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Mad Men: Then and Now (Season 1, Episode 13) – The Wheel

October 21, 2014

Mad Men allows us to delve into the designs of the retro world of Advertising that existed in the 60’s, typically known as the ‘men’s domain’.  The episode ‘The Wheel’ looks at ‘then’ and ‘now’, not only in within the context of marketing and the workplace, but within the realm of life (Jason Mittel, ‘On Disliking Mad Men’).

The long awaited AMC serial drama is set in New York at the height of the 1960’s.  Mad Men used the lives of these 60’s characters to explore key concepts such as gender, race, consumerism as they are explored through the lives of these characters (Deborah L Jaramillo, AMC Stumbling towards a New Canon, 2012).

Sounds are metallic and sharp – this gives the viewer a concept of time, space and reality.  There is little, if any background music to formulate scenes. This emulates the 1960’s style film such as ‘Valley of the Dolls‘ or ‘The Apartment‘ (Jeremy G. Butler, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Historicizing Visual Style in Mad Men).

Without knowing great detail about each individual character, the episode allows us to successfully build narrative around the main characters, in particular looking at the ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ we see contrast of characters such as Don Draper and Peggy Olson.

Don Draper, the lead character, demands authority as he walks into a room, towers over his colleagues and wife, emulates Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby in his pursuit for success and drive, yet his internal misgivings, and immorality. Mad Men is built upon the pursuit of the American dream, and each characters ability or inability to obtain it.

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Peggy Olson, the aspirational, seemingly wholesome and hard working receptionist, completely at the will of the men around her and their inhibitions.  Her scandal and misunderstanding of the nature of the workplace put her in difficult situations.  Peggy is contrasted to Joan, well advanced, capable and hypnotically seductive.  Outside the office we have Mrs Draper and the wives of Don’s co-workers, seemingly normal but inherently flawed due to scandal, expectation or mistrust (Mimi White – Mad Women in Mad Men, 2011).

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Don Draper and Peggy Olson experience different hardships throughout the episode.  Their context of “Then’ and ‘Now’ are different.  Peggy attempts to climb the ladder, by doing so she finds herself aborting a child. Don, driven and power hungry has the office constantly orbiting around him.

The opening scene has the women speaking about sewing and patterns, whilst the men speak of the upcoming presidential election. This divide is consistent throughout the episode, in today’s world, the women would also speak about politics, yet Mad Men communicates politics as a strictly Men’s Business, emphasizing conservatism, with many references to hard lined right wing philosopher Ayn Rand.  Conservative thought is also consistent due to the small role played by a single colored maid, and the understanding of the role of families, men and women.

The office generally holds a sense of ‘power relations’, whether the office is too small and crowded, such as Peggy’s, or too large and overwhelming, such as Don’s.  Space and angles are used as a tool to influence viewers in each scene. These tools are also consistent in other areas such as the Draper home, or the office of Mrs Drapers therapist.

Peggy, assists in marketing ‘The Relaxiciser ‘ a product that can reduce a woman’s weight, as well as provide pleasure. Peggy and her male-seemingly lazy- co-worker interview for the voice-over.  Three women, one beautiful, the other two average.  Peggy immediately singles out the beauty, indicating that what they are selling is ‘confidence’.  Peggy, frustrated that the beautiful woman did not sound confident enough dismissed her by announcing it from behind the recording studio.

Her male colleague indicates the most beautiful women are the least confident, for Peggy this did not make sense. We also see Peggy get promoted in this episode and Don use Peggy as a chess piece to strategically take the sails out of his colleagues success. Again, Peggy is unaware of the dynamics that exist within the workplace of men.

Don’s attempt to re-invigorate the marketing behind the Kodak wheel product brings to light an unexpected realization as he comes to terms with the fact that he cannot recover the past, but merely keep safe the memories to turn back to.  Don Draper presents his nostalgic take on the new Kodak product.  Nostalgia literally meaning to ‘ache from the pain of your own wound’. Projecting images of happier times, Don is overtaken.

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Don returns home to an empty house, his family having left for Thanksgiving.  Don sits on the stairs, never having looked smaller before in a shot. We see the contrast of ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ is great and irrecoverable, as was Gatsby’s green light. 

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