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Mad Men Season 3 (and the nature of change)

Change isn’t good or bad. It just is. ~Don Draper

Mad Men‘s Season 3 finale was perfect. I mean, every episode is perfect, but this one was particularly superb. I still think Season 2’s ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ is the best the show has done.  However, ‘Shut the Door, Have a Seat’ managed to be movingly devastating and hopeful all at the same time.

Of course it also brought the key theme of change to the fore, the theme which is so integral to Mad Men. Chronological, generational and psychological change were all explored throughout the season. (spoilers follow)

One of the most powerful tools Mad Men has to explore change is (GCSE English fave) dramatic irony – and lashings of it. We in the future know exactly what cataclysms are ahead for the characters. Of course, the watershed they were heading for all season was the assassination of JFK. This is often cited as the dividing line between the ‘golden age’ of the early 60s and the Beatle-mania/miniskirt/Vietnam era, when the ‘dream’ embodied by Kennedy died. Needless to say this is a simplistic redaction of history. There was no overnight revolution. Things just changed and evolved, as they always do. It wasn’t good or bad – it just was.

Mad Men toys with this idea of a pivot point by bringing to a climax the season long disintegration of the ‘Don Draper’ we have known and loved since 1960, as much a constructed image as the golden America we like to imagine existed. Gradually, throughout the season, we see Don lose touch with his friends (Peggy, Roger), his business and his family. Then, in 3.12, his mask falls away entirely for a brief moment when he fumbles with his lighter in front of Betty. It’s a flash of Dick Whitman – the same Dick whose fumbling led to the incineration of the real Don.

This sort of recall to the past is scattered throughout the season, sometimes in the form of concrete flashbacks (ANALEPSIS to get all bookish on you). When Don is picked up by two drugged up students in 3. 7 , he sees the spectre of his father; when he reflects on the imminent birth of his son in 3.1, he thinks of what he’s been told of his own birth. Through these reflections the American Depression is shown to be physically linked to Don’s quite different world. Remember that this period was only thirty years before Mad Men is set, less time than separates us from 1963. Through his recall Don also reminds us that the Depression profoundly influenced later American culture, in the same way that Archibald Whitman influenced him.  In 3.13, Don remembers how Archibald was killed in some part by his inability to strike out alone. No wonder Don is afraid of contracts.

There is no concrete PROLEPSIS (flash forward) – but as we have discussed, our knowledge as viewers often intrudes into the show. For example, foreshadowing for JFK’s death was seeded throughout the season, from the (obvious) date of Margaret’s wedding to Joan’s blood stained dress in 3.6. We also had Greg (Dr. Rapist)’s reference to Vietnam.

The other means of connecting with the future is through the generational focus I’ve mentioned before. Youth-age is a powerful dichotomy within the show and it works on three planes -Gene-Betty-Sally, if you will.

First we see the 20th century ‘shedding the skin’ of its early years. This is most clear in 3.3, with Roger’s blackface performance and the Campbells’ Charleston clearly anachronistic. Gene’s death perhaps also signifies the passing of that world. However, we have a second shift yet to come – into our modern era. Characters like Don and Betty are turning away from the past but have not yet entered the future, if that makes sense. Mad Men is so compelling because it’s caught between those two movements, at exactly the same time as it is swept along by them.

It is Sally Draper, one of the most fascinating characters for all the potential she embodies, who will move forward. I love the way she is shown constantly watching the TV, because in that way she manages to ‘foreshadow’ our own experiences as children of the media age. I imagine her forty/fifty years into her future (our present…timey wimey huh?), wondering who exactly her parents were.

As for the reaction all this change merits, look to Don’s line at the top of the page. The end of Season 3 shows us both the good and bad sides of change, with the tragic breakdown of the Draper marriage balanced by the hell yeah moment when they create Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Moreover, they’re developments that are a culmination of past events and that will undoubtedly have ripple effects for years, if not decades, to come. Are they a pivot point like the assassination?

In Season 1, Don tells Rachel, in a moment of existential angst, ‘this is all that we are’ (a line that deeply affected me at the time and, I’ll admit, still troubles me). Since then the show has constantly suggested that this is untrue. Past and future are inescapable for Don, as indeed they are for us. It is the focus on change and growth that reminds us of this, at every turn of this truly amazing series.



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