Can we talk about how great Mad Men has been this season so far?
I have this secret daydream that Matthew Weiner sat down a year ago, looked at the various issues of Vanity Fair and Esquire and Maxim that proclaimed Don Draper the idol of a generation of unanchored males, and said, “Obviously you weren’t paying attention.” The first third of this season has been devoted to dismantling the myth of Don Draper, super-stud with his finger on the pulse of the now. Consider:
- He strikes out with every woman he makes a move on. The sole exception is his secretary, who knows that rebuffing his advances might cost her a job (and suspects that catering to them might earn her a promotion) and consents to sleep with him while he’s blackout drunk. But everyone else – the actress, the perky nurse from across the hall, the consumer psychologist, the twenty-year-old Berkley student – all shoot him down.
Not only that, but it’s clear that Don isn’t looking to claw his way out of his hole. The actress with whom he goes on a date is gorgeous, smart, funny and clearly into him. She explicitly tells Don that (1) she won’t sleep with him that evening and (2) he should call her later so they can go on another date. But the idea of seeing a woman twice in one decade makes Don nervous, so he calls a prostitute to slap him around.
Don’s progressed from “casual drinker” to “habitual drunk.” Notice how he pours Lane’s expensive Scotch into a flask, letting the excess dribble onto the rug. Notice how many times he shows up to a meeting with bags under his eyes (the end of Ep.3, right before Allison quits in Ep.4). Notice how he snaps at his secretary when his bottle’s empty.
And for a man who’s supposed to be shaping the popular consciousness, he doesn’t care as much about moving the Zeitgeist any more. He rattles off a list of Christmas gifts for his secretary to buy for his daughter Sally, and adds “a couple of Beatles LPs” as an afterthought. Which do you think will have a bigger impact on Sally’s childhood – a generic pink dress or A Hard Day’s Night?
Not only is the mystique fading, but everyone seems to notice. Peggy no longer worships Don as a creative genius. Roger and Bert grow tired of Don’s petulant privacy, particularly after he botches an interview in Ep.1. Joan regards Don with impatience, foisting a battleaxe of a secretary on him after Allison leaves in tears. And the new consumer psychologist, Faye, regards Don as “a type.”
Peggy and Pete have started to take more of the spotlight, particularly in the last episode. This season should mark Don becoming less relevant and Peggy and Pete moreso. They’re the face of the “youth culture” that’s going to become more important as the Sixties roll on. And, as Ep.04 made explicit, they’re going in opposite directions. Pete aligns himself with old money (the Vick’s cough syrup cartel) and power, while Peggy follows after impulsive hipster culture. Don, Peggy and Pete are going to be the dramatic tripod around which the later seasons develop.
And then there’s poor Joan. The timing’s ironic: the world just discovered how gorgeous Christina Hendricks is at the moment when her fictional character’s good looks became less relevant. The camera still forces us to regard her as a good body in a tight dress. There’s a shot in Ep.02 where she talks to Roger in his office. Roger sits down on the corner of his desk; the camera follows to keep him framed. The result is to cut off Joan’s head, leaving her bust and hips perfectly framed while Roger keeps talking about this red dress she wore once. There’s the male gaze, and then there’s the gaze at the male gaze.
Joan has begun to realize (by Ep.03) that she climbed the wrong ladder. Her husband (in addition to being a rapist) is not a suave, talented surgeon destined for wealth. He’s petulant, manipulative and selfish. But she married him. So what’s her next step? Joan may have made a series of mistakes, but she’s not a weak character. She’s not one to sit idly by and let fate push her into a corner. So the only question is when she’ll push back.
And what’s next for 1965? Martin Luther King’s march on Montgomery, increased troop presence in Vietnam, the Beatles at Shea Stadium and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the Second Vatican Council and the New York World’s Fair. So things might stay busy.