‘I keep going different places, and always winding up where I’ve already been.” That is a comment by Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the main character of the critically acclaimed AMC series Mad Men, in its hyped third-season opener, which aired last Sunday night. The opener, a rather dull episode concerned mostly with establishing plot lines for this season, was simulcast in Times Square after a costume party for which fans were invited to dress in the highly stylized outfits of early 1960s Manhattan. One of the great draws of the show is visual, as its creator, Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos), is obsessive in his attention to period detail.
Draper is the ultimate self-made man, an identity thief who wants to escape from his past — especially from a humiliating childhood of physical abuse by his adoptive father — into a world of his own devising. Breathtakingly handsome, Draper is the unflappable creative genius at the heart of Sterling Cooper, a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Draper’s biography exemplifies the show’s presentation of the advertising industry itself, which is all about presenting words and images to persuade consumers that the product in question can contribute directly, almost magically, to the realization of the American dream.
Draper and his hard-drinking, chain-smoking fellow executives are early versions of what Tom Wolfe calls “masters of the universe,” wealthy power-brokers whose family life is no obstacle to regular trysts with desirable women. Don is married to the stunning Betty (January Jones), an increasingly frustrated suburban housewife and mother of two. In the second season, Betty learned of Don’s infidelity, kicked him out of the house, and became despondent and resentful of her children. When Betty found out that she was pregnant, she told the doctor she could not have the baby. He responded that such an option is only for those women with “no options.” Last season’s finale ended on a mildly hopeful note with a repentant Don being invited by Betty to return home.
One of the most interesting features of the show is the complexity of its treatment of knowledge and desire among the main characters who, as they come to know themselves better, discover deeply conflicting longings. The reconciliation of the final scene of last season is not likely to prove enduring, as is evident from the new tag line for the third season: “The World’s Gone Mad” has replaced the previous tag line, “Where the Truth Lies.” The advertising image for this season is a photo of Don Draper sitting calmly and smoking, as water gradually engulfs him.
That we are being set up for more marital drama is painfully and ironically evident from Betty Draper’s comment to Don in the third season’s inaugural episode that she wants “everything to be perfect” when the new baby arrives. Moreover, Don, whatever his lingering desire for a happy family, is not about to endure a reformation of his desires for other women, as is clear early on in this episode.
Titled “Out of Town,” the episode focuses on Don’s trip to Baltimore, accompanied by Sterling Cooper’s art director, Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), to meet with the owners of London Fog. On the flight from New York, a stewardess all but insists that Don have sex with her. She has found his name on his luggage; it is in fact the luggage of his brother-in-law but Don, ever ready to shift identities, plays along. An astonished Sal, whose attraction to other men has been indicated in previous episodes, observes that he has taken a lot of flights but has never encountered a stewardess as eager as this one. Don looks at him quizzically: “Really?”
At dinner with members of the flight crew, Don and Sal say they are accountants in town on business. When the pilot insinuates that accounting is a rather boring career, Don mentions Jimmy Hoffa. The pilot asks whether they work for the FBI. Don pauses and deadpans, “No, we’re accountants.” Not only Don’s gift for the crafting of stories, but also his penchant for secrecy is on display. The big shocker in this episode concerns Sal, in a sort of Brokeback Mountain moment in which he begins to have sex with another man in his hotel room. Just as they are undressing, the fire alarm goes off; moments later Draper, as he descends the fire escape with his stewardess partner, sees Sal and his would-be lover getting dressed. Draper gives Sal a knowing glance but then says nothing more about it.
Indeed, Draper’s wordless moments are the most telling, the moments in which the master of language is rendered speechless, as he is at both the beginning and the end of this episode. In the opening, Don is alone in his kitchen, late at night, warming milk for his pregnant wife. He begins daydreaming about his own birth and imagines both the death of his mother in the act of giving birth to him and his being given in adoption to another set of parents, with a mother who could not conceive and a father who abuses her and eventually him. The episode ends with Don and Betty responding to their daughter’s question about the day of her birth. Don starts to tell the story but then abruptly stops, caught up in some private emotion, and Betty continues the tale.
As much as Don wants to live only in the future, to insist that certain things never happened, he cannot do it. One of the most dramatic illustrations of Draper’s thinking along these lines is evident in his oversight of a proposed advertising campaign for American Airlines after a plane crash. The working idea for his team is that the first commercial should begin with a sorrowful acknowledgment of the crash. Just as the team is wrapping up its pitch, Don interrupts them to announce, “There is no American history, there is only a frontier. That crash happened to someone else.” But Don cannot entirely forget what has happened to him. For all his acquisitiveness and competitive zeal, Don is also loyal — to reliable clients, even when a potentially more lucrative contract comes along, and to longtime coworkers, even when a colleague’s performance is clearly in decline. His boss, Roger Sterling (Don Slattery), says to him at one point, “Your loyalty is starting to become a liability.”
Don’s liabilities are multiple and this season promises to make viewers, and perhaps Don himself, painfully aware of these fault lines in his character. As is the case with all art worth observing, the universal is revealed within the particular. What makes Mad Men such good television is that in its fanatical attention to period detail, to the specific cultural milieu of early 1960s America, it discovers themes of general significance, in this case themes about identity and the pursuit of happiness.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.