by Meredith O'Brien
It’s hard not to notice that Mad Men  madness seems to be everywhere. In a big spread in Vanity Fair Magazine . In New York Magazine . As early-1960s styled Mad Men avatars  pop up on Twitter and Facebook. With the Aug. 16 season three premiere of the Emmy winning drama quickly approaching, what was once a show followed by a cultish, ferociously dedicated couple million people, has become such a staple of American pop culture that Banana Republic  is using the show to launch a clothing line, both Saturday Night Live  and The Simpsons  have satirized it and Sesame Street  is planning a Mad Men-ish parody for its new season.
I’ve adored this little AMC-show-that-could – which follows the lives of Manhattan ad men and their families -- from the very first episode, which I caught while vacationing two years ago after seeing ads for it during the 470th showing of The Godfather on the cable station. Its no-holes-barred portrayal of hard drinking and hard smoking white collar New York City professionals, as well as their naked racism, anti-Semitism and sexism is brutally honest, its characters multi-dimensional. No series regular is a flat cardboard cut-out. And while its most notable feature is the deliciously handsome main character -- Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who is so ashamed of his background that he stole a dead man’s identity and continues and lie and cheat as if his life depended on it – it is the female Mad Men characters who make this show whole.
While preparing to write this column, I spent some quality time marinating in the second season DVDs, in particular, the audio commentaries by show-runner Matt Weiner and other members of the crew. After listening to what folks had to say, it confirmed for me this: Don may be the star, but the women (to complete a celestial analogy of which the lyrical advertising guru Don might be proud) are the moon providing the show its gravitational pull, which shouldn’t be surprising given that seven out of the nine Mad Men writers are women . “The writers, led by the show’s creator Matthew Weiner, are drawing on their experiences and perspectives to create the show’s heady mix: a world where men are in control and the women are more complex than they seem, or than the male characters realize,” a Wall Street Journal writer said.
“These women are finding their place and finding their power,” said Hamm, during the audio commentary for the season two episode, “The New Girl,” which featured Don’s former-secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) asserting herself as Don’s equal after his mistress du jour advised her, “You can’t be a man. Don’t even try. Be a woman. It’s powerful business when done correctly.”
Throughout the first two seasons – which predated the feminist movement, in 1960 and 1962 respectively – the female characters were struggling to be as confident as Peggy within their own domains, to prove to themselves and to the world, that they had value. Peggy serves as the show’s poster child for the nascent 1960s professional woman. But it hasn’t been easy for her, and her success as her company’s only female copywriter hasn’t stopped her male colleagues from asking her to make the coffee. After secretly giving birth to a colleague’s baby and then putting him up for adoption in season one, Peggy was able to put her personal tragedy behind her and became a workplace creative force, with the support and guidance of her mentor Don, who was always trying to keep three steps ahead of his own personal tragedies. When Peggy benefitted from the firing of a male colleague who’d gotten falling down drunk one too many times while at work, and she took his office and account, she felt guilty about the way it happened. Don told her to man-up, “Don’t feel bad about being good at your job.”
All of this from a guy whose college-educated, Grace Kelly-look-alike wife in season two finally threw him out of their picture-perfect suburban home, not after the first time he was unfaithful, not after the second time, but after his cheating became the subject of conversation at a formal, downtown soiree between Betty Draper (January Jones) and the husband of the woman with whom Don was sleeping. Humiliated and embarrassed – especially considering that her husband had promised to clean up his act -- Betty decided she’d had it with being the martyred mother of two who once told Don that she, a former model, resented the fact that she was stuck at home all day long with the kids “alone and outnumbered . . . and then you come home and get to be the hero.” For several episodes at the end of the second season, Betty, who has spent most of the series seeming child-like, deftly took care of things and rebuffed Don’s attempts to make up, mostly because he didn’t offer a heartfelt apology until the season finale. However by then, Betty had learned she was pregnant with her third child and, while she toyed with the idea of having an illegal abortion, she became resigned to having the baby and acquiesced to letting Don come home . . . but only after she had an illicit tryst with a stranger in the backroom of a bar. Score one for Betty and the beginning of her sexual liberation.
Ironically, the most sexually liberated of the women on the show who uses her femininity as a blunt instrument -- the sensuously curvy office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) – eventually became hindered by her sex appeal as that became the only thing the men saw, blinding them to her intellect and talents. “Joan is the story of a generation,” Weiner told New York Magazine. “Our moms had friends like her – very confident and sexy and they got punished for it. She has the confidence of a man and that’s really hurt her.”
When Joan was given the chance to read through TV scripts and offer advertisers sage advice on what spots to buy, on what shows and when, she flourished, until the men in charge of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency realized they did indeed need someone to do the job on full-time basis. So they hired a man for the post, without giving Joan a fleeting thought and sending her back where she belonged, to supervise the secretarial pool. To make matters worse, Joan’s doctor fiancé didn’t like to see her so into her career because work distracted her from taking care of him, as well as spending time cooking and looking for a house. “You should be watching the shows, not reading them,” he gently chastised her before asking her for a second time to leave the dinner table and fetch him his drink. When her finance detected a tremor of sexual chemistry between Joan and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), one of the two principals of the firm with whom she’d previously had an affair, her fiancé later raped her in the office, retribution for Joan possessing more sexual experience than him and firmly establishing who was in charge in the relationship. Even Joan’s legendary sexual power that had translated into clout at Sterling Cooper began to diminish after Roger countermanded Joan’s authority and rehired a secretary whom Joan had fired. To rub salt into the wound, Roger soon decided to leave his wife and propose to the 20-year-old secretary, Jane Siegel (Peyton List), something he never did for Joan during their year-plus relationship.
I like to think that the fact that the Mad Men second season DVD set contained a two-part documentary entitled, “Birth of an Independent Woman” – about how a woman’s power had been derived from her husband’s social and business status, her maternity, her home and her appearance – is an indicator that the largely female writing staff will bring these strong female characters to interesting and, hopefully, empowering yet realistic places in the third season because I’m simply mad about these women.