Sad Hill Media

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

by Will Ross

At the close of season 1, the most surprising thing about Mad Men may be its near-freeform structure. The slow reveal of Don Draper’s true past has its climax in episode 12, when the detestable Pete Campbell unsuccessfully blackmails him for a promotion, but episode 13 finishes the season by climaxing the respective arcs of Betty and Don — and neither has anything to do with Dick Whitman. That sensational backstory, the closest thing season 1 has to an A-plot, melts into the fabric of the series, as the family lives and lies of other Sterling Cooper employees are given nearly equal import. Don Draper’s biggest sin isn’t leaving parents who didn’t care for him, it’s that he’s so willing to abandon the family who needs him, be it his wife and children or his desperate brother Adam. Adam’s suicidal trajectory is set properly in motion by Don: believing he is giving his brother the same opportunity to start over that he had, he offers Adam $5,000 and shoos him out the door. Months later, Adam hangs himself. Draper is shocked, and he bears the weight of the season’s moral: you can’t placate a long-lost brother with a severance package; you can’t conduct adultery like a backroom transaction; you can’t treat your whole life like a business. Given that, it’s hard to imagine that the series sympathizes at all with Burt Cooper’s objectivist ideals. Nor, for that matter, does Draper. After Cooper insists that Draper read Atlas Shrugged, there’s scant evidence that he ever does. When Pete throws a tantrum over Peggy being promoted, Draper observes that he is letting his personal jealousies interfere with business and says, “You’ll have to give back that copy of Ayn Rand.” Not, “that copy of Atlas Shrugged.” Could this be shorthand for the sake of Pete (and the audience)? Maybe. But Mad Men makes a conspicuous point of showing what its characters read: the office women read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Cooper reads Atlas Shrugged, Draper reads (albeit uncomprehendingly) Exodus and, in the season 2 premiere, Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency. Draper is never seen reading Atlas, and why would he? The man has little patience for moralizing; I can’t imagine he would appreciate it in novel length. My point is not to project my own disdain for Rand onto Draper. Though I suspect Mad Men’s writers share my moral objections, Draper’s own objections tend to be on the grounds of nihilism, not moralism. It’s likely that he views Rand’s ilk much the same way as he views Midge’s hippy cadre: as uppity activists, fruitlessly convinced that their ideals can alter the world’s unflinching and apathetic course. Of course, they will change the world in the coming decade, and hints of that are scattered throughout the season. Perhaps most noticeably, black people are conspicuously backgrounded. From the pilot’s first scene onwards, they make sporadic appearances, always in low-paying, unglamorous jobs, and always quietly enduring, in some way or another, the casual racism of well-to-do whites. No one — absolutely no one — shows any negative reaction to that racism, except when Paul Kinsey insults the fashion sense of a lunch cart worker.

“Well, it’s lightweight, and it tells me I’m at work. But you sure can talk, Mr. Kinsey.
The first season is among the most socially despondent television I’ve ever seen. Perhaps the civil rights movement will bring hope to the Manhattan highballers, but I don’t expect it. Generally speaking, ethics and morals are volatile, and regret is short-lived — if Roger Sterling’s coronary makes him sorry for his rampant adultery, he isn’t sorry for very long: not long after tearfully declaring that “I've been living the last twenty years like I'm on shore leave,” he uses his first moments back in the office to make an overture towards his doting mistress Joan. One can understand Joan’s attraction: like her, Roger is totally unashamed of his sexual wants and ruthless in how he gets them. It’s only when he tries to make Joan his own exclusive territory that she recoils from him and his unsubtle gift of a caged bird to woo her into domestication. The motif continues: Don’s nickname for Betty is “Birdy.” The men, on the other hand, sport symbols of conquest and capture — most notably, the BB gun that Pete exchanges a wedding gift for, and Draper’s preoccupation with cameras.
Put simply, the men try to capture everything they can, and the women try to break free. But Betty Draper, the show’s central figure of patriarchal control, self-destructively collides these symbols and their respective meanings: in episode 9, when she tries to reboot her modeling career and reclaim some independence, she fails (her burgeoning career was being held hostage to lure Don to another agency), and the episode concludes with her resentfully sniping at fleeing pigeons.
But for all the dynamite imagery of that moment, Betty’s conflicted mental state also manifests in more subtly visual ways. Take, for instance, the moment in episode 7 when Don is out of the room, and Roger makes a pass at her.

Betty enters the frame with her back to the camera and into a composition that is unbalanced, both in its messy post-meal set dressing and its heavy weighting towards the right, creating frailty and tension.

The camera starts to move forward. Roger enters the frame just as Betty moves closer to its center, his face visible in profile, imposing over her. The graphical object of his down-tilted head’s gaze is unmistakable.

Betty’s face remains hidden, her pose that of an anonymous object. Roger’s ass says it all.

The camera movement completes as the conflict comes into full view. Betty's face is revealed in pointed profile. As Roger puts his hand on Betty, she leans away above the waist (towards her initial far-right position) — but again, the ass says it all.

On a storytelling level, this shot uses shifting compositional balance to create suspense and conflict, but it also deepens the characters’ performances and inner lives, particularly that of January Jones as Betty — her shifting towards an unbalanced domestic frame reflects both her compulsion to be a proper housewife and her teetering psyche. Even more impressively, the blocking suggests Betty’s temptations in screen 2, when she moves into that more balanced position at the exact moment Roger enters. The following close-ups only bring nuance to what we have already been shown: Betty feels dissatisfied and dehumanized by her role as a housewife, and Roger is willing to fill that hole. Er, so to speak. Such sophistication in mise en scene is more often associated with auteur figures like Paul Thomas Anderson than the oft-undervalued directors of television. Perhaps it’s time to treat the latter group as more than functional artisans. As I said, the structure of the series as a whole is relatively freeform, more accumulative than convergent, but it does have its quintessential moments. The third episode’s structure forms the season’s thesis well: the first half is Don at work and play, making power grabs and living out his male power fantasies. Then the second half is domestic horror, as Don comes home to a suburban life of pretense and repression. But the moment from season 1 that sticks with me, the image I can point at and say, “That’s what Mad Men is about,” comes in a radio spot recording session in the season finale. Peggy chooses Annie, the best-looking candidate for the job, believing that Annie’s looks must make her confident, and that this confidence translates into her voice. But Peggy can’t hear any confidence in the recording takes, and can’t understand why her actor's internal state doesn’t match her external beauty. Peggy directs her, "You're back to being you.” A tear rolls down Annie’s face.


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