Warning: The following review contains
a few mild spoilers.
After three seasons, Mad
Men remains one of the most original, compelling dramas on television.
Propelled by varied, complex characters and committed to a realistic
depiction of its milieu, the series remains unpredictable, convincing,
and always riveting.
Mad Men: Season Three
takes place between March and December of 1963. The ad agency
Sterling Cooper is now under the aegis of a British parent company,
and a new in-house financial officer, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), is
sent from England. Pryce and his pandering assistant have a rough
time fitting in with the existing corporate culture in New York.
Other changes have taken place, too: Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser)
and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) are co-heads of Accounts. Sal
Romano (Bryan Batt) begins directing television commercials. Joan
Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is now Joan Harris, having sadly married
the young surgeon who raped her halfway through the second season.
On the home front, Don Draper
(Jon Hamm) and his wife Betty (January Jones) have reconciled, and the
birth of their third child is imminent. Betty's father Gene
(Ryan Cutrona) moves in with the family as his encroaching dementia
becomes more pronounced. Daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) matures
a bit, growing into a complicated and sometimes angry child.
The 1960s never looked so good,
or felt so ominous. The program's lush production design and
costumes, and its amber-hued photography, are like water to the oil of
the undercurrents that constantly beset its characters: social change,
political violence, and suburban repression hide in every nook and cranny.
Our protagonists are (mostly) prosperous and secure in this postwar
idyll, but they have paid for it with a fašade of cultural homogeneity
that is under constant threat of being exposed as a fraud - a fraud perpetrated
in large part by the ad men themselves.
As the thirteen episodes unfold,
familiar themes develop - but that is in no way a criticism.
These characters live in a world shaped by unresolved, and therefore
cyclical, issues of their repressed natures. The show's writing
- overseen by creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner - is
its most outstanding feature; coupled with the cast's deep engagement
with their characters, this makes for winning television. Some
familiar themes taken in new and sometimes startling directions include
the following: Sal's apparent homosexuality is finally confronted
directly. Don's obscure past is revealed more clearly than ever
before. Tragedy strikes the Draper family. Copywriter Peggy
Olson (Elisabeth Moss) begins an alarming affair with a former Sterling
Cooper executive. Roger Sterling's (John Slattery) marriage
to former secretary Jane (Peyton List) causes a rift between he and
Don. Draper begins a fruitless, dead-end affair, while Betty embarks
on one that has serious consequences.
Mad Men's third season
is very strong. The first seven episodes set up new dynamics,
establish new subplots while illuminating existing ones, and continue
to extrapolate new angles from the show's overarching themes.
Character development is rapid, efficient, and fascinating.
We see Roger Sterling, for example, transform from a gregarious hob-nobber
into an angry, somewhat alienated middle-aged loner. His company
has been taken away from him (well, he sold it, anyway, and his role
under the new regime is largely ceremonial), he has driven his family
away by marrying the frivolous Jane, and his relationship with said
new wife is hardly fulfilling. Peggy Olson, too, goes through
some significant changes. She moves to Manhattan, gains more confidence
in her talent, and, as I mentioned, begins an affair that seems ill-advised,
at least on the surface.
However, these seven fantastic
episodes of nonstop character and plot momentum give way to three duds,
or near-duds. Episodes eight through ten virtually stagnate the
season, with some rather ineffectual plotlines being quickly written
into and then out of the show. Don and Betty take a trip to Rome
during this lull, and it's a lot less picturesque and exciting that
it should be. Also, these episodes include Don's rather arbitrary
affair with a schoolteacher. The part of the teacher
miscast and their dynamic is not convincing.
However, one plot thread that successfully carries through these episodes
is Don's growing personal and professional relationship with a well-known
American entrepreneur and businessman (and real historical figure), whose
identity I won't spoil here.
The season wraps up with three
very solid episodes that bring the show back up to the level of greatness.
The second-to-last uses President Kennedy's assassination as its backdrop,
much as prior seasons used Kennedy's election and the Cuban Missile
Crisis and the impetus for changes in tone, character motivation, and
other circumstantial dynamics. The plot of the season finale is
wholly satisfying - and can perhaps be read as a subtle harbinger
of the even more drastic changes that the country would see over the
years remaining in the decade.
Mad Men's commitment
to an era and a way of life is unique. Watching it is the next
best thing to living and breathing the advertising business and the
shifting social and cultural mores of the early 1960s. Although
dealing with a real historical period and a specific industry, the show
never takes docudrama shortcuts or uses expository tactics to "catch
us up" on what was going on in 1963. Instead, we interpret the
significance of the times through the characters - their reactions,
their dialogue, and their behavior. This clues us in to what we
may be missing in terms of specific historical detail, and further develops
the characters, which remains the primary interest of the series.
And rightly so. Not only is this a cardinal rule of good dramatic
storytelling, but Mad Men's characters are incredibly rich,
shaped into vibrant, multi-dimensional figures by the peerless writing
staff and brilliant performers.
Don Draper is one of television's
greatest characters - not just at the moment, but of all time.
This seemingly impenetrable executive with matinee idol looks could
have been handled with cartoonish exaggeration by an actor less astute
than Jon Hamm. But Hamm transforms Draper into an endlessly fascinating
man who alternates rigid ethics with twisted morals. A stand-up
guy, a no-nonsense boss, a demanding colleague, and a straight shooter
with clients, Draper is also a liar, a philandering bastard who takes
his wife and family for granted, doing everything for himself and not
a lot for them. He expects to be taken care of, and in return, he hops from bed to bed all over the greater metropolitan
region. For all this, we like Don Draper. We want him to
do the right thing - which, in many contexts, he does. Just
not with his family.
He is a flawed, likable asshole we cannot resist watching episode
after episode. Yes, he's a product of a certain era, but even
more than that he's the product of his own particular background -
a background that is fully elucidated, albeit incrementally, by the
writers and production team.
Much has been written about
Mad Men, and that will deservedly continue. (I haven't had
a chance to say anything substantial about the show's co-protagonist,
Peggy Olson, who's almost equally as interesting as Don Draper.)
The program has so much to offer, so many layers of action and plot,
with at least two dozen memorable characters rich with pasts and families
and quirks and vulnerabilities. The third season does not disappoint.
Even with a dull third quarter, Mad Men: Season Three
ranks with the best television available. This challenging drama
opens doors to variegated subject matter, prompting a further look at
issues both American and universal, past and present, surrounding the
meaning of moral identity.
Mad Men's look is stellar, and this encompasses production design, photography, and the enhanced 1.78:1 transfers on this four-disc set. The sets and costumes are simply flawless, exemplifying the simple elegance and pared-back design aesthetic of the era. The photographic approach values light over movement, which suits this character-oriented drama perfectly. The attractive imagery provides a meaningful counterpoint to the often reprehensible behavior of the characters and the perverse double-standards they either perpetrate or endure. The transfers do justice to all of this, providing high-contrast, crystal-clear pictures that are vital to our participation in the stories told here.
Disc 1 also contains a surprisingly
substantial featurette called Medgar Evers: An Unsung Hero
- Part 1 (39:11), detailing the tragic murder touched on in one
of the third season's early episodes. Including interviews with
Evers' surviving family, this moving documentary paints a vivid picture
of life in the South during the last days of segregation.
Disc 2 includes Medgar Evers:
An Unsung Tragedy - Part 2 (31:13), concluding the featurette
begun on Disc 1. We also have Mad Men Illustrated (14:00),
a look at Dyna Moe, the graphic designer behind the online fad.
Disc 3 holds the two-part
Clearing the Air: The History of Cigarette Advertising (45:25, total),
another surprisingly robust and thorough documentary piece on this controversial
subset of advertising. In addition, we get We Shall Overcome:
The March on Washington (16:56), an effective pictorial overview
of the event accompanied by audio of Dr. King's historic speech.
It's one of the most important and enthralling programs on TV. Mad Men is a program that never shies away from the true nature of its characters. Unlike the era it depicts, the series drives directly at the kind of dissembling that ran rampant across large swathes of society. Not always a matter of outright lying, the culture thrived upon (and perhaps still does) the lies we implicitly agree to tell each other; but as we all know, lies beget lies. Beneath it all, however, is some kind of goodness, and a chance for redemption. That theme is at the heart of Mad Men, driving a portrait of unhealthy characters trying to deal with their ills. This package combines outstanding entertainment with excellent technical presentation and substantial bonus content. DVD Talk Collector's Series.