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The Return of "Mad Men"

By admin Published: August 17, 2009

After the jump, thoughts about last night's third-season premiere of "Mad Men," and why it all fit so well into London Fog.

As has been said more than once here and elsewhere, a thread running through "Mad Men" is the question of identity: where we belong in a changing culture, how others see us, who we really are, and how we manipulate others to see us as something other than we are not.

One reason why advertising is such a rich field for the show is that it is all about perception and how people identify themselves. The use of London Fog as a brand makes that point, since we are told that London fog itself is a myth -- but a myth that sounds great.

And that theme fits the series as a whole because Don Draper and the other characters, especially the women, struggle with the issue of identity. (Don is purely London Fog -- a great look, a catchy name, all myth and illusion, and hiding inside his very own, man-made fog.)
And probably no episode to date has brought the identity issue to center stage as much as "Out of Town," the third-season premiere.

Taking place a mere six months after the end of the second season (there has been much talk about the show making two-year leaps each time, as it did between the first and second season), "Out of Town" found Sterling Cooper as an institution facing what it will become in the hands of the ax-swinging Brits who now run the firm. That has led not only to job cuts but shifts in the power structure, and Pete goes through the role-bending notion that he is finally getting a promotion, raising his own limited self-esteem, only to have to rethink when it turns out it's, well, half a promotion. The Brits, meanwhile, have to adjust to the particularly American way of running an office, with Joan brilliantly outplaying the self-important British secretary, John Hooker; Hooker, meanwhile, gave me a new favorite word in gynocracy, and in doing so reassured viewers that the season premiere's relatively light female content will most likely increase as the season goes on.

Don's identity changes are extensive, too, since he is facing fatherhood again (the reduced time-jump making it possible to have Betty still pregnant) as well as navigating the changes at Sterling Cooper. But he is ever the chameleon, as we see when he slips into a new identity to woo a stewardess. (I know, flight attendant. But the show is set in 1963!)

Not only that, he drags Sal along in his scam, putting Sal's own identity issues as a closeted gay man on the table. Indeed, Sal may have the most complicated story in the episode. Like Don, he brings many secrets to his usual identity. But then he is asked to take on a new one, as Don's seductive companion, for which he is ill-suited. But the freedom from his customary role then appears to either turn him on or simply release him from the restrictions he usually has to live with, so he is able to feel real passion for the bellhop. Except, Sal being doomed to suffer, that passion was interrupted.

Of course, all the taking on of identities in "Out of Town" involves some measure of frustration, simply because any stepping out of a role will eventually require stepping back in again. But with swift strokes, "Mad Men" set itself on numerous journeys for the third season, while continuing the themes which have been at the heart of the show during the first two.

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