After a way-too-long hiatus, “Mad Men” is finally back and it is 1966. The show’s aesthetic appears considerably brighter than in previous seasons, perhaps reflecting the move from the early 1960s to the cultural shifts of the second half of the decade. During this period, the civil rights movement moved from focusing on legal equality to emphasizing economic issues, the antiwar movement grew while hawks and doves clashed over the Vietnam War, the drug culture emerged and sexual mores evolved.
The program begins with executives from another Madison Avenue agency dropping water balloons on interracial protesters advocating greater funding for anti-poverty programs. President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was well underway at this point, but some liberals were frustrated that Vietnam was siphoning away funds from it. The protest may be a reference to the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), which formed in 1966 and agitated for greater social spending.
By 1966, the Americanization of the war in Vietnam was in its second year. While a majority of Americans still supported the war, opposition was gradually growing as more bodies came home. Indeed, arch-conservative Bert Copper and Peggy Olson’s boyfriend, Abe Drexler, who is a bohemian journalist, debate the merits of the domino theory at Don Draper’s 40th birthday party. The domino theory, which was first espoused by Cold Warriors in the 1950s, suggested that if one nation fell to communism, nearby countries would then fall as well. Believing that all communist nations took orders from the Kremlin, this idea was a central part of the rationale for defending non-communist South Vietnam from aggression from communist North Vietnam “The domino theory is not a joke,” declares Cooper, while Abe responds that Vietnam is in the midst of a civil war and “that there is no monolithic communism. It’s just an excuse”
Signs of the growing power of the youth culture also appear, as one client wants to change his company’s 1950s era image in order to reach out to college kids. Disenchanted with Peggy’s first ad proposal, he even suggests a campaign that incorporates student protests.
As has been the case in previous seasons, gender issues remain at the center of “Mad Men.” The show not so subtly suggests that Trudy Campbell and Joan Harris, who have both given birth since the last season, are suffering from postpartum depression. “The Feminine Mystique” again makes an appearance, as Joan is desperate to get back to work, although her mother declares that her doctor husband won’t “allow” her.
Peggy Olson also continues to signify the women’s movement in various ways. Early on, she mentions that she spent the weekend working at the office. Later, she becomes extremely uncomfortable when asked to take care of Joan’s baby for a brief time.
The season seems to continue the gradual shift towards disapproval of the era’s smoking and drinking, which were arguably romanticized in the early seasons. Roger’s and Don’s boozing seems to be taking a toll on their work, as Pete appears to be the only one bringing in any business and Peggy is carrying the advertising load. Pete even gets frustrated when Don and Roger are late to a meeting, sarcastically asking if “they stopped for a drink along the way?” He then tells Roger not to smoke in his office.
Other historical references included Oldsmobile wanting to meet with Roger to find “a way around (Ralph) Nader.” This is a reference to the publication of Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, which lead to greater regulation of auto safety, including seat belts. Pete tells Roger that there isn’t any way.
Finally, it appears that race, which has been a minor theme in the show, may be moving closer to center stage. To mock their competitors who dropped the water balloons, Roger and Don place an ad in the New York Times declaring that Sterling Cooper Draper Price is an “equal opportunity employer.” As a result, a number of African Americans come to the office looking for jobs. Roger is horrified and Lane says the firm can’t afford any new hires. Fearing bad publicity if they turn the applicants away, the firm accepts resumes from black women for a secretarial position as the show concludes. Even at Sterling Cooper, the times may be a-changin'.