Quick programming note: Tom Watson's live-blogging tonight's Season Two opening episode of Mad Men.
A problem with Mad Men's designers' perfect recreations of the late 1950s and early 1960s in the look of the characters, the clothes they wear, the offices and living rooms and bars they work, live, and play in, all the period details rendered exactly right is that it can fool us into thinking Mad Men is a period piece.
It allows us to kid ourselves into thinking that the bad behavior of the characters is as much a part of the times as fedoras and wood paneled offices, that their materialism, their hollow ambitions, their sexism, their phoniness---above all, the phoniness---are all vices peculiar to back then.
Mad Men is not about the time it's set in, 1960 in Season One, 1962 in Season Two, which begins tonight at 10 EDT on AMC.. The fashions, the trappings, the historical references, the depictions of the, to us, crazy social mores and ridiculously rigid but cartoonish gender roles, the glimpses at the pop culture and fads of the time are meant to place us in an alien world. The Madison Avenue and suburban Ossining are like those planets on Star Trek where the inhabitants are living as if in Chicago of the 1920s or as if Nazi Germany won World War II or as if the Roman Empire never fell. All the attention to period detail is a trick. We're meant to think of Mad Men as a period piece but creator-producer Matt Weiner and his writers and designers and directors are inventing their own universe in which their are no real people. There are only roles for people to play.
In this universe, every person is an invention, either of the person playing the part (Dick Whitman has invented Don Draper) or of other inventions (it's hard to say who invented Betty Draper, her husband, her mother, or her friends and neighbors---when Betty makes an attempt to create a self for herself, it's as a fashion model, which is to say as a doll for other people to pose and dress; the only self she can imagine for herself is even less of a real person than the one she's been handed by others). In short, everyone is a fraud. And everyone is leading a double life. Nobody wants the life they have. Nobody knows himself or herself except in how well the fake self they present to the world fools other people. It's a world in which people are each other's audience. It's a demanding audience but an audience of extremely limited imagination, expecting each other not just to play a part but to play that part strictly to type, even as they inwardly chafe and rebel against the same restrictive demands being placed on themselves. It's a world of bad actors, obvious phonies overplaying their parts, and the only way it can continue is through a mutual agreement: "I won't point out what a fake you are, if you don't point out what a fake I am."
Seven-thirty, Friday morning. It's pouring rain here. I'm huddled inside a coffee shop instead of out for a walk or a bike ride. The guys at the next table are huddled inside of a coffee shop instead of out on the driving range, where they'd intended to be. They are in their early thirties, but dressed like college guys about to go play Frisbee, in t-shirts, gym shorts, and flip-flops. From their conversation I gather they are married, on vacation together with their wives, one is the father of a very small child, the other has a sister-in-law who is sharing their vacation with them. The sister-in-law seems to need as much attention as the baby, according to him, but he's one of those guys who would talk about his adult sister-in-law as if she's a spoiled child. They are both one of those guys. Just the second guy is a little more so.
They work in offices. The first one has the more demanding job and he's trying to escape it. He's been interviewing around. His best prospect is an even more demanding job, one that will have him traveling a lot. The second guy asks if the first guy's potential new boss has kids of his own. A boss with kids might be more understanding that a guy with a baby can't spend his every waking minute at work or dealing with work. The potential boss has two kids. One's in college, the other's a sophomore in high school. No way, then, of gagueing. The potential boss doesn't have the same family demands on his time, but maybe he still remembers what it was like. The first guy can't say. He doesn't sound hopeful about landing the job.
The second guy may have an easier time of it at his office, but he doesn't like his job any better than the first guy likes his. The difference is that with very little effort he can pretend to be enjoying what he does and make his bosses think he's a good guy to have around the place. In other words, he keeps his job, and therefore his lifestyle, by being a complete fraud. In his way, he has to give up as much of himself to his job as the first guy has to.
But work isn't really on their mind this morning. Golf is. They have a ten-thirty tee time somewhere. They're both optimists. They're convinced that the rain will let up by then. What has them worried is that things might have backed up on the course. Probably parties with earlier tee times canceled. But others might have decided to hang around and wait out the rain. The guys might not be able to get out on the course until much later. How are their wives---known to the guys as they---how are they going to react to that?
The second guy isn't worried about his wife, so much. He's worried about how the first guy's wife's reaction might affect---infect---the feelings of his wife and sister-in-law. They will band together, no matter what, he thinks, and if the first guy's wife is ok with the news that that the guys are going to be out all day instead of part of it then his wife and her sister will be ok with it too. But...
"She'll be fine, won't she?" he asks hopefully. "What does she expect you to do on day like today anyway? Sit inside? Do girly things with them? Take the baby shopping?"
The first guy says he has no clue.
Of course he has more than a clue. He knows. The question isn't whether or not she'll be angry. It's how angry and for how long and how she will make him pay.
He decides to call her. Out comes the cell.
"Hi. It's me. I'm sorry. Did I wake you up?"
His voice has gone softer, full of concern, with a note of pleading already. It sounds fake as all get out. He's playing a part. The solicitous husband. What I can't tell, what I'll never know, is if this a part he regularly plays or if he thinks he has to adopt it for the situation. What I also can't tell, what I'll also never know is if this is a part he's written for himself or is someone else wrote it for him. If it was someone else, is that someone else his wife? Or is she playing a part too? Have they both been assigned parts to play in their own marriage? Are they each trying to be what they think the other wants them to be? Are they each trying to be what they think they are expected to be, and who's doing the expecting?
In a conversation in the Drapers' kitchen, Betty Draper and her friend and neighbor, Francine Hanson, agree that their husbands are "better" when they're at home and not at the office---better as in more likable; better as in nicer, kinder, more loving, more open-hearted; but also better as in not sick, as in well, or getting well, better as in recovering.
This, by the way, is in an episode that comes after one in which Don Draper leaves his daughter's birthday party to go pick up the cake and does not come back until long after the party's ended.
Clearly, both women believe that their husbands are not their real selves when they are at work, that they are only pretending to be the kind of men their bosses and colleagues expect them to be. Their real selves, their better selves, are the men they are when they are at home with their wives and children.
It doesn't seem to occur to either Betty or Francine that their husband might be pretending at home, that his real self is his office self. It wouldn't occur to either woman that their husbands might be pretending in both places, that the men's real selves aren't allowed to show them up at home any more than they are allowed to show up at the office. And it certainly wouldn't occur to them that they themselves are the writers of the scripts their husbands are following around the house.
What's more, it doesn't occur to Betty (and probably not to Francine either) that she is playing a part too, that she has no real self, that she, the person she thinks she is, doesn't exist. Betty literally can't feel herself. She can't feel her life. But it doesn't dawn on her that the numbness in her hands is symbolic. She can't feel because there is nothing to feel. It's all made up.
The story of Mad Men is the story of how Dick Whitman created and now maintains a new life for himself under the name Don Draper. The central conflict of that story is the ways that life is threatened with exposure as a fiction. Oddly enough, it's Don Draper who presents the chief threat. Don Draper doesn't like being Don Draper any more than Dick Whitman liked being Dick Whitman. A fiction can't maintain itself as a fiction if it is aware of itself as a fiction. Draper doesn't feel his life any more than Betty feels hers. It's no wonder that Don is happiest when he is with his bohemian lover Midge Daniels. It isn't that Midge allows him to be his true self. It's that she doesn't expect him to be himself or any self when they're together. She doesn't care who he is. Midge, then, offers Don an escape from having to be.
Don and Betty aren't the only characters living their lives as characters.
And it's not just the characters on Mad Men who are playing parts, pretending to be people they are not, in order to get along at work and make life easier at home.
Mad Men is set in a fictional universe that looks like New York City in the early 1960s but it is about living as fake, about not being real. Which is not a problem exclusive to that time and place.
Back to Friday morning. It's eight-thirty now. Still raining hard. Outside the coffee shop the parking lot is flooding. The guys at the next table are still planning to make their tee time. They're so sure the rain will let up that they're going to head to the driving range now. The second guy is insistent.
"You should get a job at a driving range," the first guy says. There's a note of irritation and impatience in his voice.
"I should!" the second guy agrees. "I really should. Can you imagine that?"
The first guy isn't listening. The phone call to his wife ended inconclusively. She hadn't asked him to come home, but he doesn't feel as though he has permission to stay out all day either. He'd offered to bring his wife something from the coffee shop and she'd turned him down. "Maybe I'll bring her something anyway."
"I thought she said she didn't want anything," the second guy says. He sounds a bit panicked. He doesn't want to stop at the house on the way. "We go there, we'll never get out again."
"Just some hot chocolate. We can bring them some hot chocolate. Your sister-in-law like hot chocolate?"
"Hell if I know. Why bother? Let's just go."
"It'd be a nice gesture," the first guy says. "It'd be a good thing to do."
He's going to play a part.
The second season of Mad Men begins tonight and over at newcritics Tom Watson and M.A. Peel are set to begin live-blogging every episode. Tune into AMC and log in at newcritics at 10 PM Eastern time, 9 Central. To help you catch up, Mrs Peel has posted her Season One wrap-up, The Dawning of Those Who Think Young.
You can watch the Season One finale online at the Mad Men website.