Beehives and Butt-heads: Mad Men, season 3 (so far)

Knitting Clio

Dr. Mister and I have been binging this week on Season 3 of Mad Men, now out on DVD.  (It’s better than anything else on the teevee–but that’s probably not saying much.)  This season we’re left with the overwhelming need to say, “Mad Men?  Meh.”  We just took delivery of the last DVD, which has the final four episodes, but overall this season is just more of the same characters put in the same situations, and there’s no sense of forward movement.  The show’s nearly all-white cast makes occasional reference to the Civil Rights movement, but I’m afraid some of my initial suspicions about the show appear to have been justified:  the two black characters (Hollis the elevator operator and Carla, the Drapers’ housekeeper) so far this season are totally marginal, and we never see them in their non-work lives the way we do the white characters. 


It’s 1963, and Betty Draper is redecorating and tries out a beehive hairdo, but otherwise nothing much is new.  (I will say that Betty’s dresses are even more gorgeous and envy-inducing than ever–and for me, they’re reason enough to watch the show all by themselves.)  Pete Campbell?  Still a douche.  (Quelle Suprise!)  Peggy Olson?  Still trying to find her way to career success and love in a man’s world.  Betty Draper?  Still suffering from the problem that has no name.  (Actually, the problem was named on February 25, 1963, when The Feminine Mystique was published, but the show isn’t suggesting any awareness of that title on the part of its characters.  Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy are the only current events they’re using in their foreshadowing.) 


And Don Draper?  Still the brooding, mysterious, strangely trouble-prone old Don.  I’m so over that.  Can we at least have more of the wisecracking, hard-drinking, child-bride-taking Roger Sterling, please?  He’s the only guy who seems to be enjoying himself.  (The minstrel scene was horrifying, I’ll grant–and appeared to be included to shore up the show’s moral position as an anti-racist show with an overwhelmingly white cast.)  After this point in my review, I should probably say SPOILER ALERT AFTER THE JUMP!


Finally, how is it that Salvatore–a man–is the only character in this workplace drama who is fired because he wouldn’t put out?  Seriously?  Of course I’m sure that sexual harrassment worked that way for some men, but why not show it how it usually works, which is as a strategy to control and punish women?  I had hoped for more development of his story as he is the only gay character, but it looks like we’re out of luck.  (We’ll see what the last four episodes bring–I’ll report back after I’ve seen them all.)  The Sal-gets-harassed-and-fired story looks like the same strategy as including Roger Sterling in blackface as one of three “negro” characters:  the writers and producers want to get the credit for being “sensitive” to racism and “aware” of sexual harassment, but their opportunities for doing something interesting and relevant are limited by their focus on white, male characters.  (Don’t you think some of those women in the secretarial pool might have some interesting stories to tell, if the camera could peel itself away from the white, male supporting characters Pete, Paul, Harry, Ken, and Salvatore?) 


Many thanks to my faithful readers and commenters, who sent in these Mad Men-ized versions of themselves.  You, too, can do it if you click here, and please send me a copy if you’d like your Mad Men-ized self to achieve ‘net fame!  (And please, send photos of yourself enjoying something a little more interesting than coffee and donuts–the folks here are obviously very serious and hardworking!)

What do the rest of you think about season 3?

0 thoughts on “Beehives and Butt-heads: Mad Men, season 3 (so far)

  1. Historiann, I love that you are the ONLY mad-men-ized academic to go with a Martini! Everyone else chose coffee! Way to go, girl!

    I’ve seen 3 episodes and am now moving on to disc 2… will check in again tomorrow.


  2. Thanks, Historiann, for that diet you put me on–and that I promise to try to stay on! But where did JJO get that donut? I didn’t see any when I toured the site!

    For me, “forward movement” in TV was when they started moving away from black-and-white. Or maybe it would be actually getting one again. I have a piece of wall space reserved for a flatscreen, but no progress so far on actually accessioning one.


  3. Let me add a “meh.” I just had to spend a couple of days recuperating on a couch and watched season 3, and though it had a couple of nice historical touches (the plan to monetize jai alai, for example; one advantage of being an antique is that I remember a lot about this world), there hasn’t been anything that seemed as imaginative as, say, Don’s presentation of the carousel projector. The continuities outlined by Historiann seem equally draggy to me. Looks nice, but less fun than it should be, and nowhere near as engaging as the best HBO series.


  4. I watched a bit more of it last night, though I still have another disc to go. It definitely is much flatter this season. I’m interested enough to keep watching, but keep waiting for the story to ignite in some way.

    I’ve been intrigued to note that serialized dramas on television are now so much more interesting than most films… but the third season always seems to be the moment they begin to go downhill.


  5. So true, squadrato: season three is a test. I felt that Big Love was really struggling this season, and we lost Weeds in season 3 because it had lost its ironic edge and become racist (and who wanted to see that sexy woman living in a frat house?)

    I would say, however, that The Closer seems to chine year after year.


  6. It’s interesting that there’s so much agreement here. When I first saw Mad Men and wrote a post skeptical of its awesomeness, I had a lot of dissenters tell me that I should give it another chance!

    There are the pretty, pretty dresses, though. I have serious frock envy.


  7. Though I am loathe to frequent Pandagon very often, this article on Betty Draper articulates pretty well why I think she’s one of the most complex and underrated characters on TV. Have you hit the Italy episode yet? I kind of can’t wait to see what happens with her next season.


  8. Historiann, I wrote a comment, but I’m not sure whether it went into a spam filter or I had a glitch and it’s gone forever. Could you take a look-see?


  9. Thanks, RKMK–I have no idea why your previous comment got munched. That Pandagon commentary is very perceptive–I agree with the point that the office scenes are more entertaining than the domestic scenes, but I agree with Marcotte as to why that is precisely. I think she makes a great point about how brave January Jones’s portrayal of BD really is. How much easier it is to play Don Draper–the man with the dramatic secret who also gets to get sexxay with the laydees!


  10. I’ve always understood that the reason Mad Men’s world is so overwhelmingly white and that the few black characters are marginal is because it’s meant to recreate the experience of living in that particular wealthy, overwhelmingly white American world.

    Part of what makes the show so powerful is its ability to really viscerally evoke the suffocating claustrophobia for many women both at home and at work. The depiction of a world in which African Americans barely exist except as part of either quaint Americana or TV news stories also seems of a piece with how these characters probably really did experience America. We don’t follow the black characters outside of work because, in the white world that the main (white) characters experience, black people don’t have lives outside of their roles serving whites.

    I’m hoping that the boundaries of this sheltered bubble begin to get pushed next season. It seems likely. That said, I did find season 3 much flatter than the previous ones and will have to wait and see.


  11. While I found most of season 3 a big “meh” as well, for me the whole thing was rendered worthwhile by the last 3 episodes.

    Thanks for the link, RKMK. I too have found myself increasing disturbed – and impressed – by the way the show consistently demonstrates not only Betty’s personal unhappiness, but that this unhappiness stems directly from Don’s treatment of her as a non-person. She was raised to be a doll (and accepted that role), and yet still finds her adult doll-like experience unbearable. It’s not easy watching, but it’s important. And for careful viewers it also complicates DD as a character because rather than just having a “bitchy” wife, we see him as directly responsible for turning her into what she is – as opposed to the completely different sorts of women he chooses for mistresses and the way he treats *them*.

    And all the message boards do is complain endlessly about what “bad” mother BD is!


  12. The last episode blows Season 4 wide open with possibility…we’ll see if they take it anywhere but I am waiting eagerly!

    I find viewers’ reactions to Betty one of the most interesting aspects of the show, mostly in its illumination of today’s perspectives and values. That she can be painted as *worse* than Don because she doesn’t fulfill her *natural* role as a loving mother, while Don seems to elicit a fair amount of sympathy for his straying–perhaps because he manages a Father Knows Best with a hint of modern sensibility persona with the kids?–is fascinating. I’m going to be curious where her choices take her next season. Will it be some kind of empowerment or simply a different kind of cage?


  13. With respect to race in Mad Men, I keep thinking about another show from the early 1990s–critically acclaimed but it didn’t have the viewership to survive–I’ll Fly Away. That was a show set in the U.S. South in about the same period–1950s perhaps not the 1960s–but it explored both the work/school/community lives and the personal lives of the white and black main characters against Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, as I recall. The point I’m making here is that making Carla and Hollis characters who are only shown at work (serving clueless white people) and even apparently depriving them of surnames is a choice on the part of the writers of the show. Personally, I would find it fascinating to follow Carla home and see how her home life intersects with her work for the Drapers.

    I just find it suspicious that the writers of the show have chosen to set the show with the historical backdrop of the Civil Rights moment *and* focus on white people only. (Paul’s African American girlfriend from last season is a notable exception–and she appears to have vanished with his Radical Chic.) I’m not saying it’s not an interesting historical question–how did privileged whites react to the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s–I’m just saying that on TV, we don’t have to work that hard to find white people and white people’s ideas and viewpoints explored in exhaustive detail.

    How sadly predictable–and clueless–it is for people to want to vent their *feelings* about Betty Draper as a mother. Are people on the world-wide non-peer-reviewed internets just phantom ids with grievances about their own childhood or anxieties about their own parenthood to exorcise? Geez. Anyway–thanks for your further comments, and please carry on without me if necessary!


  14. p.s. I’m out of town now, but I’ll return tomorrow and will watch the last two episodes of season 3 later this week. I’ll do a follow-up post to this one, and will include more Mad Men-ized versions of my readers and commenters, so if you haven’t sent one in yet, please do!


  15. I tried to scuff-up my avatar yesterday, including something a little more two-fisted in the drinkables category, but it didn’t quite pull together, as it were. Now I have to head out of town to peddle some product, so will have to wait for the Season 4 review for redress. Maybe I’ll have actually seen the thing by then. Have a good road trip, in the meantime.

    In partial defense of my wimpy drink, 🙂 though, I associate those classic blue “accropolis” paper coffee cups which are now universal with the Viand Coffeeshop, 61st & Madison, and it’s hard to imagine they did not have an open tab with the mythical shop in this series!


  16. RMG: it’s meant to recreate the experience of living in that particular wealthy, overwhelmingly white American world.

    So it’s a show about rich white people written for rich white people? Super.


  17. Personally I have started fast forwarding until I see headlights panning across a darkened road. This is my tipoff that DD has gone into MADD poster child mode and crazy hijinx (getting rolled when high on phenobarbital, crashing the car with the other woman in the passenger seat, skipping Sally’s birthday and randomly buying a puppy, skipping a discussion with Betty and randomly picking up the second grade teacher ) are guaranteed to ensue. Seriously, do the initials DD stand for drunk driver ? Sure these scenes may all be an allegory for American wanderlust and Don’s itinerant and feckless nature, but the setup has become so pervasive that Don simnply getting behind the wheel, at night, should be a mandatory category for any Mad Men dinking game.


  18. Heh. Mad Men, the board game–that would be hillarious! And of course, it would have to be a drinking game. The dice would look like ice cubes, and they’d come with a highball glass from which to toss them. Plus one of those little cars from the Life game in which to “drive” drunk. Awesome! Nice pickup on the DD “coincidence.” Or, instead of Drunk Driver, do his (assumed) initials mean “Dark and Dangerous?” “Dastardly and Deadly?” “Dunkin’ Donuts?”

    When we play, can I be Roger Sterling? None of the women seem to be having much fun. . . not even the mistresses this year.


  19. I like to think that I’m depicted with a cup of tea, actually, not coffee. But thanks for the summary and analysis of season three. This show still isn’t ringing my bells, even though it’s reached the year of my birth. When I’ve watched bits of it, I’ve been filled with a combination of righteous anger and angst on Betty’s behalf (and other women in the cast) so I can’t work up an ounce of empathy for any of the guys in the agency, I’m afraid.


  20. Just keep watching, the payoff is all in the end of the season. And then you look back and realize it was all headed there all along.


  21. Pingback: Mad Men season 3: trauma, narcotics, and a low-tech startup : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  22. Pingback: Betty Draper is a bad mommy : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  23. Pingback: Sunday (Am I Really) Radical Roundup: The Resurrection And The Life Edition - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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