‘Who knows why people do what they do?” asks the tagline of AMC’s Mad Men, which airs Sundays at 10 P.M. Eastern. The Manhattan-set drama, a current critical darling, chronicles the lives of advertising executives of the 1960s, and those of the women who type their letters and bear their children. It explores a critical time in American culture, when man — scarred by the horrors of war — threw out even the pretense of self-sacrifice and learned to live for the sake of pleasure. The show has garnered 16 Emmy nominations and the Golden Globe for best drama, as well as a respectable following.
The characters in Mad Men may claim not to know what explains people’s actions, but they do have some insight, and they use it to manipulate the public into buying their clients’ products. Jon Hamm plays Don Draper, a conflicted advertising genius with a hidden past. Although he doesn’t mindlessly philander on quite the level of other men in his office, he carries on a series of passionate affairs, unable to stop even after he realizes he loves his family. His wife, Betty (January Jones), works her own job: To be beautiful, sparkle at parties, run the perfect suburban house, and raise their two children. She takes the beauty part most seriously.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), an up-and-coming young man with a ruthless drive to succeed; Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), a worldly wise woman who runs the secretarial pool; and an excellent ensemble cast join Don at the Sterling Cooper agency. Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss), a naive newcomer last season, showed enough talent to be promoted to copywriting, unheard-of for a woman. She did this while secretly pregnant with Campbell’s child.
Stepping onto the Sterling Cooper set is like stepping through a 50-year time warp. Lipstick-marked cigarettes rest in overflowing ashtrays. Half-written letters wait in clunky typewriters. Mars Bars, in their 1960 wrappers, sit on the snack cart. All these details contribute to the re-creation of a world where, as a matter of course, children climb around in moving cars, pregnant women drink cocktails, and everyone constantly puffs Lucky Strikes. It’s a seemingly stable, solid world, but one approaching the edge of revolution, just months from civil-rights clashes, Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution.
“I think [Pete Campbell] is more a man of this era than that era,” says Kartheiser. “It’s a Nixon-Kennedy thing. Kennedy was born with a silver spoon. Nixon fought his way up the hard road. [Pete] is very modern, [with] an ‘I deserve it now’ attitude.”
Draper and his “Nixon” generation have a latent sense of justice and fair play, but no real basis for why they should exist. He expects men to take their hats off around women and for businessmen to play by certain unspoken rules, but has lost belief in the bigger ideals that once shaped America. Younger men, like Campbell, can see no reason for the hollow mores and easily throw them out.
The characters share, however, a deep-seated sadness and dissatisfaction with life. Betty, in her mansion, feels alone even when with her psychologist, children, friends, or husband. Peggy’s pride at her success is tempered by the shame of giving her child to her sister to raise. Draper can’t seem to connect with his children and wife, the only people he loves.
They are too sophisticated to be happy. The characters are vaguely aware that somewhere, on a farm or something, there are people who at least have a basis for their lives. But the values of self-sacrifice, faith, devotion to family, even satisfaction in hard work, are horribly corny. This they have in common with other fictional Manhattanites, such as the girls of Sex and the City. They’ve sophisticated the meaning right out of life.
There is only the slightest glimmer of hope for the characters of Mad Men, which is the quality that makes the show so frustrating and so brilliant: With all the riches, sex, and pleasure that infuse their lives, they are trapped in a quandary as old as Solomon’s. All is vanity. Mad Men creates a brilliant and detailed picture of something very important, just as it slipped out of our lives.
– Rebecca Cusey is an entertainment reporter based in L.A.