There was a great scene during the first season of Mad Men in which Don Draper—the show’s more-or-less protagonist, a flinty ex-G.I. turned advertising whiz—concocts an emotionally resonant campaign for Kodak’s new carousel slide projector. Draper’s insight is that people will use the machine to project their selective memories, sweetening their sense of themselves and their lives with snapshots bathed in the light of nostalgia. In delivering his pitch, he uses photographs of his own perfect-looking family: the gorgeous, sex-starved wife he barely touches and the children who are usually asleep long before he slinks home from one mistress’ bed or another. That contrast between those idealized images and what we actually know about the characters is in some ways the essential subject of this odd, obsessively detailed drama, returning this weekend for a second season on AMC.
Almost everything and everybody on the show, set in the world of Madison Avenue ad men in the early 1960s, is deceitful in some basic way. And most of the lies—the ones they’re paid to tell and the ones they tell themselves—are designed to conceal the humiliations, ugliness, and limitations of human affairs. The creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner (a former Sopranos writer), clearly intends to map the fault lines of the era, and the show is full of casual sexism, racism, and barely suppressed class resentments. It suggests a postwar culture awash in piggish ambition and priggish hypocrisy, staving off the cognitive dissonance with endless rounds of alcohol, cigarettes, and adultery. It also hints at the ways that the culture is about to change; one of Draper’s affairs is with a downtown artist who introduces him to marijuana; one of his employees is a closeted, virginal, gay Catholic; and his newest neighbor is a politically active divorced mother. The first season ended with Kennedy’s 1960 victory over Nixon; Draper’s stuffy ad agency worked for the Republicans.
The series teeters between satire and soap opera, with winking nods to the appalling social norms of the time and plot twists like a secret identity, a long-lost brother, and a hidden pregnancy. But it is smartly written and well acted (Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper, won a Golden Globe in December), and it allows the characters complexity and ambiguity. Draper is Exhibit A: the first season gradually revealed that he is an impostor, the son of a prostitute, who has built a successful life on a false identity. His nemesis, a junior executive named Pete Campbell, is the scion of an old-money family, who struggles to balance his massive sense of entitlement with a need to prove himself on his own terms. Forming a triangle of sorts between the two is Peggy Olson, an ambitious outer-borough girl who in the course of the first season worked her way up from being Draper’s secretary to a copywriting position, and also had a brief affair with Campbell that (possibly) led to her pregnancy. The three of them represent evolving notions of what class and gender mean in America, but the characters are too complicated to be reduced to types. What all three share—a drive to succeed, sometimes at damaging costs—is as important as what separates them.
The show looks gorgeous. Part of its pleasure is the chance to revisit Modernist design at its sleek, optimistic zenith. But period pieces are always as much about the era that produces them as the era they depict. Weiner wrote the pilot for the show some years ago, during the dot-com boom, but its sense of turmoil churning beneath avaricious abundance is well tuned to the age of hedge-fund billionaires and sub-prime foreclosures. In a lot of ways, Mad Men is about how much we’ve changed, and how much we haven’t.
(Worth noting for East Tennessee audiences: Christina Hendricks, who plays the worldly chief secretary Joan Holloway, is a Knoxville native. She moved away when she was little, but the city can claim her anyway. And should.)