MANHATTAN, NEW YORK (August 7, 2008)
The essential nature of drama is conflict. How the future unfolds and circumstances resolve is dependent on the characters and how they adapt or do not due to their inherent hubris (fatal ego flaw). Characters develop (transcending upward or devolving down). These very same principles apply on 21st Century TV as in the ancient theaters of Greece beginning in the Sixth Century B.C.E. We, the audience, are drawn in by identification with those characters and through our anticipation of what will transpire.
DISCLAIMER: The essay below contains plot spoilers about Season 2, Episode 2: "Flight One." If you haven't seen that episode, check out the Mad Men schedule on amctv.com to see when encore presentations are airing or download it from iTunes.
The operational center of the Mad Men universe is the office complex of Sterling Cooper that doubles as its emotional arena. The character conflicts of staffers introduced in the Flight One episode will resolve in that primary setting. As Joan Holloway foreshadows, People should not bring their problems into the office. They just drag you into the garbage.” The antagonistic dualities are being established.
At the open, Paul Kinsey has thrown a party in his suburban Montclair, New Jersey “poor little rich boy apartment.” Paul introduces his girlfriend Sheila White (who is black) to fellow staffers. Joan immediately and directly insults Paul with her feigned surprise that he would be “open-minded.” Staffers observe that Paul has lifted an office typewriter (and made him vulnerable). His justification is that he is a WRITER who NEEDS it. Later in the office, she shows her sharp teeth: “At least I'm not a phony.” Viewers see a male hand steal Joan's red purse from her locker; then her ID is copied and posted on the bulletin board with her birthday circled. (Presumably) Paul's act of payback reveals Joan’s age to be 31.
The episode reveals Peggy's internal spiritual conflict. She visits her new baby that is living at her mother's. Sleeping in the same room with the baby are two additional boys who are potentially hers. Peggy declines communion. This all adds up to possible issues such as aversion to contraceptives and abortion, which was still generally illegal at that time.
Betty Draper demonstrates talent as a card shark when the Drapers entertain at home. She also expresses a greater willingness to confront Don but he dodges the confrontation, “I’ll say whatever you want but I don't want to fight about it.” Rules of marriage are about to be tested.
Don Draper's contradiction at the office is that cutting loose a client is called “conflict of interest” for a good reason. We have additional complications as Duck Philips has recruited Pete Campbell in opposition to Draper’s call for “loyalty.” Pete Campbell’s father was in the airplane that crashed. He is suddenly without even a semblance of an emotional or moral rudder. Inheritance has turned to obligation and security into uncertainty.
Early 21st Century needs the straight-forward self-made (on many levels) Don Draper. Golden Globe Best Actor Jon Hamm deserves his accolades. His persona is resonating with those who are aware they are somewhere new now but unsure where, when and what that is. Our own end-of-era feelings and anxieties are being projected onto characters that we know are soon to find themselves immersed in social upheaval and revolutions across the realms of human existence.
Ageism and racial prejudice have been added to the previous blatant gender prejudice of WASP-ish 1962. The religious underpinnings of “proper” socially contractual sexual mores are creaking and cracking from the weight of cultural pressure. The duelists in these emerging conflicts are maneuvering and circling without head-on collisions – so far. Plenty of combatants are itching for a fight this season. ///