Sex, cigar and alcohol. These are the three defining elements that marked the glamorous world of Mad Men.
Mad Men is a period drama set in 1960s America about a group of advertising executives in Madison Avenue, New York. The drama follows the lives of these executives, in particular, Creative Director Donald “Don” Draper. Set against the backdrop of a tense decade, the story explores themes such as racism, gender roles in society and identity.
The 2007-2015 American drama features an ensemble cast which includes Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks (Good Girls), Jared Harris (Chernobyl) and Kiernan Shipka (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina).
THE KODAK CAROUSEL REALLY BRINGS BACK MEMORIES
Mad Men is a period drama and what is a period drama without a little touch on history?
In Mad Men, we see America as she progressed through the years. The show highlights monumental events like the 1960 U.S. Presidential Election campaign, the Civil Rights Movement and the years-long Vietnam War. My personal favourite was the British Invasion (to clarify, British CULTURE invasion).
As I watched Mad Men, I felt like I was an American or resident living in America in that period. Perhaps because of the no-joke aura from the show or the elaborate mise-en-scene, it seems like I was in the show experiencing the events real-time.
“I DO” NOT PROMISE TO STAY FAITHFUL TO MY SPOUSE
The characters have imperfect marriages and the people in their lives tempt them to commit extramarital affairs. Even the wife-loving television guy Harry Crane slept with Carolyn Jones in S4E13. It comes at no surprise that these other people they have sex with seem to understand the characters better than their spouses.
Take for instance the relationship between Ted Chaough and Peggy Olson. They are, in my opinion, the best, if not the second best match in the series. They enjoy each other’s company, they have great dynamics together and most importantly, they are of the same standing. They want to be together, except they are unable to because Ted is, well, married with kids. The creative director realised the stakes at play, decided to take up’s Sunkist offer and station himself thousands of miles away at sunny California. As he later said to Peggy, the world is such a chaos he has to hold on to his family or risk getting lost in the chaos.
No relationships seem to work in Mad Men and we witnessed the first of it in Don’s and Betty’s failed marriage. It is the 60s, the period where men ruled the streets while women the homes. There were in fact very few remarkable career ladies in the series. The notable ones being my personal bias Peggy Olson and one of Don’s earliest romance, Rachel Menken. In fact, in the pilot episode, Don mistakes the Jewish mail boy for the client and shook his hands instead of Rachel’s at the client meeting. Women are either stuck at secretarial jobs or end up working in the service industry.
As the head of the household, Betty’s everyday routine comprises of the house and the kids. She had a career ahead of her but has to give it all up for the children. She is not exactly the best mother in the series and is especially estranged from their oldest child, Sally. IN S7E3, she actually got pissed at Bobby the whole day when he traded her sandwich with another girl at the cow farm. But she still fulfils her basic responsibilities as a mother. Don, on the other hand, lives and breathes advertising. In simpler’s terms, Don brings in the money for Betty to buy food on the table. Living in suburban New York with three beautiful children, they are the American family. Don and Betty do not understand each other’s lives detail and there was too much secrecy, or as Betty would like to call it ‘privacy’. They seek comfort in others except for their spouses and unexpectedly, Don and Betty must leave each other.
We hardly see any successful relationships, let alone marriages in the series. The characters hide behind masks and they do not take them off even to the closest ones in their circles because doing so jeopardises their lives. To climb the corporate ladder, Don assumes the identity of another person. Meanwhile, Bob Benson and Salvatore Romano conceal their sexual orientation because of the discrimination back then.
Unless you are as easy-going as accounts executive and writer Ken Cosgrove (well, before he turned nasty in the last season) or someone who is generally satisfied with your status quo, chances are you will not have peace with yourself in the complicated world of Mad Men. As British new wave band Tears for Fears has put it, it is a mad world.
AMERICA, THE LAND OF THE FREE ?
The series featured hardly any African Americans and even when we see them, they are just working. For example, the audience only understands Dawn Chambers as the secretary to Don at Sterling Cooper & Partners. We know nothing about her personal life. Later in S5E2, we also see a distrusting Lane Pryce who insisted on returning a lost wallet himself than handing it over to a black taxi driver.
Panic spread across the nation as the civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In that episode, I was genuinely afraid for the characters here. Will Dawn be attacked by pro-White activists or will she remain safe at home? Nobody knows what will happen and why America was witnessing these assassinations. FYI this took place four years after US President John F. Kennedy and a month before Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
The intentional exclusion of black characters or more accurately, the lack of insights into their personal lives, only outlines the general attitudes the people had of the African American community back then.
MAKE IT SIMPLE, BUT SIGNIFICANT
The beauty of this show lies in its solid script, subtle references to the cultural and political events in 1960s America and the complex development of its characters. We saw America bracing through a turbulent era as assassinations took place and we saw it emerged victorious in the Space Race as the NASA team became the first to land on Moon.
The writers have definitely aced in creating such distinct and authentic characters. I love series with ensemble casts in it because first off, the show won’t be that boring, and secondly because it adds variety to the show. No character steals all the limelight and all characters play a reasonable influence in the plot progression. I applaud Matthew Weiner for telling us so much about the main characters and even giving our supporting characters (e.g. Harry Crane, Michael Ginsberg) something beyond lines.
Overall, Mad Men played great homage to the 60s. The subtle change in props, setting, characters (and their hairstyle, clothing etc) marks the change in the times. The clever script and retelling of the monumental events in the 1960s really resembled the tense period in America. Its creators have built up a rich premise and have successfully made each season better than the next.
If you are a history student (or understand a little about the country’s past), you will be able to appreciate the emotions felt by characters in the show. If you think Stranger Things depict the 80s well, try Mad Men for a glimpse of America in the Cold War era.
P.S. I love how almost every episode of Mad Men ends with a different popular song of that era. My personal favourite was “Tomorrow Never Knows” in S5E8.
(would actually re-watch if time allows but the experience when viewing it for the first time can never be the same again).