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John Walsh: When the Playboy mansion crumbles

From the start, 'Mad Men' has been about the erosion of male identity

Many British people who know nothing of the social or corporate practices of New York's Madison Avenue in the 1960s will avidly tune in tonight for the second series of Mad Men. This award-winning (three Golden Globes and six Emmys) cable show has stolen a lot of hearts, for its pin-sharp depiction of life in pre-Kennedy, pre-Woodstock, three-martini America, before the modern world kicked in: when the only black faces in work environments were working the lifts, when creative directors offered guests Jack Daniels at 11am, when business wives dressed like Stepford clones and fretted about wrapping paper, when sharp-suited executives with Brylcreemed hair assumed they could sleep with the typing pool as a kind of droit du copywriter and everyone in the office – everyone in restaurant, cinema, car, bed and doctor's consulting-room – smoked like laboratory beagles.

The first series ended on several cliff-hangers: chisel-jawed Don Draper narrowly escaped having his true identity exposed, but was estranged from his family; Peggy Olson discovered she was pregnant by the sleazy, blackmailing Pete Campbell; and Betty Draper, Don's wife, radiating alarm with every flash of her black-marble eyes, was on the edge of a breakdown.

These are predominantly domestic, emotional issues; you could complain that the preoccupations of Matthew Weiner's drama series are hardly different from Peyton Place in the mid-1960s, shortly after the period in which Mad Men is set. Complaints have been raised that it's a trivial programme, in which hints of moral crux (about, say, tobacco advertising) or of political change (the Nixon vs Kennedy election) are no more than token flavourings, added to a show that's really devoted to the evocation of pre-PC nostalgia. Yes, it shows how sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, adultery and chronic alcoholism all lay beneath the post-war American dream; but it enlists our sympathy for the creators of the dream machine, and makes us admire their brash chutzpah.

Is that what's going on in Mad Men? I don't think so. Rumours about the second series suggest that, over the next 13 episodes, the women will gradually assert themselves, that researches into health will start to limit the claims (aka lies) that Don and Co. can make about their clients' products, and their whole Playboy-mansion world will start to crumble. But attentive viewers will have noticed that, from the start, this whole show has been about the erosion of male identity.

The portrayal of the pipe-smoking creative team as, essentially, 13-year-old boys on a panty-raid; the secretarial sighs of "To think I joined this place to find a husband"; the bluster of Don Draper when confronted by anti-smoking beatniks and his anguished bleat of "I'm not going to be spoken to like that by a woman!"; the post-adultery remorse of the fat, vulnerable Harry Crane – all these elements were like tiny epiphanies, angry pin-pricks that stung the male psyche all through Series 1, and told Don's generation that their time in the rumpus-room was up and they had to join the grown-up world at last.

Things will only get worse for them, as the show fast-forwards to 1962, and their discomfiture will be delicious – not as soap-opera popcorn, but as a substantial casserole of gender politics, served with a nice vintage bottle of pre-feminist empowerment.