Defining Moments: Mad Men
Television has a rich history of shows which have entertained, thrilled, and moved us. Some of the very best shows in television history have singular moments that crystallize that which makes them unique into a single scene. Defining Moments is a series that catalogues those scenes.
The Series: Mad Men
Mad Men premiered on the cable network AMC in July of 2007. The series was a bold new venture for the network, previously titled American Movie Classics and known for airing old films (AMC had previously dabbled in original programming, but nothing as ambitious). Mad Men came with a distinguished pedigree—creator Matthew Weiner had previously written for the final three seasons of The Sopranos—but a cast of unknowns. The series centers on the life of 1960’s advertising executives working on Madison Avenue at the fictional firm Sterling Cooper.
But these men are not what they seem. The series lead, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) cuts the dashing figure of a man born to his position in life, but in fact he is Dick Whitman, illegitimate son of a poor farmer and a prostitute who stole the real Don Draper’s identity during the Korean War. Don lives a flashy, high risk lifestyle, all the while living in fear that his secret will be uncovered.
The Episode: Season One, Episode 12 : “Kennedy vs. Nixon”
It is election night in 1960. The men of Sterling Cooper anxiously await the returns as they cheer their candidate of choice—Vice President Richard Nixon. As the rest of the team throws a wild party (filling the water cooler with Creme de Menthe and indulging in extramarital affairs in their offices), weasely account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) broods over Don’s courting of outsider Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) for the position of Head of Accounts—a position that Pete feels he deserves.
But Pete has an ace up his sleeve. In a previous episode he found a box of photos sent to Dick Whitman from his brother, evidence that Don Draper is not who he says he is. Emboldened with his discovery, Pete charges into Don’s office with the box, determined to blackmail Don into giving him the position.
When Pete enters the office Don barely looks up from his newspaper. Pete calmly asks again to be reconsidered for Head of Accounts, and Don declines. Pete turns to the door and, after a moment’s hesitation, closes it. Don, hearing the door shut, puts down his paper and stares at Pete, a man he has no respect for, and says, “Spit it out, Campbell.” With steely confidence Pete says, “I know that your name is not Don Draper.” Don’s demeanor doesn’t change, but his voice cracks on his reply. Pete takes this as confirmation and repeats—this time with deadly calm—his request to be reconsidered for the position.
Don gets up from behind his desk and moves to face Pete. This is a moment on which the entire series will hinge. Now that Don’s secret is out, what will he do to prevent himself from further exposure? Decades of dramatic television have trained the viewer to be ready for a violent confrontation or threat—the kind that only very rarely and randomly happens in real life. But it is common for the central character of a television series, especially one who is hiding a secret that could send him to jail, to respond with violence. Is Don that type of character? Is Mad Men that type of series?
We get our answer in the way that Don approaches Pete. Draper is a big man, and the camera angle makes it clear that he is taller and broader than Pete. Don could physically destroy this man. Pete begins to bring his fists up in anticipation of a fight, but as Don stands in front of him he places his hands in his pockets.
His fists hidden, Don asks Pete his terms: “You said everything but ‘or else.’” But all Pete cares about is the Head of Accounts position. Pete’s face never changes during the encounter, and only a slight, heavy swallow indicates that he even understands he may be in danger. He is, here in his moment of triumph, all he will ever be: an entitled rich boy. He doesn’t care at all about Don’s transgressions, other than as a tool to realize his own ambitions. “This can all be forgotten,” he tells Don.
Then, for the first time, Don’s face truly turns dangerous, “When you threaten someone in this manner, you should be aware of the fact that if your information is powerful enough to make them do what you want…what else can it make them do?” It is the first implicit threat in the conversation, but Pete—still so intent on his goal—barely recognizes it. “It’s just a job”, he tells Don. Don seems surprised. Can this really be all Pete cares about? But it is. Pete leaves, on top of the world, and Don is left in his office, shaken to his core.
One of the defining aspects of Mad Men, beyond its lovely surface and its hypnotic slow-jazz story pace, is its devotion to character over arbitrary drama. Don does not react violently because it’s not who he is. Part of what we are seeing, as we will learn in subsequent seasons, is the divide between Don Draper, the facade, and Dick Whitman, the real man underneath. Don Draper may be a confident man among men, but Dick Whitman is little more than a scared child perpetually running from danger. Pete can’t see the danger he’s just put himself in because he’s obsessed with making a name for himself and escaping the shadow of his father.
Their confrontation, brief though it is, is a distillation of the characters of both men and, remarkably, much of that is conveyed only by the expression on Hamm and Kartheiser’s faces. The moment is allowed to play out without being rushed. It relies more on the deliberate pacing of the theatre of the era rather than the quick pace of modern television. That pace and attention to detail have made, and continue to make, Mad Men one of the best series on television.