Has “Mad Men” gone mad?

Or maybe Matt Weiner knows that life in America really is that strange and brutal

Topics: Mad Men, U.S. Economy, Great Recession, Television,

Has "Mad Men" gone mad?Don Draper (Jon Hamm)

Merciless grifters. Bloody workplace accidents. Unexpected deaths. Grueling childbirth. Insensitive British overlords. Broken friendships. Blackmail. Where have all the snifters of brandy and jaunty shrimp cocktails and 24-hour bras of “Mad Men” gone, and why have they been replaced by gloomy bosses, nervous underlings, pill-popping thieves and gory office disasters involving John Deere mowers?

Ah, how the mood of “Mad Men” shifts so quickly! But can’t the same be said for the mood of American life? One minute we’re doing the Lucky Lindy, the next minute, we’re waiting on bread lines and heating up leftover stone soup. One minute we’re thinking our old LaSalle runs great, the next we’re waiting on gas lines and hoping that the USSR doesn’t blow us to smithereens. One minute we’re investigating an all-raw, organic diet and calculating the value of our dot-com stock options in our heads, the next we’re scarfing down Big Macs, waiting to default on our interest-only mortgages.

So what could be more fitting, at this time of extreme economic and cultural turmoil, than a bleaker-than-ever third season of “Mad Men” (10 p.m. Sundays on AMC)? Sure, it all started out with high times, cold martinis, hot girls, witty quips, sneaky affairs, and slow, smoldering mysteries. Who is this Don Draper cat? We asked ourselves, but we hardly cared about the answer. After all, look at how Betty’s (January Jones) marvelous dress matches her patent leather shoes exactly! Look how these dapper young fellas all chain smoke and toss back bourbon in their offices! With lives this fabulous, who cares if your stupid marriage is falling apart or not?

Sounds just like the way we felt about tech stocks and Botox and real estate and every other slice of American pie that we just had to get while it was hot, hot, hot, doesn’t it? This is what “Mad Men” is best at, after all: capturing a mood, and making all of the little worker bees and homemakers and children in its picture reflect that mood in their own way.



So if Don ends up bamboozled by nefarious strangers and blackmailed by his boss, or if dashing young British manager Guy Mackendrick only spends a few hours at Sterling Cooper before his foot is chopped to bits by a riding mower, is that really all that unbelievable? Even if these plot twists border on the fantastical, doesn’t our collective suspension of disbelief surrounding the stock market sort of seem fantastical in retrospect, too? As Americans, it’s our cultural prerogative to leap before we look, whether it comes to careers, marriages, investments, drugs, wars, politicians or tell-all books. Matthew Weiner beautifully illustrates the unnerving invasiveness of modern, postwar culture, the ways that empty trends and bad ideas and innocuous shifts in personal taste seem to join together, gather momentum, and crash down upon the populace like a sociocultural tsunami. At the moment when you think the boom times will never end and you’ll live out the balance of your days on Easy Street, half of your personal nest egg disappears, you lose your job, you’re uninsured, and before you know it, you’re nearing bankruptcy. That’s not just a cautionary tale. Here in America, from pauper to entrepreneurial prince, your dreams can come true (Conrad Hilton, anyone?), but your worst nightmares can come true, too.

It makes perfect sense that, when most Americans are preoccupied with safety nets — healthcare reform, banking regulation, real estate reform — “Mad Men” should lay bare an old (but still thriving) American perception that expecting protection from a personal disaster by your employer or your government is flatly wrong, and evil and un-American to boot. When Guy Mackendrick strides into Sterling Cooper, all sunshine and optimism, at the start of the day, only to be lying in a hospital bed with no foot, no job, no disability and no recourse at the day’s end? It isn’t just a haunting glimpse at the harsh realities of the workplace in the early ’60s, it’s a fitting parable for the ways that Americans are still left high and dry by a social welfare system that doesn’t work, but that still tries to make comforting sounds about keeping its citizens safe from ruin. “The doctors said he’ll never golf again,” one of Mackendrick’s bosses says with a shake of his head. As absurd as this remark is, the dark humor is utterly in step with “Mad Men’s” barbarous take on the tenor of the times.

While “Mad Men” is undeniably darker this season, clearly Weiner is setting the stage for the humanist movement of the late ’60s. Why do Betty and Don (Jon Hamm) bark at their kids to “shut up” and “cut it out” and “go play” in every other scene? Sure, it’s kind of funny. But we’re also witnessing the groundwork being laid for the impending cultural revolution. When Don’s daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), wakes up and spots that Barbie doll that her mother gave her on her dresser, she’s not just afraid of her grandfather’s ghost. The doll and Sally’s response to it foreshadow the growing gap between Sally and her mother, between Don Draper’s generation and the next. The charming but cold-hearted grifters in Sunday’s episode made it clear that, despite Don’s ability to relate to this younger, freewheeling generation, a hard rain’s gonna fall on him as well.

Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) and the younger guys in the office also hinted at the generation gap when they laid around all weekend, smoking pot and musing aimlessly instead of making steady progress on their ad campaign. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) might be gaining confidence in her newly empowered path as single career woman, but her naive nature and neediness persist, as demonstrated by her unexpected affair with Duck Phillips (Mark Moses). Despite her relatively traditional choices and her sophisticated understanding of people, Joan (Christina Hendricks) looks doomed to be relegated to a role of caretaker of lost boys. As always, Betty wavers between independence and a retreat into the comforting and occasionally dismaying folds of domestic life. Weiner does a remarkable job of translating social sea change into rich, believable, flawed characters, straining to right themselves before the next big wave hits.

“You see? It’s all right. This is your little brother. He’s only a baby,” Don tells Sally after she confesses that the boy scares her. “We don’t know who he is yet or who he’s going to be, and that’s a wonderful thing.” Just because Gene is named after his grandfather, that doesn’t mean he’s the same person, not by a long shot. He may grow up to be the opposite of his grandfather. Likewise, he may question every choice his parents ever made, and despise everything they ever stood for.

Isn’t that the American dream, after all? We like to see ourselves as independent, headstrong, deeply unique individuals, paving our own paths through the wilds of contemporary life. We so easily forget that almost every decision we make, from whether or not we breast-feed our babies, work overtime, sleep more than six hours a night, exercise, visit the doctor, vote, do drugs, drink, stay married, all of it, springs from the common, accepted attitudes of the times. The beliefs we hold most sacred, the ideas that define our identities, more often than not boil down to trends. It might take a few decades, but one day we inevitably wake up and notice that a big percentage of the individuals in our demographic were also smoking, dabbling in Buddhism, using formula, spanking their kids with a wooden spoon, getting divorced in middle age, reading Dr. Spock, becoming vegan, you name it. The very choices that feel fundamental to us are the ones that look almost hilariously clichéd and goofy in retrospect.

“Mad Men’s” tendency to lean in to the almost surreal inhumanity of modern times, its thirst for savagery in mundane settings, are exactly what make it worth watching. Absurdity, extreme story lines, that flippant tone — the very aspects of this show that some critics are starting to question — are essential to a drama series that’s primarily concerned with capturing the sociocultural flux of an era. Even as we gawk and gasp at the depravity and outrageousness that unfolds before us each week, we foreshadow the gawking and gasping our children will do when the 18th season of “Mad Men” depicts attachment parenting, Botox, life coaches, organic farms, reality TV, white wine spritzers, 3-car garages, spray tans and doggie day care.

“People actually got sick and went bankrupt because they didn’t have publicly funded health care back then? How is that even possible?” they’ll say.

We’ll just nod knowingly, and tell them, “Yep. Those were brutal times, man. Brutal times.”

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>