With the Emmys fast approaching, it would be a wonderful time to become intertwined in the world of the best show on television, Mad Men. This show contains multifaceted and intriguing characters who continuously surprise every episode. Through the careful examination of real life, Mad Men approaches each storyline and relationship with poignancy and complexity.
Mad Men, which received 16 Emmy nominations, refers to the advertising executives who worked on Madison Avenue during the 1960’s, bringing home large salaries to adoring housewives. The only thing that became more extravagant than their lifestyles was their egos, which were constantly aided by beautiful women attracted mostly to the paychecks. These men rarely turned down an opportunity to feed their sexual fantasies because marital fidelity was not part of their job description.
This was the time period when women were seen as objects by men and society as a whole, whose only function was to service the men in any possible fashion. The wives were required to have dinner ready when their husbands got home, have children, listen and obey every command from their husbands, and never ask what occurred outside of the household. Their main jurisdiction was the bedroom and the kitchen, but the entire house was governed by the man.
The men of Sterling Cooper believe they will reign with a firm grasp on authority forever, but an examination of history reveals that competition will be fast approaching in the form of both African American and women. Although the men falsely believe that they are fooling their wives, there is a feeling that the women are silently aware of everything that is happening, waiting for the right time to use all of the information garnered through various observations. Divorces were still considered taboo, but were nonetheless becoming more commonplace because of a growing sense of independence by women. Since this takes place before the vast part of the Civil Rights movement, blacks were viewed by these men strictly as janitors or nannies because this was simply how things were done. They had no prejudice for blacks, but their roles in the lives of these people remained limited nonetheless.
This show is ultimately driven by the intricate and sympathetic characters who, despite their deeply imbedded flaws, experience difficult moral dilemmas in their lives and jobs. The accuracy of the setting and the way the characters’ interact with each other is deftly precise. The realistic performances provide the foundation for the deeply affecting and intensely personal drama.
Don Draper, the main character, is a man who sadly suffers from the inability to feel. His wife, Betty, believes that Don loves her, but he does not because of the inability for him to possess such an emotion. He cares about her and his family as much as he can but any deep emotional connection with another human is impossible because of his troubled, tumultuous childhood barren of love. Don uses sex to attain some sort of sensation of feeling because this is the easiest and most efficient way. Women are always at his feet and the fact that he has a certain power over them is simply a perk in the midst of his true goal.
In the last season, it was learned that Don Draper is actually Dick Whitman, which is a metaphor for the entire persona he shows the world and the one he knows is there. The show vividly illustrates the differing personalities he shows in his personal and work life. A perfect example of this was the fierce loyalty he exhibited when he fought to keep a client who was less profitable but more dependable. In contrast, the unfaithfulness he demonstrates to his wife by continuously cheating on her, while feeling no guilt for his actions, is somewhat alarming.
John Hamm, who was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series, has a brave and honest subtlety to his performance as Don Draper. It is often hard to decipher whether he is disgusted or amused by a particular event because his facial expressions do not dramatically change. Real people are like this in that you are never aware of what is going through their head. In most shows, the intentions and thoughts of the characters are made abundantly clear, which takes the mysterious and unpredictability of real life out of the story. Hamm’s complete immersion in the character with a soul that strives to do right but continuously falters to temptation drives both the show and the performance to continuously be riveting.
To mainly focus on Hamm seems to be implying that the rest of the cast is mediocre, but this is far from the case. January Jones plays Betty as a strong, intelligent woman well aware of Don’s wandering ways, but unable to stop the demons that lead him to make poor decisions. Her marriage is a daily struggle of turmoil caused by Don’s infidelity and the different approaches to raising their children. Notice how she feels sympathy for the newly divorced Helen Bishop because of her assessment that she could be there someday.
John Slattery as Roger Sterling, the other Emmy nominee, has the quiet cockiness of a man whose desires overwhelm even the necessity of a profitable company. Vincent Kartheiser plays Pete Campbell as a man whose meanness derives from the insecurity he feels in his personal life with the pressure he feels to impregnate his wife and work, where the lack of personal relationships could be holding back his promotions. Elisabeth Moss is Peggy Olson, the first ever woman copywriter at Sterling Cooper, a decent person whose self-esteem is determined by her occupational performance instead of her sex appeal. The opposite is true of Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway, the head secretary and office bombshell, who has much more depth than first thought as illustrated by sharp quips she makes. Bryan Batt, who plays Salvatore Romano, has the most heartbreaking story as a married homosexual who cannot truly be himself because of the society he lives. The performances are all excellent, with every actor contributing something significant virtually every episode.
Mad Men has direction and production values that are exquisite and precise in their execution of this time period. The writing is refined and substantive in the way that each line and scene progresses every story even more than is realized, with each episode as a glimmer into these people’s lives. Mad Men would be a great film, but the fact that something this thoughtful is shown on television is nothing short of a miracle.