I’m one of those people who can’t get enough “Mad Men,” and after waiting almost a year for the show to come back with new episodes, Sunday night was a major event. Maybe it’s the focus on the 1960’s, the decade in which I grew up, and the uncanny social accuracy the creators achieve. The sets, the costumes, the drinks, the cigarettes, the music, the sexy overtones (more on that later!), but especially the mindset. How could our cultural status have appeared so sophisticated, but really have been so, so innocent? This new set of episodes appears to be set right around 1968, and if ever there was a year that altered the American psyche and the future of the society, it was that year. As one who is obsessed with the show, here are 10 objects of my obsession from the first new episode:
1. THE CHANGING ROLE OF WOMEN: Main character Peggy Olsen represents the antithesis of what women were supposed to be back then. Career-laser-focused, Peggy is in a new, more responsible advertising position, and true to form,her behavior is now mirroring the behavior of her male counterparts at her former ad agency. That’s what women thought they had to do back then, and well into the 1980s, actually. They believed they had to become men to make the unlikely climb up the corporate ladder. “Can you get me some coffee?” she barks from her office while working all night on New Year’s Eve and forcing her male subordinates to do the same.
2. COUNTER CULTURE: A few seasons ago there was an NBC TV drama called “American Dreams,” also set in the 1960s, in which the year 1968 was just touched on in the third season. Those who didn’t live through the “hippie era” were about to see how it changed some young people from innocents into members of a new societal counter culture. It got cancelled. “Mad Men” is about to pick up right where “American Dreams” left off, with a view of how some young people rejected convention and formed their own youth movement.
4. DEATH: Don Draper is focusing too often and too heavily on all things death-related. In one scene, a drunk Don questions the doorman at his apartment building, who had suffered a heart attack a while back and been declared clinically dead before being revived. “What did you see?” Don demands. “What was it like?” In another scene, Don plays the doorman’s death over again in his memory in slow motion. When Don attends a funeral gathering for co-worker Roger Sterling’s mother, he throws up in front of the entire crowd. In a rare faux pas, Don creates an ad campaign for a hotel/resort company that is rejected by the client, who says it strikes him as suggestive of suicide. Don’s got death on the brain.
5. VICES: Cigarettes and booze are players in almost every scene in “Mad Men.” There is smoking in hospitals and at dinner tables, drinking at the office and even at funerals. When Roger Sterling’s secretary must inform him of his own mother’s death, he quickly pours her a stiff one, which she downs in one long gulp. On vacation in Hawaii, Megan Draper trudges down to a skeezy part of the beach to score a joint, which she victoriously brings back to the hotel room to smoke before she and Don have sex. Smoking pot was still considered sneaky, naughty, and yes…sexy. Very sixties.
6. MEN’S BURIED EMOTIONS: If you think men are denying their feelings orconcealing their emotions today, you really had to see 1960s men. Don Draper is great at withholding everything he feels and internalizing it all into some deep, dark tunnel of grey matter. And Roger Sterling, who barely blinked upon hearing of his mother’s death, cries wild tears upon hearing that his regular shoe shine man died – but only in his office, alone. 1960s men are accurately depicted in “Mad Men” as in emotional denial about everything and unable to converse with anyone in any circumstance about feelings.
7.FASHION:“Mad Men” captures the look of the 1960s better than almost any fictionalized piece I have ever seen. In my first job out of college (1975) I worked at a TV station in which we absolutely had a woman of the Joan Holloway genre. Full figured, proud of it, and dressed to accentuate all of it. The office attire is dressy, tailored and dry-cleaned within an inch of its fibrous life. Men’s fashion is stylized, but understated. But, as mentioned, it’s 1968, and I predict soon we’ll see the leisure suits, chains, miniskirts, platform shoes, etc. But by 1968, office attire was still very 1960ish. My hat is way off to the costumers. Perfect.
Even with all of my above-mentioned obsessions, the real genius in the series rests in the writers’ words. For five seasons the writers have slowly and meticulously revealed that Don Draper is a human train wreck. Now it becomes more obvious: On vacation in Hawaii, he is on the beach reading “The Inferno,” of all things. Creator Matt Weiner walks a fine line of over-symbolizing… “The Inferno” was a bit much, but it fits with everything we already know about Don’s dark psyche.
The writers are also smartly and slowly working in references to Vietnam. So far the references are pretty benign, but 1968 was the year of the Tet offensive, a series of attacks by the North Vietnamese that escalated the war in an unprecedented way. Some say the Tet offensive did in Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, caused Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s military career to crash and burn and caused everyday Americans to truly realize we were in a war. How will “Mad Men” handle this new infusion of faraway blood and guts to influence its scripts? How will the writers balance their material between Wall Street, Hanoi and Haight Ashbury. That 1960s innocence I mentioned earlier? It’s due to fade to black in this season’s “Mad Men.” Why oh why aren’t you watching???!