Mad Men is one of the most interesting shows on television right now. The characters continue to reveal layers of complexity into the show’s third season. The early 1960’s setting is rife with tension–between women and men, blacks and whites, old and young, between the staid 1950’s and the revolutionary 1960’s–that we know is going to explode any minute now. And the story lines focused on advertising provide hints and clues as to how we became the media- and celebrity-obsessed culture that we are today. It is fascinating to watch.
I just finished watching Season Three on DVD from Netflix. There were a couple of episodes in this season that made me think about the ways in which the show crosses boundaries.
First, it crosses a boundary between different media. In particular, I think the show combines photography with television in ways that I haven’t seen before. This is particularly appropriate since the show is about advertising in an age when photography was of paramount importance. The episode that made me think about this was in Season Two, when Betty’s father, Gene, dies. The last scene of the episode shows Sally in the foreground lying on the floor watching television (so appropriate), her face illuminated by the light of the TV. To her left, in the background, the adults sit around the kitchen table, lit by an overhead (presumably flourescent) light, drinking cocktails and smoking cigarettes. They’ve been telling stories and laughing about Gene, celebrating his life without dismissing their grief at his death. Sally doesn’t like the laughing, doesn’t understand that laughter and celebration is a great way to honor someone who has just died. The tableau of a grief-stricken Sally in the foreground and the laughing adults in the background is reminiscent of great photography. No, it IS great photography. The show is full of these tableaux. It is beautiful to watch. That is one of the things that makes this a great show.
The second interesting boundary that the show crosses is between fiction and non-fiction. In Season Two, there was, for example, an episode in which Bert Cooper bought a painting by Mark Rothko, who, at the time, was a relative unknown. The characters in the episode have discussions about the nature of painting in the face of the abstraction of this particular painting. The episode gives us a glimpse into the kinds of discussions that were occurring at the time. The discussions give the episode a sense of reality and groundedness. But the last two episodes of Season Three are outstanding in their examination of the ways in which real life events impact the lives of these fictional characters. And this is a spoiler alert. If you haven’t watched these episodes of the show, skip the next paragraph.
President Kennedy is assassinated in the next to the last episode of Season Three. The nation is shaken. Even the Republicans are upset. There are many tableaux in this episode. It is beautiful to watch. But the impact of the real-life assassination of President Kennedy on the lives of these fictional characters is moving, and, I suspect, realistic in a way that illuminates what this event meant to real people of the time. The episode features a wedding that occurs a few days after the assassination, before Kennedy’s funeral. It is a touching nightmare. But it is the last episode of the season, when people have moved on but the impact of the assassination is still being felt that moved me most. In this last episode of Season Three, a number of characters have been moved to make major changes in their lives, at least in part because of this major event on the national stage. Don makes a pitch to Peggy for her to join him in his new ad agency. She is resisting in uncharacteristic ways, in ways that we, the audience, celebrate. She wants to know why he wants her. He tells her that, unlike most people, she sees Kennedy’s assassination in a way that is real. She sees that in this huge tragedy, people have lost their identities, a sense of themselves. The tragedy has made them question who they are, who they thought they were. As someone who has had a terrible thing happen recently (even if it was my “choice”), I understood this. I recognized this as true. As “truth”. Tragic events make you question who you think you are. This was illuminated for me by this last episode of Season Three of Mad Men. Isn’t that the definition of great fiction?
When dramatic events occur, people question who they are. And this episode of Mad Men made me remember this or maybe made me realize this for the first time. This crossing of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction illuminated for me a truth that helped me understand my actual life. It helped me understand who I am, why I feel the things I feel. What more could I ask of a TV show?
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.