It's Going to Be a Tough Year on Mad Men

Time has been Mad Men's costar from the start. It provides the jokes, the fears, the gadgets. It's behind the haunted look in Don Draper's eyes. But when season three begins on Aug. 16, time may play its biggest role yet. Creator Matt Weiner won't pin down the year, but the evidence points to 1963—and 1963 was no ordinary year. For men who thought they ruled by right, it was the year things fell apart.

On Mad Men, the cracks are there already. Copywriter Peggy Olson broke through Sterling Cooper's glass ceiling with her wit and smarts, but she's had to endure the derision—and worse—of her male colleagues. What will she think of the rise of the women's movement that followed the February 1963 publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique? The call to arms in Friedan's preface ("I came to realize that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today") seems aimed directly at Peggy—and at Betty Draper, Don's beautiful caged bird of a wife.

So far, the civil-rights movement has been only a whisper at the lily-white Sterling Cooper agency, but it grew to a roar in April 1963, when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched the Birmingham, Ala., sit-in and nonviolent protest campaign. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were arrested and jailed for their role in the demonstrations. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," he wrote in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail." As Bull Connor let loose his police dogs and fire hoses on protesters, more Americans began to think King was right. Will Birmingham rattle Madison Avenue? Will Washington? It was in August 1963 that King stood before the Lincoln Memorial and told the huge crowd, "I have a dream." The dreams of millions changed that day. It's hard to imagine that the show's only black character, the Drapers' maid, Carla, won't be among them.

The course of pop culture continued its shift in 1963, too. Bob Dylan (né Robert Zimmerman) came out with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and Charles Mingus released one of the best jazz albums in history, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. The British invasion was launched soon after the Beatles recorded their first album, Please Please Me, in London in 1963. It's certainly no coincidence that a British firm has invaded Sterling Cooper. Admen on Madison Avenue weren't the only ones controlling the message.

The biggest event of the year, of course, came at its close: the JFK assassination. Weiner has said that he wants to stay away from that particular moment because it is such familiar ground. But can he avoid it? That was the moment when Camelot came crashing down, and Draper's life, looks, and charm are nothing if not Kennedyesque. Don (or is it Dick?) already watches life as if it were a Zapruder film; he already knows that you can't keep history at bay. He lives the American Dream as if it were a nightmare, always fearing he will be found out as a fraud. Will the turmoil of 1963 provide a release, or just inflict more trauma? Either way, it's clear why the tagline for the show this season is "the world's gone mad."

It's Going to Be a Tough Year on Mad Men | Culture