Overthinking Mad Men Season 3

Overthinking Mad Men Season 3

Shut the door. Have a seat.


In a sense, this show doesn’t belong here.

Overthinking It proclaims its niche as “subjecting popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve.” Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men definitely deserves scrutiny.  (We’ve already got some here, in a special podcast supplement.) Everything, from its stylistic choices to its minimalist presentation to its historical grounding, communicates meaning on multiple levels.

(In fact, I wonder if there’s an audience out there that underthinks this show, that just takes it at face value. “Gee, Joan sure seems unhappy with her husband. I wonder why she doesn’t just leave him?” Ah, well. I’m glad you’re not one of those lightweights. Good thing we’re deep intellectuals, eh, Overthinking It readers? *clinks martini glass*)

Several quality weblogs exist to recap and delve into the references sprinkled throughout each episode. We won’t be challenging that hill. But now that season 3 of the most intriguing show on television has wrapped, with this past Sunday’s season finale, we can delve into the season, and the series, as a whole.

So shut the door, have a seat, and settle in for some Overthink.

(Warning: the following post will contain substantial spoilers for Season 3 of Mad Men)

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To

For the newbies, Mad Men is an AMC original series depicting an advertising agency in New York in the 1960s. It follows the lives of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), his wife Betty (January Jones), his clients and his subordinates. Extramarital affairs are frequent, sexism and racism are rampant and nobody tells anybody the truth.


Season 3 began in the spring of 1963. The ad agency of Sterling Cooper has been bought up by a British advertising firm and the transition still seems rocky. Two young go-getters, Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove, are made competing account managers, with the presumption being that one of them will ultimately claim the sole title. Roger Sterling, having divorced his wife and married his secretary last season, grows further removed from the company he supposedly owns. Joan gracefully retires from her secretarial role, only to find that her husband isn’t as competent a breadwinner as she’d believed. Salvatore Romano’s homosexuality becomes less of a secret and Peggy’s ambitious career climb starts to earn her some enemies – as well as some romantic attention.

Don Draper’s wife, Betty, begins to take a more active role in her own life. Her senile father moves into the Drapers’ spare room for a few months before his death, awakening a sense of learning and pride in his granddaughter Sally. After a rough pregnancy, Betty gives birth to a son: the family’s third child. She makes small steps in defining a life for herself outside of housewifery, pursuing an affair with Henry, a campaign chair for Governor Rockefeller. Though she’s still a child in many ways, we start seeing a semblance of maturity in her.


But Don Draper remains the enigmatic center around which Mad Men revolves. Through luck and charisma, he bags Sterling Cooper’s most prestigious client yet, Hilton Hotels, after a chance meeting with the eccentric Conrad Hilton. Connie proves too demanding, even for the work-obsessed Draper, and he falls back into habits that he promised Betty he’d left behind. Chief among these is skirt-chasing: he begins a passionate affair with his daughter Sally’s teacher. But a bit of carelessness leads Betty to discover Don’s darkest secret: that he was born Dick Whitman, the poor son of a prostitute; that “Don Draper” was a sergeant in the Korean War whose dog tags he swiped after a mortar raid; and that he’d had a wife in California under that name whom he divorced.

All this and the Kennedy assassination, too.

In the roller coaster season finale, Draper, Cooper and Sterling stage a coup when they learn that the agency is being sold yet again. Don pulls out every trick in his arsenal and calls in every favor he has to continue working for himself. He doesn’t display that level of passion for his own marriage, though, letting his wife and family slip further away from him. Don completes the arc that his father aborted in his childhood, doing whatever it takes to save the family farm.

don draper

12 Comments on “Overthinking Mad Men Season 3”

  1. Katie #

    Thank you!
    I thought Dr. Greg was going to die in Vietnam, and that was how we (the audience) were going to get Joan back. Possibly also Roger would get Joan back? But now he doesn’t have to die; now he’s more useful as a window into the escalation in Vietnam.
    Also, Trudy is going to be more important, I suspect.
    And the blogosphere has been paying very little attention to the politics of Betty/Henry– I think that’s going to get important next season, assuming, of course, that ends up the way everyone expects it to.
    I further predict that we will sort of lose a lot of the people in the office at the old SC; and hope that Don (or someone) has the good sense to hire back Sal for their art direction, which they still do not have.
    Another loose end to be tied up– Duck. What place does he have? Does Peggy drop him now that she has the attention and (well deserved) admiration of Don again? Curiouser and curiouser!


  2. Kevin #

    @perich and katie: I assume SCDP will end up working on the Rockefeller campaign, since Henry Francis is both Nelson’s right-hand man and close to Roger. That’s how Don and Betty will end up back in the same orbit in S4 — Don has to swallow his pride and work on the account, the client basically being the man who stole his wife… now THAT is some good conflict! (Plus, since Rockefeller was virtually destroyed by Goldwater in the GOP primaries… I’m sure many both outside the agency and in will blame Don, saying he wasn’t able to put his personal issues aside to help craft a winning campaign.)

    I also wouldn’t call Duck a loose end to be tied up — I imagine he’ll hire Cosgrove and Kinsey (at the least) to compete with SCDP.

    Also looking forward to having Sal back, as I’m sure is inevitable in the first episode or two!


  3. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Kevin –

    That’s some sharp thinking! Don getting stuck working for the man who stole his wife seems totally plausible. And I’m intrigued by the idea of Duck hiring Cosgrove and Kinsey. You’re implying there that Sterling Cooper (the old one) basically ceases to exist, and everyone who was left behind scatters to the four winds. I hadn’t thought about it, but it makes sense. ALL the agency’s partners just quit, and took a huge chunk of their business with them. It seems likely that whatever company is stuck owning that place is just going to cut their losses and walk away.

    And actually, that puts the entire episode in a new light. When Draper, Sterling, and Cooper approach these underlings and offer them the chance to get in on this new agency, they weren’t asking them to take a risk, really. They were letting them know that Sterling Cooper was already dead and they were as good as laid off, and then offering them a new job. The REAL risk for these people would be turning Don down, and sticking with an agency that all the name partners are actively trying to destroy.

    Hey Kevin, if it turns out that you’re right, and Francis DOES go to SCDP, come back to this comment thread to take a victory lap, okay?


  4. Kevin #

    @Matthew — Thanks for the kind words! What makes me doubt the Francis theory is that, well… Francis KNOWS Draper works there — hell, he’s now the ‘D’ in SCDP, after all — so you have to think it would be, uh… just ever-so slightly AWKWARD for him to show up, hat in hand, wanting to hire Betty’s ex to promote the campaign. Pretty weird.

    I’m thinking they have to have a way around this — maybe it’s Rockefeller himself who wants to use SCDP and Francis has no say. But they HAVE to find a way for Don and Betty’s paths to cross. This seems like the most logical way to me…


  5. perich OTI Staff #

    @Kevin: there’s at least the opportunity for Henry and Roger to have a heart-to-heart over Old Fashioneds at some very reputable club.

    “Hank. Buddy. Look, I understand your concern. But if anyone can keep Don Draper under control, it’s me. All right? Now let’s get some cheesecake.”


  6. Sheely #

    @Kevin- Maybe they go the other direction with this, and SCDP will be hired by the Goldwater campaign to take down Rockefeller. It would have the effect of bringing Don and Henry/Betty into a collision course without requiring quite as many contortions.

    @Perich- That was some amazing fake Sterling dialogue- I can totally hear it coming right out of John Slattery’s mouth.


  7. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    I just realized something interesting. The election of 1964 featured one of the most important TV ads of all time. Let me quote from Wikipedia:

    “A Democratic campaign advertisement known as Daisy showed a young girl counting daisy petals, from one to ten. Immediately following this scene, a voiceover counted down: ten, nine, eight,…three, two, one. The child’s face was shown as a still photograph followed by images of nuclear explosions and mushroom clouds. The campaign advertisement ended with a plea to vote for Johnson, implying that Goldwater (whose name was not mentioned) would provoke a nuclear war if elected. The advertisement, which featured only a few spoken words of narrative and relied on imagery for its emotional impact, was one of the most provocative moments in American political campaign history, and many analysts credit it as being the birth of the modern style of “negative political ads” on television. The ad only aired once, and was immediately pulled, but then was shown numerous times by television stations.”

    I’m not saying Don writes it. I’m just saying the timing is right. And since he clearly was a Kennedy supporter, there’s nothing far-fetched about him working for the democratic administration. Actually, it might be really cool to have Don visit the White House to discuss strategy (not with the President himself, but with some important-looking bigwigs in nice suits).


  8. Kevin #

    @Matthew and Sheely: I think you’re *both* on to something: Barry Goldwater will become SCDP’s client, not Rockefeller; and toward the end of the season, it will be the Johnson campaign’s “Daisy” ad that will utterly destroy the work of SCDP for Goldwater.

    That’s because the firm that created the “Daisy” ad was real-world DDB — the same firm that came up with the famous “Think Small” Volkswagen ads… the same campaign that Don and his colleagues ridiculed back in S1. A campaign that was voted many years later as the *best* advertising campaign ever made. It would be so ironic — and so MAD MEN — for the competition to once again be ahead of the curve and show SC (now SCDP) how much they still have to adapt to the changing times.

    Of course, the one thing that would be hard getting past is the fact that Goldwater was so hugely unsympathetic… still, wouldn’t it be great to see the boys win the battle (against Rockefeller, and by extension Francis & Betty), but lose the war once again to DDB?


  9. KBrack #

    @katie, kevin: the first thing i hoped for when Don was searching for employees to come with him to SCDP was the return of sal. he was always one of my favourite characters.

    unfortunately, the reason sal had to leave was because of Lucky Strike. Lucky Strike was a large enough client to Sterling Cooper that without them, they would go out of business. Now with fewer clients, Lucky Strike is the core of SCDP’s business. Unless the writers decide to ignore this, I can’t see Sal coming back.


  10. perich OTI Staff #

    @Kevin: I can see SCDP going with Goldwater. S1 established Bert Cooper as more conservative than the rest of the company (he’s a personal friend of Ayn Rand); I wouldn’t be surprised if he knows someone who knows the Senator.

    Also note: the 1964 RNC is also the first time a middle-aged actor named Ronald Reagan takes the political spotlight, making a famous speech that puts him on the path toward the governorship of California in ’66.


  11. Patricia #

    Henry is a very strange character. Too perfect but not…Rockefeller married a divorced woman and won the govenorship. What if Henry does the same but becomes Vice president. Or even president..a nixionian president. I think Henry has a secret agenda. One that he may not be aware of yet. Coveting the wife of the most masculine man on the planet may be his bid for masculinity. Whatever, Betty’s social standing and inheritance will grease his political wheels. Betty will probably become an alcoholic. A Joan Kennedy or Betty ford. I don’t think we’ve seen all of Don’s secrets yet. Don is Superman. The observations about the Daisy commercial are terrific. But I don’t think our team will be behind it. That team needs to stay intact . Bigger fish to fry. Perhaps apple’s ground breaking commercial. When the turbulance of the 70’s continues we will see feminism peak and personify itself in one of our characters. We’ll see civil rights. In full bloom. Assassinations, war, protests , free sex and drugs… Watergate… The list is obvious. The way our characters willchange during changing times is not so obvious,


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