Published Nov 06, 2013After the fifth season of the award-winning AMC series Mad Men expertly handled introspective themes of inertia and complacency as enemy of the socially constructed perpetual signifier of success, the sixth season takes a more literal approach to the idea. The concept of constantly wanting more regardless of consequence manifests in both a productive and destructive capacity, aiding greater social change with the Civil Rights movement and women's liberation while decimating the foundations of the individual.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is again indulging in infidelity, screwing his neighbour's wife (Linda Cardellini) now that his much younger wife Megan (Jessica Paré) has landed a role on a soap opera, eschewing the traditionalist feminine passivity he needs to sustain his ego perception of self. As a backdrop, flashbacks to his childhood in a whorehouse, watching his pregnant mother reluctantly satisfy an unwashed pimp, frame his perceptions of gender and self, clarifying his motivators for megalomaniacal corporate aptitude and antiquated perception of women's roles. This storyline, one that sustains tension through close calls and peripheral questioning — Megan notices that Don is distant but attributes it primarily to her nascent celebrity — is mirrored, in part, by Pete's (Vincent Kartheiser) similar aspirations and tendency towards promiscuity and cheating as mode of entitlement. The distinction is that Pete's wife (Alison Brie) is complicit in the act, allowing him to maintain his own apartment in the city, which, despite its passive honesty, proves to be a physical indication of the internal conflicts brewing within their problematic marriage.
Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) also dabbles in infidelity, albeit in a less overtly deceptive manner, flirting with her new boss (Kevin Rahm) while going through the motions of domesticity with her idealistic hippie boyfriend Abe (Charlie Hofheimer). This storyline blends with the political backdrop more overtly, with the civil unrest following the Martin Luther King assassination giving some context to their eventual decision to purchase an apartment in a low-income neighbourhood in an effort to gentrify. Abe's romanticizing of the lower class ultimately exposes Peggy's dalliance with the liberal bohemian lifestyle as mere performance, forcing her to acknowledge and accept her highly conservative stance, which, as is the thematic trajectory for the entire season, proves contradictory to her less than morally righteous actions.
Even Joan (Christina Hendricks) attempts to push the envelope and take ownership of a situation, bringing Avon into the ad agency as a potential new client and usurping Pete's role of client manager, making meetings behind his back and involving Peggy in a creative capacity. This constant push and pull with morality, represented by characters taking risks to further them, is aided by an aesthetic palette of disarray. Don's suits are always wet or wrinkled, and rips are visible in Joan and Betty's (January Jones) dresses. New apartments are perpetually leaking or in disrepair, just as the office is often being rearranged and left in a state of flux, much like the city landscape, which is defined by the constant sound of ambulance sirens, gunshots and chaos.
With the '70s looming on the horizon, the tide of political change — Nixon will soon take office and force the nation to come of age through controversy — is evident throughout this season of Mad Men. The nuclear family is no longer a certainty, just as the role of women and visible minorities is rapidly changing, leaving everyone in a heightened state of anxiety, uncertainty and, at times, excitement. What's great about this period drama is that it doesn't present these changes with blanket idealism, acknowledging their obvious benefit for the rights of people everywhere, but also highlighting how problematic these changes were for people brought up on a diet of traditional heteronormative thought.
Even though this sixth season is a little more overt in its handling of thematic material and takes things a tad too far with the Bob Benson (James Wolk) storyline — there's eventually kidnapping and murder — the melding of content and form and refusal to simplify the politics are commendable. The blending of social and economic states of being within the lexicon of American history works in a cerebral capacity, just as the intricate characterizations and consistently compelling storylines give the series soapy appeal. It's a shame that more television dramas aren't this thoughtful and consistent in balancing the ideological, the aesthetic and the entertainment components. (eOne)