Color Contrast

To paint an unsubtle era, Mad Men breaks out bolder tones

  • Michael Yarish / AMC

    Megan Draper and Don Draper in Season 5, Episode 6 of Mad Men

    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.