As Season 1 – the season that earned the first of four consecutive Emmy awards – of Mad Men closes, we see Don Draper sitting on the landing of the stairway in his Westchester County home, wondering where things are headed. At this point, we know that Draper has a complicated, difficult past which he has been trying to put behind him but with only limited success. The mystery hinted at in the third episode when his own co-worker noted that nobody knows much of his past, have started to crack open, yet when I finished with the first season, Don’s mystery is far less interesting than the show’s portrayal of the challenges for women and feminism in the 1960s.
As everyone knows by this point, AMC’s flagship series covers the exploits and goings-on at Sterling and Cooper, an advertising agency trying to compete in the very competitive environs of Madison Avenue. Draper (Jon Hamm) is the creative head. The agency of course, is the sort of boys club that seems entirely typical of a not-particularly-reformed-yet era. The women in the secretarial pool are doing the archetypal secretarial things such as takings calls telling people “Mr. Campbell, call on line 2” and whatever – but also are looked at by the account executives as frankly no more than skirts. We know during this era, feminism and civil rights will start to rise – but we’re not there yet – and so what is left is this paradigm. The show is particularly stark and hurtful in the things that some of the guys say – when critics accuse the show of misogyny, I can’t say I do not understand the criticism – but it so clearly sees the pickle the ladies are in. Against this backdrop the show gives us three examples of women relating to this world – one who exploits the system, one who is trying to transcend the system, and one who is being crushed by it.
In some ways, while Hamm and Draper get the plaudits – Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson is the real hero of the first season, her story is certainly the one that evolves the most. She starts the season as the new addition to secretarial pool and Don Draper’s secretary. She is trying to get ahead, and to really make the most of herself – not just (if at all) trying to get her MRS degree. She is shown the ropes by Joan Harris the buxom (only because I can’t think of a more emphatic word, her dresses are straining to hang on to her) head secretary. Joan seems awfully sophisticated, living in the city, tagging the partner, and oscillating her hips in a way that seems more or less entirely intentional. I am not sure if the liberated female has appeared at her doorstep – indeed her obliviousness to her roommate is a clue – but she is clearly operating within this male dominated system. Her eyes are wide open, but her reality is a very catch-my-man-ish one. Her advice to Peggy is almost entirely in the vein of looks and knowing her place – it would be kind of offensive in 2011, but in 1960 it is merely good pragmatism.
For Peggy, it takes a while. Her attempts at trying to be a skirt earlier, but then her revelation that she could really be something on par with the account exec assholes who say things about her and her fellow secretaries behind their backs is one of the triumphs of the show. She has to fight so hard, but when she has her victory at work it is one of the nicest moments of the season. Of course as we leave the season, she has some tough decisions ahead of her, as her choice of career vs domestic is put in stark relief.
Betty Draper, Don’s wife, has made the housewife choice. She is trying to fit into the 1960s model of a good wife, making roasts, taking care of the children, and giving up her share of the meat when the partner at her husband’s firm decides to invite himself over for dinner. But she is not comfortable – we see this with tremors in her hands and with sudden odd releases of tension, such as her reaction to a threat to her dog from a neighbor. January Jones’ work here is either brilliant invisible or incompetent – but she shows a wooden woman, or a woman who has been taught to not have feelings other than standing by her man.
The theme of the women go even further – as the differentiation in the male characters is very much in terms of how women serve in their lives. We know most of the account executives are boorish, but Don Draper some how is not. He is not without guilt, especially a couple of really grievous missteps, but he does hear Peggy’s ability to do things, and resists her overtures to be a good secretary. Pete Campbell, a jealous account exec, is boorish, but the boorishness that comes from the frustration at being too nice a guy to be the asshole that he wants to be (if you know what I mean – it is more obvious if you watch the program). The show covers all of this territory deftly – within the context of the 1960s patriarchal world and spectacular art direction that really makes it seem like the 1960s. (I am reminded in this respect as Far from Heaven) Overall – definitely enough here to dive in to season 2.