You wonder if those questioning women’s health and career choices or the “otherness” of the president note the cynicism and discontent embedded in “Mad Men” nostalgia. “Leave It to Beaver” it’s not.
I’m a fan, obsessed with the impeccable, almost fetishistic attention to detail in the stylish homes, chic clothes and other accoutrements, seen through a haze of doctor-approved cigarette smoke. I stay because of the well-acted character studies and the writing, which – though not always a faithful reflection of that time – entertains us with wit and precision. I’ve indulged the fantasy a bit myself, wearing on occasion a perfect silver choker with a dress that nips in at the waist. But I wouldn’t want to live there.
Amid the aesthetic and the anthropology, it wouldn’t be “Mad Men” unless you also get plenty of mid-1960s angst. It’s confusing and frustrating, for the women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, navigating sexual harassment and condescension, for the African Americans with hopes and dreams stifled while they steer an elevator on Madison Avenue or clean a “mad” woman’s house.
The booze-soaked white men who rule that world aren’t much happier, though membership does have its many privileges.
The “Mad Men” vision is palatable because we know, to quote Sam Cooke, “a change is gonna come.”
The season opener answered some criticism that has been directed at creator Matthew Weiner. The martini olive would get stuck in the throat when “Mad Men,” which got the gender wars in white upper-middle class society just about right, placed its African American characters in the background – a maid here, a Playboy bunny there, the voice of Martin Luther King on the radio. (Roger Sterling’s blackface performance didn’t count.) In my generally admiring “Mad Men” piece last season, I dinged the show for not paying attention to the few African Americans staking a claim on Madison Avenue then.
In the first scene on this new season, Young & Rubicam executives take notice. A trio sneers at the picket line of “cops and Negroes and priests” beneath their window, civil rights being the social issue of choice for many clergy.
The bad publicity from ill-advised water balloons leads the guys at “Mad Men’s” Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to poke their rivals with a joke ad promising “equal opportunity” employment, a reminder that the enlightened north’s casual racism may have been more benign but was just as entrenched as the southern system.
It’s not funny to citizens waiting for a fair break, as in the final scene, SCDP had to deal with, as Roger put it, a lobby “full of Negroes.” You could see that plot development coming even if the gang at SCDP didn’t have a clue. Roger looked horrified at the thought of actually hiring a black woman to grace the secretary/receptionist desk (not a man’s job, either).
We “can’t have one out there,” he said. At that moment the Pete Campbell prank that had sent Roger on a wild goose chase to Staten Island hardly seemed childish at all.
If an actual black character, with lines and a personality -- and here’s hoping -- gets sucked into the “Mad Men” orbit, she may find, as Don Draper’s secretary-bride-now junior ad woman Megan tells Peggy Olson, who rose through talent: “You’re all so cynical. You don’t smile, you smirk.”
This season, Pete may be the most insecure of a pretty needy group of ad guys, jockeying for Roger’s office and being unsatisfied with a merely bigger one, but on race issues, he’s the closest to a progressive SCDP has, and isn’t that sad. That doesn’t stop him from being as vaguely dissatisfied with his wife and child in the suburbs as the other men in the office and on the commuter train; he remembers out loud a time when his wife “wouldn’t leave the house in a robe.”
Though he now disparages the young wife he gave much up for, Roger is a little more jovial than his last season persona. He’s still looking for that big account to replace one he lost, drinking his meals and lording his partner status over Pete.
Even when his character is afraid of becoming irrelevant in the firm with his family name on the door, John Slattery as Roger can steal a scene just by dangling a cigarette from his mouth while loosely holding a baby in his arms. That would be the son he doesn’t know is his, brought to the office by new mom Joan.
She’s a bit ambivalent about the child, annoyed with a mom who’s come to help but is best at put-downs. But Joan is certain about work. “I missed it too much,” she confesses to Lane Pryce, the Brit who is still fantasizing in his personal life. If he can’t have the lady in the wallet picture he stumbled on, he can dream.
As usual, Elisabeth Moss makes Peggy Olson, the woman not quite in the boy’s club, a suffering pioneer. She is perplexed by the new “kind and patient” Don Draper. “It concerns me,” she says, after he fails to defend her idea for “dancing beans” in front of a client.
Peggy is no longer the only woman who understands Don. That job falls to young Megan, who, we find, knows his real-life identity as once-impoverished Dick Whitman but doesn’t know the man. If she did, she wouldn’t have thrown him a 40th birthday party and performed a French-tinged song and dance that excites all the male guests and mortifies him.
“Why don’t you sing like that?” Roger asks wife, Jane, as they watch from the sidelines. “Why don’t you look like him?” she answers. The young trophy is learning, as eventually women do on “Mad Men.” Back at work Sterling mocks the ditty with a “Bonjour.”
Though Don and Megan kiss and make up in a totally twisted “Mad Men” way, this may not end well. Jon Hamm’s Don is as anxious as ever about revealing what’s at his core, if he can figure that out himself.
Sunday night’s viewers didn’t get a glimpse of icy Betty Draper Francis, though Don’s aside to his daughter, Sally, to “give Morticia and Lurch my love” as he dropped her off at mom’s managed to couch a cool dismissal in an “Addams Family” reference, may Carolyn Jones and John Astin rest in peace. (Gosh I missed "Mad Men.")
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3