“Events happened so quickly, hammer blow after hammer blow, that in retrospect it seems astonishing that the national psyche survived intact. Perhaps it did not.”
This is what historians Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan once wrote about the year 1968. The mention of that year evokes strong feelings in most Americans, whether or not they were alive then. That year will be the setting of the new season of one of America’s top-rated dramas, Mad Men. The show has always had the events of the 1960s—the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, the Beatles—as backdrop of, and sometimes catalyst for, its stories of the advertising industry, sex, family, and fashion. That catalytic function is likely to speed up, now that the season has arrived at such an iconic year.
What’s intrigues me is what we will be able to learn from 1968 in such a crack’d mirror as this show. I find myself asking: How can they jam it all in? Can the season include, in more than a passing glance, the quick-in-succession assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy? Apollo 7, the first manned U.S. spaceflight? The musical Hair, which had its Broadway debut that year?
Speaking of hair, we know from the promo photos and the trailer that the high fashion of the period will include the uncomfortable-looking hairstyles that resembled Marie Antoinette’s. Think Dusty Springfield, or Megan (Jessica Pare) in the photo at left.
It’s just as clear that the show’s gender themes are as hot as ever, from Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) rise to becoming a rival to Don at her new agency to Joan (Christina Hendricks) really actualizing her new role as partner. Natalie Haynes at The Guardian is betting on it: “The women of Mad Men operate in a sexist world, and they’re defined by their struggle to gain parity at work and in their homes.”
By 1968, of course, the second wave of the women’s movement was firmly underway. That was the year 100 women protested the Miss America pageant, that NY Radical Women published the journal Notes from the First Year, and a New York magazine writer named Gloria Steinem spoke out for women writers five years after she’d gone undercover at the Playboy Club. By then, Playboy’s circulation was 5 million copies a month, and its founder, Hugh Hefner, was proclaiming himself the father of a sexual revolution.
The latter kind of “sexual revolution” is already part of the show, and the rumor machine tells us that’s only going to escalate. January Jones, who plays Betty Draper, told New York that in this new season, “I’m in it more. I can only say that, I think. We’re halfway done—and I’ve gotten to do a lot of weird stuff.” But Jessica Pare let slip that feminism is there too, of a subtle sort: “I think Megan is probably part of the first generation of women that thought that she could have a career and a family life without so many social barriers. I think just as [Megan’s] sort of one of the first of a group of women who are, like, ‘Oh, I can have it all,’ as they say, I think that’s really new for [her husband Don], too.”
Neither the actresses nor the trailer hints that any of the Mad Men women are about to leave the scene and confront patriarchy along with Shulamith Firestone or something, much as that might delight the likes of me. In a year that was the peak of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with 200,000 combat troops overseas and 16,589 dead, what will that mean for Joan, whose husband is returning from his second tour of service, and Peggy, whose boyfriend, the alt-weekly journalist, is covering the antiwar movement? Might Dawn, the agency’s first black staff member, find herself inspired by the elegant Rep. Shirley Chisholm?
Given the writers’ love of surprises, all I can present here are more questions. The two-hour premiere is April 7, and I cannot wait.
A look at Mad Men, Season 6.