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REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 3, 2009) May 20, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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The author of this review lives in a country where politics revolves around what apocalyptic year things began to turn for the worse – 1990, when Communism collapsed paving the way for chauvinism and cleptocracy under the banner of democratic capitalism; or 1945 when Yugoslav Communists took over under the banner of anti-fascism. For American babyboomers the answer to that question is simple and, thanks to their dominance over global popular culture, quite familiar to the rest of the world. It is 1963 or, more precisely, one Friday in November when earth-shattering news from Dallas brought the end of an era retroactively named “Camelot”. Mad Men, the show made in order to present 1960s changes, showed the last gasps of that era in its third season.

The assassination had occurred at the year’s end. That proved beneficial for the creators of the show, allowing them to copy the narrative structure from past two seasons and build plot in the months preceding it. The season begins in Spring, when the things seem normal, and actually better than when the previous season ended. Cuban Missile Crisis is long over, the apocalypse didn’t happen, and previously troubled marriage of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to his glamorous wife Betty (January Jones) is supposed to be rescued with an arrival of a third child. Draper continues to thrive professionally, yet not everything is rosy among his colleagues at Sterling Cooper advertising agency. New British owners were brutal in reducing staff, and those remaining are increasingly aware of precariousness of their position. That includes some seemingly irreplaceable characters like art department head Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), who experiences professional disaster despite and not because of his hidden and self-suppressed homosexuality. Those expected to stay might find the price too high, just like young accounts executive Pete Campbell (Vince Kartheiser) who finally began to accept that he would match Don Draper nor receive his treatment. Those who leave of their own find another forms of disappointments, like former head secretary Joan Harris (Christine Hendricks), whose life of perfect housewife crashes with the reality of her handsome and much younger husband lacking professional skills of a perfect provider. At the same time Draper continues to his old philandering ways, this time risking his adultery too close to home in a form of his children’s teacher. While this happens, after years of innocent and not so innovent fantasies, Betty indulges in adulterous affair of her own.

1963 represented a challenge for Matthew Weiner and the rest of Mad Men creative team. Apart from its end, it was relatively uneventful year with relatively few pivotal moments or pop culture references. So, in order to season to play in “real time” the plots and character development had to continue, but it had to be natural, without interference of grand historical events or soap opera narrative tricks. At the same time, Season 3 had to be clearly different from Season 2. First step in that direction was introduction of the first true historical character in the show – famous hotel tycoon Conrad Hilton (played by Chelcie Ross). His presence, started by a chance encounter with Don Draper in country club bar and continued through business relationship and something resembling friendship, was good opportunity for Don Draper to find surrogate “proper” father he never had and the reflection of his own future as confident and successful self-made man. Screenwriters used this opportunity with mixed success – it allowed Drapers to spend vacation in Hilton Hotel in Rome and the audience to experience Betty as early 1960s fashion icon; on the other hand, old tycoon was eccentric enough to pester Don with late night meetings and provide Don an excellent excuse for late night adultery. The relationship between Hilton and Don conventiently ended before the season’s end, but not without providing catalyst for a plot twist in the final episode.

Season 3 is more successful in using Dallas events as the elephant in the room – something that the audience is aware of, but characters aren’t. All their grand plans and strategies, and all their problems, seem delightfully petty compared with the event that would force them to reevaluate their world; and the approach of dreded November 22nd creates suspense in seemingly banal events. Some other hints of the future might appear – like word “Vietnam” that begins to creep into casual conversations – but few are as ironic as the unfortunate date Roger Sterling (John Slattey) has set for his daughter’s wedding, when he thinks that the bad blood between his current and ex-wife is going to be the most serious issue. The most brilliant way Mad Men plays with history, however, happens in episode Guy Walks into Advertising Agency, which brings the most shocking event of the show until that point. The incident in Sterling Cooper offices provides not only the most explicit, but also the most effective use of black humour, but also serves as some sort of comical foreboding of similar, although more serious event that is about to happen in Dallas.

Mad Men was window in the past, but in Season 3 it became also reflection of the present. In 2009 America and the world entered, or was supposed to enter, new era under the leadership of Barack Obama, young, charismatic first African American in White House as the embodiment of everything 1960s American progressives in 1960s dreamed of – world peace, social justice, equality between races, genders and sexual orientations. The great change and hope of 2009 found its version in surprisingly optimistic finale of Season 3. In the last episodes characters – until that time separated by their genders, backgrounds and age – found not only reason but effective ways to work together and face brand new world of 1964 . Real life might be very different; 1963 might not be the year when things began to get worse just like 2009 might not be the year when things began to get better. But in the universe of Mad Men and for its viewers the end of 1963 looked like a very good beginning.

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