Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My ‘Mad Men’ prediction

I was one of the 2.8 million people who watched Mad Men on Sunday night, a number that could get you canceled if you were a network TV show but in the indie-rock math of cable TV is a triumph.

I felt uncomfortable during the Season 3 premiere. The writing, acting and production design were all superb as usual, but something seemed off. It wasn’t just the apparent loss of a character, or the arrival of “life under British rule,” as Bert Cooper put it. A pendulum is changing direction, and to me the episode seemed charged with all kinds of omens.

Thus my prediction: this is the season in which Don loses his golden touch as an ad man.

PhotobucketIn the past we’ve seen him come up with campaigns that were not only clever and persuasive but also perfectly judged the zeitgeist. For example, Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted”: The tobacco companies were worried about the then-newish government pressure about health hazards, and the usual way to deal with this was to run an ad with a guy dressed up like a doctor and smoking a cigarette. But Don knew this only makes people think about doctors and hospitals and death. His idea sidestepped the health issue completely, reassuring people that “whatever you’re doing, it’s OK,” an insight that shrewdly captured the American bubble of complacency and comfort amid the Cold War. And it helped Lucky Strike sell lots of cancer sticks.

Now we have another client in need of an image overhaul: London Fog, a stodgy old brand that conjures “Charles Dickens and whatnot.” Don is dispatched to their cluttered, faux-old-world offices (they had a “Dieu et mon droit” on the wall) by a British man who scoffs at the company’s name. Right away our hero is taken down a peg: this is an errand we would never see in the itinerary of the old Don Draper, the guy who flies to L.A. and disappears for a few weeks with the swingers by the pool.

Don’s idea for London Fog indicates a lot about how he judges the world around him, an important skill for a guy whose daily life calls for vigilance and adaptability in order to protect a fraudulent identity. He proposes an ad in which a woman in a raincoat flashes a man on a train. In the ad he envisions — as sketched by Sal — a sexy girl (he says something about her “bare legs”) is seen from behind opening her coat, while a guy in front of he looks on as a voyeur. The psychological suggestion is that she’s nude.

It’s 1963 now, however, and Don’s read of the culture is off. He thinks that the stasis of the 1950s and early ’60s will simply go on. But of course Don’s world is on the brink of huge changes, the role of women being one of the hugest. This is the time of the pill, Betty Friedan, and the rise of “career girls” like Peggy. But the ad he’s thinking of is basically a pin-up from the 1950s (or even ’40s), with what I will confess to know was a common trope in that era: a girl’s clothes vanish in some mishap (blown away by the breeze, caught on furniture, etc.) while a lucky Joe Schmoe looks on, standing in for you, the real-life ogler.

Draper is looking backward instead of forward here because for the first time he doesn’t understand what’s coming down the pike — meaning that whatever it is, he himself is not prepared to deal with it. Frank Rich expounded brilliantly on this in his latest column, which also referenced Bruce Handy’s smart recent piece in Vanity Fair: the ’60s will be good for the Woodstock generation, but it will be bad for the Don Drapers.

Inability to change also turns up ominously in Don’s personal life. At the end of last season he rejected the swingers and came home to Betty, learning that she was pregnant again. They clasped hands in a sign of solidarity and maturity: their marriage may have problems, but we’re led to think that they’re going to try to make it work. But after a few months Don is back to screwing stewardesses, however diminished and pathetic the conquest may now be. There’s no flirtation this time; the girl simply throws herself at him. Interestingly, the experience is once again based on false identity. The stewardess thinks Don is somebody else, and while he once seized upon this opportunity to remake himself and live out his dreams, he now seems trapped. His seduction is more like a dull, repetitive job, one that he created for himself.

All this suggests that Don is not going to be in sync with the times to the degree that he has been; he may even be left behind.

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