Among the most cinematic serial dramas, Mad Men (AMC, 2008-15) is often analyzed in relation to its key inspirations, like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). But what about films that aren’t explicitly referenced? How do we explore what Roland Barthes calls “unconscious or automatic quotations, given without quotation-marks”?[i] I linger over one such moment to analyze how contemporary serial dramas evoke the cinema.
Early in the first season, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is greeted as Dick Whitman by an old friend. His jaw tightens, as if he’s hiding something. His response invokes Lupino’s The Bigamist (1953), where Harry Graham (Edmund O’Brien) hides a secret second family. Citing Lupino’s film foregrounds Don’s double identity. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, it raises fears of a façade concealing his “true” self. But this moment also evokes Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (1966), where Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) gets a lifelike mask after an industrial accident. With his mask on, he seduces his wife in his clandestine apartment; the next morning, he exposes himself, but she claims she already knew they were “both taking part in a masquerade.” Reading Don Draper through Okuyama’s double self, we can see how Mad Men collapses the distance between (authentic) face and (fake) mask. Don isn’t in disguise; Dick plays Don, but Don also plays Don.
This association with Face of Another can be pushed further; Don’s face/mask, for instance, can be connected to the monstrous in Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) as well as to the perversity of (self)-creation in Franju’s Eyes without a Face (1960) and Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live in (2011). The cinematic isn’t just a matter of direct influence. What makes Mad Men cinematic is that its images activate a chain of unexpected or uncanny connections with a range of films. We might say, then, that the cinematic reveals how serial television serves an archival function in relation to cinema.
[i]Roland Barthes, “Theory of the Text,” in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, ed. Robert Young (London: Routledge, 1981), 39.