Background first; Mad Men is centered on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), creative director of Madison Avenue power agency Sterling-Cooper. His life seems, on the surface, to be sheer perfection—home in the suburbs, beautiful ex-model wife (January Jones), two kids, big green yard, big pretty Cadillac, and always at least one lovely lady on the side. At work, he’s the cock of the walk, an inventive ad man whose underlings long for his approval and whose superiors are kept in check by his non-contractual status. But there is a darkness about him; he harbors secrets, untold stories of past lives, family and friends abandoned.
The show is much like its protagonist—sleek and calm on the surface, dark and disturbing on second glance. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner previously served as a writer and supervising producer on The Sopranos, and the credit isn’t surprising; Don Draper is the most complex and compelling television anti-hero since Tony Soprano. In season three, Weiner and his talented writers, having mined the demons of Draper’s past to considerable effective over the course of the show’s first two years, zero in on his relationships with the vast supporting cast—what they reveal about him, about them, and about us.
One of the series’ more intriguing elements is the tricky dynamic between Don and Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), who has worked her way up from Don’s secretary in season one to, now, a copywriter with her own office and secretary. Peggy’s character, throughout the series, has been effectively utilized as a surrogate for female independence and empowerment—the kind of woman who was laying the groundwork for the women’s liberation movement. That notion continues in season three, as Peggy tries out pot, makes a gay friend, and gets an apartment in the city with a fellow swinging single girl. But her relationship with her mentor, still a figure of male authoritarianism and “traditional”, patriarchal values, takes some fascinating turns. She does, to a degree, owe at least her initial opportunities to him, and he bristles that she seems to always want more from him. But she continues to impress at her job because she is good at what she does, and will have none of the idea that she is beholden to him; “You think I'll just follow you like some nervous poodle?” she asks him at a key point, and she’s right. Thankfully, he knows it.
Don’s relationship with wormy Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is no less intriguing; the smarmy young up-and-comer seethes with hatred and jealousy for the older, more successful executive, yet he desires nothing more than for Don to consider him worthy and offer his praise (his motives are made even more clear by the none-too-subtle Daddy issues in his private life). “I want to hear it from him,” he demands at a key moment, but the word is not “want”, it’s “need.” The relationship between Don and Roger Sterling Jr. (the excellent John Slattery) is also put through a wringer in season three; the two like-minded connoisseurs of good booze and bad women find themselves estranged by Sterling’s perhaps foolish decision to marry his mistress, and are only able to patch it up when their very existence depends upon it.
And then there is Betty, the long-suffering (but not exactly sympathetic) wife. At the end of season two, a trial separation was brought to an end by Betty’s pregnancy and Don’s promises to be a better husband, but alas, those are short-lived; by episode three, he’s making smoky eyes at Miss Farrell (Abigail Spencer), whose on-again, off-again affections prove a frustration for the smooth operator. But this time, he’s not alone—Betty’s flirtations with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) become all too real, and all too dangerous. The manner in which their storyline and the office intrigues are drawn together into a season finale that, in effect, hits the reset button on Don’s entire life is phenomenal. It’s a thrilling, funny, ballsy hour of television.
But back to the supporting cast, three-dimensional characters all: Joan (Christina Hendricks), seemingly married off and happy, but broken inside, working a lousy department store job and doing her accordion party tricks; Kinsey (Michael Gladis), the perhaps-not-entirely-genuine social progressive; Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), with his unorthodox recruiting strategy; Roger’s spoiled daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) and ex-wife Mona (Talia Balsam), trying to keep it together on the most ill-timed wedding day imaginable; new addition Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), the seemingly ineffectual company man from the new corporate owners who turns out to have some fight in him after all; and poor Sal (Bryan Batt), the closeted gay art director, undone by the worst kind of handshake hypocrisy. I’ve heard some complain that there are no sympathetic characters on Mad Men, which isn’t true—there are some, like Sal and Pete’s wife Trudy (the wonderful Alison Brie). It’s just that they’re on the sidelines, the ones that are lied to, betrayed, left to fend for themselves. In this world, they don’t stand a chance.
When the first episode of the third season aired, its six-month narrative jump placed the timeline in early 1963, and fans realized that this meant the Kennedy assassination would fall within season three. But it is done in the most wonderfully subtle and unexpected way—a stroke of genius, really, utilizing now-familiar iconography, but contrasting it with the petty complaints and irritations of the moments immediately before that fateful CBS bulletin. In that moment (and others throughout the year), we realize that these historical events are just a part of the tapestry; Weiner and his writers realize that the entire world wasn’t watching soap operas that afternoon in November, that these moments worked their way out from the background. They do so here as well, brilliantly.
But then, that’s what’s so overwhelming about Mad Men: in spite of the beauty of the period sets and costumes, the impeccable attention to detail, it is not (and never has been) a museum piece. It lives and breathes within its immaculately reconstructed world, and functions as a warts-and-all alternative to the portraits of that time that we were left with. The television and film of the early 1960s only showed us smiles and shiny surfaces, a happy place with no dysfunction and no unrest; those are the images that disingenuous politicians and pundits are summoning up when they call for a return to the “values” of “a simpler time” (never mind that there’s only one woman with an office, and the only black people in the building are the janitors and elevator operators). Mad Men shows us those surfaces, and explodes them. That’s why a generation weaned on fairy tales of the good old days connects with the show so readily. It tells the truth about our parents and our grandparents: they were just as fucked up as we are."Mad Men: The Complete Third Season" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.