Watching Mad Men resembles seeing early 1990s Jordan ball or admiring a Rembrandt self-portrait. The show does not transcend its medium, so much as it expands and redefines it. Its ambition is as startling as its execution. With other networks hawking hackneyed writing and sexy Watson, Mad Men opens with a two-hour, multi-layered meditation on the meaning of life and makes it work.
Mad Men captures the broad cultural shift (and really the making of our America) during the 1960s through the microcosm of its characters. Understanding their arcs requires an understanding of the placement in time. This season begins at a telling one, New Year’s 1968.
Tensions simmer across multiple fault lines throughout the decade. In 1968 they erupt. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are assassinated. Prague, Paris, Mexico City and Chicago see fighting on the streets. The Vietnam War escalates with the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre. Pfc. Dinkins, with eight months left on his Vietnam tour, will be painting more than the room red with his M-2.
The world becomes bloody and chaotic. The episode, not surprisingly, fixates on morbid death imagery. Roger’s mother dies. Don’s doorman experiences a brush with death. The aforementioned Mr. Dinkins heads off to inflict death and experience it (or at best be irreparably marred by contact with it). Even Megan’s brief television part is maniacally pushing someone down the stairs.
This imagery centers on Don. His “Jumping Off Point” pitch subconsciously reeks of suicide. The camera lingers behind him staring pensively out the window. It (we presume self-consciously) recreates the falling out the window scene from the opening credits, except it’s not quite right. His furniture is out of place.
The episode tackles not just death but making sense of death. Don reads Dante’s Inferno on the beach. He marvels at the doctor who holds life and death in his hands. Disinhibited by drunkenness, he desperately asks Jonesy what he saw when near death. Roger reflects on the hollowness of his own life. It has become, for him, no more than a series of doorways leading to the inevitable. He tries to establish a meaningful connection with his daughter. She hits him up for money and leaves the heirloom Jordan River water sitting on the couch.
Matthew Weiner’s details are deliberate and Peggy’s initial headphone ad, “Lend Me Your Ears” was a fitting one. Julius Caesar has been slain in Shakespeare’s play. Brutus and Mark Antony are left to define an artificial narrative for Caesar’s life and consequently their own. That narrative gives them purpose. Antony, through his masterful soliloquy, proves the better salesman. It allows him to survive (that round).
Such artificial narratives are the heart of Mad Men. Each character possesses an acute awareness of deception in every day life. They manipulate it for personal gain, but are also obsessed and tormented by it, trying to resolve their inner truth with the persona they have to project. Characters surf between the two. Too much repression for society leads to depression. Some repression (see Betty’s…playful(?)…rape joke with Henry) is necessary for an ordered way of life.
For Don, this problem is compounded. Other characters balance truth with lies. He reconciles lies with more lies. He can’t distinguish his true nature. He gets disgusted with the glimpses he gets from it. He’s already crafting an artificial narrative of a person who crafts artificial narratives. How does he then weave a further artificial narrative to make it meaningful and survive?