October 2010

Arts & Letters

Quaint misogyny

By Kirsten Tranter
‘Mad Men: Season Four’

Let the cocktail theme parties begin.

Season Two is still showing here on SBS but in July the fourth season of the award-winning cult series Mad Men started on American cable. The title refers to the advertising men of Madison Avenue, New York, in the early 1960s. The show depicts the lives of the people who work at the fictional advertising agency Sterling Cooper – newly reformed in Season Four after dramatic firings and hirings (and a ghastly tractor accident, to boot) as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP). At the centre of the drama is serial adulterer and creative genius Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm.

Created by Matthew Weiner, a former writer on The Sopranos, Mad Men was the first television series to be produced by the dowdy US cable station American Movie Classics (AMC) in 2007, whose programming till then mostly consisted of re-runs of old films. The nostalgic nature of the station may help you to make sense of it as the home for, arguably, the best written – certainly the best dressed – show on television now, with its scrupulous attention to period detail, from the typewriters and lamps to the devastatingly stylish suits, twin-sets and set hair.

Nostalgia drives the show and Mad Men seems interested in its complexities and the desires that underpin it. In the final episode of Season One, Don’s campaign pitch to Kodak for their new device, a slide machine designed like a wheel, explored the power of nostalgia as harnessed by technology:

Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent … in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.

In the darkened meeting room, we watch luminous slides  of Don’s own family laughing together on a fairground carousel – the family he is potentially poised to lose at any moment as a consequence of his infidelity and compulsive secrecy, behaviour that stems from his damaged past. For Don, there is no place in his childhood memory where he was loved. But this pathos-filled scene also points to the magic of television itself as a technology of visual and affective transportation and the complex emotional journey that the show itself provokes in its nostalgic travel back to the early 1960s.

What are we to make of this place? In the luxurious offices of Sterling Cooper, it’s a world of professional decadence and dissipation, where long liquid lunches continue all day and into night and company expense accounts cover all manner of sins (from champagne to callgirls) for the discerning client; a place where you can smoke everywhere – the commuter train, the office, the cinema, the psychiatrist’s couch. The US is at the height of its postwar power and there’s a combination of innocence, naivety and complacency about the state of the world that makes it easy to feel the superiority – the hard-won maturity, of our contemporary vantage point.

That was at the start of the show, set in 1962, but Season Four begins at the tail end of 1964 in what feels like a very different world on the brink of even more change. The new season takes a big risk in shifting from the iconic and sophisticated spaces of the old set to the new, less chic head-quarters of SCDP, but this shift is small compared with the changes that have been wrought in the world of the show’s central character. Don is to Mad Men what Tony was to The Sopranos: a wounded, morally ambivalent hero with whom we uncomfortably sympathise and, in the case of the handsome Don Draper, lust after. Now he’s newly single, living alone in a dingy, depressingly decorated apartment and has forgone his signature, carefully made Old Fashioneds for straight scotch – irredeemable, alcoholic amounts of it.

The first three seasons were driven in part by the tensions produced by Don’s need to hide his secret life – his affairs, his true identity and shameful origins – in order to maintain the fiction of his public persona. By Season Four his wife knows everything and has divorced him. Maintaining this rigid compartmentalisation always seemed like hard, soul-destroying work, but we see in the first batch of new episodes that once those compartments have collapsed there’s not much of a coherent self left.

Episode One begins with a reporter’s question to this mysterious, brilliant man who is watched with fascination by the entire advertising industry: “Who is Don Draper?” It’s a question that Don dismisses, in character, but also finds genuinely impossible to answer. We see Don at the start of the season at his most powerless, deflated, making it up as he goes: in a wonderfully ironic low-shot scene, smoking furiously, he explains to the unhappy head of Lucky Strike that there are new rules about how they can film cigarette commercials: no low angles that appear to make the actor superhuman, he says, virtually shaking with irritation; Don’s superhero status is similarly defunct.

Without the dynamic tension of secrecy, Don’s desires have suddenly become pedestrian and predictable. The sexual relationships he now pursues with women are the least interesting ever represented on the show. They appear to reveal that, as canny psychologist Dr Faye Miller says, he’s simply a “type”, or as his long-suffering secretary Allison succinctly calls him, “a drunk”, rather than the uniquely conflicted character who had fascinated us previously. Even the erotically charged slap on the face from a prostitute in Episode One, which scandalised some viewers, seemed to me like another instance of how dull he has become: what’s more unsurprising than a wealthy man who is insecure about his power asking to be dominated by a woman for hire? This feels like a reduction in character matched by what happens to Don’s ex-wife, Betty, who has been reduced to a hateful stereotype – the frigid bitch – without the depth of treatment in past seasons that showed us the rage and pain beneath her princess exterior.

One of the show’s most powerful continuing arcs is Peggy’s battle to rise from lowly secretary to fully fledged copywriter. Peggy now commands more power than ever at the new agency and comes into conflict with her old mentor, Freddy Rumsen. It was Freddy who first recognised her talent and enabled her move into writing but he’s no feminist hero: “It’s like watching a dog play the piano,” he said back in Season One, describing his own surprise at her ability.

The show can be viewed as proof of how far we’ve come from this pre-feminist place where women are routinely degraded, judged on their appearance and harassed. From this angle, the machine takes us to a faraway universe we’re glad to have left behind. But how far away have we travelled, really?

It is possible to jokingly embrace sexism as an accessory to the Mad Men suit (which you can now purchase, by the way, from clothing empire Banana Republic) just like horn-rimmed glasses and old-school cocktails (which you can learn how to make on the AMC website) – worn ironically, tongue-in-cheek, with a knowing wink. This seems to be the case if you take Esquire magazine’s quiz to discover how likely you are to be watching Season Four. Among questions such as whether you prefer scotch to white wine (no-brainer), you’ll come across Question 8, “Do you find misogyny quaint?” and the follow-up Question 9, “Not even occasionally?” To which you can respond: “No (0)”, “Sure (5)” or “You’re starting to make me angry (–10)”.

The strangely equivocal tone of the show means that it can function as both a nostalgic embrace and critique. There are no positive role models on Mad Men, a point that angers some viewers who wish for one good man on the show or one woman who can realise her dreams. More of a distorting mirror perhaps than a time machine, it goes backwards and forwards – it may not show us a place we long to inhabit, but it is a place we greet with a twinge of recognition.

Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten Tranter is an author and literary critic. Her most recent book is Hold (4th Estate).

Cover: October 2010

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