Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Theories about the new season of Mad Men, based on its poster

Mad Men doesn’t give much away. New seasons have never been advertised with fresh footage. Commercials and teasers for individual episodes are usually oblique, offering context-free snippets of dialogue and unrevealing shots of characters. The posters that precede a new season, however, do have some allegorical relationship to what happens over the season.

Season two's poster had Don standing stationary in Grand Central Station, crisply defined against a blur of people moving around him, symbolizing our growing familiarity with a man who spent most of the first season a cipher.

The third season’s had him in his office with water rising around him, suggesting how untenable his life has become and maybe foreshadowing the inevitability of the changes he makes at the end of the season.

The fourth has him in an empty office, looking out a window. It’s expressive not just of the fresh start in his business and his personal life (as a divorced father) but of the loneliness that characterizes him for at least the fist half of the season.

So, for speculating on what the fifth season may bring, this poster is likely all we’re going to get until March 25. It features Don looking in a department store window at two mannequins, a naked female (standing) and a clothed male (sitting), facing each other. What might this suggest about the new season?

• The naked mannequin being looked at by the clothed one may hint that Don’s fear of exposure could be a bigger theme this year. His secret, that he’s really Dick Whitman, gets less secret each season. In the fourth season's tenth episode, he has a panic attack after mistaking some men in suits in his apartment building for FBI agents. In addition, each season has shown him making contingency plans for his family should his secret come out (the implication each time being that he would run). In addition to Betty and Pete knowing, he nearly let it slip to both Faye and Peggy in season four. Even Sally noted (in the fourth season’s finale that he referred to himself as Dick when he signed Anna’s painted wall.

• That it’s about Don’s fear of intimacy. Don’s never been comfortable with people knowing who he was (though he has allowed Peggy and a few of his mistresses glimpses). This is related to his secret, though also, I think, separate from it. As successful as he is, he's still has a lot of shame about having grown up poor and occasionally having eaten horsemeat. As he’s breaking up with Faye at the end of season four, she sums him up as only liking the beginnings of things. The poster might be illustrative of his fear of being with someone who sees past his artifice, which would not bode well for the new marriage he seems to want at the end of last season.

• The show has been about the experience of women in the 1960s as much as anything else. The poster could also be (a kind of heavy-handed) shorthand for the continuing sexual revolution. Don’s always had some torn sympathies here, in some ways welcoming and in other resisting, the era’s changing gender and sexual norms. As the show moves into the latter half of the ‘60s, the contrast between the mannequins, with Don’s reflection positioned between them, might be significant. The male is not just dressed, but dressed very conservatively. The woman’s clothes are on the floor, and the image suggests she’s about to step forward.