The Beginner's Guide To Mad Men

Your bluffer's guide to the awards-guzzling American drama.

 

 

The cast of Mad Men for Season 5

 

"Our worst fears lie in anticipation." Donald Draper, Mad Men series three.

 

He may have used the line on a nervous fellow expectant father in the hospital waiting room, but it sums up the feelings of a large proportion of Mad Men fans as they await the return of the show set in the world of advertising in 1960s New York to UK screens this evening after an 18-month hiatus.

 

Anticipation has reached fever pitch, to mainstream levels that many thought impossible for a 21st century television show. With so much choice out there at the flick of a remote control or the click of a mouse, many of us thought the days when a TV show could have a widespread cultural impact were gone forever. Not so.

 

And while the fear factor is smaller, it is unquestionably there. Can series five match the dizzy heights of its predecessors, which garnered universal, critical praise, achieved commercial success and left a cultural mark on society? Oh, and don't forget the awards. Fifteen Emmys and four Golden Globes.

 

The longer a TV show runs, the greater the risk of diluting its effectiveness. With 13 episodes in a season, how many brilliant scripts can be devised and how many memorable performances can be extracted from the actors before the whole thing goes stale? This is the fear that has increased as the premiere of the new series has drawn closer.

 

Now it is finally here. Despite fractured and drawn-out negotiations between Mad Men's writer/creator Matthew Weiner and the show's producers, Lionsgate Television, nobody really thought that series five wouldn't eventually be made. The actors love it too much. The crew love it too much. The critics love it too much. And the public love it too much. But why?

 

Cultural Impact

Two of the many Madmen inspired adverts featured in Esquire's fashion Blog. The Geico Gecko sitting Don Draper-style on a chair, and a man and woman in 60's retro clothing

The fact that one of Europe's oldest and most glamorous fashion houses, Prada, have based their spring collection on the 1960s fashions worn by an American TV show's female characters, reveals much about the far-reaching influence of the series. Yes, the 1960s was a landmark decade for fashion anyway, but rarely has its style looked more glamorous than when shown off by the beautiful, Grace Kelly-esque Betty Draper (January Jones) and the show's voluptuous siren Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), whose style, presence and hourglass figure consistently provoke comparisons to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield.

 

Other television shows since the turn of the century have gathered column inches and fans in equal measure – Lost and 24 immediately spring to mind – but they never influenced the way people dressed or shopped for their home furnishings in the way that Mad Men has. A brief look at the interior design sections of the weekend newspapers, at numerous online blogs and in the scores of home magazines on the newsstand tells you everything about how the show's style has permeated our lives.

 

Nostalgia

We all live in a sanitised world compared to the one inhabited by Don Draper (John Hamm) and his colleagues. We don't smoke in the office. We don't drink large measures of vodka or whiskey consistently throughout the day, every day. We don't encourage our female colleagues to sit on our laps at office parties, and our female colleagues aren't happy to. We don't do business in dimly-lit bars and restaurants after a succession of mid-morning cocktails and we don't hire and fire people at will without going through the proper channels.

 

And thank goodness we don't do most of those things. But it's fun to watch how our parents and grandparents lived and worked. And fun to dream of being transported back there to satisfy our curiosities and live and work in a simpler, less self-conscious and more black-and-white age.

 

Historical references

The 1960s stands out as a landmark decade in social and cultural history, even within a century that contained change and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

 

Many Mad Men episodes are lovingly woven neatly around some of the era's most thought-provoking events and issues: the 1960 Presidential election; the Kennedy assassination; the first Sonny Liston vs Muhammad Ali boxing match; the civil rights struggle and the rhetoric of Dr Martin Luther King. The appearances of Conrad Hilton in series three, seeking Draper's creative help with his hotel chain on the verge of global domination, were fleeting, but brilliantly observed.

 

The Women

The beautiful Betty Draper in a butterfly shirt, smoking a cigarette in the kitchen

With the notable exception of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) – and more of her later - Mad Men's women are Stepford Wives with real brains, the original and unapologetic Desperate Housewives. Repressed on the surface by the era they inhabit, they wield their sexuality to devastating effect, without having the right or inclination to shout about it. They have an underlying power that outweighs the boundaries that appear to constrict them.

 

Their style – all floral dresses and quaint frilly knickers – screams subjugation when viewed in an age of trouser-wearing power women who have been belatedly afforded many more opportunities than they were. But it is they who hold the enduring appeal for the philandering men in their lives. Despite their wandering eyes and the marriages and affairs that hold few consequences for them, both Joan's on-off love, Roger Stirling (John Slattery), and Don's estranged wife, Betty, are never far away from their thoughts. At the bottom of the glasses they regularly drain – at work or not – it is their faces they see. Up to now at least.

 

The Leading Man

For all of the brilliance of the writing, impressive characterisation across the board and the nuanced encapsulation of the zeitgeist, Donald Draper is the main reason why people tune in. Without him, and without John Hamm's portrayal that is as multi-layered as the character he brings to life, the show would probably have been made and endured. But it would never have scaled the cultural, commercial and critical heights that it has reached over the last five years.

 

Draper appears in ninety per cent of the scenes. He drinks, smokes and womanises on a scale in keeping with the amount of secrets he harbours – from the minor ones he is unable to stop manufacturing on an almost daily basis to the fact that he isn't actually who he says he is. And it is all so clearly etched in his face.

 

A female fan who I spoke to about him offered the opinion that "his handsomeness is only matched by his broodiness," which for many women is an irresistible, knicker-dropping combination. They're also disarmed by his adoration of his troubled young daughter Sally and by his fast-tracking of Peggy, who is the show's most intriguing character aside from Draper, from secretary to influential copywriter at a time when the promotion of women was as rare as a sober lunch hour. Draper tells Peggy more than once that he sees a lot of himself in her – an admission that precociously crosses gender divides in an era of bottom-slapping and coffee-fetching.

 

Don Draper graces a couch in a darkened office in Mad Men

He appeals to heterosexual men just as much. "You remind me of a chap that I knew at school," Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) says to him in series four. "We used to follow him around in packs. He never noticed we were there." Draper is a man's man on the grandest of scales, the embodiment of what many of us may become or might have been without the benefit of restraint.

 

The self-destruct button is never far away from him, and in the early part of series four, following the breakup of his marriage to Betty, his finger appears to be constantly on it. Yet we followed him blindly down every wrong turn as his life spiralled out of control, and loved him all the more for it. Even when he attempted to straighten himself out as series four progressed, a hasty marriage proposal that turned several lives upside down stopped him in his tracks. It is the kind of impulsiveness that only a person living on the edge can display.

 

Yet through all the secrets and all the hangovers, for the most part Draper performs with utter brilliance at work on a daily basis, inspiring awe and loyalty amongst his staff in equal measure. He may keep a collection of clean shirts in his desk drawer for when he crawls into the office directly from a bar or a bed that isn't his own, but when he puts them on he switches from deeply-flawed antihero to creative genius in seamless fashion. We've all been hungover at work before. We've all come in after a late night. And the day after is never like that for us. He's a paradox. A man that you can't set your watch by. And even if it's stressful being one and even if you wouldn't like to live your life like that, these are the types of personalities that fascinate the most.

 

So what does series five have in store for Draper and the rest? Weiner is notoriously secretive and no previews were made available for the two-hour series opener. All we knew was that it was 1966. It's a series that has consistency brushed over the cliffhangers of previous season finales when a new series begins. So anything could happen, and with Draper it frequently does. One thing's for sure, it will be fun finding out.

Mark Robinson

 

 

Click here for a behind-the-scenes clip:

 

 

 

The Beginner's Guide To Mad Men
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