Monthly Archives: December 2010

Family Dynamics

by Joseph Riedel

Matthew Weiner’s program Mad Men examines the importance of social roles within humanity, primarily in the 1960s.  There are many different roles to be played.  I have noticed that most roles within Mad Men can be related to roles in the modern nuclear family.  It raises the questions: “What is home?”  and “What role do I play there and in society?”  Throughout the thirteen episodes of the first season, each character’s role within that family has changed.  The men and women of Sterling Cooper and their families back at home all evolve together and take on different roles with each other to function as a community.  I will look at and compare the first episode of the series “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and the last episodes of season one “The Wheel” to view what roles the characters take on and how they change.

After viewing the first season of Mad Men two specific roles truly stick out.  These are those of father or parent, and son or child.  Every single character in the Mad Men reality are either a parental mentor to someone, or a childlike student.  It is a common theme throughout the program and the roles shift further from the second season onward, but here I will be focusing on the first season as the two episodes that I am examining bookend that season.

Of course, the character that wears the most hats is Mad Men’s protagonist Don Draper, or Richard “Dick” Whitman.  He takes on both parental and childlike roles.  Interestingly enough, most of his parental roles are through his connections as Don Draper, and a good deal of his childlike roles come from his connections as Dick Whitman.  First off is Don’s actual family:  In the first season, Don lives with his wife Betty Draper and his two children, Sally and Bobby.  He also has a dog that he got for Sally’s birthday.  They seem to be living the American Dream.  In reality, this may be one of the most artificial roles Don takes on at this time.  He prides himself on being a good father, but in reality this fatherly role may be the weakest.  The aforementioned dog that Don got for Sally was only to make up for the fact that he left her birthday party for a cake and never returned.  This fatherly role is actually quite childish.  When it gets down to it, Don Draper is still the scared little Dick Whitman.  He uses this reality of wife and family that he has created for himself as a safety blanket to cover his own unease.  “Mad Men captures those gleaming images of a perfect place and an idealized time, but also turns to reveal the specter in the background that is waiting to come into focus. In it we find the source of our unease”  (Mark 8).  At the start of the series the Don’s family itself eases and protects Don from things that go bump in the night.  In that way, his family serves as a father to him.  Though in the literal sense he serves as the father of his family.

At the very beginning of the series, one gets the feeling that Don does not care to deeply for his family.  They are not even seen until the last few moments of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”.  Throughout the rest of he episode the viewer observes as Don gallivants around with his mistress Midge.  We believe her to be his steady girlfriend.  At one point he even suggests to her that they get married.  It would seem that he has no true care for his actual family.

Another relationship introduced in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is between Don and Peter Campbell.  In this relationship Don once again plays the role of father.  Pete is the son, and a rather troublesome son at that.  The child who aspires to be like daddy and one day surpass him.  He wants all that daddy has.  This is a prime example of an Oedipal complex.  Pete certainly is willing to kill his “father” to achieve what he wants.  This is proven when Pete learns the truth about Don’s past and actually chooses to throw his “father” under the bus by ratting him out to Bertram Cooper; the grandfather of Sterling Cooper.  Pete’s relationship with his birth father is strained.  He is not too fond of his family.  They were New York aristocracy that met with an unfortunate fate and fell from their high esteem.  Sterling Cooper is a fresh start for Pete.  It is a way for him to make something of himself and get off of the sinking ship that is his family legacy.  He must do away entirely with his old family, and Sterling Cooper has replaced them – with Don as his new father.

Naturally Don wants nothing to do with his son Pete.  As many fathers do, he fears the upcoming generation.  He recognizes the power that his son holds.  He fears that Pete desires to take his job away and fears that Pete might actually succeed.  “There’s a kid who comes by my office everyday and looks where he’s going to put his plants” (Don, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”).  There is often a healthy competition between fathers and sons.

Then there is the prodigal daughter, Peggy Olson.  She is a young, female Don. “When she gets pregnant by the sleazy mid-level executive Peter Campbell after her very first day at work, Don becomes a kind of mentor” (Tyree 33).  Tyree uses the term “mentor”, while I use father.  We both mean the same thing.  Like Pete, Peggy aspires to be like her father Don.  She, however, does not push like Pete does.  She does not scheme to hurt Don in order to surpass him.  She respectfully takes in all of his life lessons and embodies them.  Being a female there is no Oedipal complex.  She is also able to connect to Don on a very special level.  They both have terrible secrets.  Don even helps Peggy deal with her secret.  This brings me to “The Wheel”, when Peggy’s secret is “born”.

By “The Wheel” the family roles for everyone have changed greatly.  By the end of the first season Don no longer has a mistress.  Don has left Midge and his short relationship with Rachel Menkin has ended.  Don seems to have grown more accustomed to being a father in all aspects of his life.  His father/ daughter relationship with Peggy starts to head down a new direction with the birth of her child.  Hostilities with Pete have slowly started to die down.  Things oddly sizzled after Pete revealed to Mr. Cooper that Don hid his past as Dick Whitman.  Though Don attempts to hurt Pete by appointing Peggy as a copywriter in the episode, the episode itself serves as a gate way into the second season where Don and Pete’s relationship begins to change.  In the second season Don even compliments Pete on his work and acknowledges that he does a decent job.  This of course means the world to Pete.  Nothing feels quite as reassuring as a pat on the back from the old man.  That said, there will always be the competition, and Don never truly does trust Pete.

There is one particular scene in “The Wheel” where Don’s feelings for his family, nuclear and otherwise are made clear.  I refer to the scene where Don reveals his pitch for the “Kodak Carousel”.  It is a simply beautiful scene.  Don has personalized his pitch.  He uses the device to pitch the concept of nostalgia.  Watching past events over and over again.  Around and around they go.  He uses images of his family in the pitch, and he cries.  It is clear now that family is no longer a fake ideal to Don.  It is a necessity.  This episode is also where Don’s fatherly side and his childish side finally meet each other.  At the end of the episode the childlike qualities of Dick Whitman surface once again.  Fatherly Don has a childish Dick like fantasy about returning home to his family, only to be crushed when he realize that they have already left for their vacation.

The family roles play a very important part in Mad Men.  Sterling Cooper is essentially a giant family.  A lot of the family looks to Don as their father.  They all have their own families outside of work as well.  Don has his beautiful wife and kids.  Throughout the first season, family roles do shift, but they remain there nonetheless.  On the surface, Mad Men’s primary theme is the corruption of big business in the mid nineteen-hundreds, but I argue that the true theme is the family one acquires during life.  How one juggles all the different family members they accumulate during their travels, and how one learns to accept everyone in their families -even the Petes. 

Joseph Riedel was born and raised in New York. Not only is he a writer, but he has obtained a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and has developed an extensive resume in musical theatre.  Three years ago Riedel moved to Chicago, IL where he began his career as a writer.  Though focusing on mostly narrative television writing, Riedel also has his hand in film and journalism.  He currently studies at Columbia College Chicago.

MAD MEN Opening Credit Analysis

by Millicent Evans

The opening title sequence to Mad Men, probably one of the most poignant openings in the history of television, sets forth the tone and style for the entire series. The creator Matthew Weiner does not waste the first thirty-seconds to tell the viewer who Don Draper really is every week. The viewer follows a black silhouette of Don Draper as he enters his office, sets down his briefcase, and takes a few steps. After a few seconds the office crumbles at once, sending the entire contents of Don’s office, including Don himself, cascading into a downward spiral of advertisements, smiling ladies, and slogans. It ends with Don resting in a chair with a cigarette while the title to the show appears and sets off into the episode. This opening matches the visual style of the show, sets meaning in the advertisements Don travels through that coincide with Don’s life, and takes the viewer to the ultimate conclusion that Don always lands on his feet.

There is something visually stunning about the title sequence to Mad Men. The office is seen in an art deco style, with black bold lines outlining objects on Don’s desk and windows. The character of Don is represented by a black silhouette in a suit. It is highly stylized, very much like the show. It gives the viewer the same modern feel that encompassed the 1960s. The entire series is built upon perfecting every set piece, wardrobe and prop. Unsurprisingly, the opening is no exception to Weiner’s obsessive perfection, and has the look and feel of the times.

Don falls through a series of advertisements, that in some part represent the American dream: a family with kids, wedding ring, and an attractive female. Additionally there are ads of liquor and sex. Visibly noticeable is an ad for a Kentucky Bourbon called “Old Taylor 86” which comes with the tag line “Enjoy the best America has to offer.” Don specifically falls through these advertisements for a reason. His main motivation in the series involves finding that American dream. He wants a perfect family with children and a perfect smiling wife. However, Don is tempted by a darker side of booze and mistresses.

If the viewer pays close attention, one can see that when he falls over the glass of whiskey, the liquid ripples and when he falls over the woman’s naked leg it moves up and down. This could be symbolic of how he will continually give into liquor and affairs with other women, and how powerful their impact is on Don’s life.  These distractions cause his life to crumble and fall out from beneath him, just as in the first ten-seconds of the title sequence when the office falls apart.

At the very end of the sequence we have the iconic image of Don sitting in a chair with a cigarette in one hand (and what I like to imagine a drink in the other hand). This image of Don has come to represent the entire series. It depicts the buoyancy that Don is capable of and the reason viewers come back each week to watch. No matter how crazy things in Don’s life become-Betty divorcing him, the agency being bought out, the death of Anna-he continually bounces back gracefully. Even in the show’s fourth season, as everything is becoming the most intense, the viewer is still there with Don fully aware that he is capable of beating the odds.

Born and raised in Indiana, Millicent Evans comes from the heart and soul of the Midwest. An avid couch potato all her life, she dropped out of a real college after three years to pursue a degree in television writing from Columbia College. Ironically, Millicent grew up in a household where cable television was banned because her mother believed it to be impure and vulgar. As a result, she was forced to watch PBS where programs such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Are You Being Served? heavily shaped and molded the British television lover she is today. She will tell you the best television you are not watching comes from Great Britain. She thoroughly believes that beneath the scummy surface of reality television and Fox News rests a colossal land of intelligent television. The Don Drapers, Fran Fines, and David Brents of the television world make better friends than any real human could.

In her spare time she enjoys the rodeo, drinking and listening to Steely Dan records. Occasionally she reads books, but only if she suspended her Netflix account because of lack of funds. Her ultimate goal is to become the next Jack Donaghy. Or at least create and write the Night Court of her generation.

MAD MEN Opening Credit Analysis

by Joseph Riedel

Don Draper strives to live the American dream.  On the surface everything looks perfect.  He has the perfect wife.  He has perfect kids.  He has a perfect dog that lives with them in his perfect house in the suburbs.  This all sounds fantastic on paper.  However, when diving further into Don Draper’s mind one will find that this is all an elaborate decoration.  Don has designed it to cover up the structure of his life, like the facade of a building covers up the framing.  He has to balance his “American Dream” life and his other “Ad Man” life.  It is a difficult balance to maintain, and it can fall apart at any moment.  This brings me to the start of the Mad Men title credits.

At the top of the credits, a “Shadow Don” enters into an artist representation of his office.  His office represents his perfect job, and extends to his perfect life.  The way that the artist has created the office is essential to the credits.  Most, or all of the lines within the drawing seem to be connected.  Then suddenly, a line is tugged and everything starts to unravel.  This represents the fear Don has that one tiny mess up, one tugging of the string, can unravel his entire life.  Once his office falls apart, Don falls.

He falls through a jungle of advertisements.  These images that Don and his team design to convince the American public to buy certain products, are also meant to convince Don to buy into the reality that he has created for himself.  The adds contain a barrage of beautiful women.  Don has strived to surround himself with beautiful women.  I would argue that one of the points Mad Men attempts to promote is the amazing power that some women can wield.  Mad Men follows the struggles of Peggy Olson.  The viewer watches her start off as Don’s secretary.  As the series progresses she fights her way up the ladder.  She fights and manipulates.  Don keeps a series of beautiful women involved in his life other than just his wife Betty.  They all seem to have a certain power over him.

Other than the images of women, Don passes by a series of advertisements with words in them.  The first one that can be read clearly reads “enjoy the best America has to offer”.  I argue that this once again brings us back to the importance of the “American Dream”.  Don wants his life to be “ best America has to offer”.  The second image reads “it’s the gift that never fails”.  These words belong to an advertisement for a diamond ring.  This is not only a commentary about materialism, but the value of the fake over the real.  The “ring” is the important part, not the shared feelings in a relationship.  This returns to the point that I made earlier about Don’s family being a fake tool used to achieve his desire to have the “American Dream”.

It all concludes with Don sitting calmly on a couch with a cigarette in his hand.  He is cool and collect.  I believe that this is the only part of the title sequence that represents exterior forces at work, unlike the rest of the sequence which internalized all of Don’s experiences.  I say that it is exterior forces because I believe that this last shot is how the rest of the world sees Don.  They do not get a glimpse into Don’s head.  They do not get to see his world unraveling or watch him fall.  They all see Don as the cool, collect, and calm man sitting in his chair with a cigarette.

MAD MEN Opening Credit Analysis

by Adam Gasperoni Riddle

The beginning of Mad Men is a culmination of something new and something vintage. With contemporary artist RJD2’s “A Beautiful Mine” playing a juxtaposition of new millennium electro with 60s jazz in the background, a silhouetted, mod odyssey of the Man in the Gray (black) Flannel Suit begins. He stands in an already minimalist office, which as he lays down his suitcase, starts to decompose.

Looking around him and finding a place to settle, the suited man’s world immediately starts to bottom out. The corporate office, the little cubicle of capitalism, starts to bottom out. This shows what little chances for advancement working in an office in postwar America offered. When looking at today’s times, it could also represent the current recession, the failing economy, and the complete lack of stability with today’s businesses.

From the grey-washed malaise, we black out into the suited man’s coat, only to pull out and discover he’s falling. Falling down past skyscrapers with a plethora of advertisements around him. His environment is completely detached from him, and vice versa. He drops down past the towering and showy success of Madison Avenue, and it lives on, unfazed by his descent. The ability of corporate America to use a person and move on has always been seen in capitalism throughout the years, and in an advertising world where one needs to thrive on the precipice of what’s happening in the world, the need to prove oneself is that much more crucial. When one fails, the company lives on. The advertisements are like dead souls and the fall like the River Styx. Everything the man has worked on and for will exist idly with or without him, and all he can do is watch everything as it’s taken away from him.

One advertisement reads: Enjoy the Best America Has to Offer.  This sentiment seems as empty as the smiles on the women’s faces that adorn the bikini, beer, and other ads in the city. It’s the fall of the American Dream. The 1960s were all about disillusionment and change, as well as the persistent desire to hold onto values of a promised life. The title sequence strips away everything the 50s built up: new business, happiness, nuclear families, American promises and aspirations. When the world breaks down its infrastructure and tries to redefine itself, what is one left to but oneself?

Thus, the suited man seated in a world of grey. All he has is a chair to rest in and a cigarette dangling between his fingertips. Whether he is happy or unfulfilled is as uncertain as the world he is looking at. Perhaps the only essence to be understood from the ending shot is freedom.  Absent of positive or negative connotations – simply, freedom. The suited man is no longer confined by the cookie-cutter office life; he is no longer surrounded by towering business and pervasive American values; he is no longer falling into a cluttered abyss of everything he worked for. To quote Don Draper, “Change is neither good or bad. It just is.”

The title sequence leaves us filling in what world the suited man is in now, and entices us to see what world he will create for himself.

Mad Women

by Devin Mainville

The road that women have taken though history has been a bumpy one, to say the least. No other show has amplified that more profoundly than Mad Men. Obviously, by the time Mad Men starts up (in 1960) many of the big battles in the women’s movement have been fought. Women have had the right to vote for forty years, are allowed to go to college and even hold jobs outside the home, yet as Mad Men shows us, these opportunities are greatly wasted.

The three main women on Mad Men, Betty, Joan and Peggy, represent the different phases the women’s movement experienced in those changing times. Betty is the housewife, a housewife literally created from the pages of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. She has been raised in the middle-class with no expectations other than to marry and be a mother. She finds the handsome football star and does exactly that, yet her unhappiness is evident everywhere from her shaking hands to her ever-present glass of wine. She blames Don and resents her kids because she doesn’t know where else to direct her anger. Now, into her second marriage and still as unhappy, she is starting to realize the problem may lie in her situation, just as many real housewives in that decade discovered for themselves.

Joan lands on the fringe of the women’s movement. She is certainly far more comfortable with herself than Betty is, yet she isn’t that much better off. She is a working woman, but only as a secretary, a job far below her capability level. She also has been told all her life to desire marriage and children and so she has, but now that she finds herself in a marriage you can see her longing for a better life in the office. She knows that she runs that office and yet she still is not respected because she is a woman in a seemingly less important job.

Peggy is the women’s movement dream. She has worked her way up using her brains, not her body and she now holds a title with power and respect. She is a working woman in every sense of the word, including being single and alone. She sacrificed a family, literally, for her job and while the work satisfies her more than a relationship, she is conscious of the life she gave up.

The predicament Peggy is in echoes the situation women find themselves in today. The daughters of those unhappy 60’s housewives grew up knowing they wanted to put down more than “housewife” in the occupation blank, so they set out to take over the working world. There was a resurgence of women’s rights in the 70’s and women entered the workforce in droves. They fought hard to get equal pay and be respected for their merits, to be held to an equal level as men. And, in many ways, they were.

They left the kitchens, but they couldn’t leave them forever. People still had kids; there just wasn’t anyone around to take care of them. Enter the idea of “having it all”. Now suddenly women are expected to work, to have ambitions and goals for herself, as well as keeping a house and raising a family. We have left behind the dull, listless life of housework not in exchange for a life of high-powered business and fiscal responsibility, but for the idea that we should have both.

Women are still diagnosed steadily with depression, anxiety and emotional disorders. Children are being raised by everything from nannies to television sets and men still, on average, make more than their female counterparts. So, how far have we come? We have gone from one extreme to the other.  Now it’s time to meet in the middle.

Devin Mainville is a writer across many mediums and hopes to cover many more in her career. Her work as been featured in the Columbia Chronicle, PopMatters.com and many other outlets. She began pursuing a career in journalism, but was frustrated by the unbiased views required in that industry. She is now majoring in Television: Writing and Producing at Columbia College Chicago so that someday soon she can force her aesthetics and opinions on the world.

The Ladies Room

by Adam Gasperoni Riddle

For as dated and politically incorrect the time of Mad Men is set in, the show also takes place in the perfect time for change. The 1960s were the time of JFK, MLK, the Vietnam War, Stonewall riots, the formation of the Weathermen, etc. The 60s were a time when change scared many people to hold onto their roots even tighter, while others sought out change as a necessary tool for American survival. Many movements were at the forefront of this notion, and they are dissected in the characters and story lines of Mad Men.

The show is known for its serious and strong depiction of women, and the reasons and reactions of the women’s civil rights movement has always been apparent in the series. From the second episode, “Ladies Room,” Matthew Weiner lets the audience into the world of the women behind the men. Aptly titled, the episode features many instances where the women excuse themselves to the restroom for a break from the outside world. Betty and Mona excuse themselves to the bathroom where Betty completely loses control of her hands and must ask for help to apply lipstick; Joan and Peggy exit to the office restrooms where Peggy is concerned to see a female coworker crying, to which Joan brushes it off; Peggy later returns to the bathroom to possibly cry herself but sees another woman already doing so, and instead regains her composure. (The depressing confines of the ladies room can be seen yet again in “The Suitcase,” where Peggy is no longer able to remain stoic.)

The ladies room is a cage for women. Disguised as a discreet getaway for women from any stressful or convivial situation, it is really a designated place for them to put their emotions. Should they lose grip on any sense of composure, they excuse themselves to the ladies room, and “break down” there, until they are ready to go back out into the world with a smile on their faces. The naturalness and ridiculousness of this is seen in the way Mad Men’s women need so much more in life – so much more happiness, stability, comfort, help, friendship, respect. But they don’t get any of this so they have to find a secluded space to deal with it on their own.

The entire series is a hotbed of reasons why the women’s civil rights movement is so necessary and so important to talk about. One of the most painful but accurate lines of this season is in “The Good News” when Greg seems unfazed by the possibility of going to Vietnam, and while trying to calm Joan, she says to him, “Because it’s not your problem too?” Men were the active gender of their time, and the women were the bearers of burdens. Most recently seen in season four’s “The Beautiful Girls,” the show finally turned the tables and looked at what it means when a woman defines a man. With Peggy’s reaction to Abe when he patronizes her desire for attention on women’s civil rights, or Faye’s testimonial on how it wasn’t a failure to choose a career over children, or Sally’s uneasy growing up into an abrasive womanhood, (even this season’s unapologetic lesbian character, Joyce), the women’s civil rights movement can be seen in every nook and cranny of the show. These women, these beautiful girls, are seen as rebels to the mold of society and force the men around them to do a second take; when in actuality, they simply represent the unending spectrum of what it means to be a woman.

The women of Mad Men are not rebels. They are women.

Adam Gasperoni Riddle is a sophomore film student at Columbia College Chicago. He spends all his free time watching Mad Men and wondering how he can grow up to be Joan Harris.