How groovy will ‘Mad Men’ get? ‘60s experts make predictions
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For four seasons now, “Mad Men” has pulled off a remarkably adroit feat: telling a story about the 1960s while resisting most, if not quite all, the pop-culture clichés associated with this much-mythologized decade. Unlike “Forrest Gump” or “The ‘60s,” “Mad Men” dramatizes an era of change from the point of view of characters who, for the most part, exist on the sidelines of the revolution.
In its long-awaited fifth season, which begins Sunday night after a 17-month-long hiatus, “Mad Men” resumes in 1966 and is likely to plunge forward into ’67, 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.
Part of the distinct pleasure of “Mad Men” is wondering how characters like Peggy Olson and Don Draper might get caught up in the maelstrom of the late ’60s — or, indeed, if they will at all. Whether by accident or by design, notoriously secretive series creator Matthew Weiner has only fueled fevered speculation of the show’s impassioned fans by refusing to drop hints.
The latest temporal shift represents a creative conundrum for “Mad Men”: How can the series engage with history without losing what makes it distinctive?
One obvious way “Mad Men” might ease us into the “real” ’60s is through the campaigns generated by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and its rivals. In the 1950s, advertising was a notoriously staid industry — the domain of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” But by 1966, mohair-clad creative executives, obsessed with emerging youth culture, were promoting the idea of rebellion and nonconformity through consumerism.
“In the ’60s, advertising embraced a critique of capitalism,” explains cultural historian Thomas Frank, whose book “The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism,” examines the relationship between youth culture and big business. He cites the “Dodge Rebellion” campaign of 1965-66, which urged Americans to “rise up” and ‘break away from the everyday’ by buying Dodges, as the most infamous example of this trend. Don would likely roll his eyes at such transparent pandering, but then again, maybe not: Don, who published a self-serving anti-tobacco manifesto in the New York Times last season, is himself no stranger to shallow acts of defiance.
Look for changes inside the agency as well, says Lynn Peril, author of “Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office.” Technological advancements like the Xerox machine — a memorable supporting player in the second season of “Mad Men” — and later, the word processor, significantly reduced drudge work for secretaries.
“This made it possible for one woman to do the work of several bosses,” Peril explains. It also meant a change in the kinds of tasks women were expected to do. “If you were working for more than one boss, you didn’t have time to run personal errands. The idea of the secretary as ‘office wife’ starts to come undone.”
From its very first episode, “Mad Men” has been sensitive to the plight of women in the pre-feminist era, so it’s not difficult to imagine how Joan, Betty and Peggy might become involved in the women’s movement. Alix Kates Shulman, the pioneering second-wave feminist and author of “A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays,” thinks Betty may be the woman most ripe for liberation.
“She is so enraged, it’s just bubbling up. If someone only gave her an explanation, she would go for it so fast,” Shulman predicts, adding, “She could even throw over men altogether and become a lesbian.” On the other hand, Joan will probably be more resistant to feminism because, Shulman says, “she’s able to see herself as not having lost.”
In Shulman’s dream scenario, Peggy would join one of the consciousness-raising groups that began to crop up in New York City around 1967 and perhaps invite her colleagues to join. “They’re all in it alone, that’s the problem for all the women in ‘Mad Men’ up until now, and that’s the huge transformation that happens with the movement.” In contrast, Peril believes Joan will spark to feminism: “Joan used to think her sexuality is what gave her power, but she’s realizing it’s actually been used to keep her down.” She’d like to see Joan start her own employment agency — or perhaps even launch a joint venture with Peggy.
With Joan’s husband, Greg, deployed in Vietnam, it seems likely the war, which escalated steeply between 1965 and ’66, could become a more central part of the “Mad Men” narrative. Jeremy Varon, editor of “The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture” is, so far, unimpressed by the show’s “ham-fisted” portrayal of Vietnam as “this gauzy place that looks like a bad set from MASH.”
Although the audience isn’t particularly invested in Greg, “Mad Men” could make the issue more essential if someone from the agency, perhaps a junior executive, was drafted, Varon says. He predicts that über-WASP Pete Campbell could become the show’s resident antiwar activist. “There’s a kernel of integrity there. Just when you think he’s a total weasel, he kind of surprises you.”
But it will be difficult for the series to meaningfully depict the war while avoiding ’60s caricatures, argues J. Hoberman, author of “The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.” “You see it in every movie, this montage of demonstrators in Washington, soldiers in Vietnam. It’s worse than a cliché. It can really work only if the show zeroes in on very specific elements and lets the whole circus be refracted through that.”
The biggest challenge of all for “Mad Men” may be the issue of race. Until this season, the series has opted for a kind of social realism, depicting an insular, nearly all-white world only occasionally interrupted by reports of boycotts and bombings in the Deep South.
According to Peniel Joseph, author of “Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America,” “Mad Men” has handled the subject of race well — mostly. Though he calls copywriter Paul Kinsey’s jaunt to Mississippi to join the Freedom Rides “preposterous,” Joseph says the show effectively conveys the “benign racism” of characters like Don, who rolled his eyes at Roger’s blackface performance but did nothing to stop it.
“We’d like to believe that civil rights penetrated all corners of America, but it didn’t,” says Joseph. As the series moves forward, though, the fight for justice creeps closer to home.
“By ’66, everyone in New York City is concerned about the race riots across the country. They are literally front page news,” Joseph says. He points to the April 1967 antiwar march, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael from Central Park to the United Nations, as an event likely to penetrate the rarefied “Mad Men” universe. And even though Pete’s earlier quasi-progressive attempts to tap into the “negro market” were met with fierce resistance, Joseph thinks television executive Harry Crane would be wise to harness the “explosion” of racially integrated series such as “I Spy,” “Julia” and “Room 222” — in the late ‘60s.
Perhaps the most tantalizing question of all is which character will be the first to experiment with LSD. Peggy, with her circle of downtown friends, seems like the most obvious candidate, but the possibility of preppy Pete Campbell going on a psychedelic trip is also unbearably enticing. “He’d freak out. It would be great,” Hoberman says.
Actor and counterculture veteran Peter Coyote also nominates Pete — “I’d give him acid just to see what happens” — but suggests the experience would ultimately be most life-changing for Don. “I could see him taking acid and having a complete existential breakdown: What am I doing selling razor blades and tampons?”
Don abandoning the ad biz? Now that would be revolutionary.
-- Meredith Blake
Photo (top): Elisabeth Moss and Christina Henricks. Credit: Frank Ockenfels / AMC
Photo (middle): Jon Hamm. Credit: Frank Ockenfels / AMC
Photo (bottom): Aaron Staton, Vincent Kartheiser and Alison Brie. Credit: Michael Yarish / AMC