In ITS first season, “Mad Men,” AMC’s glossy series about a group of guys on Madison Avenue, received critical raves for its finely drawn portraits of the employees of Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. Set in 1960, it focused on Don Draper, a glamorous up-and-comer with a double life and a secret past, and the smart, politically incorrect men around him.
But watching from a different perspective, there’s a whole other story going on. And it’s all about the women: Peggy, Betty and Joan.
In their pointy bras and flouncy petticoats, the leading women -- a secretary, a housewife and a sexy office den mother -- might look like stars of television shows in bygone years. They exist in a nonchalantly sexist world where men slap fannies or ask the new girl to shorten her skirt. Agency partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), for instance, advises Draper: “Remember, Don: When God closes a door, he opens a dress.” In pondering the question of what women want, Sterling sneers over a cigarette and a drink, “Who cares?” (And he’s the classy one.)
But while they are marginalized, the women of “Mad Men” are no mere archetypes. They are complicated, glamorous, ambitious and stifled in a way that women in 1960s television never were. With 48 years of hindsight behind their creation, they are marginalized in a particularly subtle way, so that viewers might not even realize they are riveted by their struggles.
One reason, according to the actresses who play them and their creator, Matt Weiner, is that they are really about women now. Even in 1960, viewers couldn’t relate to Ozzie and Harriet, Weiner said. “The truth is: A lot of people were laughing at those shows then, at how unrealistic they were.” Perhaps it takes a show like “Mad Men” to allow viewers to appreciate the subtle conflicts of women’s roles in the workplace and the family. “You have to do it retroactively,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
In “Mad Men,” which will launch its second season next Sunday, the women as well as the men have public, private and secret lives. Most dream of a fairy-tale life, married to a strong man and living in a country house. To that end, the women always look lovely, in neatly coiffed hairdos, makeup and form-fitting dresses requiring military-strength -- and, as the actresses said, sometimes painful -- undergarments. As January Jones, who plays Draper’s wife, Betty, noted, “when you take the girdle off at the end of the day, everything sort of falls.”
The stakes get higher
Veteran television writer Weiner said his main interest in writing the show was Draper (Jon Hamm). He read authors of the period such as J.D. Salinger and Norman Mailer to inform Draper’s world. But he also read Helen Gurley Brown and Betty Friedan. And as his mother, sister and wife are professional women, he said he quickly realized how dynamic the conflict in the female professional experience would be. “I said, ‘This is the rest of the show.’
“Don has a lot in common with all these women,” he said. “He’s unable to express himself; he wants to be a different kind of person than he is. His image of himself is not really who he is. All these women are like that: If you buy into something, you have to live by the consequences.”
In Season 2, the story will shift to 1962 and the mood will darken, the actresses said. With five of 13 episodes left to shoot, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, a secretary who rises to junior account executive, said: “There’s a sense of the stakes being higher for all the characters. Everyone has new or the same struggles, but everything is a bit more intense,” she said. “Later in the season, there’s definitely a sense of, man, this gets dark.”
So far, the show has been one of those cult favorites with fewer viewers (1 million average per episode) than its rave notices would suggest. But none of the actresses is complaining. “Even if it gets canceled, we’ll still be doing it,” Jones said, half-jokingly.
Weiner penned the series while he was still working as a writer for “The Sopranos.” The filmed pilot sat on a shelf for a year while he finished work on that show’s final episodes. When the actresses auditioned for the pilot, they knew little about the roles. Each auditioned for the role of Peggy. “I signed on with the promise I would have a role,” Jones said. Christina Hendricks, who plays office manager Joan, said, “I was, like, whatever one gets to stay is the one I want to play. They were all written so beautifully.”
As more episodes were written, Weiner said he employed an unusual number of women for a television show, including Lisa Albert, supervising producer; Robin Vieth, staff writer; Marti Noxon, consulting producer; and the husband and wife writing team Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, supervising producers.
Moss, Jones and Hendricks said what makes their characters so interesting is that they have so many different sides to them. At the same time, each operates at some level of denial.
Peggy, for instance, is bright, talented, ambitious and initially naive when she comes to work. With Claudette Colbert-inspired “bumper bangs” she can’t trade on her looks the way Joan and Betty do, and to be taken seriously she has to learn to play the game as the men do. “Every step she takes, every meeting, every idea, every account is a new step for her,” Moss said. “Not only her, but the men around her. She takes her hard knocks, but she’s definitely not one to make the same mistake twice.”
It’s important for her to play Peggy as she is, not what she represents, said Moss, who played the president’s daughter on “The West Wing” and has appeared in several independent films, including “Virgin.” “One of the great things about the show and the characters, why people love them and identify with them, is that they’re just people, like you and me, in specific situations and in this time period.”
Peggy, written to be 20 in 1960, was “in an extreme state of denial for seven or eight episodes last season,” Moss said. After Peggy had sex with Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a manipulative young exec, she ignored her subsequent pregnancy and gave birth unexpectedly.
Despite her talent and brains, it’s clear she’s as unaware as the others, “completely capable of compartmentalizing, especially when it could destroy you,” Weiner said.
Maintaining the facade of perfect wife and mother is important to Betty, but she’s “not a Stepford wife,” said Jones (“We Are Marshall,” “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”). Betty, who is 28 in 1960, has a college education and a former career as a model. She knows she has the life the others envy, but strange behavior sends her to a psychiatrist. In Season 1, she was seen slapping a woman in the grocery store and shooting a gun. Betty also formed an odd bond with a neighbor child (played by Weiner’s son Marten).
“She has the ultimate realization of luxury,” Weiner said. “She was in that world, but she’s younger than [Draper] and she knows something now.” The question is, is she his child or his wife? And is that up to her?
It’s rare in television, even now, to find rounded characters for women, said Hendricks, who plays Joan, the head secretary with a voluptuous Marilyn Monroe body and persona. Wise in a “Sex and the Single Girl” way, Joan claims to want a husband but stays in a hopeless, long-term affair with the married Sterling.
“I think Joan’s a little bit scared the fairy tale’s not there,” said Hendricks, who has appeared in numerous television shows (“ER,” “The Court”). “When you never finish a project, you can’t be disappointed in it.” But at 31 in 1962, Joan knows she’s quickly passing her prime.
Time to let loose a little
The ACTRESSES sat together outside the makeup trailers at the Los Angeles Center Studios in downtown where the “Mad Men” sets are meticulously furnished with period detail, from plaid wallpaper to Langendorf bread. Moss, who had changed from her vintage dress and heels into a robe, was able to lean forward and relax. But Hendricks and Jones, still in their form-fitting costumes, eyeliner and Breck Girl hair, sat with the perfect posture forced on them by the clothes.
“I just tip over in some dresses,” Hendricks said.
“We have a very high standard now for material,” Jones said. “They’re spoiling us. I haven’t been reading anything even near to the quality of this show,” Hendricks said. Where colleagues on other TV shows need to find creative fulfillment in theater or film during hiatus, Hendricks said, “we get that every day.”
The short 13-episode season also makes for an ideal situation, if they want to try other jobs in the off-season, they said. Jones, for instance, will star in a film in production titled “The Boat That Rocked,” a comedy by Richard Curtis. She’ll also appear this summer on the NBC horror anthology “Fear Itself.” Hendricks will appear in the film “Driving Lessons” with Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney.
In TV circa 1960, women’s roles were one-dimensional and relatively similar, with no insights at all into their inner lives. In Season 2, 1962, Jackie Kennedy is shown on one episode, leading a tour of the White House in a suit and hat. Thompson said the top shows of that year were “Gunsmoke,” a macho program whose one female character, Miss Kitty, runs the saloon; “Bonanza,” about a man and his three sons from different mothers who were gone; “Hazel,” a woman who worked as a maid; “My Three Sons,” another widower with children; and “Lassie.” “The women were either maids or collies,” he said.
The signature utopian family shows of the era were “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Donna Reed Show” and “Father Knows Best,” the title of this last one providing “the pithiest summary of the politics of the era,” Thompson said.
The exception was Lucille Ball, who managed to break out of the male-dominated society in nearly every episode of “I Love Lucy.” Even though she had to concede to her husband’s judgment at the end, she never learned her lesson, Thompson said.
Since then, the old values have proved as hard to shake in real life as on television. In the 1990s, a grown child of the women’s movement still struggled with old gender ideas in “Ally McBeal.” Even in the current crop of women-led detective or law shows, women can be the sharpest tool at work, but their personal lives are always a mess.
Hendricks, Moss and Jones said the cast always has a good laugh at the impolitic dialogue in their first reading of an episode. “Some of it just feels absurd,” Hendricks said. “You think, ‘My God, you would never say that in public.’ ”
On the other hand, they said people still say shockingly sexist and politically incorrect things in public. Jones, for instance, recently found life imitating a “Mad Men” scene. She said she was in an elevator with some men exactly as some characters were in a Season 2 scene, and the men were making the same sort of sexist remarks about women, as if there was no woman in the elevator.