Color Contrast

4 minute read
James Poniewozik

In 1966 the world was emerging into color, at least on TV. Hits like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched switched to the new format, and NBC became the first network to ditch black-and-white. So it is with Mad Men. The show began with the muted browns and grays of the late Eisenhower era. Now, in Season 5–Jesus, my eyes! Everywhere it’s chartreuse and persimmon and banana yellow. The men are dandied in plaids and madras, the women peacocked in geometric patterns and Eastern prints. Do not adjust your set; the world itself is oversaturated.

But the mood is not as bright as the color scheme. Take the episode “Far Away Places,” in which, before a violent blowout fight, ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his wife Megan (Jessica Par) visit a Howard Johnson’s and he pushes her to try the sherbet. It is the most orange food that science has ever devised, an alien thing, radioactive. She hates it; it “tastes like perfume.” He insists. So she shovels the lurid treat into her mouth, oohing and aahing sarcastically.

A stunning woman in a coral sheath dress, gorging angrily on cloying frozen neon–this is just one way Mad Men uses imagery to reflect the state of its characters and the times. This is a show about prosperous people in a booming country. But the vivid palette is not the plumage of optimism and plenty. It’s the hue of overripe fruit verging on rot.

It’s a perfect color scheme for a season whose theme has been unhappiness amid plenty. Characters get what they want but are discontent: Don has his own advertising firm and a beautiful, smart wife, but he’s feeling adrift and old. Or they come close to getting what they want and fall just short: copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has developed skills like Don’s, but clients won’t accept the same arrogance from a woman. Account exec Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has a new baby and house in Connecticut, but he starts a reckless fling with a fellow commuter’s wife. It’s not that life is terrible for any of them. But they have to face the possibility that it’s stopped getting better–that they may have plateaued even as they’re surrounded by kaleidoscopic change.

All the onscreen color matches Mad Men’s new narrative boldness. So far, Season 5 is its most confident and formally risk-taking–which is not to say (yet) its best. The episodes sometimes feel overcrafted, the symbols and themes double-underlined. Characters talk about how new photos of earth from space make them feel “unprotected” and “insignificant.” Don fights his impulses toward infidelity by strangling a seductress in his dreams. Later he gazes down an elevator shaft, literally staring into the abyss.

But if Mad Men is increasingly unsubtle, maybe it’s to deal with a culture of increasing extremes. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement have gone from tremors to earthquakes. There’s a wave of mass murders. The Beatles have stopped wanting to hold your hand and started referencing the Tibetan Book of the Dead (in “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a Revolver track Don listens to in aching, elderly perplexity). The tone is heightened and ominous, but so is 1966; as one character says, “Time feels like it’s speeding up.”

This new, more showy and visually swaggery Mad Men has also produced some of the series’ most memorable scenes and images. A hilariously amateurish fistfight erupts between Pete and stiff Brit Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). Silver fox Roger (John Slattery) has an LSD-aided moment of clarity that ends his marriage. And at an award banquet for Don that turns disappointing, his tween daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), glittering in a Nancy Sinatra dress, has her adult-glamour fantasies shattered when she walks in on Megan’s mother fellating Roger. The night ends on a tableau of the family at the table, splendidly dressed, each alone in private disillusion and sadness.

It’s a painterly image, a little pretentious–and utterly fantastic. Mad Men, like its 1960s, has entered its baroque period. It’s striding gaudily into a future so dim, you may have to wear shades.


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