What will America in 1964 look like through the twisted lens of Mad Men?
That's the question of the summer, and the answer finally arrives tonight as AMC's mesmerizing, deeply complex drama leapfrogs to Thanksgiving 1964, picking up the lives of its characters about one year after last season's events ended.
For some series, skipping a year's time would have little consequence. But Mad Men details the lives of complicated New York advertising guys and one gal, and the complicated people (mostly women) who love them, negotiating the most tumultuous cultural period in recent American history. Like an archaeologist peering at newly found fossils, we learn more about ourselves by watching this long-ago transition brought to life.
And by that measure, 1964 is the mother lode, arguably the most transformative year in the most transformative decade in recent memory.
Here are a few real-life highlights: The Beatles made their historic first appearance in America on The Ed Sullivan Show. The surgeon general announced for the first time that smoking causes cancer. Three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi. Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to marijuana. The Civil Rights Act was signed, ending public racial segregation. President Lyndon B. Johnson started military actions in Vietnam. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize. The last of the baby boom kids were born.
"It was a shocking year, one of the most shocking years in American culture," said Bruce Watson, author of Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy.
Beyond the British Invasion and social issues, Watson ticks off an amazing amount of public death that filled the 18 months before Mad Men's new episodes start, including the death of John F. Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassination of NAACP official Medgar Evers, and the killing of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in Mississippi.
"All of that began to change the idea that we were a peaceful, law-abiding nation," he added, "at a time when baby boomers were really coming into their own."
SPOILER WARNING HERE: The story from here on describes in detail "Public Relations," the first new episode airing at 10 tonight. If you're hoping to keep everything in that episode a surprise, read on cautiously.
Wrangling an audience with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner these days is like getting face time with the pope. But it is surprising how much of what he said in an interview two years ago still holds up for the series today.
"It's much more gradual than you think; change is really gradual," he said while leading journalists on a grand tour of the show's set in 2008. "That's the story of history. . . . We only get the juicy parts and the story is only told the way people's lives are told, as a success story. I would like to see it the way I experienced history in my life. You process it through the TV set."
That's why Mad Men's characters are rarely at the center of any momentous historical events, polar opposites of Tom Hanks' unknowing witness to baby boomer history, Forrest Gump.
You get the sense, watching the oblique ways in which Don Draper and Co. experience pivotal stuff like the civil rights movement, that Weiner would think it horribly uncool to have a major character directly involved in an antiwar rally or lunch counter sit-in. Indeed, by picking up the show's action in late November, they sidestep most of 1964's historic moments. (In one scene tonight, Jon Hamm's Draper looks acidly at a 20-something date who bemoans the murder of civil rights worker Goodman, personalizing it all for herself by saying the victim was the summer camp buddy of a girlfriend.)
"Who is Don Draper?" starts the episode, asked by a reporter from Advertising Age trying to pierce the adman's coolly noncommittal attitude. Longtime viewers know that is a loaded question, because the character was born Dick Whitman and assumed Draper's identity during the Korean War to leave behind an impoverished past. As the episode unfolds, however, it quickly becomes obvious this is a question Draper himself still is struggling to resolve.
Divorced from model-pretty wife Betty, stuck seeing his children a few days each week and paying for a home she lives in with her new husband, political aide Henry Francis, Draper is unmoored and aimless outside the office. His carefully crafted life has burst into pieces and he's not sure how to pull it back together.
Inside the boardroom, he's mystified by negative fallout from the Ad Age story. A master of modern media is caught off guard by the changing face of journalism and its impact.
Elsewhere, Betty seems just as uncomfortable in her second marriage as the first; Draper's new firm is smaller and fighting for work; and Draper himself is driven into a rage by prudish swimsuit manufacturers who want to sell a two-piece bathing suit without playing up its sex appeal in ads — an obvious nod to the transition from '50s rigidity to '60s experimentation.
This is where we see the upheavals of 1964 on Mad Men, in the uncomfortable tangle of small moments between characters hinting at larger issues.
"If the roles we play define us, what happens when they're stripped away?" reads a quote from Weiner in press material for the new season. "Who are we then and who do we become?"
Adjusting to change
The question of shifting roles was something America also was struggling to answer in 1964, noted Jon Margolis, author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964.
"One reason there was all this cultural ferment was because there were all these young people and they had something young people had never had before: money," said Margolis, a former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune who now lives and teaches in Vermont. "These were the first children of mass affluence . . . and the advertising guys were selling stuff to these kids, convincing them they wanted things they probably didn't need."
Weiner keeps such influences on a short leash. Draper sees the liberation from traditional roles ahead, and finds it at once exciting, frightening and repulsive. Initially stifled by his obligations as a father and husband, we now see how diminished he is without them, struggling to find a comfortable medium while America fights toward its new identity.
This, too, is something Weiner predicted in 2008: "Everybody has, like Don, at least two selves and they are in conflict with one another," he said. "It can make you unknowable to other people, it can make you insecure about who you are, it can make you brave. But in the end, it's not ever comforting. It's hard to make yourself whole."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at blogs. tampabay.com/media.