Mad Men is a period piece drama set in the advertising agency culture of the 1960s. The show’s main character is the enigmatic and mysterious Don Draper, along with several other main characters who work at the Sterling-Cooper ad agency on Park Avenue. On the surface, the show is a chauvinistic chronicle of the success and excess of the advertising industry in the 60’s: with gratuitous whiskey pouring, cigarette smoking, and bygone era banter. It’s easy to think the show is simply glamorizing the golden age of advertising. Undoubtedly, most of the show’s initial appeal is the voyeuristic look behind the curtain of a time in America few remember and most will never know.
However, behind all this nostalgia, all the whiskey pouring, cigarette smoking, and bygone era banter, Mad Men operates on a much deeper level. It explores complex themes of identity, power, responsibility, escapism, Happiness, Sexuality, and Self-Actualization. The episode I chose to focus on is the Pilot Episode, in which Don Draper’s character is introduced along others, and follows a day in his life as he tries to come up with a new ad for his big tobacco account, Lucky Strike.
We see Don “working” at a bar – scrawling notes in every direction on a cocktail napkin – trying to pluck a coinable slogan for his Lucky Strike cigarette account out of thin air. This scene contains much of the production devices Mad Men uses in a nutshell: expert use of Sound Design, variation of shots to cue the audience to what to pay attention to, and set design.
The scene has a crooning song from the 60’s, Band of Gold, timed with the duration of the scene. This immerses the viewers and provides a context to the time. If you follow the use of sound throughout this shot, you’ll notice it’s loudest at the beginning – when the main character is introduced, and at the end, where it’s tempo picks back up and crescendos amidst the bar, a slowed down pan of groomed men laughing and smoking and drinking and carrying on, making the New York bar seem like a Roman bath house. In terms of camera movement, the only two shots where the camera isn’t still is the very beginning in end, subtle cues to the audience that these shots matter, these shots are punctuations to the scene itself.
This scene also illustrates another thing Mad Men does well: how consistently the set design reflects the time. From the fit of the suits, to the furniture, to the fountain pens, the set design of Mad Men is painstakingly executed; there is no hint of modernity.
Mad Men is a show that hinges on character development, and thereby, dialogue. This can be both positive and negative. While the writing and chemistry between the actors is brilliant, it can also be very dense, and to some audiences who look for more action in their plot, can be slow moving and requires too much effort to keep on track with.
In the dialogue however, the show takes bold strides in highlighting social justice issues and just how radically different the world was 60 years ago. Being young it’s easy to think progress is something that takes a long time, and that world is roughly not too much different from a decade or two ago. Watching this show has caused me to reconsider just how far we’ve come as a society with it’s portrayal of the gender dynamic in the past, especially in the workplace.
Halfway through the episode we see Peggy Olson starting her first day at the Sterling-Coope ad agency. As she’s walking out of the elevator, several men behind her begin to cat-call and heckle her with sexual innuend, something you’d expect out of a frat house rather than a professional office building. This behavior isn’t only tolerated, but is considered mild compared to how other men treat women at the agency. When Peggy receives first day training advice from Joan, the head Secretary, she mentions “most of the men are looking for something between a waitress and a mother”, and that if she wants to make it far in her field she should “show more of her ankles”.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the past’s gender landscape is how conditioned women could be into adopting the status quo of feeling intellectually inferior compared to men. Towards the end of the scene, Joan reveals to Peggy a typewriter and a calculator, and comments “don’t be intimated…they make this easy enough for a woman to understand.” Rather than contest or be offended at this, Peggy looks up bright eyed and says “Thank goodness!”.
The episode ends with Don musing over his profession with a prospective client. He asks why she isn’t yet married. She responds by telling him she “hasn’t been in love yet”. He responds by stating that “Love was invented by people like me to sell Nylons”.
Ultimately, I think this is what Mad Men does best. Dialogue like this, scenes like these, extract a reaction from the audience that allows no room for indifference. It places it’s time, and characters, under a magnifying glass and forces the audience to derive their own conclusions and judgements about each.