Good morning, gentlemen!
Am I disqualified from participating in this dialogue if I haven’t yet created my own Mad Men avatar, as the AMC promotional site has been instructing us to do for weeks now? I can assure you that I’ve tried, but there was some issue with Flash, and to install the correct version I would have had to close all my tabs, each of which was open to a different tantalizing or absurd bit of pre- Mad Men hype.
Has any season premiere ever been met with more breathless puffery? In recent days I’ve gleaned an inordinate number of useless but nevertheless fascinating facts about the show and the actors who star in it. The New York Times asked cocktail historians to evaluate the period accuracy of the show’s libations, and you’ll be relieved to hear that the drinks check out (the props department even knows that martini glasses were smaller then—which may explain how it was possible to drink three at lunch). Jon Hamm, who plays lead ad man Don Draper, confessed in a sports podcast that he’s been watching The Wireand found the writing“not nearly as elegant or awesome as The Sopranos.” Buzzfeed dug up footage of Hamm’s dopey 2002 guest spot on Gilmore Girls;his hair is bad, and he makes a joke about merlot. Christina Hendricks, who supplies the topography of Joan’s hillsides, told New York that she’s girlier than gutsy Joan and that when she gets into character, “the register of my voice drops significantly.” And, perhaps most troublingly, the show’s brilliant costume designer, Janie Bryant, whose remarkable eye for the palette and silhouettes of the era makes an enormous contribution to the show’s appeal—how much of that appeal is visual, in fact, is something I hope we can argue about this season—made a startling confession to the fashion blog The Cut: Her current favorite item of clothing, apart from her skinny jeans, is a pair of “Lycra leggings with a gold side zip from American Apparel.”
Apparently, Ms. Bryant, our new visionary of formalwear, the woman who has repopularized pencil skirts and pearls and jewel tones and jacquard, whose work has inspired a Mad Men-esque collection at Banana Republic, conjures these buttoned-up looks in godforsakenly modern and casual clothes.
Despite this troubling image, however (or perhaps because of it), I can’t wait to watch the premiere of Season 3. I’m dying to find out what became of isolated, pregnant Betty, whether Joan is still engaged to the loutish doctor who raped her (I’m betting yes), and what (if anything) Pete did with that shotgun he was left holding after Peggy spurned him in last season’s finale. The plotline I’m most excited to follow, though, is that of Peggy’s ascent through Sterling Cooper’s ranks. It’s the office politics on Mad Men—and the changing role that gender plays therein—that seem to me most sophisticated and smartly observed.
I’m also curious about Season 3 because I think the show has been getting better as it progresses: Unlike you, John, I liked Season 2 more than Season 1. That first year, it was clear that series creator Matthew Weiner was maniacally obsessed with the era, but it was not clear why. One of the most intriguing pieces of criticism I’ve read about the show was an essay that ran in the London Review of Books after Season 1. In it, Mark Grief called Mad Men “an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking.”
I didn’t agree with Grief’s take at the time—to me, Weiner’s digs at the retrograde trappings of the era felt amused, not smug—but I did wonder if Weiner was somehow nostalgic for the restraint of 1959. His two leads, Don and Peggy, both keep monstrous secrets, refusing to share them, discuss them, journal about them, tweet about them, go on Oprah to talk about them, or otherwise engage in the twinned modern practices of self-exposure and self-examination that we contemporary folk can’t seem to do without. I worried that if Weiner simply idolized such repression, the show would become boring and unrealistic, but that if he developed a tale about Don and Peggy learning to love their own idiosyncrasies and discuss them around the water cooler, the show would become mawkish and crude.
Instead, in Season 2, he showed us that his interest in the era is empathetic rather than moralistic. He doesn’t want to tell us how to be; he just wants to show us how we got from there to here.
Looking forward to the next 13 weeks,