Life of Don

Mad Men ’s dark nostalgia
By JON GARELICK  |  July 22, 2008

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THE MAN: Don Draper is his own his mise-en-scène.

Mad Men continues to take us back to a time we think we know. The AMC hit series (Sundays at 10 pm) established itself last year with its freakishly restrained portrait of Madison Avenue advertising executives. Here was the life of 1960: unchecked office racism and sexism, copious cocktails at lunch and around the conference table. A fist fight breaks out between a couple of junior executives, and their bosses blithely ignore it as they wait for the elevator. A senior executive barfs his lunch in front of a major client and is let off with a perfectly reasonable explanation: “Oysters.” Here’s over-the-top behavior presented amid the understated mise-en-scène of subdued lighting, starched Hathaway shirts, ubiquitous cigarette smoking, and brilliantined $5 haircuts.

As Season 2 dawns, it’s 1962, and Valentine’s Day — a holiday invented by advertising. JFK is president, and Jackie’s tour of the White House is on black-and-white TVs everywhere. A callow ad man brings his wife a heart-shaped box of chocolates, urging her, “Come on, open them, I want one,” before proceeding to eat them all as Jackie talks about the “architectural unity” of the Roosevelt Room.

At the offices of the Sterling Cooper agency, the minions of creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sit obediently waiting for the boss in a conference room with a platter of untouched half-sandwiches. Is Don playing hooky? Having one of his afternoon extramarital trysts? No, he’s at the doctor’s office for a long-overdue physical. His blood pressure is 160/100, and the doctor prescribes what any good doctor in 1962 would prescribe: more relaxation — and Phenobarbital. Don is 36 years old. Then, a leisurely lunch of meat and whiskey at a neighborhood bar.

Don finally shows up at the meeting, aloof, unrepentant. He brushes off the first glib pitches for the new Mohawk Airlines campaign: “It has to be advertising for people without a sense of humor.” More tag lines are suggested and brushed off until Don rears back and, with only a hint of impatience, explains: “It’s not about the majestic beauty of the Mohawk nation — it’s about adventure.” Ah-ha! Don Draper is still the man.

Draper is all repression and mystery, but his big secret was exposed last season: he’s an orphan, his mother was a prostitute, and he’s living under an assumed identity. A psychological MacGuffin, perhaps, but good enough. Don may be an actual bastard, but he’s also conflicted. “What an interesting character,” my wife marveled after an early episode. “A tortured hypocrite.”

Meanwhile, Sterling Cooper has its first copier machine. (Where to put that big thing.) The boss is pushing a youth initiative in hiring: “The clients like it.” Don: “Young people don’t know anything. They don’t even know that they’re young.”

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is both spot-on and uncompromising in his cultural references. Don and his wife, Betty, run into one of her old friends at a swank hotel on Valentine’s Day, and Betty is shocked when Don identifies the woman as a call girl. “Butterfield 8,” marvels Betty. John O’Hara, anyone? Or, maybe, the Elizabeth Taylor movie? No? And you might have to hit pause on your DVR to catch the title of a book that Don sees a scruffy-looking guy reading at the bar, or maybe recognize its lines when Don picks up the book himself: “I am waiting for the catastrophe of my personality/to seem beautiful again,/and interesting, and modern.” Frank O’Hara? Quoted on TV? No, these aren’t the jukebox hits of Swingtown.

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  Topics: Television , Culture and Lifestyle, Holidays, Elizabeth Taylor,  More more >
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