[Essay] Infidelity and Ennui in Mad Men and The Ice Storm — Jake Sanders

When Mad Men first debuted in 2007, a cult quickly formed around the show’s mysterious protagonist, Don Draper. Silver-tongued with matinee idol good looks courtesy of Jon Hamm, it was easy to see why. In the first few seasons even his endless string of affairs are presented as simply another area in which Don could excel. The women who he bedded were no different from the accounts her secured at his job on Madison Avenue, simply another conquest. Yet as the show progressed, Don’s womanising took on an increasingly desperate air, it started to resemble a compulsion or a crutch as much as his constant drinking ever did. By the time Mad Men concluded earlier this year, the entire persona of Don Draper had been peeled away to real that beneath his shark-colored suit of armor lay nothing more than a black hole of self-loathing. Don’s uncanny success with women, a trait that rendered him a figure of admiration for hordes of men was revealed as little more than a means of keeping the unbearable weight of his loneliness at bay.

In 1997’s The Ice Storm, Ang Lee explores how marital dissatisfaction and infidelity impacts married couple Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena Hood (Joan Allen) and their children Paul (Tobey Maguire) and Wendy (Christina Ricci). Here, infidelity is presented as nothing but empty and sad from the start. Whilst Mad Men’s sumptuous period details and beautiful cast helped to secure its place in the public imagination, The Ice Storm’s gaudy 70s costumes function as an off-putting veneer beneath which a world of lies and mistrust is allowed to fester.

The period setting of The Ice Storm also allows for a smart comparison between the deceit ridden political sphere of Watergate era America and the domestic deception undertaken by its characters. Mad Men also takes advantage of the politics of its era for more than just set dressing. Taking place in an era where the traditional world of the 1950s starts to clash with a new era of youth movements and counter-culture, the ad men who praise the stability of the nuclear family yet engage in endless extra-marital dalliances without remorse start to look increasingly hypocritical.

For the New York suburb dwelling couples of The Ice Storm, ideas like affairs and key-parties seem like an attempt at injecting some form of excitement back into lives that have became drained of any unpredictability or romance. But Lee is careful to never show any allusion to genuine passion in his presentations of these encounters. Instead we are shown fumbling back-seat encounters and men giggling like schoolboys, pitiful and repellent as they wait for a crowd of housewives to take a car-key out of a bowl.

The key-party scene has an especially juvenile tone that highlights the absurdity of the adults moralising over their children, similar to how the deeply troubled Draper parents struggle to maintain order in their children’s lives as theirs’ become increasingly complex. Ben walking in on his daughter’s unsettling engagement with the son of the women with whom he is cheating on his wife is especially telling in how it presents the uncomfortable clash between the adult world and the world of the children.

Though it is unlikely that Ang Lee’s intention is to suggest that the consequences of cheating on your partner will be fatal, the death that occurs in The Ice Storm’s climax is a neat summation of the film’s theme of neglect.

The parents are simply too wrapped in their own lives to really be able to offer any kind of support for their children. Similarly, the hypocrisy and willful ignorance that lies at the heart of Ben and Elena’s relationship means that their example is not one the children should follow. Wendy and Paul’s behavior, which range from petulantly spiking their friends’ drinks to attempted foreplay involving a Richard Nixon mask, imply a confusion about maturity that stems from their parents’ own ennui about how to exist in the often stifling position of being the head of a family.

By the end of Mad Men, poor Sally Draper has come to understand exactly how ill equipped Don is for family life that she tells him very clearly that the kids will stay with their stepfather. After everything she’s witnessed Don do, it’s not difficult to see why. Seeing Sally’s childhood disappear as her parents’ lives become increasingly fraught is one of Mad Men’s great tragedies.

Where Mad Men and The Ice Storm differ is in the ultimate place infidelity leads their characters. Ang Lee brings a degree of compassion to the Ice Storm’s conclusion, opting for a somewhat hopeful depiction of family reconciliation in the wake of tragedy. The Hood’s reunion at the train station in the wake of the storm is melancholy but hopeful; the passing of the storm suggests a return of warmth but also of openness and transparency.

For Mad Men, the ultimate question raised by the show was whether or not people really change and, although Don initially makes an effort with his second wife, his nature eventually gets the better of him and he ends the series alone.

The sense of growth and resolution that attracted Lee to the idea of adapting The Ice Storm for the screen is conspicuously absent from Mad Men. Instead, the series suggests that people’s attempts to significantly alter key facets of their personality are largely futile.


Jake Sanders studied at the University of Manchester and has written film criticism for a number of publications including The Mancunion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s