Mad Men, Season 3

Week 7: I Spy a Symbol
Talking television.
Sept. 29 2009 11:05 AM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 7: I Spy a Symbol

Still from Mad Men. Click image to expand.
January Jones and Jon Hamm in Mad Men

I agree, Julia: I thought the writers were laying it on thick by having Betty place the fainting couch right in the middle of her hearth. One of the great pleasures of Mad Men is interpreting its symbolism, which so often adds texture and meaning, even to some of the show's soapier story lines. I loved, for instance, the moment in this episode when Betty, having finished her call with Henry Francis, gives a pull on the locked drawer of Don's desk. The moment was rich with significance: After scheduling a rendezvous with a potential paramour, Betty reassures herself that her husband still has his secrets. (Last season we saw her try and fail to break into that drawer, looking for evidence of Don's infidelity.) But the tug was also wonderfully subtle. There wasn't an ominous close-up to drive home the point—indeed, if you happened to reach for your old fashioned at that moment, you might have missed it. And there was something reflexive in the action, suggesting to me that Betty always checks on that drawer when she finds herself in Don's study. It was a symbolic gesture, but it was also a natural one, and one I believed Betty would make.

But at other times—last night and throughout the series—I've felt hit over the head with the show's symbolism. At its worst, Mad Men can start to feel like one of those books you give seventh graders when it comes time to teach the unit on symbolism and motifs: The Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird. All classics of a sort, but all books that wear their symbols on their sleeves (or on their breast, in Hawthorne's case). Mad Men can fall into that mode, too, pressing the viewer's nose into an Important Symbol—think of the hearth this week or all the snakes slithering around last week's episode. Were it not for the sex and the booze, you could almost see assigning Mad Men to middle-schoolers. Sample homework exercise: For Monday, please write a five-paragraph essay on the theme of light vs. dark. Don't forget to have a thesis and a conclusion, and please double-space!

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One recurring—but less junior-highish—theme in this week's episode involves perceptions of the advertising industry. Roger worries aloud that David Ogilvy's book will be bad for ad men, whose crummy reputation with the American public is second only to that of lawyers. The pill-popping draft-dodgers certainly don't seem to hold the industry in high regard—they're shocked to learn that the guy who offered them a ride works in advertising. Connie doesn't care for the business, to judge by his comments to Don: Keep a Bible and some family photos on your desk, Connie tells him—"they'll make you feel better about what you do." And as Julia noted, even Don himself may be growing ambivalent about his line of work. Up until this point, Mad Men has typically made the business look glamorous and hasn't, as a rule, shown us much of the consuming public. (One loaded exception is the scene last season in which Betty feels humiliated after falling for Don's Heineken strategy.) A mounting suspicion of advertising and the men and women who create it could make some wonderful trouble for our friends at Sterling Coop in episodes to come.

Speaking of episodes to come, we're now more than halfway through the season, which raises a major calendrical question: Will we make it to Margaret Sterling's wedding night before Season 3 is out? Thus far, the episodes have tended to have about two to three weeks between them—this one took place around July 23, the previous one on July 3. Which means we'd only have to pick up the pace ever so slightly to be on target for a late November finale. …

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

Did you guys notice that one of Sally's classmates' camera obscura was made out of an empty Old London box? Seriously, people, who is eating all of Ossining's Melba toast?

John

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