Madmen Yourself: Reply from Maggie Flinn

Thursday, September 3, 2009

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

I definitely watch Mad Men as if it were Mad Women. A few days before Lauren Goodlad’s article appeared in the Chronicle, I had been looking at AMC’s offical Mad Men website, and the downloads area caught my attention (in a way that it hadn’t a few weeks earlier when I went to the same site to “madmen myself” for Facebook). The six wallpapers available for Season 3 seemed particularly satisfying to a fan of Mad Women. Don Draper has the only truly “solo” shot (but, hey, he’s almost under water). Betty Draper is doubled by her reflection in a shop window and tripled by the mannequin head in the same. Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson are both shown on the street, framed, but not interacting, with men who are not show characters. Secondary male characters (Roger Sterling, Pete Campbell, Salvatore Romano, Ken Cosgrove, Paul Kinsey and Harry Crane) appear only in the two group shots. Don, Joan, Peggy and Betty (if you count the reflection) appear twice. And while the red “Mad” of the show’s title is one possible explanation for the color scheme at work across the images, Joan’s hair (oh! Joan’s hair!) seems a much more succulent, suggestive reason for the burnt siennas and peachy-pinks accenting and dominating the palette.

The main reason I enjoy Mad Men is that the three main women characters (along with Rachel Menken, the department store heiress from Season 1) are complex and interesting. The screenwriting here seems to be taking a “tip of the iceberg” tactic… there is much more going on with these characters than immediately meets the eye, and they have the (already demonstrated) potential to develop in ways that the men just don’t. Screen time probably has not always been an accurate measure of their importance to the show—although I surely wouldn’t complain if they got more of it! As Lauren suggested to me in an email exchange we had regarding her Chronicle piece, the character of Don feels a bit “at the end of the line.” Peggy, in contrast, has arguably evolved the most over the first two seasons. She shows some danger of becoming too much one of the boys—that is, too trapped in the limitations of her company position and status quo politics, such that advancement in a single direction up the company ladder is the only possible change left. But she feels palpably different as well. One can see her actually doing something radically different from what the men seem destined for (launching her own firm? going into magazine editing?). Meanwhile, it doesn’t necessarily always feel “too late” for Betty (although with the Season 2 finale announcement, things aren’t looking especially good for her in the short term). Joan especially seems on the verge of busting out—metaphorically! She is just so smart and savvy that if her wedding plans go south (I have only seen through Season 3, Episode 1), one can easily imagine her completely reinventing herself. In contrast, the men, Don and Pete in particular (this is less true for Harry and Ken), seem absolutely trapped in ways of thinking that are simply not going to be socially viable for much longer. They may still flourish professionally, because they are so well on their way, but they feel like they will just fizzle affectively. In this light, Sal’s gayness could be read as an allegory for the impasse of masculinity (again, I don’t where this goes after the Season 3 opener). Obviously WWII and the Korean War and their impact on the individual man and or his idea of himself is showcased, particularly for Don, as a trauma to which this impasse might be historically ascribed.


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Rob Rushing said...

The show appears to appeal nearly equally to female and male spectators: my general impression is that Mad Men is as likely to revel in aggressive conflicts between men (or even more brilliantly in their passive-agressive conflicts, such as the infamous S1 E7, "Red in the Face") as it is in Peggy's very real and present concerns about what kind of person to be. The show seems to me to be at its most effective when dealing with characters who are empty, hollow, ciphers, the bond that Peggy and Don share, and perhaps its the terror and the promise of that "blank slate" that crosses the gender line.

I have to disagree about Pete. Counterintuitively, Pete Campbell may be the most wonderfully disagreeable and charmless character we've seen on TV in some time, but this often masks the fact that he's usually right—Pete knows long before Don that Sterling Cooper should be bringing in young people, knows that rock 'n' roll belongs in advertising, and understands that the death drive is part of why people smoke long before Marlboro turned to subliminal skulls and bleak Western landscapes. (He also understands that the "British invasion" of Sterling Cooper may look like a windfall for him, but bodes ill for the company long term.) If Pete is at the end of the line, it's not because he doesn't understand the world that's emerging, but because others simply can't see past his grating and inane personality. But I have hopes for Pete: when he dances the Charleston or fantasizes about hunting, we see a very different person.

Maggie Flinn said...

You're right that Pete has more complexity, Rob (he's also just that little bit younger)--and he definitely has his moments (like telling his father in law to go ahead and pull the Clearasil account). But he just keeps going back to worrying about climbing the corporate ladder. One could make a case for him as a particularly tragic character because he does see what is going on (not just for the company, but his eventual self-awareness vis-à-vis Peggy, for ex) and then, la force des choses intervenes... Maybe he and Betty could best be categorized under the heading of "the jury is out".