close readings

5 Themes and Symbols to Watch for on Mad Men

Photo: AMC

It seems like we’ve been waiting for April 7 forever. Mad Men! Come back to us! Now that the show is indeed back (or just about), it’s time to reengage with our favorite TV pastime: analyzing the themes, symbols, and imagery that seem to suck us deeper into Don Draper’s world week by week. Keep an eye out for these motifs if you want to play along with the super-close readings of Mad Men.

1. Doors
It’s not just season three’s “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” Just about every episode of Mad Men has some kind of threshold scene — someone standing in the hall while someone else is standing in his or her apartment; a shot that follows a character all the way into an office and then watches as they shut the door; fumbling for one’s keys trying to get home. When you change how you feel, you change where you are, and vice versa. Leaning in a doorway — either asking to be let in or begging someone to come out and play — might as well be a neon sign that says “I am trying to ruin something.”

2. The Grid
It was more pronounced in the first few seasons at the old Sterling Cooper offices, but keep an eye out for intense grid patterns, boxy prints, stuffy plaids, and aggressively detailed ceiling paneling. It usually represents being or feeling trapped. (Honestly, almost everything on Mad Men represents being or feeling trapped.)

3. Mothers
Seasons one and five were both heavy on suicide and on mom stuff. Coincidence? Maybe! But probably not. Don and Betty aren’t going to win any parents-of-the-year contests, but you can’t blame them too much: They both grew up in terrible families with people who treated them badly. Don was raised by “sorry people” and never knew his real mother, and even though we get to know Betty’s father Grandpa Gene, it’s Betty’s mother’s death — years before the show starts — that still has the tighter grip on her, how she views herself, what she thinks she’s “worth.” She passes a lot of those anxieties and insecurities down to Sally, with an added element of resentment and jealousy. Joan tells us that her mother “raised her to be admired,” and Joan hasn’t had a particularly easy go of motherhood so far herself. Peggy was so in denial about becoming a mother that she didn’t acknowledge she was pregnant until she was in labor. Her own mother is belittling and unkind. Megan’s mother competes with her. Pete hates his mother. There’s not a lot of good mother-child relationships on Mad Men! But listen to how often mothering comes up in pitches. (For example, the Heinz executives begging for a shot of a mother feeding a child beans. Or Don’s award-winning Glo-Coat campaign — of a mother making sure her floors were clean but not chemical-smelly for her child.) We want what we don’t have, America.

4. Death
Mad Men never goes too long in between character deaths — there’s no Don Draper without the real Don Draper dying, after all. Adam (Dick “Don Draper” Whitman’s brother) dies, Pete’s father dies, Marilyn Monroe dies, Grandpa Gene dies, Medgar Evers dies, John F. Kennedy dies, Anna Draper dies, Mrs. Blankenship dies, Lane dies. Different characters grieve in different ways, and some seem not to grieve at all. Don is frequently the least affected, while Sally tends to acknowledge and express exactly how she’s feeling, but all of this death ties into one of Mad Men’s favorite character traits: denial. This is a world full of A-plus deniers. It creeps into all aspects of their lives — did Betty really never suspect Don’s infidelity? — but the best way to perfect and strengthen your skills of magical thinking is to surround yourself by grief.

5. Performance
We’ve seen characters do choreographed dances. Sing elaborate and heartbreaking songs. Give weepy pitch presentations. Primp for a night out. Pretend to care. Pretend not to care. Lie. Prostitute themselves. There’s a lot of artifice happening, a lot of creation. But that lying isn’t just for the good of those being lied to — it’s for the liar as well. Don’s iconic carrousel slide-projector presentation is all bullshit; he hates Betty and resents their life, and he lies to himself and his family all day long every single day. He thinks he’s putting on a show for the client, but the show’s really for himself, to try to convince himself that he can be a decent, “normal” suburban dad; that he has this great life he could be part of if he just tried a little harder; that that Don, the smiling Don kissing his beautiful wife, is the real Don. We become the lies we tell, though not completely enough for it to be helpful.

5 Themes and Symbols to Watch for on Mad Men