Matthew Weiner

Mad Men Discussion, Season 5, Episode 4: “Mystery Date”

Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and her mother Gail Holloway (Christine Estabrook) react to the unwelcome news that Greg Harris has volunteered for another tour of duty in Vietnam (Photo Coutesy of AMC).
Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and her mother Gail Holloway (Christine Estabrook) react to the unwelcome news that Greg Harris has volunteered for another tour of duty in Vietnam (Photo Coutesy of AMC).

Katie: Hi Alex,

Wow. What a fantastic episode this past Sunday. If audiences didn't feel fully back in the "Mad Men" groove this season as I have, they certainly should now.

Let's start with one of the most notable aspects of "Mystery Date:" the very pronounced inclusion of historical events, like the Richard Speck murders in Chicago, as well as the race riots that were also occurring in Chicago at the time.

Of course, being a period piece, it's nearly impossible to not mention the current events of the 1960s in the show. However, what "Mad Men" has been so great about in the past (and in this case, I'd argue) is that the real-life events themselves aren't quite so intriguing as those events they affect and parallel the lives of Matthew Weiner's fictional creations.

For instance, this week the Richard Speck murders drew the somewhat macabre fascination of the young copywriters and co. at SCDP (including a welcome return from Zosia Mamet as Peggy's lesbian pal Joyce), as well as that of Sally Draper. Kiernan Shipka continues to stun with her arresting young talent, as she shifts effortlessly from petulance to curiosity to rage to fear during her squabbling/bonding sessions with Grandma Francis with riveting charisma.

What struck you most about "Mystery Date?"

Alex: Hi Katie,

You know, I actually thought this was the weakest "Mad Men" of the season thus far, and probably one of the show's lesser efforts to date, mostly for the Don storyline. I can certainly appreciate what Weiner's goals with this story, but there had to be a better way to show that Don wants to stay faithful to Megan. It was fairly clear from the start that his dalliance with Andrea (Madchen Amik) was a bed-ridden hallucination, and if there's one thing "Mad Men" doesn't know how to do, it's scenes set inside the characters' minds. This portion of the episode was probably my least favorite thing "Mad Men" has ever done, but the other story lines almost made up for it.

Joan has never had it easy in "Mad Men," and her marriage to failed surgeon Greg has been a reliable source for pathos in the past. Even so, it was insanely satisfying to watch her kick him to the curb, and Christina Hendricks really sold the dissolution of her marriage, a culmination of years of frustration exploding all at once. I especially liked the sense of history that the episode's script brought to this storyline, with callbacks to Joan's accordion skills and that ugly, ugly rape scene way back in Season 2. I can't help but wonder if this is the last we've seen of Greg, or if he's ever going to do the math on Joan's pregnancy.

A good bit of the episode was spent getting to know the new employees at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. While it was entertaining to watch Ginsberg nearly destroy his career before it even got off the ground, I'm curious what you thought of Dawn and Peggy's drunken late-night conversation.

Katie: I do actually agree with you about Don's storyline, which was far too blatant about Don's continuing struggle with marital fidelity. His altercation with an old flame (which, yeah, was pretty obvious was a fever dream from the start) was on the clumsy side, not to mention made episode's theme of violence against women far too obvious. That's a shame for a show like "Mad Men," which can be delightfully subtle on its best days. Had Don's story this week been altered or even left out, I think the episode might've been better off for it.

The scenes between Peggy and Dawn were a highlight for me as well, even though their story's thematic beats were almost as ham-fisted as Don's; it was just so much fun to watch the two of them interact. I loved seeing Peggy trying a little too hard to take the new girl (and the only African-American at the agency) under her wing, only to have all her carefully cultivated feelings of inter-racial sisterhood crumble with one suspicious glance toward her purse. Plus, you can't just go wrong with drunk Peggy.

A quick final rundown of some other details I found interesting this week:

  • Watching Don's face as Michael Ginsberg deliberately out-sold Don's pitch with his own for the footwear guys.
  • Actually watching Ginsberg deliberately out-sell Don's pitch for the footwear guys. The boardroom ad business bullshitting remains one of my favorite aspects of "Mad Men."
  • The uproarious back-and-forth between Roger and Peggy as she haggles the price of taking over the Mohawk account. I don't think the show has ever been as funny as it has this season.
  • Joan calling out her husband on his, thus far, seemingly ignored rape of her. What a powerfully earned moment. 

Any final thoughts?

Alex: I'm curious to see what the next episode brings for our cast. Joan will presumably be returning to work a newly single woman, and Roger's reaction to that will doubtlessly be priceless. However, I'm really fascinated to see how Dawn and Peggy's drunken night of bonding impacts the way Peggy treats her boss's secretary, and if it will have any impact on the office dynamic as a whole. More than anything, I hope Don is back on his feet, because if "Mad Men" is a few misguided dream sequences from collapsing under the weight of its own symbolism.

Mad Men Discussion, Season 5, Eposode 3: “Tea Leaves”

Peggy prepares to interview the bristly, eccentric new copywriter Michael Ginsberg in the third episode of Mad Men's fifth season, "Tea Leaves." (Photo courtesy of AMC.)
Peggy prepares to interview the bristly, eccentric new copywriter Michael Ginsberg in the third episode of Mad Men's fifth season, "Tea Leaves." (Photo courtesy of AMC.)

Alex: Hi Katie,

I guess we should start with the metaphorical elephant in the room – the return of Betty. I’m sure that the increased focus on Betty had a lot to do with Jon Hamm’s directorial debut on the show, as having Hamm on the other side of the camera means that Don can’t get as much screentime as usual (and, thusly, that there can’t be as many scenes set in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office).

Even so, this was the most compelling Betty has been since Season 3. The show seemed to be punishing her for a minute, first making her grotesquely obese, and then giving her a cancer scare, but it eventually revealed itself as a juxtaposition of the marriages Betty and Don have found themselves in. Don has clearly changed for the better – if he was still married to Betty, Don would have been all over that floozy at the concert. Betty, on the other hand, is unhappy, and seemingly trapped in a downward spiral. Either way, I thought her dream sequence was the biggest false step in the episode. Maybe it was because “Mad Men” rarely indulges in dream sequences (I’m pretty sure this was the first one?), but I thought this one was a bust, overly obvious and oblique. What did you think?

Katie: Hey Alex,

I have to be honest, despite my delight at Betty's return (sometimes it feels like I'm the only person who cheers when she appears), I wasn't a fan of this episode. Maybe it's just the come-down from last week's two hour extravaganza, complete with Megan's star-making song and dance number (anyone else still suffering from "Zou Bisou Bisou" fever?) but this week felt a little thin, even by "Mad Men's" sedate standard.

That said, I have to disagree with you on a few things. First of all, I definitely wouldn't call Betty's new... um... look obesity, grotesque or otherwise; it was more like a less drastic version of the unfortunate fat suit they strapped on Elisabeth Moss toward the end of season one. In fact, I even assumed at first that Betty's weight gain was a result of the character's pregnancy, and that Matthew Weiner was just accommodating January Jones' real-life pregnancy.

And do you really think Don is that well off? Last week's "A Little Kiss" sowed the seeds for a growing generational divide that will surely alienate characters on each side of the line — both the older traditionalists like Don and Roger, and the groovy young'ins like Peggy and Megan. This episode just served to reenforce that theme, if a tad more subtly than last week: Don is loath to join bikini'd Megan on Fire Island to party with her friends, and could have not looked more out of place than backstage at that Stones concert running his micro-focus session on a teenage girl.

Finally, I do agree with you about Betty's dream sequence, although it's not the only one the show's ever done. Remember Betty's drugged-up childbirthing daydreams in "The Fog?" Or even Don's vision of Anna Draper's ghost last season? Not all of these are strictly "dreams," but I agree that in "Mad Men's" world, they do usually feel a little on the nose and out of place, not at all as effective as they were used on Weiner's alma mater "The Sopranos."

On to another notable feature of "Tea Leaves:" What did you think of new SCDP hires Michael Ginsberg and the African-American secretary Dawn (not to be confused with her boss, Don)? Did you detect a possibly brewing romance between Michael and Peggy in those bickering sessions between the two, as I did?

Alex: The first thing I thought of when we got our first look at Betty was the great prosthetics work the "Mad Men" team did on Elizabeth Moss in the first season. At the same time, what made that work stand out was the subtlety of how she slowly ballooned throughout the season. I think it's been roughly a year in "Mad Men" time since we last saw Betty, and while I forgot to consider Jones' pregnancy, it was still jarring to see such a drastic change in her. And I don't think grotesque is entirely unfair, as the episode goes out of its way to showcase her size (think about those big mumus she's wearing, or that frankly gratuitous shot of her getting out of the tub).

I agree that there's always going to be some tension in the Don-Megan relationship because of that generational divide, but their pillow talk in "A Little Kiss" implied to me that those two are definitely very much in love, but still learning about each other. And part of that is going to be Don learning about 1960s culture, something that we've been getting a lot of in the last two episodes. That party Megan threw last episode was time-appropriately groovy, and it's hard to find something more quintessentially '60s than smoking pot backstage at a Stones concert.

I'm especially curious where SCDP found the cash to make those hires, since last episode made a big deal out of their budget issues. Even so, I thought all of the office goings-on were consistently funny, and watching the characters react to the Dawn-Don situation was my favorite part of the episode.

As far as Ginsberg goes, I'm going to reserve judgement on the character until we get to know him better. He came off as a bit tactless and grating, something that Weiner and company no doubt intended, and I'm interested to see where they go with his character. While a romance with Peggy wouldn't be surprising, I hope that "Mad Men" is smart enough to keep things from getting too incestuous at the agency, and I also hope that Ginsberg gets another suit before he starts work. However, I was completely baffled by that final scene with his father, and I'm curious to get your take on it.

Katie: Yeah, the minute, day-to-day office dramas still maybe give me the most pleasure of anything this show, and maybe that's why I've been put off by this season so far; what with all the table-setting, the SCDP office itself seems to have been getting the short shrift.

And in that vein: no Joan this week! Last week her entire conflict centered around her stifling boredom at home raising new baby Kevin. This week I expected her to at least be back to work (where she, let's face it, really belongs), but she wasn't anywhere to be found. I'll tell you what I'm psyched for though — I'd love to see her go face-to-face with that uppity new copywriter Ginsberg. No one messes with Joanie in her domain. I was similarly baffled by Ginsberg's moment with his father, however.

A few stray details I enjoyed in “Tea Leaves:”

• Henry's dig at George Romney (father of Mitt), who, at the time, was a rising star in the Republican party,
• Betty's call to Don to tell him about her medical crisis — they've seemed to reach a place of comfortable respect, and Don even called used her old nickname “Birdie.” Awww. Am I the only one who wants those crazy kids back together?
• Don's constant dismissals of bumbling, pervy Harry: “Saturday night was fun.” “Okay.” Hilarious.
• Peggy's adorable green dress with the orange bow and white collar.

Alex: To wrap things up, let's touch on the increasingly irrelevant former half of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. As we saw last week, Cooper is rarely even included in meetings anymore, and Sterling is becoming a fossil far more quickly than he'd like.

As great as John Slattery is in the role (and he really is great - look at that ice in his eyes as he applauds after Pete disses him in the lobby), I think his days in the agency are numbered. A wayward comment to one of the agency's diverse new hires or a similar screw-up could prove to be the nail in Rogers's coffin, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he deals with his company slipping away from him. My prediction - it won't be pretty.

It’s been one week since the fifth season finale of “Mad Men” and we’ve pulled together our experts in a roundtable postmortem on Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed ‘60s drama. Spoilers ahead.

THE SEASON FINALE

Katie Stroh: What an incredibly strange episode of ‘Mad Men,’ let alone season finale. Matthew Weiner’s upbringing at ‘The Sopranos’ has never been more evident; that show excelled at anticlimax, and never has ‘Mad Men’ been more anticlimactic, especially considering Lane Pryce’s dramatic suicide last week and the remarkable lack of significant plot developments in the season finale. The only moment that offered any kind of revelation was the episode’s coda: a Heather Graham type approaches Don at the bar, asking him if he’s ‘alone’ and practically begging him to go back to his philandering ways, and then ... cut to black.

I can’t decide whether this episode was incredibly disappointing or incredibly brilliant; I’m looking forward to your insight and opinions, as I’m still in a state of bafflement.

Alex Williams: I wrote in our series recap about just how difficult it is to predict what’s going to happen in a ‘Mad Men’ finale, and this episode only reinforced that hypothesis. While ‘The Phantom’ certainly didn’t deliver much of a climax, and was often bafflingly oblique, it was befitting of a season that’s been ‘Mad Men’s’ most ambitious by a long shot. The show has made some bold stylistic choices this year, some of them successful (Sterling’s acid trip), some of them overwrought (Don’s strangle-happy fever dream back in ‘Mystery Date’), and this has often resulted in it losing a bit of its thematic subtlety.

Even so, ‘The Phantom’ had plenty of striking moments, and even managed to wrap up a few story lines. Weiner also took a book from “The Sopranos” in his seasonal structure, letting many of the big events go down in the penultimate episode.

Aleksander Chan: I’m torn between thinking season five as the series’ most masterful or appalling glib. Weiner has helmed this season so that it oscillated between inexactness and broadness, most evident in the finale and Don’s hot tooth.

‘There’s something rotten in you and it’s not your tooth,’ says Don’s hallucinated brother Adam. I can get past the opaqueness of this lame metaphor, but only as far as its ambiguous underlying meaning. What’s rotten? Megan? Don’s old self, his inner Dick Whitman? Repressed mournfulness for Lane’s death? I get embracing uncertainty in storytelling — done right, it can tease the viewer along and maintain tension and stakes.

But here, that tooth underlies how many of the season’s symbolism has been too on the nose. It’s as if in the pages of the script, the messages get bolded, italicized and underlined twice: Those Heinz beans ads trying to target Vietnam protesters (These old folks, so out of touch!); Pete Campbell and his leaky kitchen faucet (Pete Campbell’s no man! But Don is!); Betty’s (benign) nodule (Her listless marriage to Henry might literally kill her!); Don pulling rank on Ginsberg and snowball ad (There’s a snowball’s chance in hell Don will let some wunderkind take his place!) — plot devices laid out in not nearly as subtle a way we’ve known ‘Mad Men’ to do.

And I do think Lane Pyrce’s phantom haunted the finale (that wide shot of the partners in the new offices was like a retro “Ocean’s Eleven” moment), but also specters of the show’s past: that final scene, as Don leaves Megan to shoot her commercial, he cozies up to the bar and lights a cigarette with the same easiness and palpable machismo of his season on self. When psuedo-Heather Graham asks him, “Are you alone?” he is isn’t — the ghosts of seasons past
surround him.

‘FAT’ BETTY

Stroh: Poor January Jones. I’ve always defended her place on the show; it’s true that in other roles, Jones is often wooden at best, but I still hold that something — whether Weiner’s direction, the harmonious match of Jones’ frigidity to her character’s, or perhaps just her stunning good looks — makes January Jones a strangely compelling presence when she steps into Betty’s high-heeled shoes.

Still, Betty remains one of the most maligned characters of ‘Mad Men’s’ world, (next to Pete Campbell, maybe). And now, as a product of the actress’s recent pregnancy, Betty has been imprisoned all the more firmly than she ever was in the Draper home — by that mausoleum of a house, by her ever more matronly wardrobe, and, of course, by that unfortunate fat suit, once worn with so much quiet sadness by Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy. And for all that, Jones barely appeared this season, only popping up in four of the season’s 13 hours and only garnering one major episode arc.

It follows logically that Betty would appear less and less in the show, as she’s taken less of a role in Don’s life. But call me crazy — something has had me rooting for a Don-Betty reunion fling, if Don has to cheat on Megan at all. I kind of miss those crazy kids making each other’s lives a misery.

Chan: Betty’s shorter arc this season made it difficult to sympathize with her and her vengeful lashing out at Don and Megan. Understandable given the terms of their divorce, but the show seemed to go out of its way to make us revile Betty — in her behavior and her body. That gratuitous body shot of Betty rising from the tub was abhorrent, and not because of her weight. It was because you feel Weiner and the show working really hard to make you revile the heavier Betty. I almost buy into her empty and unexciting marriage to Saint Henry and their McMansion as what’s boring her into Weight Watchers and subzero iciness, but the story line was too threadbare to ever going anywhere but mean.

‘THE OTHER WOMAN’ (OR THE JOAN INCIDENT)

Stroh: You know, the entire Joan-as-sportscar metaphor had the potential to be disastrously overwrought and clumsy. “You see? Just as cars are merely objects onto which men project all their mid-life crises and suburban ennui, so too are beautiful women! Joan is a commodity to be sold ... just like Jaguar cars!”

But if the analogy itself wasn’t anything all too profound, the execution elevated it to a rapturous level. That entire montage intercutting stone-faced Joan’s five percent partnership prostitution with Don’s own prostituting ad pitch to Jaguar made the blatancy of the “women are just products!” idea practically transcendent.

Chan: Critics have been divided about the sort of streamlined decision making of this episode, where Joan effectively agreed to prostitute herself for the sake of the company to land the Jaguar account. Would Joan, specifically the Joan who had just been abandoned by her husband and struggling and in a place of disillusionment come to such an awful decision in what appeared to be a matter of days? I’m not sure. There was definitely something missing from the whole sequence to me — like they cut out the middle to get the money shot of Joan swelling with disgust as the Jaguar man takes off her coat in the hotel room.

And making Don seem like the good guy by objecting but without any real urgency, or sense of actual responsibility for Joan (let’s be real: Don tried to stop her more to make himself feel better than to actually save her), was gross. But collectively, I thought the episode worked because it ultimately stayed true to ‘Mad Men’s’ modus operandi: the tugging between the desire for who we want to be and who we have to be. ‘The Other Woman’ was that at its most grey.

LANE’S SUICIDE

Stroh: Oh, Lane. Sweetly bumbling, well-intentioned, “chocolate bunny”-loving Lane. How you’ll be missed.

Although the signs that it was still somehow a horrifying shock when Joan opened the door to Lane’s office, only to find it obstructed by ... something. And then the realization set in. That moment alone would have been enough to make Lane’s suicide by hanging horrifying, but then having to see Lane’s stiff, purpled face was the most grotesque thing ‘Mad Men’s’ done since the lawnmower incident.

Williams: The aftermath of Lane’s suicide gave us an interesting but fairly standard scene between Don and Lane’s widow, but was ultimately worth it for that gorgeous shot of the five partners gathered in the office space that Lane’s suicide was paying for. His absence was never felt more than in that moment in the sprawling empty office space, but it still felt like he was in there in spirit, having given the firm the finances to definitively expand. In fact, there’s a good case to be made that Lane is the metaphorical phantom who gave the episode its title.

Chan: It was almost Hitchcockian, Lane’s demise. That scene where he has to hold up (one) broken eyeglass to try and fix that shoddy new Jaguar in order to properly kill himself was the definition of tragicomedy. I never much cared for Embeth Davis’ performance as Lane’s wife, but that final interaction between her and Don was a tour de force. “Do you know how the rest of us live?!” she screams at Don, who practically whimpers out the front door of the Pryce apartment. He does, actually, but Dick Whitman has been Don Draper for so long, he’s forgotten how money can just as easily ruin as he found success.

PEGGY’S UPWARD MOBILITY

Stroh: What a conflicting scene it was when Peggy finally got the balls to leave SCDP for bigger things. On the one hand, it was about time Peggy got hers after years of being underappreciated by her mentor Don, her fellow copywriters and the many misogynistic clients she’s served. On the other hand, Don’s final kiss goodbye was completely wrenching, and as Peggy struggled to hold herself together, so did I. I have no doubt that Peggy will return to SCDP at some point, but for now it will be fun to see her stretch her wings and ordering around subordinates over at Ted Chaough’s firm.

Williams: How great was Peggy in these final episodes? The moment where she told Don she was leaving was beautifully played by Hamm and Olsen, and, combined with that episode’s Joan-related events, felt like the end of an era at SCDP, the moment where the firm lost its innocence and heart at the price of success. Even better was the scene between her and Don in the finale, as they serendipitously ran into each other at the movies. It’s the way ‘Mad Men’ pays off small character notes like this that makes it such a special show, and showing them engaging in the same worktime dalliance spells out perfectly how close these two became in their time working together, and how much they still mean to each other. For my money, that was the best scene in a finale that was often too oblique by a mile, a wonderfully measured coda to ‘Mad Men’s’ strongest character dynamic.

Chan: Season five for Peggy was about finding it in herself to finally demand what she wants and not feel bad about it. She didn’t get everything she had hoped for, but it was so rewarding for her character and the viewer for her to try. She couldn’t get Abe to completely commit. And she couldn’t quite elevate herself above liberal well-meaning by fearing Dawn might steal the money from her purse, but she found the tenacity to leave SCDP. Her pride in herself is magnified by our own.

PETE CAMPBELL

Stroh: Pete ignobly defended his title as ‘Character Most Fun to Despise’ this season, as the multiple punches he received to the face are any indication. His cowardly, passive-aggressive persuasions in favor of selling out Joanie to that disgusting Jaguar exec was surely his most despicable, but what really got me this season was the way he treated poor Trudy. It seemed that in the past few seasons Pete and Trudy had one of the healthiest and supportive marriage on the show. Now that they’ve moved to the stultifying suburb of Cos Cob and Trudy’s “let herself go” post-childbirth, Pete seemed to have lost all enjoyment of or respect for his ever-supportive wife, engaging in an affair with the dull, depressive Beth and lashing out at home. No, Pete. You can’t have good everything good all at once, so you better appreciate what you do have, or else you’ll go the way of Mr. Pryce.

Williams: ‘The Phantom’ had plenty of frustrating moments, but surprisingly, the only character whose storyline truly resolved was Pete Campbell, who was forgotten by his fling (one of the season’s weakest links, Alexis Bledel) and came to fisticuffs with her husband. Vincent Kartheiser also delivered a stunningly sad monologue that summed up his character perfectly, and also wrapped up the actor’s strongest season yet. Pete has been at his most compelling this season, thanks to Kartheiser’s unique deployment of equally repulsive and pitiful character details, not to mention his strong knack for getting punched in the face.

Chan: The worst! Campbell was at his most weaselly, spineless self this season. And was appropriately punched for it. But at the same time, there was something tragic about Pete’s bumbling this season. In the same way Dona and Peggy fight for what they want, Pete went about it in all the wrong ways, operating under the assumption it was all owed to him and never earned.

Photos courtesy of AMC TV

Review

Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy Campbell (Alison Brie) in the season 5 premiere of “Mad Men.” (Michael Yarish/AMC)’ Photo courtesy of AMC.

Spoiler alert! The following contains spoilers from the “Mad Men” season premiere.

In the wait time between seasons of Matthew Weiner’s meticulously curated, sumptuous slow burn “Mad Men,” there has been a profusion of new period dramas. In the 17 months since we left the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, at least four notable dramas premiered.

None of them, comparatively, measure up to “Mad Men” and its strictly high art storytelling. “The Playboy Club,” “Pan Am” (the former awful and swiftly canceled, the latter unremarkable, inoffensive and stuck in network TV renewal limbo) and to some extent “Hell on Wheels,” are too pointed, too obvious and too narrow in their use of our past as a mirror of our future.

They call too much attention to their setting. They are “period dramas;” “Mad Men” is a drama that just so happens to be set in a different time period. The distinction is syntactical, a little silly (and bracing and pretentious), but important.

Downton Abbey” is another elaborately costumed and painstakingly set designed era drama, but its theater and drama and accents are of the stage. It moves and breathes, hits its marks and finds its light like a production at the Globe Theatre. There is an inherent artfulness to “Downton Abbey,” but its art is commanding and stirring and demands that you look at it.

No, “Mad Men” is molded from the mind of a maddening savant who creates his art as a means of self-expression, to unearth repressed pathos and for his own self-amusement; his work is not made for you to like it.

This dialectic manifests itself with particular zeal in “Mad Men’s” fifth season premiere, a two-hour saunter from frame to frame that jauntily cocks its head before asking, “We’ve been having a grand ol’ time. Where have you been?”

At first, it seems smug and showy, its acknowledgement of how its world kept living as acrimonious contract disputes between Weiner and AMC kept the show off the air for more than a year. And it’s disorienting at first, to experience the show moving up a notch from its usual slow, slow pace; it waltzes though rather gracefully.

But this sense of self-assuredness is a result of a significant decision made by its cast of characters: to change. A turning point of sorts has been reached in the show’s series-long mediation and negotiation between the characters’ desires and what is expected of them — of who they want to be and who they have to be.

Because of spoiler regulation by AMC, those changes can’t be explicitly laid out here, but in true Weiner and “Mad Men” style, they are subtle about the era’s role in motivating those changes. It avoids many period productions’ pitfall of overthinking how big, defining cultural moments affect us; they are rarely direct or specific to the individual.

Instead, “Mad Men” expresses developments in 1960 civil rights, gender roles and class in slight twinges and characters’ incomplete understandings. A mundane conversation about home carpeting trends (“Just because you see white carpet in a magazine doesn’t mean you should get it”) and labored canned bean campaigns (“We want beans to appeal to college kids — to eat during sit-ins!”) are the kind of ephemeral details that movements of change actually render themselves.

So how do we see the perpetually reticent, impatient and quixotic Don Draper change? Instead of downing another Old Fashioned, lighting another cigarette or extolling some impossibly poignant oratory? He smiles and you believe his happiness.

Printed on Friday, March 23, 2012 as: AMC's exceptional period drama rules prime time television