"That's life. One minute you're on top of the world, next minute some secretary's running you over with a lawnmower."
—Joan Holloway Harris
With its melancholy, mesmerizing third season coming
out on DVD this Tuesday, I spent a recent weekend re-watching "Mad
Men." The series, as its fans know, is set in a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency called Sterling Cooper (for its founders, Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper); with the current story unfolding in 1963. Here are 10 of my favorite things about the show, created by Matthew Weiner, which will return to AMC this summer for its fourth season.
Christina Hendricks silkily gives the former office
manager a breathy voice and take-charge dignity, even when things don't
turn out well — like her marriage to sad-sack surgeon Greg. Ever
poised, Joan stood by him this season, loyally encouraging and
sympathizing and only once irresistibly whupping him with a vase. And
what Hendricks does with cigarette smoke, when Joan unexpectedly runs
into a former rival (Roger's new wife, Jane), is ridiculously
entertaining. This woman doesn't need words.
The agency's co-founder, a wealthy man who wears his
entitlement with devilish charm, has a past relationship with Joan that
flutters across the season: Roger, it seems, has never quite let her
go. Played with offhand panache by John Slattery, he
sauntered through the season, frequently showing up to deliver the
episode's funniest line. The agency takes him for granted, and "Mad
Men" watchers might too. But anyone who gazes at a suit of armor in a
staid colleague's office and wonders aloud, "You ever get three sheets
to the wind and try that thing on?" is indispensable.
3. The light.
Christopher Manley, the third-season cinematographer,
produced artful images that you wish you could see on Cinerama's screen
— specifically, the kind of tender, delicate light that illuminated Don
and Betty's wistful kiss in a garden, or Sally's room as she sleeps
next to a night light. Though this show frequently reminds us that the
past isn't perfect, the look of it certainly is.
January Jones' unhappy housewife was miserable for
much of the season, constantly brushing away her eager daughter with a
brusque "Go watch TV." But watch how Jones creates a woman determined
not to grow up: Betty's slight lisp (like her Sally's), her way of not
fully enunciating her words, her way of covering emotion with a pout,
her icily beautiful fury, and the surprising richness and maturity her
voice took on when she spoke Italian in Rome.
You see that her anger comes from her powerlessness — a powerlessness
that she's loathe to relinquish (she's drawn to the father-like Henry),
but nonetheless despises. That trip to Italy, like the happy early days of her marriage, was over too soon.
Young Kiernan Shipka, with her saucer eyes and Shirley Temple
curls, broke my heart on a weekly basis this season as Don and Betty's
daughter, Sally (whose age, I think, hasn't been mentioned, but who
looks perhaps 9 or 10). This neglected child formed a bond with her
Grandpa Gene, a rare adult who looked at her as if he actually saw her;
tried to understand as her beloved daddy tried to break bad news ("You
said you would always come home," says Sally, like a knife into his
heart); and stared at her beautiful mother as Betty put on lipstick,
both of them seemingly alone.
6. The calendar.
Many TV shows seems to exist in a perpetual summer,
but we always know where we are in "Mad Men," both through the true
events that affect the characters (this season, set in 1963, included
JFK's assassination and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech) and the sense of a year going by. Seasonal parties are thrown, Halloween costumes donned, Christmas trees decorated; giving us a sense that it's all unfolding in real time.
The show's youngest adult character, played with thoughtful meekness by Elisabeth Moss,
is an ad-copy whiz who's occasionally all too aware that she's in a
little over her head. This season, her working relationship with Don
was troubled — she was, he thought, wanting too much too soon, and
wasn't particularly kind as he told her so — and, outside of work, she
explored freer sexual territory. You could almost forget about the baby
she had in Season 1 — until Moss subtly shows us, in a throwaway scene
in which she gives Don a baby gift, that Peggy hasn't, and never will.
8. The costumes.
Designed by Katherine Jane Bryant,
the "Mad Men" clothing speaks volumes: the conservative simplicity of
Don's white pocket square; the youthful, almost goofy blue of Pete Campbell's
serge suits; the buttoned-up and bow-tied dresses that entrap Peggy;
the stylish party wear for Betty, a former model who yearns for her
earlier life; the way that Joan's office dresses are conservative in
style yet daring in their form-fitting cut.
9. The wives.
Even the minor characters on this show have their
moments, such as the wives of three supporting characters: Sal's sweet
wife Kitty (Sarah Drew) facing a devastating truth in
her marriage with a frozen smile; Pete's polished wife Trudy (Alison
Brie), who's learned to manage her immature spouse with a trilling tone
that sounds angelic but means business; Harry's wife Jennifer (Laura Regan), who bravely pretends that she's not being snubbed at a party where the pecking order of Sterling Cooper is all too evident. Though rarely appearing this season, these characters mattered.
No one wears a hat like Jon Hamm, and no one handles a ridiculously complex life like Don Draper,
who looks like an Arrow Collar ad (note the snowy stack of shirts in
his office drawer) and acts like an enigma wrapped in cigarette smoke.
Hamm heroically resists making Don more likable; there's a coolness to
the portrayal that perfectly fits a man who's walked away from one life
only to mess up another. But Don learned a thing or two by the final
scenes of the season ("You're not good at relationships because you
don't value them," said Roger, nailing it as usual), and it was
irresistible as he assembled, "Ocean's 11"-style, the pieces with which
to kick-start his professional life. Season 3 ends with Don stepping
into a new adventure. I can't wait to see where he goes next.
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