Shiny Shelf

Mad Men

By Mags L Halliday on 07 May 2008

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Advertising: it’s all smoke and mirrors. In the case of ‘Mad Men’, it’s all smoke and glass skyscrapers. The show is set in a Madison Avenue ad agency in 1960, when advertising was evolving from selling a product into selling lifestyles and Vice-President Richard Nixon was about to be beaten by the young, hatless, John F Kennedy for the Presidency.

The notion of change, bubbling under the surface, is present throughout. Not only are the working girls of the office contrasted with the home-body wifes in their white picket homes, there are gradeations within each broad group. Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss, with a character name clearly picked to evoke Jimmy Olsen) is the new girl at the office and, in episode 6, her difference to the other women leads to her being asked to try the normally male work of writing copy. In the suburbs, the new neighbour Helen Bishop (Darby Stanchfield) shocks Betty Draper (January Jones) by being a divorced mother of two who works, wears trousers, is on the Pill and campaigns for Kennedy.

Betty’s husband, Don Draper (John Hamm), is the real focus of the series (as indicated in his name – writer/creator Matthew Weiner previously ran the last series of ‘The Sopranos’). Betty is his wife, Peggy his secretary, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt) – a freelance graphic designer – his mistress and Rachel (Maggie Siff) – a Fifth Avenue client – the woman he can’t have. Don has the corner office, prized for its space and light, and the other ad men, though ambitious to get his place, have to jump when he says. Then opening titles, borrowing heavily from Saul Bass, have Draper’s world tumbling away, his figure falling like Scottie in Hitchcock’s ‘Vertgo’ past skyscrapers pasted with adverts of the all-American dream life, only to end with him back in his office’s easy chair, smoking. Within the show, we often return to Draper, sitting in his chair and smoking. Hamm, an actor whose looks perfectly evoke Hollywood leading men of the late 1950s/early 1960s, conveys through stillness and silence a whole world of introspection. Unlike many shows, the characters never tell us what they are really thinking but instead ask us to decode their actions. Combined with the languid pace, this makes ‘Mad Men’ unusually fascinating to watch, as well as beautiful.

As well as dressing the characters perfectly with the men in fabulously sharp suits and designing sets straight out of lifestyle magazines of the time, the show has been colour-graded to match the Technicolour saturation of Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers (‘Vertigo’, ‘North by Northwest’, ‘The Birds’), or Sirk’s melodramas (‘Imitation of Life, ‘All That Heaven Allows’). It’s a trick done before in the cinema, in homages such as ‘Catch Me If You Can’, ‘Far From Heaven’ and ‘Down With Love’, but to create and sustain that look and feel in a TV series is something different. Although there are knowing winks to the audience – kids playing with plastic bags, the chain-smoking expectant mother, Salvador the art director who loves Joan Crawford but is terrified when a visiting exec makes a pass at him – the care with with the world has been constructed means that ‘Mad Men’ is no simple pastiche but a careful examination of an era.

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