Mad Men, Season 3

Week 5: This Show's Not a Soap. It's a Time-Travel Device.
Talking television.
Sept. 15 2009 10:40 AM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 5: This Show's Not a Soap. It's a Time-Travel Device.

John, I like your reading of Don's heart-to-heart with Dennis Hobart (and I think you've solved the Case of the Subsequent Stink Eye). But one question we haven't covered is this: Why, in a show that's chockablock with characters we'd like to spend more time with—Joan, Ken, Roger, even Moneypenny—do we keep getting introduced to new ones? Don has now had two mysterious male-bonding sessions over makeshift cocktails—the first with Conrad Hilton, the second with Warden Den—and although both have deepened our understanding of Don's mental state, neither has added much in the way of plot.

Indeed, the season thus far has been short on plot—at least the sort of soapy, sequential, who's-in-bed-with-whom Mad Men story lines we're used to. Contrast what we've seen so far with Season 1, when by Episode 5 we knew that Don had a secret identity, that Don and Pete were cheaters, that Don was torn between two mistresses. Somehow, Mad Men has become a show that's less about what happened than what it felt like. It's a fascinating strategy, one that transforms the show from a juicy period drama into something more like a time-traveling DeLorean that just happens to air Sunday nights on AMC. Step right up, folks, and understand what it felt like to be a privileged Northern white woman when Medgar Evers died! To be a small child as the Vietnam War kicked to life!

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Do you guys agree that there's been a shift in tone? Or am I making too much of the early episodes, given that a juicy teacher-nookie plot arc seems about to get under way? I'm enjoying the shift thus far, but I majored in American history. I wonder whether viewers will stick around for this slower approach. And I also wonder whether the show can deepen our understanding of the era. So far, what we've seen is fascinating, but not much of it has been surprising.

One thing I liked this week was the show's tack on race. In previous exchanges we've hoped that some of the episode's black characters would take a more central role, that we might get a portrait of how Carla sees the Drapers or a day riding the elevator with pun-loving Hollis. ("Every job has its ups and downs.") But this week, Mad Men took an oblique approach, showing what the beginning of the civil rights struggle felt like to oblivious white people who didn't fully comprehend why such a struggle might be needed.

A final note on Peggy. I don't really think she's going to leave Sterling Cooper. But if she does, I bet she'll find herself marginalized at Grey—blundering Duck surely has less power there than he suggests—and realize how fragile and rare the autonomy she enjoys at Sterling Cooper is. She's been flying so high this season that I fear a comeuppance in her future. She'll be back with her tail between her legs. And what did you make of Pete's "things you do affect me"? He's talking about the job offer, but he's also talking about their progeny. I thought the abandoned baby was water under the bridge at this point. Apparently not.

Jealous of the house cat,
Julia

Julia Turner is Slate's deputy editor and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast. Follow her on Twitter.