Behind every “Mad” man is a “Mad” woman

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One of the very few things that I and AfterEllen.com’s late lamented scribegrrrl disagree on is the first season of the AMC drama Mad Men, which premiered in the US back in 2007. At the time, I can remember scribegrrrl expressing her reservations about a show that, set in a New York advertising agency in the 1960s, seemed destined to bring us nothing but week after week of pre-feminist women playing housewives and secretaries.

But when the show premiered here in the UK in March, on digital channel BBC Four, I very quickly became hooked. And it seems like I’m not the only one to have been impressed: last week the show picked up a Peabody Award (having previously won Golden Globes for Best Television Series – Drama, and Best Actor for leading man Jon Hamm). The DVD set of the first season will be out on July 1; a second season has been commissioned and will premiere in the US on July 27; and The New York Times Magazine has just published a long, interesting article wherein they talk with series creator Matthew Weiner about the show.

So what is it exactly that’s got me so interested? Well, let’s start by talking about the women on the show. There’s no question that Mad Men is set in a world that isn’t politically correct – but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t feature some fascinating female characters. The one who interests me most is driven and ambitious, yet still naïve secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss, formerly seen as President’s daughter Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing):

Watching Peggy move from secretary to lead character Don Draper, to a woman with her own secretary at the end of the first series’ 13-episode run, was possibly one of the most satisfying arcs I have ever seen for a female character.

But her success has been complicated by an unexpected pregnancy that was only revealed in the last episode as she suddenly went into labor – raising some puzzling questions about the extent of her own naivete, or the extent of her own capacity for denial, that I’m hoping will be answered in the second season. Her pregnancy had been masked up till then by a dramatic weight-gain, that series creator Weiner says was an attempt to de-sexualize herself with the men in the office – another storyline that I’m not completely sure about as far as inner psychology goes. But I still find Peggy a completely compelling character, even though (or perhaps because) she isn’t always likable.

January Jones plays Betty, the bored and dissatisfied housewife of ad executive Don Draper:

I found Betty frustrating to watch in some ways, as I very badly wanted to see her get angry with her cheating, patronizing and neglectful husband (a development that Weiner suggests may happen in the second season). A Grace Kelly-lookalike and former model, Betty still seems wedded to the idea of submissive and compliant femininity – so much so that it sometimes feels as if there is hardly a personality there. But she had one of the most wrenching moments in the entire series as she finally confessed her misery to a neighbor’s son, Glen:

Also striking was her savagery in a scene of the episode “Shoot,” where she takes a gun and shoots at the pigeons of a neighbor who had threatened to shoot her dog. As some of the commenters on TelevisionWithoutPity.com have said, here’s to Betty discovering Betty Friedan.

Christina Hendricks (pictured below right) plays the vampish Joan Holloway, office manager at Sterling Cooper ad agency where most of the characters work:

Let me just start by saying how great it is to see a glamorous woman on TV whose curvy, non-sticklike figure is part of her glamour and not a detraction from it. Although I could do without seeing Joan waste her time on the sleazy, married Roger Sterling, there’s always some fun to be had by watching her face off against Peggy, whose ambition she clearly feels threatened by:

There’s also the character of Carol (played by Kate Norby), Joan’s closeted lesbian roommate who makes a brief but memorable appearance in the episode “Long Weekend,” where she confesses her love to Joan. In a fairly dark show, Carol had one of the most depressing arcs as she finishes the episode (having been turned down by Joan) by allowing herself to be kissed by a male date whom she clearly has no interest in. Even if the storyline is downbeat, it’s great to see Weiner exploring what it was like to be gay in the ’60s (a subject he also tackles in a more extended way via the male character of Salvatore Romano, who works at Sterling Cooper) and I’m hoping that Carol will return, and perhaps get a bit more screen time next season.

What can I say – I’m a sucker for dark, complicated characters, and I’m also a sucker for period dramas (I particularly love the jazz and big band soundtrack that punctuates the show). What about you – has Mad Men got you hooked?

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