Overthinking Mad Men Season 3

Overthinking Mad Men Season 3

Shut the door. Have a seat.

Wise Men Stay, Only Fools Rush In

Episode 6 of this season, “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” begins with Ken Cosgrove triumphantly driving a John Deere lawnmower onto the floor of Sterling Cooper. He’s just won the John Deere account, a big feather in his cap. Later, the entire office has a party to celebrate the arrival of new British staff and Joan’s departure. Cheap liquor flows and one of the secretaries takes a turn on the John Deere lawnmower. As Peggy and Joan bond over their common trials, the din of the mower’s engine grows louder.

Any long-time fan of Mad Men will tell you that their most frequent reaction to the show isn’t laughter, or catharsis, or even a quiet poignancy. When you watch this show, you cringe.

The second theme of Season 3 of Mad Men is that it’s going to end exactly the way you think.


Don starts a new affair with his daughter’s teacher, Miss Farrell. He drives over to her apartment one evening after a disappointing day at the office. The two flirt for a while, dancing on the boundary between committing to the affair and walking away. “I know exactly how it ends,” Farrell says. She’s thought about sleeping with Don, but she’s also thought about how it’ll turn out in the long run. Don’s response: “So what? […] I want you. I don’t care. Doesn’t that mean anything to someone like you?” And they begin the affair. And, as everyone knew in advance, it can’t last.

Betty discovers the key to the desk drawer we’ve been watching Don fill for three seasons now – a drawer full of evidence of his past life as Dick Whitman. After fretting over it for a few weeks and consulting her family attorney, she confronts Don with it in “The Gypsy and the Hobo.” “I could have had a locksmith in here any time I wanted,” Betty tells him. “You obviously wanted me to know this, or you wouldn’t have left your keys. You wouldn’t have kept all this in my house.” Don’s secret was too big for him to keep forever: Pete Campbell and Bert Cooper both discovered it in Season 1. And Don was too smart a man not to know that. He kept making it day by day, however, hoping that the secret would hold at least until he got to bed.

But the biggest sword hanging over our stars’ heads is mounted in “Love Among the Ruins,” when Roger meets with his ex-wife and their daughter to plan his daughter’s wedding. She brings some sample invitations, and Roger muses over the date. The camera lingers long enough to make sure we all get it: November 23rd, 1963. A Saturday wedding in the fall. From that point on, every episode heightens the tension and brings us closer.

Of course, the Kennedy assassination isn’t the only funeral bell chiming in Season 3. The civil rights movement becomes violent in the South, with the death of Medgar Evers (“The Fog”) and the Birmingham church bombing (“Love Among the Ruins”). We only get glimpses of this battle in cozy liberal New York – usually through the Draper’s maid Carla, or the occasional radio snippet of Dr. King’s speech on The Mall – but they’re enough to keep historically aware audiences clued in. Pay attention, the show is saying. Something’s about to happen.

It’s impossible to be optimistic about Roger’s daughter’s wedding. We know it’s going to be ruined as soon as we learn the date. It’s impossible to share Miss Farrell’s optimism regarding Dr. King’s speech; we know he has less than five years to live. It’s impossible to hold out hope for Sal; we know the status of homosexual rights in the U.S. in 2009, much less in 1963. This fatalism creeps into every aspect of the show until it starts informing every part of each episode.

We know what’s going to happen because Mad Men is set forty-six years in the past. But we also know what’s going to happen because Mad Men is about choice disguised as fate.

draper and farrell

We cringe when Peggy falls into bed with “Duck” Phillips, or when Sal makes a lying phone call to his wife from the Rambles, or when Betty confronts Don over his past with an unflinching glare. We wonder about the cruel fate that brought them to that place. But an eye for the show’s history reminds us that each of those characters made a succession of choices (mostly smart, some bad) that led them to that point. Peggy craved a sexually adventurous life with a man who could treat her well and stimulate her intellectually. If the only man in her life who fits that role is an older ex-coworker, so be it. Salvatore wanted to climb the ranks at Sterling Cooper by taking on ambitious projects (London Fog, Pepsi “Patio”, Lucky Strike), even if that meant repressing his homosexuality. And the choices Don’s made hardly need to be revisited.

Though the institutional biases of the period, like racism, sexism and classism, play a large role in defining attitudes, Mad Men makes clear that you still have a choice. Choosing outside the boundaries of the institution carries risks: vide Kurt, the blonde German art designer who openly admits to his homosexuality in Season 2 and how little we see of him thereafter. vide Kinsey, who in Season 2 dates a black girl and goes with her to civil rights protests in the South (though it’s implied that this may be an affectation).

Is it possible to evade the guillotine? “Shut The Door, Have A Seat” suggests yes, as all our favorite characters stage a lightning raid on the Sterling Cooper offices and salvage every file, client and bit of talent they can muster. But even ending on this optimistic note, as Don says good-bye to one family and stares with tearful pride at another, can’t dampen what long-term fans know. Sterling Cooper Draper Price has its work cut out for it, even before they get an office.

Stepping outside the lines may be risky. But Season 3 suggests that staying inside the lines isn’t always satisfying, either. Because if you stay within the lines, it’s going to end exactly the way you think.

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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