Mad Men – Season 1 Review

It didn’t take very long for Mad Men to win me over. It practically has everything I look for in a TV show: great production values, beautiful cinematography, top-notch performances and sharp writing. However, the true winning factor for me is the universe the show exists in. After 10 near-perfect episodes, I find myself completely immersed in the show’s world and its quiet, atmospheric world.

I’m not usually very fond of TV shows that take place in the ‘60s, but Mad Men forces you to love this era despite all the heavy drinking and oh-god the smoking (yes, there’s a lot of that). Jon Hamm is the alpha male at the advertising agency where he works, and his character Donald Draper takes us on a gripping journey into life in Manhattan before smartphones, laptops or high-res television sets ever existed. You can go ahead and add “fidelity” to that list because almost everyone on this show has an affair at one point or another, and it’s brilliantly plausible and realistic. In fact, a part of me wasn’t sure whether to root for Don and his housewife Betty (the gorgeous January Jones) or him and any of his other mistresses.

The writing is impressively crammed with intricacies and rich subtext that are bound to make any TV buff thrilled, and the overarching theme of the first season delves into who Donald is. Sometimes, the writers are literally asking us “do you really know who this man is?”, and other times they’re dangling this question over our heads with some fascinating layered subplots. He’s a loving family man, competitive coworker, encouraging boss, and cheating husband all at once. I wasn’t sure where the show was going when they revealed he’d also been hiding a big secret—changing his identity from Dick Whitman—but showrunner and writer Mathew Weiner brilliantly used this opportunity to add another layer to this fascinating character instead of going for cheap Hollywood twists.

While Don may be the protagonist of this story, it’s the supporting characters that bring this show to life. The vibrant Joan Holloway certainly stands out from the crowd, and Christina Hendricks does wonders in the role of the snarky office manager everyone loves to hate (and fuck). I was initially a bit turned off by Peggy (Elisabeth Moss)’s naivety in the first few episodes, but if the finale is any indication, then the show is gradually developing her to become much stronger and self-assured. The rest of the cast is just as impressive, and while I still find Vincent Kartheiser (Peter Campbell) more suited for a creepier role (think Connor from Angel), there’s no denying he is a very capable actor and he does bring this rather one-note character to life.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and his refreshing dynamic with Don. The two men aren’t your typical competitive male colleagues, nor are they the typical “bros”; there’s an intriguing backstory to their relationship, and I can’t wait to see more of this developing friendship and partnership in future seasons.

 


Bits

– I adore the show’s creative title credits, from the various characters appearing as posters on buildings to Don’s silhouette jumping off to that final shot of him lying on a couch with a cigarette between his fingers. It also encompasses everything Don’s character went through this season right up until his “downfall” at the end. Brilliant.

– Visually, the show excels at giving us 1960 vibes, and I particularly loved the opening scene with Don speaking to the black waiter, followed by a white manager immediately showing up to ask Don if he’s being “bothered”.

– I’m very careful about using the word ‘twist’ to describe any plotline on this show, but the final scene of the pilot episode revealing Don at a suburban house with a wife and kids was quite the shocker.

– Talia Balsam (who plays Roger’s wife) is married to John Slattery in real life. How cool is that?

– I hated Midge (and the actress looks a whole lot like Helen Hunt, doesn’t she?). Hope we never see her again.

– Betty’s scenes with her therapist were always fascinating, although I do think the show was desperate to make her seem more sympathetic.

– I loved Helen, the Drapers’ neighbor who is sinned for raising a child of divorce. On the other hand, her son Glenn (played by Weiner’s real-life son) is creepy and annoying.

– Harrowing moment as one of the Drapers party guests slaps a child for spilling a drink. Good God, the ’60s weren’t all that great, folks.

– Hilarious moment as Don and Roger make sure to take their shoes off before entering Bert’s office.

– I love the scene where we find out Don has a brother and a whole other life in 5G. Sadly, this was a bit of a rushed storyline as his feud with Pete gets resolved rather quickly and his brother ends up hanging himself within just a couple of episodes.

– Is there a ‘ship name for Roger and Joan because I love them.

– Also in 5G: I love the subtext when Don works on a campaign for an “executive account” in which a man keeps his private life private, paralleled with what he goes through with his brother in that same episode later on. Sidenote: I love the campaigns on this show.

– I actually like Ken. He doesn’t laugh as much as all the other men.

– Peggy getting the Belle Jolie lipstick idea feels like a significant, satisfying moment for her character. Way to go, P.

– Sal turning out to be gay was a complete shock to me. How refreshing that he actually turned down that client’s invitation to his hotel room?

– I love that Don and Roger mention that Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East.

– Betty grabbing a shotgun and shooting at her neighbor’s birds at the end of the ninth episode is such a shocking ‘60s moment, if you forget the fact that a similar thing just happened recently in Lebanon. So much for Paris of the Middle Est, eh?

– I loved Peggy standing up to Pete and asking him if he’s going to be nice or cruel to her today.

– Shocking moment as Roger falls and has a heart attack in the middle of sex.

– Kudos to the costume design for putting Elisabeth Moss in a fat suit in the season’s last few episodes. I certainly noticed, but it didn’t even occur to me that she might be pregnant. Amazing.

– Awfully depressing moment as Betty ‘gets off’ by the washing machine’s vibrations as she imagines bringing the salesman up to her bedroom and having sex with him.

– Hildy probably had 2 or or 3 scenes throughout this season, but I absolutely LOVED her. The way she turns down Pete and questions the way he treats her were two of my favorite moments.

– So, Pete and Trudy can’t have children or does Pete just not want any?

– Don’s speech about memories intercut with photos of his family throughout the years is one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve seen all year.

– Tear-jerking moment as Peggy refuses to hold her baby.

– Don going back home in the last scene of the finale and telling his wife and kids that he’ll be joining them on their Thanksgiving trip was delightful…and then it turned out to be a dream. What a sudden, depressing twist, and boy did I just love it.


Quotes

Don: Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.

Don: The reason you haven’t felt [love] is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.

Bertram: How much do you know about Pete’s family?
Don: Nothing, except that they put out a mediocre product.

Rachel: They taught us at Barnard about that word, “utopia”. The Greeks had two meanings for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’, meaning the place that cannot be.

Don: I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie, there is no system. The universe is indifferent.

Don: Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus. He either lives in your heart or He doesn’t. Every woman wants choices, but in the end, none wants to be one of a hundred in a box. She’s unique. She makes the choices and she’s chosen him. She wants to tell the world he’s MINE. He belongs to ME, not you. She marks her man with her lips. He’s her possession. You’ve given the gift of total ownership.

Peggy: I know what men think of you. That you’re looking for a husband, and you’re fun. And not in that order.
Joan: Peggy, this isn’t China. There’s no money in virginity.

Betty: I know people say life goes on, and it does. But no one tells you that’s not a good thing.

Peggy: Those people, in Manhattan? They are better than us. Because they want things they haven’t seen.

Roger: (to Joan) Look, I want to tell you something because you’re very dear to me. And I hope you understand that it comes from the bottom of my damaged, damaged heart. You are the finest piece of ass I ever had and I don’t care who knows it. I am so glad I got to roam those hillsides.

Joan: I said congratulations, didn’t I? Although, sometimes when people get what they want they realize how limited their goals were.

Don: Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.

Rating
A-

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