03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mad Men : Three Seasons On and Looking Forward

Mad Men's brilliant third season finale earlier this month is still echoing in the mind. And in the culture. January Jones was a game host of Saturday Night Live the following weekend. (Though she didn't make anyone forget Jon Hamm's great hosting gig last year. He is seriously funny.) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed that she's a fan of the show. And of course her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is a Mad Men fan as well.

Which is simply too perfect for words. I could easily write a column comparing Bill Clinton and Don Draper. Avoiding the obvious cheap shots. Another time, perhaps.

Don Draper and Roger Sterling move forward with new plans for the future.

I've been thinking about the arc of the series from its excellent pilot, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," set in March 1960, to the fabulous third season finale, which takes place in December 1963. Where has the series been, where is it now, and where might it be going with creator Matthew Weiner?

The reality is that our beloved old Sterling Cooper was a rather stodgy advertising agency. That's clear in the series premiere. We meet Don Draper, our protagonist anti-hero. He's trying hard to come up with a campaign for a tobacco company. And to help it deal with these awful rumors that cigarettes are very bad for you.

We learn that Don, while very creative, is wedded to an old paradigm. He doesn't like research. He doesn't like quirky advertising. He doesn't think, so far as we can tell through all the smoke around him, that there's anything wrong with cigarettes. We see that his agency is on the wrong side of change. That's really spelled out when Roger Sterling says he doesn't see any reason why America won't fall in love with a good-looking Navy hero like Dick Nixon.

As the season goes on, we see the Sterling Coo crew blindsided by the advent of John F. Kennedy. (Except for Pete Campbell.)

The only art we see highlighted, and this is in season two, is Bert Cooper's Rothko. Which the characters view as a great mystery. It's a key prop in season two. In fact, you could say that the Rothko set in motion most of the principal events for the rest of season two and all of season three.

After all, it was Jane Siegel's impish decision to goad a group into venturing into the forbidden territory of Bert's office to view the painting that led to her being fired by Joan. And reinstated by Roger, who had happened upon the perfect context in which to casually hit on Don's gorgeous, smart young secretary without looking like an aging lech. That in turn led to the collapse of Roger's marriage, his decision to marry Jane, and the need to sell Sterling Cooper to the Brits to settle his divorce.

The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.

In that sense, the Rothko is the show's McGuffin, a mysterious object of wonderment which triggers action.

Yet the fact that it is a Rothko which serves as the trigger for monumental change in the show points up the time warp nature of Sterling Cooper. A dangerously time warp nature, what with the cascading changes about to unfold in the 1960s.

Rothko is Abstract Expressionism. Avant garde in the '50s. And it placed New York City at the center of the art world, supplanting Paris. But by the '60s, it was establishment art. What was popping across, as it happens, New York at the very time of Mad Men's seasons two and three, was Pop Art. Heavily influenced by advertising, mass media, and pop culture -- in many respects an ironic commentary on them -- and executed by ex-commercial artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, Pop was centered in New York City.

Yet we see not a hint of Pop in the world of Sterling Cooper, even as it's beginning to explode across the same city, with Lichtenstein's classic Drowning Girl produced in 1963. The gang finally gets Kennedy, as we see right along from Jackie Kennedy's TV special on the White House, which takes place during season two. And Peggy and a few others discover Bob Dylan, while Don dabbles with a beatnik girlfriend. But on the whole, this is a crew that is largely behind the curve of change, as is so shockingly clear in the Derby Day episode early in season three, with Roger singing in blackface and Pete and Trudy dancing the Charleston. We barely even see anyone dance the Twist.

And while it's a shock to see that great Sterling Cooper set slip into the rear view mirror, it's okay with me. I thought it was brilliant, but I didn't really like it. I like the fashions of the early '60s more than the design aesthetic.

In any event, Sterling Coo felt more late '50s than even early '60s, and the real "Sixties" are definitely getting underway.

The characters react to the shocking news of the assassination of President Kennedy.

It's like comparing and contrasting North By Northwest with Dr. No. The films are only three years apart -- with North By Northwest in 1959 and Dr. No in 1962 -- but they have a very different feel. North By Northwest, which clearly influenced the show, is definitely of the '50s, refined and rather mannered. Dr. No is definitely of the '60s, rawer and more sexual and violent. (North By Northwest, unlike Dr. No, is a great movie, which I'll write about as its 50th anniversary edition is now out this month.)

And the change we see reflected in those films will be even more pronounced the next time we see the ex-Sterling Coo crew, which I expect to be 1964. It's the year of the Beatles and Goldfinger, the last Bond film in which Bond wears a hat (and then only while golfing with the villain). And it's the year of LBJ's election (as well as that of a new senator for New York named Robert F. Kennedy), the year of civil rights and the real beginnings of the Vietnam War. Advertising is the perfect prism by which to view these characters moving through a hyper-capitalist society that is accelerating and fragmenting as it does.

It's interesting that President Kennedy basically killed off most of the hat industry after he was elected president and went hatless on the day of his inauguration. The fact that one of the last things Don does in the old Sterling Cooper offices is pick up his hat signifies how he has clung to the past while clinging to Sterling Coo. If he wears a hat from now on, it will be through sheer force of habit. And I doubt he will, as it's important to his self-image as an image professional for Don to be cool.

Betty confronts Don with his little box of big secrets in this past season's Episode 11.

So where are Don and the other characters now in this fabulous novel for television?

** Don Draper is the one constant in the series. Though there was a moment when I thought he just might swim out to sea, like Bruce Dern in Coming Home. Now, prodded by his eccentric but clear-sighted amigo Connie Hilton, he's flown the coop (even though he forced Coop to come along for the big ride), setting up a new advertising agency that can be fast and nimble enough to drive change rather than be washed away by it.

His marriage to Betty is over. I suspect he'll be happier without the pressure and energy drain of having to pretend to keep up the facade of a life which itself was a facade. Don never really got Betty, as we saw in the aftermath of their big trip to Rome. He wanted the image of Betty, kept safely behind the gilded white picket fence cage of the "perfect" suburban life. Ironically, had he engaged her in his professional life, which she wanted, she could have been a great partner in his new venture.

In any event, Don Draper is on the loose. That frees up the show in many ways. I thought this season was quite brilliant, in much the same way that a great long novel can be brilliant, in exploring the permutations of family and married life that led to the big break-up. But like such a novel, portions of it dragged for me, necessary though they probably were. Now that is largely done, pared away, presenting exciting possibilities for Don.

Did Don actually blow his best chance to revive his marriage to Betty after they returned from Rome?

** Betty Draper has been another central constant, because she is married to the protagonist. In some ways, this season was as much about Betty as it was about Don. Now their marriage has ended, and so has Betty's centrality to the story. She'll still be a significant player, certainly because of the children. But she's likely to disappear for stretches of the story now. In that sense, she may become a more likable character.

She is marrying someone she barely knows, which is never an especially brilliant idea. But Henry Francis is a more real concept to her now than Don, since she's learned that there really is no Don. Like Don, she fell in love with an image. When she learned that the picture she had held in her head of "Don Draper" was false, what faith she had left was cracked. The Kennedy assassination, and especially its immediate aftermath, shattered their already fractured bond.

** Sally Draper was always an intriguing child. This season, she became one of the principal characters in the series. She's the quintessential baby boomer in the series. She's already being raised largely by television. That will only accelerate with her parents split apart. Her brother Bobby is a less interesting character, perhaps because boys that age are not all that fascinating. Though he did have some telling moments late in the season.

** Roger Sterling is the character I enjoy the most. His funny, frequently sarcastic, nearly always spot-on observations are a real treat. His character really sold me on the series in its early days when it was still unfamiliar and sometimes slow-going. He and Don have a great rapport, and a fascinating dynamic. Kind of like sweet and sour chicken. It was hard when he was sidelined from the main action through much of the season. But he is certainly right in the thick of it now. And with a real existential challenge. He inherited his business. Now he gets to find out what he can do on his own, reliant though he will be on Don. And vice versa.

** Peggy Olsen is the forerunner female professional, with the clearest arc. As pollster Paul Maslin puts it: "She is going to be the litmus test on a lot of the change -- gender roles, first and foremost, but I could see her getting radicalized by the times as well."

January Jones played Grace Kelly in this Saturday Night Live version of a scene from Hitchcock's classic Rear Window.

** Joan Holloway has been the betwixt and between female character. She's used her sexuality to get ahead. But ironically, her looks have gotten in her way professionally. Now, with her central role in this very high-powered little start-up agency, she has the opportunity to shine in ways she never could have before.

Then there's Joan's husband. It's tempting to talk sardonically about Vietnam and land mines, but suffice it to say that their lives are going in very different directions. He's in the Army, he has training and postings overseas, and I really don't see Joan chucking her new role as, essentially, the chief operating officer of Sterling Cooper Draper Price to sit around base housing somewhere.

** Pete Campbell has always been ahead of the curve in his thinking. He's also been a big pain in the ass and worse, pouting, snobby, backstabbing (remember Freddy Rumsen, one of my favorites?), forcing himself on the neighbor's nanny.

Yet he is growing up, in tune with the times. He turned out to be the Kennedy person at Sterling Coo, even though in season one he had dutifully come up with a very clever gambit to help Nixon. He's helped tremendously by having the best marriage, to the estimable and delightful Trudy, who I think will be more of a player in the series as the new agency moves forward.

** Bert Cooper is not ready for the ice floe. The eccentric sage of Sterling Coo, who can play real hardball when he wants to (recall how he finally got Don to sign his contract) is now way outside his comfort zone, working in a hotel room with people young enough to be his grandchildren. There's no place for him to nap or watch TV during the day there. The slumbering old lion in the winter of his days may have a rebirth.

** Lane Pryce quickly became one of my favorite characters. The ultimate company loyalist proved to be quite the skilled plotter when he cast aside his old company tie. I think he will end up working well with Joan. Capable people admire capability. After all, without both of these characters, there is no Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Mad Men's third season opener set a strong stage for things to come.

** Sal Romano has had a terrific character arc which dropped him in the middle of his identity's central contradiction. He won't easily return to the crew. After all, there is no agency without the big tobacco account, and unless the odious Lee Garner Jr. steps in front of a bus, or tries to be a movie mogul in Hollywood, this scrambling start-up is in no position to play hardball in order to rehire Sal as art director. He could be a consultant, however. He's a terrific character, and I hope and expect we will see a lot more of him.

** Ken Cosgrove was one of the "left behind." We don't really know why yet. As talented as Pete is, especially in terms of ideas and foresight, Ken is the better accounts man, for the reason that Lane laid out. He makes it look effortless. And he's certainly talented, a fine writer as we know from season one, with a better touch with talent than Peggy, as we saw in season two.

** Paul Kinsey lost his copywriting duel with Peggy. He went to Princeton (as he mentions on occasion), she went to secretarial school. But she has the knack for advertising, and he doesn't. The new crew could certainly hire him as they staff up, but they could hire somebody else, too.

** Harry Crane, the luckiest character in the series -- his key career moment came when he saw that Sterling Coo should have a television department, which was not exactly a stroke of genius -- keeps on keeping on. He has the connections now and is the amiable facilitator they need.

** Duck Phillips looked as though he might be the deus ex machina setting big changes in motion this season. But he turned out to be more of a red herring; unless he marries Peggy, which is hard to see, I don't know how he plays into things.

** Henry Francis, of course, is now a serious character. Will he marry his Grace Kelly whom he's rescued from the suburbs -- as he sees it -- and make Betty the princess she was raised to be? Well, he has a presidential campaign to work on, that of his governor, Nelson Rockefeller. This 1964 campaign, incidentally, marks the fundamental defeat of the liberal East Coast wing of the Republican Party and the rise of the Sun Belt right.

This might portend a more nomadic existence for Henry, if he were principally a campaign operative. But he works in the governor's office. And Nelson Rockefeller is going to be governor of New York for another decade. Then he becomes vice president of the United States. As Henry Kissinger knows, there is sustaining power and prestige in being a senior advisor to Rockefeller, a famed art collector and one of the richest men in America. And a rather glittering world of power for Betty to explore.

** Suzanne Farrell is not crazy. Sorry, folks. she's not. A lot of fans think she is (fill in the blank) psychiatric designator. What she is is a forerunner in her own right, a smart, free-spirited, proto-hippie. She's also very good-looking, a brunette (like Don likes when he is not in Grace Kelly dream mode). Oh, and little Sally absolutely adores her ex-teacher. Hmm ...

** Jane Siegel is someone we might see more of next season, especially if the ABC scifi drama Flash Forward doesn't start doing better. That's because the actress who plays the new Mrs. Roger Sterling is a regular on this new show. A lot of fans want Roger and Joan to get together. There are two problems with this. One, they are both married to other people, only one of whom is going to be sent overseas. The other is that they work together. In very confined spaces. And Roger, as Bert pointed out, is too old for Joan. He's not too old for Jane, however paradoxical it may seem. When Roger passes on, Jane is still pretty young, and very well off, and can more easily restart her life with someone else. Jane is also one of the most contemporary characters on the show, something of a neo-Mod, actually, before she married Roger.

** Conrad Hilton proved to be a most interesting character. After all, he set the events of the finale in motion, with Don finally doing what Connie wanted to hear him say he would do: Go out on his own and make his own mark. Connie can only be approving of what his sometime surrogate son has done. And since Don didn't burn his bridges, and then acted very rapidly on his own -- and there is no redundancy of Hilton advertising now -- there's no reason these two can't work together down the line.

You know, Don Draper does look a little bit like George Kaplan. Or Roger O. Thornhill. What does the "O" stand for? Nothing at all.

Well, I think that's enough for now. This is a novel playing out on television, and can be discussed endlessly.

I'm really a political writer, not an entertainment writer, so this has been a very interesting experience. I do write about movies from time to time. In fact, I'm going to write over Thanksgiving about the 50th anniversary edition of North By Northwest, a movie which has an obvious connection to this great series.

And having been writing about the best show on television for the past three months, I'm going to write about the biggest show on television. That's NCIS, a very different sort of show, very well done, which has surprisingly become more popular as it has aged, being in its seventh season now. And, oddly, no one has written about it.

But I won't be analyzing NCIS every week. Not that it would not be much easier, though the Ziva character (the agent who is the daughter of the head of Israel's Mossad secret service, which, contrary to your expectation, doesn't come off at all well) is certainly complicated enough to be on Mad Men.

I could write about Lost. After all, I've watched it from the beginning. And this is the last season. Sadly, I still don't really know what's going on. With the characters time shifting so often I sometimes feel like I have a concussion while watching it.

I don't think many Americans watch MI-5 (Spooks in the less PC UK).

24? It got better again last season, though it's not as good as it was in its first few seasons. And the constant torture motif certainly is significant, if too predictable. But that might be too much like writing about politics. Though it might be good to examine how Jack Bauer manages to drive across Los Angeles in less than half an hour. Sadly, the show no longer takes place in LA, so that humor angle no longer exists.

Let's see. It's less than nine months till Mad Men's season four begins ...