Mad Men returned last night after its 17-month hiatus. There were a few nervy, ham-fisted moments, though ultimately, we saw enough to remind us that, yes, this show really is that damn good. The show exhibited its strong points: impeccable set design, viscous sexual tension and adroitly presenting external changes that shaped our present through the characters’ internal discord.
Using a song slightly predating the show’s timeline, this double episode was about “Satisfaction,” or the scarcity of it, with characters realizing their perceived measures of success but finding them unfulfilling. Both Don and Megan, riding a cresting wave of infatuation, believe they’ve found the perfect relationship, only for the “Zou Bisou Bisou” performance at the party to emphasize how little they have truly connected.
Peggy attains Don’s career success, leading writers and making pitches to major clients, only to have her idealism flattened by serving said clients. Pete reaches Don’s material success with the wife, the children and the suburban household, only to absorb the associated pressures that crushed him. Lane gets his family back and his longing for an escape only intensifies. Joan fulfills her biological purpose, but feels acutely the absence of one. Interspersing it all you have Roger , bulldozing his way through immense internal strifes – the loss of his professional prestige, his second marriage devolving into a facsimile of the first, and seeing his child for the first time – with a mixture of alcohol and sardonic wit.
The characters’ conflicts embody 1966, a time of simmering discontentment and cynicism. The early decade optimism culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its failure to change society veritably inflamed by a controversial war created a volcano of resentment that would erupt and radically alter American (and Western) society.
The Civil Rights consensus would splinter into Black Power, urban riots and a white backlash. Student manifestos and grass roots activism would devolve into the Weathermen and violent anti-war protests. Freeing your mind with pot and LSD would become hiding from it with heroin and cocaine.
No scene quite captures the convoluted times like the final one. The characters, while grasping the importance of lip service to racial equality, must confront it. Black applicants, while pushing hard against social segregation based on race accept segregation based on gender when told the company is only looking for secretaries as entirely natural. We’re used to Mad Men addressing issues subtly, though the tumult to come in the late 1960s was anything but subtle.
[Photos via Mike the Intern]
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