey pot Joan has moved on. It seems even good time gal Joan is growing up and considering her future. In cold war America, one accepts security where one can find it.
Another problem for Coop is the pressure coming from Accounts to hire younger creatives. “It’s what the clients want,” he’s told. But it’s Cooper’s job to tell Draper, and nobody wants to tell Draper what to do.
“There has to be advertising for people who don’t have a sense of humor,” Don warns his team. Anyone who works in a creative industry knows how quickly and insidiously fads can take over. One clever line– one “Where’s the Beef”–can derail creativity for years. Draper is trying to maintain whatever level of integrity can be eked out of his profession and it ain’t easy. Clients pay the bills and too often call the shots and then pay agencies to back their ideas.
“Clients don’t understand their success is reliant on standing out, not fitting in.” Those bits of steak are why people in advertising and marketing have a cultish dedication to this show.
We last saw the Madmen on Thanksgiving Day 1960. It’s now Valentines 1962 and the boys need to treat their ladies right…if just this one night of the year. Draper, as always, over delivers with a romantic dinner and an overnight stay at a downtown hotel. The Drapers run into one of Betsy’s old roommates from her modeling days. “She’s a party girl, Bets,” Draper informs his wife. That someone she’d lived with and spent nights discussing their dreams was now a call girl sets her mind a’ reeling. Not only is Juanita Carson sexually emancipated, she’s entirely self sufficient. Betsy, who’s always been aware of her beauty, begins to wonder just how powerful it is and what it could mean to her dull existence.
And then she comes out of the bathroom in a teddy and stockings and I lose any train of thought.
Pete Campbell isn’t as creative as Don Draper. He arrives home to his wife with a box of chocolates still in the store bag. Seems like a romantic evening at home isn’t the only thing Campbell can’t deliver. He and the wife are having trouble conceiving and she is NOT handling it well. Little does she know that we have proof that the old boy ain’t shooting blanks.
Speaking of, Superman Draper can’t seem to close the deal. Did the opening scene in the doctor’s office foreshadow a looming medical problem that keeps him limp as a wet noodle or is there something psychological keeping the old soldier at rest?
The biggest change between 1960 and 1962 is the changing of the presidency from Dwight D. Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy and everyone—EVERYONE—is watching. America was in transition and for the first time younger, professional Americans saw one of their own in the White House. Kennedy’s tragically short presidency represented more than a political shift but also a seismic cultural shift. Here was a handsome couple who not only understood and followed fashion, but who led in only that way charmed people can. But despite the revisionist idolatry surrounding our memories of Camelot today, not everyone was a fan of what the Kennedy’s represented. There was a casual coolness about his boxy suits and his tussled hair. His wife was a cultured and better educated social equal who was charming world leaders and lighting the way for a nascent feminist revolution simmering just below the surface. John Kennedy didn’t wear a HAT for Christ’s sake! And he was young. JFK represented a threat to the status quo that these Mad Men had carefully crafted and considered their birthright.
Sterling Cooper, resist though they might, is facing the same cultural changes as the rest of the country. In fact, you could argue that this show represents a microcosm of the same cultural changes the United States is facing today. Even the fight to maintain a semblance of formality in the workplace seems to strain the employees of the agency, not to mention the citizens of the United States. From Peggy Olsen chiding her replacement for dishing on Draper, to the man himself forcing a douchebag in an elevator to remove his hat in the presence of a lady on an elevator. There’s a struggle going on and it’s unclear to the participants who will win. That we, the viewers do, only ads to the tension of the show.
“They can’t do what we do and they hate us for it.”
Yes, Don Draper is a cad, but he’s a gentleman cad who is straining and fighting through his days as best he can. He’s your grandpa who you love with all your heart despite the racist jokes he can’t help but tell. He’s a product of, and a contributor to, the times in which he lives. We all eventually see that balance shift and we become bewildered spectators in a world gone mad. Season two seems to be hinting at the fact that the scale is starting to tip for the men of Sterling Cooper.