Mad Men season premiere tonight: portents of culture clashes and racial tensions
Mad Men returns to AMC tonight after a patience-testing, 17-month hibernation.
Mad Men's creator Matthew Weiner is mum on spoiling any plot hints before tonight's two-hour season five premiere (6 p.m. PST), but there is no doubt that the new season - opening circa 1965 - promises to be akin to a nuclear experiment. Just as scientists smash atoms into one another to observe the results, history tells us that the elite, insular privilege of 1950s businessmen portrayed in the award-winning and much-discussed show about a New York advertising agency in the 1960s will come crashing into the sexual, racial and military upheaval of the period. How each character comes through it is completely up in the air - season four had already thrown in touchy themes of illegal abortions, the Vietnam war and women's sexual liberation.
Replete with grating but realistic retro-sexism, delightfully authentic attention to historical details from fabrics to whiskeys, and an office full of perpetually adulterous men and their secretaries, Mad Men has become a wild hit since it first aired in 2007.
The show centres around Donald Draper (Jon Hamm), a suave, womanizing creative director and part-owner of fictitious ad firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. He's extremely successful at both sales pitches and seduction - he's mastered infidelity and workaholism to a tee - but under the professional surface, his world is collapsing. In fact, he's not even Don Draper - in his shadowy, enigmatic past, he stole the identity of a fallen comrade in war and has renounced his family.
One of the show's most popular characters in the office is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a secretary-turned-copywriter with a close connection to Draper. She's the only woman who's moved up the corporate ladder in the office - and in the previous season, she fell in with the bohemian artist crowd (including a nudist). This may bear fruit as the hippie movement flourishes - we don't yet know.
Betty Francis (January Jones) is Draper's ex-wife, whose world is also crumbling from within as she struggles with anger, resentment and broken relationships with her children. Stubbornly refusing to ask for help herself, Francis seeks therapy for her daughter (after she was caught masturbating), only to share her own struggles with the therapist.
Mad Men has raised a huge swathe of conversation about everything from its rampant chauvinism to ubiquitous chain smoking and hard drinking - not to mention the struggles and aspirations of its brilliantly written female characters, navigating a world in which they are scarcely welcome.
So far, however, a major missing piece in the show is its near-total lack of characters of colour - unsurprisingly, given the corporate setting and era (there were, it turns out, some ad men of colour back in the day - but not in Mad Men). Those few black people with speaking roles are restricted to white peoples' servants or accessories: an elevator operator, a nanny, and one man's girlfriend who is described as "exotic."
In fact, Francis ignobly fires her black nanny after years of service in the final episodes of season four, over a trivial matter; in past, she had remarked that black peoples' time for equality had not arrived.
The isolation of the white businessmen and their families from the civil rights movement and war in Vietnam is telling of their privilege - but rings true, in so many ways, today. In the so-called multicultural, "post-racial" mindset of today, most Canadians are oblivious to Aboriginal rights movements, white supremacist beatings, or the imprisonment and deportation of migrant families, for instance.
In the Mad Men world, all of this will change as tensions rise in the society around Draper and his colleagues - "a time of almost inescapable social and political upheaval in the U.S: the escalation of the Vietnam War, the early stirrings of the feminist movement, the rise of black power and the explosion of drug culture," to quote a Los Angeles Times review of the new season.
The LA Times quotes author Peniel Joseph (Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America):
“We'd like to believe that civil rights penetrated all corners of America, but it didn't," he explains. “By ’66, everyone in New York City is concerned about the race riots across the country. They are literally front page news.”
If Draper et al could ignore the simmering tensions and escalating violence in the U.S. south, there is no way they could have ignored the coming together of nonviolent leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and black power radical Stokely Carmichael for a historic antiwar march in 1967 New York, for instance.
While the show has angered some activists for its too-subtle, coded portrayal of the protagonists' racism (performances in black-face, for instance, or summarily firing black employees as "untrustworthy") - hoping the treatment would be as blatant as for characters' mysogyny - others say the show hits the nail on the head.
"(Mad Men) deftly illustrates this invisibility — the way race is there, but not there in the lives of his white protagonists," wrote Tamara Winfrey Harris on Change.org. "The issue of race throbs beneath the narrative like a tell-tale heart. It may often be unseen, but you can always hear the thump…thump…thump.
"Mad Men does not have a race problem. We do. Too many viewers noticed the sexism in the scene(s), but missed the racism. Mad Men got it right."
But what does this nostalgic fascination with the socially repressive 1950s and early 60s mean? Why are we so gripped by Mad Men?
Partly it is the cutting, sparse and minimalist dialogue. Pregnant silences often take the place of words; glances reveal much more than what's being said; character's secrets are evoked with partially obscured camera shots.
Here's an example from the penultimate episode of season four - Draper, in suit, tie and hat, runs into an old flame, Midge Daniels, who has embraced the beatnik lifestyle: long hair, flowery skirt, French beret cap, and a heroin addiction. The encounter captures the chasm between the business world and the cultural revolution which will swim into focus in season five:
MIDGE DANIELS: Where are you going with so much purpose?
DON DRAPER: Home. You look good.
M: I'm skinny - starving artist. Did you move here?
D: Yes. Well, I have my own firm, you know.
M: Draper, Draper and Draper? (smiles).
D. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
M. Well, it sounds impressive.
D. There are good days and bad days like everything else.
But the incisive dialogue and biting commentatary cannot explain the plethora of period dramas on television these days, harkening back to times when explicit sexism and racism were the norm. Nor can a mere fascination with clothing, style and realism. (Although all these are among the best in t.v.).
With so-called "culture wars" tensions rising in both the U.S. and Canada, Mad Men's smart, poignant and often hilarious storyline has much of importance to say to us today.
One need only look at barbaric abortion laws in some states to see things haven't changed much since the underground abortion one Mad Men character undergoes. South Dakota lawmakers proposed a law effectively legalizing the murder of abortion doctors; a Georgia politician wants to force women to carry stillborn fetuses to term, and compared women to farm swine.
We have culture wars here in Canada too. Whether it's the growing activities of white supremacist groups - buoyed by right-wing anti-"political correctness" rhetoric - or Conservative party backbenchers who want to reopen the abortion "debate" here, Mad Men obliquely reminds us not to gloat too quickly about our progress since the regressive 1950s.
For renowned antiracist writer and educator Tim Wise, the problem is not the depiction of racism in Mad Men, but the modern-day fascination with white enclaves of bygone eras - what Jeff Chang calls "Whitopias."
"Mad Men, from what I understand, is a fairly realistic portrayal of that time," he told Colorlines. "The question is, Why do people love [the show] so much, why do they so enjoy a period piece like this one, which portrays a slice of life, and a period where people of color aren’t present?"
Whatever your take on it, Mad Men is deservedly seen by many as the best show on television now (and stands close to masterworks like The Wire, Treme and Californication). Be sure to watch the atoms collide tonight on AMC.