Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

I am halfway through the first season of Mad Men, in the start of a year-long race to experience the series’s seventh and final season contemporaneously. Forgive any observations or analyses below that have been made explicit in the years since, whether by the show or its critics.
Its hooks are already wedged good and deep. The writing and attractive visuals are deservedly lauded, but Mad Men has really got me interested for something both unmentioned in its reviews and unseen in even the best of multi-season TV: it’s one of the only series I’ve seen that does not just flash creative formalism as artistic credentials, but uses it in a consistent and complex manner, often to emphasize themes and subtext that go otherwise unattended. Of course, that’s largely because few series are afforded the same  time and budget, and creative freedom, but I digress.
The show’s production design has made it an aesthetic brand, and rightly so: the Sterling Cooper offices are exemplary of glamorous and shot-friendly production design, displaying ample dynamic lines and geometric shapes that provide ample depth and visual metaphor.
 An example:

This shot from episode 2 shows copwriter Paul Kinsey asking naive new girl Peggy Olson to grab lunch with him. Peggy grows more and more frustrated with her office’s sexual preoccupations, but at the start of the series she’s oblivious to her coworkers’ motives — and episode director Alan Taylor puts that into visual metaphor by dollying from Peggy’s left to her right as Paul walks behind her, a little woosh that ends by putting a wall right in front of her nose. Few television sets permit subtle, creative arrangements like that; fewer still have directors who can conceive and execute them. Ample credit is due to Chris Manley, the cinematographer for the vast majority of the series.
For those unfamiliar, Mad Men is the story of the workers and families of Sterling Cooper, a Manhattan ad agency circa 1960, and in particular creative executive Don Draper. The series exposes the contradictions, entitlement, sexism and social dissatisfaction behind their ostensibly perfect lives, with no small amount of cheating behind their spouses backs. It functions as an allegory for the shifting politics and culture of the 1960s, and dissects how culture interfaces with advertising.
At least that’s the trajectory of the series thus far. Mad Men’s methodical pacing seems to leave no stone unturned, capitalizing on minor character details to major effect. Individual episodes background advertising clients as thematic tapestry, colouring long-term arcs and characters.
In one subplot, Draper’s research for an Israeli account doesn’t turn up the deeper thoughts and desires of Jewish culture that he’s looking for. He has an adulterous candle burning for Rachel Menken, a Jewish department store owner, and turns to her for advice. When he asks her to explain Jews she chastises him for his stereotyping and ignorance. “I don’t hate you,” he says. Menken retorts, “No, individuals are wonderful.”
The episode does not inspect questions of Zionism or anti-semitism so much as it uses Draper’s reactions to illustrate the ignorance of white executives who see “ethnicity” as little more than a demographic subcategory. It also develops Draper’s adulterous attitude; he cannot conceive of a woman who is attracted to him, and yet is unwilling to be a mistress.
Fooling around behind spouses’ backs is a major motif of these episodes (and, if the fifth season’s “Adultery Is Back” ad campaign is any indication, the whole series). Though that risks pushing the series into soap opera, it amounts to more than utilitarian intrigue. The cheating in Mad Men parallels a society whose stated principles are often at odd with their vices; everybody knows about it, but nobody wants to admit it.

The coming cultural distension of the 1960s underlies the smeared lipstick and bedroom promises, and it takes its toll: Don’s crumbling false identity, the glassy grins of suburb life, and inter-generational tension (if a characters’ parents aren’t a menace, their in-laws are).
It’s not all polarities though; office manager Joan Holloway occupies a kind of ideological middle ground. As she delivers good news to Peggy, she quips, “As they say, ‘The medium is the message’.“ Anachronism notwithstanding — who could “they” be in 1960, four years before the phrase saw widespread publication? — the quotation reveals much about Holloway; one can’t imagine that she would have simply “overheard” that phrase. And even if she did, overheard from whom? We know that outside Sterling-Cooper she has a wide social circle, other affairs, and “parties”; could Joan be a more honest harbinger of counter-culture ideas and ideals than one of Midge Daniels’s lefty artist friends?
Granted, Joan seems to enjoy the office’s (sometimes literal) skirt-chasing, and her sex appeal makes it relatively easy for her to control her lifestyle. In that light, the McLuhan quote may not only be her motto, but the Mad Men mantra: conventional wisdom holds that ratings and advertisements alone decide whether a series lives or dies, but Mad Men is basic cable, and the ad intake of an entire season ($2–3 million) is not enough to cover the budget of a single episode.
Instead, Mad Men survives on a complex combination of cable carriage fees, brand tie-ins, and licensing fees for internet streaming and international broadcast. A Banana Republic clothing line bears the series’s name, and the style and swagger of its stars is widely revered by those who seek or have an upper-class lifestyle. One could criticize Mad Men as being too slick, too unwilling to take big creative risks, but such criticism mistakes style for creativity, and the inflections of classical composition and sound in the series speak for themselves — albeit more quietly than, say, a fish-eye POV.
Mad Men’s superficial prettiness is not merely an ironic counterpoint to its drama. The series is allegorical, not satirical, and its glamour exists not to refute itself but to affirm itself. It is detailed and subtle and skewers the facade of the upper class, but it is also unabashedly ravishing and sensuous. Culture and advertising interface constantly; they are inextricable. The dialectical dance of this self-contradiction gives the show its greatest intellectual depth thus far, and its balance and sober development will be key to the success of rest of the series.


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