Posts Tagged ‘Mad Men 2009’

Secret Identities: Three Wives and Three Lives

December 20, 2009

Before I begin, I just wanted to post this trailer for Season 4 of Big Love, which I found interesting because of the aesthetic parallels (and, I assume, similar conceptual bases) to the opening credits of Mad Men.  Basically, main character in suit falling – although this time it is Bill who is visible and the background black instead of an empty silhouette of a subject against the bright background of visual clips from the sixties ad world.  Perhaps these differences can be accounted for in terms of the characters’ relationships with their environments around them.  Bill is whole, himself only when away from the “real-world,” visually called to mind with the use of the vacuous background, while Don seems emptied and drained, yet simultaneously shaped and subject to the laws of the ad world (almost symbolized by the law of gravity acting with slow motion force upon him).  See for yourselves:

Now, down to business: secret identities.  Big Love, for those of you who don’t watch (and should!) is centered on a family of Mormon polygamists: patriarch Bill Henrickson, first wife Barb, second Nikki, and third Margene and all their many children.  Throughout the show, there are three portrayals of the life the family could lead: their current living situation (secretly living amongst mainstream society with three separate houses all connected in the back yard, the sister-wives working out schedules for who gets Bill on what nights, and giant family dinners, hectic breakfasts, chores lists, and errands with 11 people to account for) is juxtaposed with life on the compound (Juniper Creek, a community of Polygamists who live openly and freely under Roman, the Prophet, observing all the traditional tenets of Mormonism before polygamy was removed from the doctrine, including wearing long dresses, high necklines, and poofy hairstyles, and, of course, some serious multiple-marriages) and, described but never shown, Bill and Barb’s Mormon church-approved family life before they decided to take on Nikki as a second wife.

The questions the Secret Identities group was addressing were about how the main characters develop and justify their moral codes and how we as audience members accept them, despite – and even watch because of – their illicit activities.    The two alternate lifestyles (alternate to the Henrickson’s family life, I mean)  depicted in the show work as foils to the main pattern portrayed, and perhaps allow us to consider why we do or don’t approve of the Henricksons.

In short, Juniper Creek hosts the kind of polygamy that we as an audience don’t approve of.  The compound is run by Roman Grant, a self-proclaimed prophet that the residents follow on account of the fact that he is allegedly God’s messenger; yet when his son Albee takes over and claims the head role for himself, allegiances and beliefs switch seemingly without question.  Corruption abounds, the important patriarchs drive giant scary hummers, and girls are “sealed”to older men for marriage (the meaning of which may be inferred to be almost equivalent to marriage, though subtly avoiding statutory rape implications) at a very young age.  The residents, like the Henricksons, appear to believe that polygamy is the good and righteous way to live, that they are doing their families a service, and that by following “the principal” they will find divine salvation.  So what makes us respect the Henricksons’ moral code while writing off the compound dwellers as ignorant?  The difference seems to be that Juniper Creek is a bit like a cult; residents seem almost brainwashed by the prophet into believing in their way of life.  While for Bill and his family, living the principle is a struggle every day.  We respect their choice because it is not handed to or imposed upon them.  Though all the characters sincerely believe that they are following the correct moral code, we root for the Henricksons because they seem to have weighed all the options and rationally decided that their path is the correct one, and proceeded to build a life around that choice.

The one thing in the show that nervously chips away at this basis of rationality and strong belief, leaving us with a little doubt at the back of our minds as to whether we’re really rooting for polygamy, is Bill and Barb’s relationship.  Bill escaped from the compound when he was a teenager and swore never to go back; he saw the horrors of that lifestyle and made the choice to lead a “normal” life, starting his own business, marrying a school teacher, Barb, and going to legally and socially accepted Mormon church.  Yet, when Barb falls ill, both of their beliefs are shaken.  Bill  has a revelation, a calling from God to return to the principle of polygamy.  He subsequently marries Nikki, a daughter of Roman the Prophet and the first pro-compound member of their family.  The strained circumstances under which Bill’s decision to take on a second wife occur (I say Bill’s and not Bill and Barb’s as Barb admits to never having received a testimonial, but believes so strongly in Bill’s that she follows him) seem to trouble the waters when putting his moral code to the test.  This back story sets the stage for the day-to-day interactions between the four adults in the family.  There is always an inkling that while Bill finds Nikki a little psychotic and Margene a bit silly, he always has deep and unwavering respect for Barb.  Later in the series, the two even have an “affair,” sneaking around the other wives’ backs, meeting in hotel rooms, and breaking the rules of the carefully crafted family schedule the sister-wives debate over constantly.

Perhaps it is the “one man and one woman” society in which we live that has subconsciously ingrained this belief that true love can only be shared by two monogamous people.  While I am always rooting for the Henricksons as a family, I sometimes seem to falter against my best rational judgement and striven-for progressive viewpoints and wish that Bill and Barb could just run away from all the drama of their household and live happily together as they once did.  But I don’t think it’s just me, and I don’t think it’s just my a subconscious wish for “true love.”  I can’t imagine that the romantic undertones and meaningful glances between the two characters aren’t intentional, and if an audience member is feeling like the two should be alone together, I am sure the creators of the show are making it happen.

Big Love is a difficult show; it makes the viewer reconsider his beliefs about morality and virtue, but it also constantly challenges and manipulates the viewer’s thoughts on the the Henrickson’s particular situation.  Laying the compound way and Bill and Barb’s previous, “normal” life alongside the family’s mainstream polygamist lifestyle allows the viewer to both believe more strongly in their family’s views and question their situation.

I’ll leave y’all with this:

Merry Christmas!


Don Draper: The complexity of a man we hate to love

December 14, 2009

Don Draper is the embodiment of all that is male in the epoch when misogyny and the ability to craft a perfect 5 o’clock scotch were two of a man’s greatest attributes. He is the sweet-talking, Panty-dropping, mad man who ruled the 1950’s with his artful craft of persuasion. With a harem of women following at his feet, and a flock of junior employees drooling over his incredible creative abilities, Don is one of the most envied and desired men of the advertising industry. The characters that interact with the elusive Don Draper know little if anything about the man behind the suit. No one, not his boss, wife, or mistress can attest to Don’s true character and identity which in the true nature of a talented ad man, he conceals behind a Teflon-like façade. With the aloofness only a truly successful man of his kind can exude, Don is viewed by his fellow characters as a mystery that they would desperately like to solve.

However, as viewers, our notions of Don Draper are vastly divergent from his contemporaries. We are an omniscient, almost voyeuristic presence that gets to see the four conflicting forces of don: His home life, his work life, his escapist relationships with his mistress and his intimate moments of pensiveness that often result in childhood flashbacks.

In Don’s home life we see him trying to fulfill the traditional masculine role of husband and father- his wife and children, desperately long for his attention, which he mainly directs inward on a constant self-reflection. Even when he is physically present, Don is rarely emotionally or mentally available to the ones who crave his attention and affection most. His dismissive nature, and self-absorption often leads to those in his home (namely his wife Betty) to feel inadequate about themselves. Although Don often fails his wife and children due to self-interest, he always manages to utilize his charms to regain their admiration.

In Don’s work life we similarly see that he constantly compromises the position of others in his self interest. Flights with clients ensue because he is offended by their dislike of his ideas, methods, or practices, and he has no moral issues accepting the credit for work of his colleagues as his own. He is ruthless and detached from the emotions of his work, yet ironically he is the one who manufactures the slogans that evoke the emotions he lacks. Despite Don’s tantrums, and often turbulent encounters with colleagues, he always manages to talk his way to a more than favorable outcome.

When in the presence of his bohemian east village mistress, Midge, we see Don moving outside of his comfort zone and expressing the emotional caring and intensity he lacks in his work and home life. In episode 5 of the first season we see Midge recognizing her role as Don’s “medicine.” It is in the comfort of her touch that Don eases up a bit and unwinds himself. Midge is the only person in Don’s life who does not give him exactly what he wants when he wants it. The rhyme and reason of her mannerisms and lifestyle often mystify Don and drive him to give a bit of himself away in order to unlock her. The two work in a relationship based on a level of reciprocity that we rarely see Don allow with other characters. However no matter, how stubborn and overbearing Don can be with Midge, she is always in awe of his charismatic talents.

Finally we see Don in the most intimate and telling of moments; when he flashes back to his childhood. Other characters in the series are completely unaware of Don’s shameful childhood, but as viewers we are offered behind the scenes passes to the Donald Draper museum of history. His flashbacks reveal the baggage behind all of his emotional distress, and mistreatment of the ones he loves. His mother, a prostitute and his father, a dishonest farmer are sources of humiliation and discontent that burst the bubble of his “perfect” life. Don will do anything to dispel the past that we see creeping into the fabric of his daily life, but the flashbacks are the one persistent reminder that he cannot run from it. Draper’s flashbacks reveal a depth and complexity to his character that goes un-witnessed by his fellow characters.

In Don’s compartmentalized world, he has an unparalleled ability to always emerge as the hero no matter his predicament. For me this is the true mystery behind the man. No matter how many times his fidelity or temper falters, we cannot help but remain inexorably infatuated  with Don Draper.

Daily Beast Interview with Matthew Weiner

November 12, 2009


Do the times excuse the man?

November 9, 2009

The other day I suggested to my dad that he watch Mad Men. And my dad replied, “I knew in the first three minutes that I wouldn’t like the show. I always know in the first three minutes if I’m going to like something – and this show is about an advertising executive in the 1960s. I was a hippie then, I lived in the village – I didn’t like Donald Draper then and I don’t want to watch a show about him now.”

Yet, after staying in and watching the entire first season of Mad Men – like a good book I couldn’t put it down – I think that there is so much nuance revealed, both about the characters’ lives as well as the decade they live in, that a decision made in the first three minutes is not a strong one. The poetics of Mad Men is that in order to truly delve into the show’s deeper meanings, one must watch the show. Each episode can stand alone, but each episode is also a chapter in a larger story, adding layers of detail in the characters’ story arcs. This is exactly what Johnson is talking about when he compares the increasing cognitive complexity of today’s television shows to older, less complex shows. (

What remains an issue for me is that in the course of the show one comes to sympathize with Donald Draper despite the fact that he’s not that great a guy. I think that the particular lens of a period drama is what allows this to so easily happen; we are constantly comparing the world of 1960 portrayed in Mad Men to the differences in our present. What character flaws can be excused as a symptom of their times? Or can any of them? What decisions, actions, reactions can be attributed to that invisible but always surrounding feeling, expressed in the opening credits, of a man in a suit falling through the very world he helped create?

Our continuous dedication to a show that is pretty darn sexist. Mad Men.

November 3, 2009

I’m a huge fan of Mad Men. Even with no likable characters and its degradation of women, I still can’t help but like it. Why is that? Why do I, along with thousands and thousands of others, enjoy a show that looks back at a time and profession which was male chauvinistic, ego-centered, and manipulative?

Throughout the episode the new secretary, Peggy, is being shown around the office, she receives countless remarks about showing more leg or ankle. This comes from both men and women in the office. Maybe we accept it as viewers because that era seems to be over now or because the women during that time (in the show) seemed to accept their undermined roles and played along with them (“I’m your boss, not your boyfriend” scene).

I can think of shows today which do the same, like Entourage. A story about a young actor, Vince Chase, and his childhood friends pursuing careers and women in Los Angeles. I guess that time isn’t much different from today. Over 40 years after Mad Men is supposed to take place, the advertising world hasn’t changed much with its persuasion and manipulation of consumers, and its male dominated field. Of course, we have made few a couple advances in women’s rights that I feel like I must mention but I am still bewildered by the entertainment we receive from watching such a show. What makes someone, especially a woman (including me) keep watching beyond the first episode?

P.S. Unrelated to my post above, I just wanted to mention that I love the scene in which Greta, a researcher comes in with here cigarette report. I am a Psychology major but I want to go into Advertising (probably a reason I like the show) and a lot of people don’t understand the connection between the two. This scene proves that Psychology and Advertising are related!

Wide Shots and Innocent Children in ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men’

November 3, 2009

I’m afraid that what I would have to say about images in Breaking Bad and Mad Men has already been posted. I especially agreed with Max’s observation that the wide shots in Breaking Bad inspire in the viewer a vague sense of creepiness, as if we’re eavesdropping on a conversation that we shouldn’t be hearing. I also noted that the two scenes that utilized that shot were with Walt and other women, one of which was even his ex-lover. Although I don’t believe that there is sexual tension in either scene (rather, both seem to concern his secret), it was still interesting. We don’t get the same distance when watching Walt and Skyler; by 2×06, the viewer is much more familiar with their relationship and conversations.

While “Peekaboo” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” are at different places within their very disparate series, they still shared several factors in common. Both could be termed standalone episodes: “Peekaboo” for its Jesse plot with the meth family, and “Smoke” for its status as a pilot. I really liked what Breaking Bad did with Jesse’s side of the episode; while Walt was running around having clandestine meetings to preserve his secret, Jesse spent the same amount of time (roughly one day) stuck at Spooge’s house. Like the addicts, his storyline was stymied, halted; he had to wait on their terms in order to execute what he thought would be an in-and-out job.

Both shows use the trope of the little kid to garner sympathy, and while I agree that it may be a clichéd move, in both instances it worked. The meth addicts’ son seemed like more than a plot device, but a believable victim of the situation. The fact that he could still smile while covered in filth and underfed was wrenching. We only see Draper’s kids at the very end of “Smoke”, which does make them seem (for this episode, at least) more on the “plot device” side of the spectrum. Yet it’s a smart move, to not reveal Draper’s home life until the very end of the episode: show him with various women, reveal his surprising reluctance to attend the bachelor party, introduce Betty… but wait, it’s the children that seal the deal, that make us truly believe that he also has a family. Betty on her own couldn’t have done that, considering his attitude toward women.

Use of Grid Lines in Mad Men

November 3, 2009

While watching the first episode, I was struck by the use of grid lines throughout the show. Grid lines on the ceiling, the grid lines of the building, the grids in which the secretaries sit, grid lines created by columns in the office…all of these contrast with the chaos of what surrounds them. I think that some part of this has to do with the style of the time period about which it is shot, but it seems to be too prominently featured in the shooting for time period recognition to be the only purpose. Instead, the perfect and straight grid lines represent what the characters constantly try to achieve: the appearance of perfection, of control and of grace. Despite appearances, however, the characters are overwhelmed with work, sexually harassed, having trouble coming up with the selling idea, and cheating on their wives – the exact opposite of the lives they are trying to seem like they live. But hey, as long as appearances are kept up and there are clean shirts in your drawer, what could go wrong?

Sound and Silence and Imagery in Mad Men

November 3, 2009

The look of Mad Men is a stylish 1960’s period piece.  Advertising is all about image and style, and the imagery in Mad Men really plays up to that aesthetic.  The pilot opens with a shot of Don Draper from the back.  He’s wearing a dark suit and sitting down with a drink.  This is a direct reference to the opening credits and establishes that this man is the main character of the show before we even see his face.  Don is at a bar doing research on cigarettes.  The bar is loud and as he looks around he sees well dressed, beautiful people drinking, smoking, and laughing.  This is the glamorous world to which Don belongs, the glamorous world of advertising.

 The lively music gets louder before cutting to silence and then Don knocking on a door.  A pretty woman wearing only a button down shirt answers and lets Don in.  The cut from loud music to silence is startling and signals the entering into another world in the life of Don Draper.  He has left his loud, trendy world of advertising and entered into the quieter world of a secret relationship.  It is truly a striking contrast to see him in this quiet and plain apartment with a girl who is barely dressed, after just coming from a loud and glittering bar with fashionable people wearing fashionable clothes.  

A new burst of music and a scenery change and the audience is introduced to another important location in the life of Don Draper: the office.  The music is bustling during a shot looking down the building of Sterling Cooper to the people rushing on the street below.  This shot reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and there is another similar shot looking up at the building of Sterling Cooper later on in the episode.  

northbynorthwest (a shot from North by Northwest – 1959)

In the scenes that take place in the office, I noticed that there is usually constant background noise of typing, except when Don is in deep thought.  During these appearances of memory and inspiration, there is silence followed by the slow introduction of deep tones and drum beats (somewhat reminiscent of a heartbeat).  When Don snaps out of these spells the sounds of typing inevitably reemerge.

Jumping to the end of the episode, tense and rushed music blares as Don makes his way home.  The music conveys the stress of a long day of work.  Don walks into his house and we see his family for the first time.  As Don sits with his gorgeous and two children in his perfect looking house, the episode ends with Vic Damone singing “On the Street Where You Live.”  This wholesome song is the perfect accompaniment for the image of the perfect family that Don has created for himself.

These are just a few examples of how important sound is in the various scenes of a Mad Men episode.  It’s not just background noise but the sound, or lack of sound, really contributes to the mood of the scene, especially as the viewer is lead through the various different parts of Don Draper’s life.  The sound acts as a harmonious backup to the imagery that is presented on screen.