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August 18, 2009

"Mad Men" Won't Go Gently Into That Good Night (Spoilers)

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Banana Republic Hosts Screening of Mad Men Season 3

Pass me a cigarette and pour me a drink 'cause "Mad Men" has returned!  Don Draper (Jon Hamm), his wife, his colleagues and his one night stands are back to once again remind us that the "good old days" were never all that good...just old.  Those guys and gals at 60's ad agency Sterling Cooper are sleek, upscale and trapped in an ordered and unforgiving world, partly of their own making.  They do however look really fabulous there and "Mad Men's" small but loyal audience is just as likely to tune in to see what Betty Draper wears out to dinner as they are to find out whose baby she's carrying.

That small audience is also growing.   The critical acclaim and the buzz from last year's Emmy win for Best Drama, not to mention all those retro print ads, and "Mad Men" yourself promotions are working their magic.  Last night's premiere set a ratings record for the series. 

***Spoilers Ahead***

Season three takes place several months after last season's finale and the episode gave us a taste of life for the employees of Sterling Cooper under their new English masters.  The personnel blood letting since the takeover was worse than anything you'd see on "True Blood," with a third of the Sterling Cooper employees getting the royal boot.   Last night they finished up by dumping the Head of Accounts, Burt Peterson who as Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) so eloquently put it, "Did not go gently into that good night."

That left a plum job opening that the new Brit Head Honcho thought would be fun to fill with two of the firms go-getters:  the aforementioned Ken and King of the Weasels, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).  Of course what fun would it be to just give them the job, better to let each of them think the job is theirs alone before lowering the boom that they'll share it--unless of course one of them blows the other out of the water.  Hint, hint, hint.

Pete is as pissed off as you might think but for once listens to the good advice of his wife who tells him to cool it and play the game like a good little flunky.  Meanwhile, Joan is playing hardball with the Brit Head Honcho's male secretary.   He thinks he's too good to be part of the secretarial pool--he is a man after all--and he doesn't take kindly to having Joan above him.  She however puts his Brit butt in its place in the most subtle of ways. 

Finally Don and Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) take a business trip to Baltimore to check in with their London Fog clients.  Don nearly hooks up with a dippy stewardess in between looking at trench coats and Salvatore has a near miss with a hot to trot bellboy.   Both are interrupted when a fire in their hotel causes them to evacuate and also gives Don a revealing eyeful of Sal and the bellboy.

As the series progresses, I'm thinking we've got lots of storylines to look forward to.  In the past the show has foreshadowed the political and social upheaval of the women's movement with example after example of the pervasive sexism of the time.  From Betty Draper's (January Jones) well decorated, suburban prison, to Peggy Olsen's (Elisabeth Moss) fight to be promoted, to the appallingly casual rape of Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) by her fiance, women in the series are accepted by everyone as inferior creatures, suitable only as playthings for men.

The writing staff on "Mad Men," unlike so many television shows is predominantly made up of women, and though that undoubtedly adds somewhat to the authenticity of the female characters, Melissa Silverstein at Women and Hollywood digs a bit deeper into the show's behind the scenes writing staff:

While on the big screen the writer gets the credit for actually writing the script, TV is very different. What all writers and producers on TV want is to get their names on an episode. That becomes their calling card and enables them to use it for their next gig. 

So as we go into season 3 I will be looking at the writing credits and hoping that these women have an influence onscreen, but if the story is to be believed and women are leading the way in the writing of the show they should have the appropriate credits on the episodes and in their job titles.

When it comes to black people, racism has only been touched on obliquely and that's stirred up some discussion about whether "Mad Men" is afraid of to address issue of race.   LaToya Peterson has written a well thought out piece for Double X asserting just that:

In Season 2, the carefully constructed façades start to crack. Betty kicks Don out of the house, and then sleeps with a stranger she meets in a bar. Her friends have affairs, get divorced. Joan, the office sexpot, gets raped by her "perfect" fiancé. Peggy gets her own office. Salvatore, the closeted gay man, has his first gay encounter. The white patriarchy is breaking apart, the rush of the '60s are upon us. But the black characters are still trapped in a romantic haze of noble, silent suffering.

While I agree with many of Ms. Peterson's points, I do however think it bears keeping in mind that the show is currently set around 1962/1963.  It's after the Cuban Missile Crisis and before John Kennedy is assassinated.  Of course there were many black activists working for civil rights even then, but for these characters in this ad agency, those events are on the periphery of their lives.  The show isn't about the black civil rights movement in the 60's, it's about these people who work for this ad agency.

I'm more of the mind of Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic who writes:

I don't watch Mad Men to get a lesson on gender--though I sometimes do--I watch to see a good story. I understand, given the times, the desire to have the show take on race. But I don't want to see Mad Men "take on" anything. That's for bloggers, and historians to do.

Having said that, as the 60's progress, I will be disappointed if events relating to the civil rights movement and to black people don't have more of an impact on the people at Sterling Cooper because historically, no one was untouched by the events that are about to come.

Related Links:

John Boot at Pajamas Media asks, "Why Do Women Love "Mad Men?"

Emily McCombs at Lemondrop.com asks, "Where Were The Women On Last Night's "Mad Men?"

Famespy talks "Mad Men" fashions on the blog, Famespy.

Cross Posted From BlogHer


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