Mad Men in Still Life – Season Five

By Jason Haggstrom, March 25, 2012

Frank Ockenfels 3 has once again produced a series of gorgeous character portraits ahead of AMC’s new season of Mad Men. Like the portraits he did for season four, these images are dramatic works of art that capture some of the characters and themes from the show and its upcoming season. After a year and a half hiatus, it’s nice to finally see these characters again. Below are some of my favorites.

Don doesn’t sell advertising, he sells products. For his lovers and clients alike, that product is Don Draper and the fireworks that come with each of his brief appearances. But that’s all anything ever is for Don: business. There’s never any real emotional connection or honesty. Except with Anna. But now Anna is dead, and Don is wearing black.

In last season’s portrait Don looked like a wounded man, but this year he comes off like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II—he’s both hardened and numb. After Anna died, Don quickly moved to extinguish his relationship with Faye. Things were just going too well, and Don wasn’t willing to take the risk of any future pain. And like the shrewd business decisions of Michael Corleone the move wasn’t just a break-up, but a calculated act that saw also Don perform the Roger-like move of proposing to Megan, his very new, and very young secretary. But Don’s smarter than Roger, and knows that a pretty face isn’t reason enough for a marriage. No, Megan will also cook, keep house, and take care of his kids in place of the recently fired nanny. Nothing personal. Just business.

Don may be the one who literally isn’t who he says he is, but it is Roger who lives with the moment-to-moment fear of being exposed as a fraud. Don Draper is really Dick Whitman, but the difference is in name only. Roger has to live with the discomforting reality that others might see him as nothing more than the Jr. Sterling that simply inherited his father’s crown. Roger fears not only being perceived as a buffoon, but as someone who brings little value to the company (at one point, he was inadvertently left off of the company org chart). In his portrait for season four, Roger was captured with Buddy Holly rims and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, making him downright cartoonish. But in this portrait, Roger is re-conceptualized as a man who knows his purpose instead of a man who has so little confidence that he must constantly state his value out loud less somebody forget that he has any. Ockenfel’s camera placement—down around seat level—makes Roger look stately and imposing. Kingly even. The clean white of his chair shows a lack of fear, a state of absolute control. If something enters his realm, it’ll be taken care of. And he’ll make it look easy. Roger suddenly seems like nothing less than the core of the company. He’s quick to remind everyone that his name is included on the company door, but if this photo is any indication of where Roger’s outlook is headed in the coming season nobody will ever need to be reminded of that fact.

Pete. Poor Pete. Pete often gets what he wants only to discover it wasn’t what he actually wanted, or that it’s not the way that he pictured it. He scored the Clearasil account only to discover that it came with the high price of being beholden to his father-in-law. After being named Head of Accounts Pete learns that he’s actually co-Head, and that he must share the job with the plucky Kenny Kosgrove. And when the executives rebooted the company they made Pete partner, but without actually adding the Campbell name to that of the company (it’s already a mouthful: SterlingCooperDraperPrice).

Pete’s inability to get what he wants is expressed in Ockenfel’s portrait of him. His photo is framed vertically— the opposite of all the others—and the chair is just one of the board room rather than one that actually suits or says anything about him. Pete’s portrait looks completely out of place when compared to the others in the set. And take a look at what Ockenfels does with Pete in one of this year’s photos in the context of a set. Last year Pete was shown as a standout emerging from a pack of faceless men; he was up-and-coming. This year, he’s given a similar context, but with old frenemies creeping up from behind (welcome to the firm, Kosgrove!). And note how the photo puts Pete right in the middle of those names that run across the door. A nice reminder that "Campbell" isn’t among them.

Peggy is once again adored by Ockenfel’s lens. He lights her beautifully, and without the pesky shadows of the office that have always made her look quite dour and frumpy, especially in the show’s first two seasons. Elizabeth Moss is actually quite stunning, but you’d never know it by the way she is costumed and lit within the context of the show. Ockenfels goes in the other direction, turning Peggy into a knockout. In last season’s photos, she looked like Wonder Woman, ready to conquer the world. Here, Peggy looks as though she’s from a different planet entirely than the young lady we met in the show’s first episode. It’s not just that she’s gone upscale—not just a new hairdo, but a dress that is most certainly fit for a woman rather than a girl—but that she looks completely comfortable in the role. It’s not really the clothes that make the (wo)man, but a change in wardrobe certainly can’t hurt. Peggy has learned that she can be whatever she wants, and that she doesn’t need to manipulate or thieve anything or anybody to get it. She wants everything, and so much of it. And she’s getting it, one season at a time. Now, she has supreme beauty too.

Elizabeth. Betty. Betts. Birdy. "Princess." Hers is the most complex crisis of identity in the entire show. Don changes his name in order to bury his past, Roger lives in his father’s shadow, and Peggy is constantly pushing against the limits of what the era says she can be. But Betty? Betty was born into wealth, and raised to be nothing more than a pretty face; daddy’s little girl. She has no idea of what the possibilities are because her self has always been defined by the roles she plays for those around her. Yes, she often acts like a child, but can you blame her? What’s the point of growing up if there’s nothing you can grow to be?

Over the course of four seasons Betty has become more, and more unstable. Ockenfels captures the conflicted and confused nature of her character in a photo that finds her positioned precariously in a chair that threatens to upstage her in a contest of pretty things. The contrast of styles between the chair and the dress is the perfect mix of stately elegance and Barbie doll flash. Her instability no longer hidden, but on full display.

Is there an actor that brings more to the role that is written than January Jones? Her Betty is always putting on a show for those around her, and Jones allows us to see both the performance (and there are so many of them) and the cracks in the façade. Her blank-faced seeming indifference, her calculated moments of argumentation (with no real plan of attack other than the initial fit to start them). Jones conveys so much with subtle changes in movement and positioning, the inflections of her voice, and the way she uses her eyes to show us Betty breaking character. Seriously. Give Jones an Emmy already.

Want to see more. Head over to AMC’s website to see all of Ockenfel’s photos for season five.

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One Comment

By Megan on March 25, 2012 at 9:57 PM

I was disappointed to see that you left out the Pryce photo and group photo that was divided by two panes of glass in the structure of the office, both of which I think intimate that the company is still finding its way between tradition and new business in addition to reaffirming the gender roles that we had begun to hope were blurring as the characters developed. Still, a rousing set of observations, particularly around Pete and Betty. And what you said about not knowing what she wants to grow up to be because there wasn’t anything for her to become made me think a lot about the dismissive way she treats Sally at times because Sally is, in her own way, challenging gender norms as she blossoms as well.

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