Take a deep breath because the new season of Mad Men arrives on Sunday, and by the end your lungs will hurt just from watching everyone smoke. You may feel dizzy from all the vicarious Scotch-drinking, too; the series is that visceral.
Like any other inescapably buzzed-up show, though—you can’t walk by a Banana Republic without spotting a Mad Men tie-in—television’s most talked about series comes with hype you can believe and hype you can’t. Oddly, the most extreme claim happens to be true: Behind the promotional hot air and retro-chic '60s cool, Mad Men actually is the best, most nuanced, most gripping series around, a genuine heir to The Sopranos.
If you have doubts, grab a Season Two DVD and take another look at the stunning final episodes. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), so much more than a Madison Avenue stuffed shirt, has been in California, AWOL from his ad-agency job and stifling suburban life. He reunites with the widow of the dead Korean War soldier whose identity he stole and with whom he has an unexpectedly touching friendship.
From the series’ start, the whole hidden-past concept could have turned into predictable melodrama, but Hamm’s subtle performance and the eloquently written flashbacks (there are plenty yet to come) take it past any hint of cheap tricks. More guilt-ridden yet more sympathetic as we go along, Don is today’s most complicated, intriguing television hero. But where Tony Soprano exploded, Don stays buttoned-down until he scoots off for another quick fling.
If this season finally gives us heroines as richly written as its heroes, then Mad Men really will be living up to all its extravagant hype.
And that subtlety hasn’t pushed aside high drama. Last season ended with a slew of cliffhangers: Don had come home to his picture-perfect estranged wife, Betty (January Jones), who had walked out of her doctor’s office after he said he wouldn’t help with an abortion (early-'60s nostalgia stops right there). Meanwhile back at the ad agency, Joan (Christina Hendricks), the smart sexpot office manager, had been date-raped by her fiancé on Don’s floor; then they calmly kept their dinner reservation. Ambitious, whiny account exec Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) sat at his desk holding a rifle because formerly mousy copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) had finally told him she’d had his child and given it away. And, oh yes, the agency had been sold to a British company. The Cuban missile crisis was nothing but background noise to all that personal anxiety.
It won’t spoil anything to say that in the first minutes of the new season alone we see a dead baby, a living baby, and a pregnant woman, and that we’ve moved ahead by several months. Pete hasn’t shot himself but may have reason to explode soon; Peggy finds her inner executive and snaps at secretaries now that she’s no longer one herself, and art director Sal risks tumbling out of the closet. And in a twist bound to resonate with our own anxieties, the agency’s new owners—led by Jared Harris as a deliciously sneaky Brit—are laying people off right and left. No one feels safe.
Harris’ character has a male assistant who acts superior to the other secretaries and complains about the office, “This place is a gynocracy.” So wrong. And that’s where the hype—that the series is really about its oh-so-interesting women—goes haywire. With the exception of Peggy, we’ve hardly glimpsed the women’s inner lives, and even she spent months deluding herself (and us) that she wasn’t pregnant.
Behind the promotional hot air and retro-chic ’60s cool, Mad Men actually is the most nuanced, most gripping series around.
I’m not dragging some feminist argument into this. Creator Mathew Weiner himself has said, “The treatment of women on Mad Men is the point,” and the Season Two DVD includes a tedious two-part feature called Birth of an Independent Woman, tracing how subjugated women were then and how society changed during the '60s. The series’ own publicity machine is asking us to view women as central figures.
And that means I want to know how and why Peggy morphed from meek to ruthless. After all, we know what Pete’s thinking, don’t we?
Even more, I want to know what was going through Joan’s mind last season. First she does a terrific temporary job reading television scripts, only to lose the position to a man (she shuts up and takes it). Then when she’s raped—more silent acceptance. It’s not enough to say, “That’s the way things were back then.” (Well, maybe it’s OK for Betty, who tends to be the complacent type, backing into every decision.) Joan has a mind we’re not being given access to.
It’s easy to impose 21st-century values on these women, but guessing at their frustration isn’t nearly the same as knowing who they are, inside out. Beneath the twisty plots and the Fedoras-and-crinoline costumes, the show’s heroes are as deeply drawn as any good novel’s. If this season finally gives us heroines as richly written as its heroes, then Mad Men really will be living up to all its extravagant hype.
Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.