A Review of Mad Men Season Three So Far

Mad MenAbout a month ago I declared Mad Men “a cool show to like” at least partially due to the fact that it was so critically beloved.

A downside of a show being so critically beloved, though, is that it can often get away with doing things other shows would get slammed for.

Boring dream sequences, hastily drawn relationships, rehashing tired plot-lines and shock value are not features we usually like in dramas, and yet Mad Men has relied on them throughout the first five episodes of its new season.

I hate evaluating things before they are completed, but it seems fair to say that the first third of this new season has felt a little like an extended prologue. This is not to say that the show has suddenly turned bad or unwatchable—just that the show has yet to achieve the high standards it has set for itself.

Part of this is due to the lack of any extended arc: It felt like the stories of Betty’s pregnancy and Gene’s stay in the Draper house were rushed through. Season 1 laid the groundwork for the “Who is Don Draper?” story in the pilot, and Season 2’s premiere had him mailing a package to a mystery woman in the first episode; Season 3 has had no such mystery.

Now, this is not to say that Mad Men should follow a formula, but the slow, deliberate pace of Mad Men only works when the show’s plot is heading somewhere. Episodes like “My Old Kentucky Home,” in which we get to gawk at Roger in blackface and Peter doing the Charleston, seem like anachronistic voyeurism without any palpable theme. This season’s themes don’t seem like anything the show hasn’t done before: Don Draper has problems with account men? Peggy has issues being a working woman? Racism was around in the 1960s? No shit. These things have been done before, and better, on the show.

This is not to say that the first five episodes have not been enjoyable; this is still Mad Men, and I’m always happy to watch Peter talk to an elevator attendant about which TVs “Negroes” like to buy, or Peggy and Paul smoking pot in the office. Plus, the fact that Betty’s pregnancy and the Grandpa Gene stories were rushed through may turn out to set up something about how the Draper family re-constitutes itself.

Right now, though, the show hasn’t done anything to make us think that Sally’s teacher is going to be any different from Don’s other conquests (Midge, Rachel, Bobbie), or that the bond between Gene and Sally was so unbreakable, or that Peggy’s issues are any different than they were last year.

What made seasons 1 and 2 of Mad Men was that the episodes both dwelled in the prosaic, but seemed like part of a larger epic. Season 3, however, feels like its telling the same story all over again.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Elizabeth Schneider on September 17, 2009 at 9:28 PM

    While I agree with your assessment that thus far, season 3 has not been living up to the standards set by season 2, I take issue with your stripping down of the season’s storylines. It seems like you’re expecting the show to reinvent itself every season. From the pilot, the show has put a heavy emphasis on Peggy’s character and her climb up Sterling Cooper’s ranks. Now, I hate Peggy (as a person, not as a character) and I do think that her stories this season have been awfully cliched, but I don’t think that it’s fair of you to just brush off these plotlines because we’ve already seen Peggy “have issues as a working woman”. That’s a big part of what the show IS. Same with the current events seeping into the lives of the characters. Yeah, racism was prevalent in the 60s, would you prefer the show to ignore this?


    • Posted by John S on September 19, 2009 at 3:00 PM

      There is a difference between pursuing the same themes and rehashing the same stories. So far the stories about Peggy this season have felt more like them redoing the same things from seasons one and two than actually advancing the story. I don’t want them to ignore issues like racism and feminism, but I do expect them to do it with a new perspective or outlook. The show has done this to an extent this season, but not enough to avoid me feeling that the new episodes feel a little redundant.


  2. […] Also, this Dylan song closed last night’s excellent Mad Men episode (John S apologizes for ever doubting that show) before being cut off by their stupid, misleading […]


  3. […] this year felt like it was putting pieces in place for some grand moment that never really came. A month into this season I said that the first five episodes had felt like a prologue. While there were a few great moments after […]


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