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Mad Men: what is it really about?
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The Mad Men phenomenon which enthralls the US and the UK shows no signs of abating, even though viewer figures on Sky Atlantic are reportedly really low. The last time we were so enthralled by a bunch of people in an office, was well, The Office but for completely different reasons.

It’s nostalgic and sentimental, yet ruthless. A recent episode even managed to evoke a watercooler moment where I work due to one of the main female characters sleeping with a potential client for money and a promotion to the board. Much as I’d like to say it’s Sex and the City for men, it certainly isn’t and while men may love the sexism and adoration the male cast receive and women squirm at the sexism and domesticity – it’s still captivating.

Mad Men - Don Draper as played by Jon Hamm

Whether you’ve ever worked an agency or not, it’s hard not be be fascinated by this group of characters whose lives are entangled by their office affairs; by day and night and in between. So much has been written about the cast and their influence over fashion and behaviour (from child naming through to plastic surgery it is claimed) that I wonder if it has over advertised itself and people have missed out on watching the show and just relied on the media to keep pace with the cast, the clothes and the awards. I’ve not been a constant fan but I have a confession to make, I spent Jubilee weekend watching every season back to back to get to the heart of what this obsession is really about. I feel as if I’ve emerged from reading a Tom Wolfe epic novel with a touch of Steinbeck and a smidgen of Hunter S Thompson for good measure and as with any great book, the Mad Men characters stay with you.

For those of you who are not acquainted, the buttoned up early ’60s are firmly unbuttoned at Sterling Copper, the upstart challenger ad agency on Madison Avenue populated with old money, young bucks, wasp-waisted secretaries and a new breed of ambitious women. Politics, culture, sexism, homophobia and segregation simmer in the background as fortunes are made, adultery committed, ad campaigns break, and even the Brits take over at one point (although that’s shortlived with the loss of a foot and a suicide impacting the proceedings). All of this is accompanied by a delicious marathon session of smoking, drinking, fine dining, fashion, glamour and a fabric of lies. This is escapism at its best.

It’s worth having a look at this wikipedia page to discover the personalities who inhabit this world of vanity and ambition.

Who is Don Draper?
The central character Don Draper, who has become something of an icon, is one of the most successful ad men in New York but he is a man of many secrets, he is an adulterous deserter and lives under a false identity. The heady combination of his charisma, good looks, charm and creativity mean he can overcome all of these to make it to the top of the ladder in the booming advertising age. He is essentially a vehicle for a series and his various affairs are a tableaux of the 60s, from beatnik culture through to old money. He’s fascinating and enigmatic but as the episodes, and series, and unfold there are times when he is thoroughly unlikeable. He turns away his long lost brother, who then commits suicide. He sends his unhappy wife to a therapist to help her find herself again, only to have a series of clandestine late night calls with the the therapist to ask him what she is talking about. He even has an affair with his daughter’s school teacher. He’s a predator. Like Tony in The Sopranos (by the same creators) the premise of the piece is the double, or multi, layering of truth upon lies and so it goes on. There is tension as Don is blackmailed by a colleague, he is found by the widow of the man whose identity he stole and all of these moments create new opportunities for him to either brazen it out or redeem himself.

What about the women?
The key character is Betty Draper who is the domestic goddess snared by Don. In the first few episodes, Betty is herself unravelling; she’s mourning the loss of her mother and has forsaken her shortlived modelling for marriage, children and the home.

Betty Draper

She’s uptight but pretty social and chainsmokes, as do her pregnant friends and they’re often seen cooking with a cigarette in hand. This is just before smoking became associated with cancer and other illnesses. Many of the scenes feel chopped straight out of the Women’s Room, especially the one where the married women exclude a divorcee. There are allusions to domestic boredom, postnatal depression and the need to stay beautiful and the women feel caged. Betty is an ornament for Don but while her character becomes fuller (and more flawed) with the passing of time, she doesn’t step into the role of career woman and remains within the confines of married life.

And the office
This is hubris at play and where the drinking and smoking and affairs play out against a backdrop of multi million dollar ad accounts and client shenanigans.

It’s pretty epic and thoroughly enjoyable to watch, as are the ever changing fashions. Queen bee Joan who is the office manager teeters between being the on site Marilyn Monroe and the office matriarch. She is countered by Peggy, the office square who is mocked for her bad clothes and lack of sex appeal. Like Don, she is complex, ambitious and tough. Both women end up having children by partners in the firm and both keep them a secret, Peggy has hers adopted and Joan passes her child off as her husbands. While the ads created by the agency sell wholesome smokes and happy lives, the back story does nothing to deny the complexity of mistakes, white lies and gross betrayals.

Peggy and Joan

Crimes with no punishment

There are many twists and turns in this drama of complexity. It would be easy for Don to be discovered and be arrested for his crime of desertion. But he isn’t. He strikes up a deep and surprisingly platonic relationship with the real Don Draper’s wife. Instead of being outed by his long lost brother, Don loses him completely when he dies, but his ties are not cut with his past at all they haunt him even more. When Don’s wife Betty finds his old papers and photos locked away in a drawer, she discovers he is actually someone called Dick Whitman and has also divorced a previous Mrs Draper and bought her a house, she is furious and confronts him. He confesses and seems ugly for the first time and she throw him out of the house. The situation is compounded by revelations about at least one affair, Betty seeks a divorce and Don loses everything. And so, like the opening title credits, he begins his fall, but this isn’t the end of him, or season 5. I’m going to keep watching.

Rolling Stone interview with Matthew Weiner – Mad Men creator
The Womens Room – read about this here
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck’s novel for the people
Don Draper – wikipedia page
Hunter S Thompson – the writer who spawned gonzo journalism
Tom Wolfe – American novelist and chronicler of culture, counterculture and capitalism through fiction
One thing about this gallery of flawed characters that still irks me is that Don, who was a deserter, who have been pardoned in 1952 by this act of government.

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