The 52 episodes that constitute the first four seasons of "Mad Men" have been seen as proof of the vitality of American television and its ability to deal with capitalism. "The Sopranos" set up an equation between economics within the law and economics that is outside of the law. "Mad Men" took advertising - an industry that began to flourish after World War II and changed the way we look at everything - and by means of products that "everyone remembers" observed life in the United States and the way human fate is determined.
Matthew Weiner, also one of the writers of "The Sopranos," in the crime genre, performed wonders in "Mad Men" with the other Hollywood genre: melodrama. The series he wrote echoes with irony that touches on the most blatant theme of this genre (which actually died in the late 1950s, the period in which "Mad Men" is set and which it "revived"). Namely: which desires is a woman not permitted to fulfill. After the first Kinsey Report on male sexuality (1948 ), and especially after the second one on female sexuality (1953 ), Hollywood, ever attentive to the vagaries of what is permissible, did a good job of dealing with this newfound sensitivity by producing "arousing" films about the latter subject.
The melodrama of the 1950s could wring tears or be bitterly ironic because it obeyed "the Law" stating that differences cannot be bridged - that a woman who crosses the boundary has nowhere to return to. "Madame X" (a story that has been adapted 12 times, from the 1910 silent film to the 21st century ) was the most cliched essence of this genre, focusing on a mother who lost her children because she "cheated" on her husband. But the prohibition in the '50s was actually more profound: Every person has his place and must not dare cross the boundaries of class, race or genre.
During the first seasons of "Mad Men," the plot centered around this Law, which melodrama always obeys, causing suffering to both the characters and the viewers. The main protagonist, Don Draper (actor Jon Hamm ) is not really Don Draper, but someone else - the son of a poor prostitute, an orphan who adopts a fictitious identity. Betty, his beautiful wife (January Jones ), someone who seems to be lifted out of the old American cinema, does not know his secret; she is the deceived woman. With the revelation of that secret, this axis of the plot falls apart.
Sound kitschy? It's surprising to what extent the parallel stories that develop here emphasize the great desire to trespass boundaries: to advance, to succeed, to become free, to live in the light of truth, outside of old, traditional America. Indeed, glittering California, as opposed to New York, becomes the place of truth. Even Don's new engagement to another woman, which will probably fall apart in the coming seasons, originates in California. There, the sky is blue and the water in the swimming pool is clear, and love is simple and free of class-related restrictions.
One after the other the masters, the fathers, collapse. There is the revelation of the terrible secret of Bert Cooper, the founder of the ad agency (who walks around in socks, and has lost his testicles ); the disintegration of senior partner Roger Sterling, the hedonistic, alcoholic scion of a wealthy family; and at the same time, of course, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe; plus the main thing: John F. Kennedy is elected and later assassinated. Even if there are no Jews in this agency, and the only junior employee is fired, it is clear that the coming episodes will further precipitate the disintegration of the supremacy of the WASP male. After all, Vietnam is already in the wings.
In the series, "women's lib," the movement of lower classes into the top echelons, and the mobility that increasingly overcomes ethnic and class origins, create the means by which the melodramatic framework - dependent upon the suffocating restrictions of the Law - is slowly broken down. In the first two seasons that Law seems mainly like a sophisticated expansion of Ibsen: the Original Sin, the stolen identity, the "illegitimate" child, the pregnancy out of wedlock (which ends the fourth season ), etc. All these burden the plot with the fear of discovery, because that discovery turns its "owner" into an outlaw.WASPS vs. Catholics
Here is the place where the Protestantism of the series differs from the Catholicism of "The Sopranos": The latter centers around the desire to confess - to the psychologist, the priest, friends - although it is forbidden to reveal the truth. Life, deeds, wealth, everything is outside the Law; the Law is the only true threat to the characters. And therefore the series is full of truth: Indeed, in "Mad Men" the Law is the safe and comfortable realm, while events are replete with lies.
Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss ), the real heroine of the series, bursts into this context with fascinating slowness. She is the only non-Protestant in this milieu. She's from Brooklyn. She has sex as soon as one of the handsome guys knocks on her door. She swallows the pain of abandonment. She demands appreciation of her work. She is promoted. She gets rid of her baby (her sister raises him ). She is the only woman in the series who is not "quoted" from the woman of 1950s' films. She tries to help her bosses understand the question "What do women want?"
That question comes up repeatedly in the offices of the ad agency, and as we know, it comes from Freud's famous confession to Marie Bonaparte: Although he spent his entire life dealing with this question (psychoanalysis, after all, originated with "female hysteria" ), Freud was unable to find an answer to it. And then "Mad Men" comes along and makes a feast of this question. Here, too, they ask again and again, "What do women want?" because the firm's clients want to sell merchandise that will appeal to the rising power in the market: women. From the bras in the first episodes to the nylon stockings in the last, the question keeps cropping up.
The great irony here stems not only from the fact that men decide, in the final analysis, how the merchandise will be sold to women - in other words, the identity of the "happy woman" who "has everything" - and not only from the fact that this TV series is written by men. The irony is that it is clear that actually this show is designed first of all for women. It's easy to see this. Melodrama is a genre that Hollywood designated from the start for women. The heart is the organ most often mentioned when it comes to love. In every episode, there is at least one instance of sexual intercourse, but every one, without exception, stems from ostensibly pure intentions and involves much emotion (and suffering ).
Is this a "feminine" experience? No. It is about the manner of presenting the relationship between a woman and sex. In other words, "a film for women" depicts men within this sort of presentation - even when they cheat on their wives - as worthy of "feminine" admiration; even their passion turns into something lofty and full of gentleness. No sexual intercourse here is dry or mechanical, not to mention violent, or hasty, or from behind; aside from one hint of oral sex in a car - even that out of some profound goodness of heart - there is no "inappropriate" sex, kinky, with garters, slips, or the like.
"Mad Men" not only describes the collapse of the fathers, but shows admiration for fatherly masculinity. That is the explanation of the "femininity" of the genre, of the profound sentimentality of the sex seen in it. The man is the father even in his sexual relations. "The Sopranos" dealt with the difficulty we have in identifying with the fathers. When we identified with them it was "masculine," in terms of the Oedipal world. In other words, it was because they were active men; we were forced by the plot to identify even with their violence. Not to mention their hedonism.
In "Mad Men" we have the diametrical opposite: The identification takes place all the time by means of the Law. The good family. The sensitive sex. The cute children. When something illicit takes place, there's usually dissonance. That was how the makers of the series constructed our desire to restore the loss: the Law, innocence, the father, the family, success, smoking without interference, hard drinking without liver problems. Even after a heart attack Sterling goes back to cigarettes and alcohol.
Here the nostalgia for smoking in public places, for brimmed hats, for drinking, has catered to most of the viewers. The feminism of this series also uses irony: The most wonderful declarations about men come from the mouths of women, mainly from sexy Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks ). She is entirely ironic: her glances, her smiles, her statements about "what men want," her physical embodiment of the 1950s sexpot. They don't want a secretary, she says, but rather something between a mother and a waitress. Ultimately, the enjoyable plot moves between the attempt to guess "what women want" and "what men want."
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