Perspective 6: Mad Men Special

With approximately nine days to go until season 5 of Mad Men premieres on AMC, RhettMedia is all set to welcome back the modern television marvel back with open arms with several special features over the course of the next week and a half. Having been off screen since October 2010, anticipation for the celebrated and acclaimed show is reaching fever pitch, with the subtle poster advertisement drawing a huge spectrum of attention from fans and critics alike. We kick off the Mad Men columns with a very special Perspective of the show, which will hopefully get you up to speed with the series ahead of launch time on March 25th. Please be aware that the following article does contain some spoilers.

 

1. Setting Trends (Season 1, 2007)

When Mad Men hit the screen for the very first time in the summer of 2007, it caused a massive stir with critics and the audience alike, and quickly rose to prominence as one of the more reputable pieces of quality television to be produced in recent years. Covering the year 1960 in the Mad Men universe, the show caught alight due to its unwavering dedication to the era, with a multitude of call-backs and Easter eggs referencing events of the period still going by unnoticed until your third or fourth watch. The incisive examinations of the acerbic and outrageous attitudes of the characters are also part of the shows charm, where shocking examples of misogyny and tensions surrounding race are utilised to portray a remarkably accurate and noticeably different atmosphere than all other shows released at a similar time.

The first season follows Don Draper, a war hero who has evolved into a sophisticated and incredibly astute creative advertising man, and chronicles his working and family life which often prove equally as dramatic as one another. While at work he is looked upon as the star who rarely does wrong at firm Sterling Cooper, his home life and personal affairs are an emotional minefield, his relations with his wife Betty twisted by the complications of secrets and the deception of Draper’s cheating. The majority of the first season surrounds the revelation that Don Draper is an assumed identity that he took in order to escape the atrocities of the Korean War and is in fact named Dick Whitman. In a time that would brand him a coward for life, the conflict at the heart of Whitman is vulnerability, and it is this aspect which leads him into an affair with shop entrepreneur Rachel Menken and leaves his relationship with his wife in tatters at series end.

Elsewhere in the Sterling Cooper office, new girl Peggy Olson arrives at the deep end and has to navigate between the sexual advances of the male-dominated office, and succumbs to the charms of the weasel-like Pete Campbell. Despite Campbell’s engagement to another woman, his advances towards Peggy are successful, which ultimately leads to Peggy conceiving and having his baby at the end of the series. Unaware of this fact, Pete finds out the truth behind Draper’s identity, and in a power-play to the higher ups at the firm, attempts to destroy his boss’ reputation by outing him. This backfires on Campbell, and his spell as the main antagonist of the series ends at this juncture, with a newfound loyalty to Draper sparking up in its wake.

 

2. The Mountain King (Season 2, 2008)

By the time the second season rolled around in 2008, the accolades of Golden Globe victories among others had firmly consolidated Mad Men’s place at the top of the mountain, yet it wasn’t until this season when it truly staked its claim as one of the greater outputs in television in recent memory. Set in 1962 approximately a year and a half after the end of the first season, the show again draws from many real-life historical issues to intersperse into the characters’ lives, with the death of Marilyn Monroe and the Cuban Missile Crisis in particular framing two of the episodes.

Building on the events of the first season, the strain on Don and Betty’s marriage becomes increasingly stronger as a result of Don’s continued dalliance with the wife of a popular comedian over the course of the season. After being made aware of this fact, an enraged Betty kicks Don out of their house and separates from him. However, circumstances mean that Betty has to go visit her ill father and Don decides to take her, leading to a physical and intimate encounter between the two for comfort. Betty is still determined to follow through with the separation until she discovers she is pregnant with Don’s child. In the meantime, Don goes AWOL from a business trip to visit the wife of the real Don Draper who died during the Korean War, and we discover that they have a friendship built up on years of helping each other through the sets of circumstances. Upon his return, Betty takes Don back into the house for the good of the child, despite relations still being somewhat frayed between them.

At work, the introduction of accounts man Duck Phillips sees the firm sold to a British company, much to Don’s chagrin. As the villain of the series, Duck attempts to oust Don from the company, but the creative man’s lack of written contract means that he can pose an ultimatum to the new owners to select the more valuable member of the firm. The company choose Don, and Duck descends into an alcoholic rage and out of Sterling Cooper. For Peggy and Pete, Peggy has had the baby but chosen to give it up for adoption, favouring her fledgling career over the child at the advice of her boss Don, who knows a bit or two about forgetting painful memories of the past. Her career goes from strength to strength over the course of the season, as she moves up into the creative sector of the company, a place only men would reach in 60s America. While rejecting the advances of a Catholic priest to confess her sins surrounding giving up the baby, Peggy finds penance of her own by admitting to a shocked Pete the truth to end their part of the season.

 

3. End of an Era (Season 3, 2009)

Season three is the epitome of a show reaching its peak, as the awards continued to roll in and the show got even better due to a richer history to draw upon for source material. Having heavily established all of the characters in the series, the culmination of Don and Betty’s marriage was a momentous occasion in television history and the unparalleled amount of change for the characters in this series symbolised the end of a significant period for the show.

The season is host to a number of fine episodes, with Betty’s hallucinatory and allusive dream sequence depicting the birth of the new baby, her discovery of Don’s true identity and the definitive end of their relationship marking three stand-out moments for the series. Don’s story begins with his relationship with Betty on firm ground, but it begins to unravel as he partakes in another affair and Betty’s romantic interests also lie elsewhere. Upon meeting owner of Hilton hotels Conrad Hilton, Don’s time becomes increasingly stretched between his work, his affair and his doting, pregnant wife, and the strain becomes all too much for Don, who attempts to leave Betty with his mistress after the birth of baby Gene, only to be halted by his wife’s discovery of his true identity. What follows is an excellent segment where Don has evidently been found out and is at the mercy of his wife in an argument that resembles every fight that every couple goes through, in a breathless whirlwind of emotion that keeps you absolutely riveted to the screen. Framed by the Kennedy assassination, the result is the death of Betty and Don’s marriage and the absolute end of an era for the show.

Meanwhile, Peggy engages in a relationship with Duck while moving up the company ladder and there is a fascinating look into the latent homophobia of the era when gay character Sal is fired from the firm after three seasons for extraneous circumstances out of his hands. Furthermore, the takeover from last season has gone through and much of the focus is on how the British company influences Sterling Cooper and the culmination of this storyline is an absolutely magnificent segment where upon learning that the English were set to sell the company again, an Ocean’s Eleven style manoeuvre is pulled by Don and the owners wherein they release themselves from their contracts and take their clients with them to form new firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The scene is infinitely cool and a representation of what has made it such a swaggering, suave and sophisticated success and marks a distinct turning point for the show as a whole.

 

4. Don’s Downfall (Season 4, 2010)

The fourth season of Mad Men begins in the brand new offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and it is clear that everything has changed in the universe of the firm. The familiar browns of the old office are replaced with a fresher, cleaner white in the new compact office, and Don is an infinitely different man than he has been ever before. It’s all change for the people of Mad Men, yet the old traits that are known and loved come out in due course.

At the start of the season, Don is forlorn and lost in the sea of his hidden identity and isolation outside of his family. In addition to this, Betty’s new relationship with Henry Francis that began in season three makes it difficult for Don to be with his children and it reinforces the truth that while his love for Betty was perhaps entirely dissolved, his love for his children has always been immense, his parting from them leaving him stranded and alone at Christmas. Sinking into a deep depression, Don goes on a seduction rampage in a bid to fill his crippling despair with sex as he always has done but on a far more destructive level. The result is an ill-advised fling with his secretary and a developing drinking problem which leads to a fight with Duck which he loses at the SCDP offices with Peggy caught in the middle in the stellar episode The Suitcase. In this episode, Don’s luck gets even worse as Anna Draper, the one constant in his life that gives him perspective, passes away and Don is all but truly alone.

However, Peggy helps him through these setbacks, and Don turns his life around and causes a stir with an article in the New York Times that sees him back to his best. He pursues a relationship with consultant Faye Miller briefly before being enchanted by his new secretary Megan. A whirlwind romance, Don fails to tell Faye about his engagement to the secretary before breaking it off properly with her, yet he seems perfectly contented with the move for the first time in the show’s history. Elsewhere, Peggy is rising in importance to the firm and in a call-back to the first few series, Roger Sterling and chief secretary Joan Holloway reignite the relationship for one night, which has potentially led to Joan becoming pregnant in lieu of her marriage to another man. With Betty featuring less regularly in this series perhaps due to January Jones’ increase in movie roles or in writers feeling they’ve got most of the juice out of the character, the fourth season was a clear evolutionary step for a show looking to change up the formula, which sets us up nicely for season five.

 

So there you have it, four seasons of Mad Men in a decidedly huge nutshell. With nine days left until the premiere of season five, speculation is rampant for the direction of the characters and anticipation is immense. Over the next few days, I will be looking at particular instalments of the show from each season in editions of Episodes, so be sure to check them out to get your taste-buds prepped for the big launch on the 25th.

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~ by jrhett on March 16, 2012.

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