Thursday, August 5, 2010
Notes on Television: The Mad Men Season Premiere
The fourth season of Mad Men opens with Don Draper, the successful creative director of a newly formed ad agency from the remains of Sterling Cooper, being interviewed by a journalist for a trade publication. The reporter asks, "Who is Don Draper?" a question which lies at the very conceptual core of the series. Because while Don Draper is a creative talent and a father of 3 about to be divorced, he is also an impersonator, a metafictional character who assumed the identity of "Don Draper" when the real man by that name was killed in the Korean War. What is true for Mr. Draper- a search for identity and "truth" also resonates with the other characters in the series all of whom are trying to make sense of just who they are in the turbulent and changing decade of the 1960's.
Watching the premiere I again noticed how the scenes in the office, in the public world are brightly lit and clear whereas the private spaces of the characters, Draper's apartment, his former house with Betty for instance, are all dark and murky. Narratively of course this contrast is simply a fact of the time of day. The characters inhabit the office during daylight hours and are home at night.
Yet, I think this dark/light dynamic exists beyond just making temporal sense. Rather the darkness of the characters' personal spaces is a testament and a symbol of their own search for meaning in who they are. They are all in the dark looking for the light as indeed we all are. It is easy for Don Draper to define himself at work, to reject a prudish swimwear company as a client which he does in this first episode. His real life is more of a mess. He is about to be divorced (and perhaps from the events of the first episode the divorce will become more contentious)and he hires a hooker on Thanksgiving and has her slap his face during sex in order to achieve orgasm. Is this action an attempt to feel, to expose his true self in the midst of his impersonation? Or is it a form of self-punishment for the divorce, for the growing distance from his children, for the complete charade of his life. Stay tuned.