Mad women

Pub date August 12, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

TV DAMES I’m sure you’ve heard: the critically lauded Mad Men‘s characterizations are subtle and layered. Its insights into contemporary society, as viewed through the prism of 1960s-era domestic and professional life, are at once nuanced and precisely rendered. Its dialogue is rich in subtext and dramatic allusion. In short, it’s, you know, deep.

But, also, the outfits really rock. And so do the fabulously messed-up women who wear them. Take vixen head-secretary Joan Holloway, as portrayed by flame-haired siren Christina Hendricks. While Joan — a sex kitten who’s all business — bumps her sculptural up-do on the proverbial glass ceiling, the men in the Manhattan offices of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency ogle her "valentine’s heart" rear end. Joanie lives for the attention. Brimming with confidence, smarts, and curvaceous sass, this formidable gal wields her sexuality like a fleshy weapon; 40 years in the future, she could have toppled corrupt government administrations without smearing her lipstick. Instead, she makes the coffee, taunts Serious Career Girl Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) about her weight, and brushes off getting raped by her fiancé in the boss’s office with a terse, ladylike smile. Let’s hope in 1963 her color-coordinated pumps trip over a copy of The Feminine Mystique.

If working city-girl Joan is the show’s sugar-voiced femme fatale, then Betty Draper (lead ad exec Don Draper’s icy, model-perfect wife) is its luridly soapy secret weapon. A young Grace Kelly type trapped in the suburban wastelands of upstate New York, Betty (January Jones) is equally as confused — and formidable — as her urban sex goddess counterpart. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the Princess of Monaco would slap a neighbor in a grocery store after being accused of an inappropriate relationship with a 12-year-old boy. Or reprimand her cheating husband for his choice of mistress ("How could you, Don? She’s so old.")

Betty’s uptight, provincial-princess façade is also the source for some martini-dry comedy. When a foppish younger man tries to seduce her, she sets him straight. "You’re so deeply sad," he coos. "No, I’m happy," she replies. "It’s just my people are Nordic." Joan stretched out luxuriously on a streamlined chartreuse sofa in a purple shift dress might represent the apex of the show’s downtown aesthetic, but Betty’s delicate upstate hausfrau is its hypocritical, bourgeois soul. When the new season premieres Aug. 16, I’ll be glued to the flat-screen with highball glass in hand, enjoying all the scandals ’60s-era Manhattan and Westchester County have to offer. Like Don Draper, I feel no need to have to choose just one woman, especially when they all offer such distinct, guilty-pleasure charms.