Like most people, I love Mad Men. I have my own little obsessions with the good people at Sterling Cooper. But, like most people, I was frustrated with the third season. The episodes were ambitious but often lacking in execution. The season finale came back strong, but by the time the credits rolled, I said to my husband, “Wait, didn’t they just solve their own premise?”
Obviously, on the surface, the answer is yes. With Don’s history revealed, at least in one sphere of his life, a large part of the main conflict of Mad Men is solved. But, I don’t think that issue was the sole story the series was exploring. Mad Men examined pure ambition, the choices people will make to achieve what they want, the parts of themselves they’ll mask & deny in that pursuit. While Don is the most extreme example of this, you see the same struggle played out in Peggy, Joan, Pete & Sal. Season 3 was essentially the “out-to-pasture” season, where everyone got what they wanted. I think the characters (& vicariously the writers) realized they weren’t exactly happy with what was waiting for them, forcing the final “jump ship” episode.
In any case, I’ve decided to rewatch the past two seasons to see if my thoughts are correct. Is the overall theme of struggling to gain one’s ambitions kaput? I briefly thought about structuring these entries like “The Summer of Drew”, but I’ll keep things loose for now in case I lose interest.
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” & “Ladies Room” were nice walks down memory lane, especially after the staggering, disjointed storylines that season 3 seemed to be chasing. See Don smoke. See Don schmooze. See Don get away with it all. But just barely. One of the best parts of season one was how well the writers defined the risks facing the characters & plucked them tighter & tighter with each episode.
Not only do we start piecing together Don’s “story”, Peggy & Pete are strong parallels. Peggy is the naive girl who is trying to learn rules to the various games (mindfucks, office politics, & other seductions) being played around the office. Pete is the poor little rich boy whose determined to make his own place in the sun, no matter what the cost. (Don tells him often enough in the first two episodes: “You want people to like you.”)
They both reflect the extremes of Don’s own power plays. As seen in the dinner with the Sterlings in “Ladies Room”, Don is still a little out of his element, trying to take the focus off of himself while seeming in control. In “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, Don has to “make nice” with Rachel Menken after nearly losing her business due to his own arrogance (“I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like this!”). Don has mastered the art of advertising (& getting away with his secrets) because he’s learned that success relies on a balance of taking charge without ruffling the wrong feathers. Things that both Peggy & Pete still have to learn.
I’m going to close this post by saying I never really got the whole romance between Peggy & Pete in season one. I understand what develops between them later. But that initial spark? I just don’t see it. Pete is a dick. I understand being attracted to dicks because they make you feel some how special, just the tiniest bit. Case in point, (once again) Don. Don is also a dick (ha ha!) but he has the gift of making someone feel interesting, even if they aren’t. Pete doesn’t have that, he’s a slicky boy asshole who takes what he wants when he wants it. (I love how Trudy’s character develops later into something of a mommy-figure for him.) In the first episode, when the viewer goes from seeing Pete nearly maul a girl in a club to seeing him show up at Peggy’s door, nothing about that screams “romance!”. It says, “Hey, I didn’t get any tonight, will you be my booty call?” And. She. Lets. Him. In. Wow. Really?
Ok, so there’s a ton more I could cover, but the next post will have to steal some of these past notes in order support some of those ideas. More soon!