It seems odd, but the theme of “the American dream” is truly captivating when it causes inner turmoil within a text. Take, for example, three protagonists from different mediums: Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby never attains his true love, Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman, never quite makes ends meet, and Don Draper of Mad Men struggles to understand his own American dream. Draper’s grappling with this American ideal is actually a central point of AMC’s hit show Mad Men, and is the key in understanding the opening credits for the Golden Globe and Emmy Award winning drama.
In an interview with Imaginary Forces, the agency that created the opening credits for Mad Men in 2007, one of the creative directors, Steve Fuller, spoke about the role that the American dream played in the creative process. Fuller quoted Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, saying, “‘You know, it’s not just a show about advertising in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s about American life and culture.’ He loved the idea of this main character selling the American Dream, but also being totally confused by it. He’s trying to find himself throughout the show—to define himself. Matthew wanted to touch on that and he wanted something that was going to catch people’s attention.” This line of thought follows nicely with Jonathan Gray’s ideas about the functions of paratexts. Gray states, “Paratexts often tell us how producers or distributors would prefer for us to interpret a text… and how they want us to make sense of their characters and plots” (72). Essentially, the opening credits function to guide the audience to the preferred reading of the text as a whole.
In the case of Mad Men this seems rather interesting because there are neither real characters nor a strict plot that the opening credits follow. Instead, the opening credits depict a black silhouette, who, after stepping into his office and setting down his briefcase, falls through a series of New York City advertisement-toting skyscrapers. The silhouette continues to fall into the camera until the black of his jacket envelops the screen. A transition follows as the camera zooms out to the silhouette holding a cigarette and sitting nonchalantly on a sofa, supposedly back in his office. All the while, RJD2’s song “The Beautiful Mine” is playing, which, in and of itself, has undertones of mystery. The song begins with a softened orchestra but then is welcomed by percussion
as the silhouette begins to fall, and the two sounds mellow simultaneously as the camera zooms to reveal the silhouette on the sofa. This opening credit sequence is ambiguous in that it is simply an animation as opposed to a real character going through the motions, but at the same time this creates an ere of mystery. By the audience not being able to place a face with the silhouette, there is a feeling of not really knowing who this businessman is. This correlates with the fact that in the actual text, the underlying puzzle that we are trying to solve is “who is Don Draper?” He is struggling to understand the American dream and we as an audience are pining to discover why that is— what is it about Draper that causes his confusion?
This ambiguity plays to something Matthew Soar mentions in his essay. Soar quoted David E. Williams who suggested, “an artful title sequence can set a tone or conjure a mood, utilizing distinctly crafted images to purposefully prime both filmgoers and television audiences” (3). This is exactly how the Mad Men opening credits operate. By creating a sense of mystery and cultivating the idea that this man is lost in life (his office literally slips away from him, he is constantly falling through space) the audience is primed to learn about this silhouette man, who can be seen as the protagonist, Draper. It is also important to note that this opening credit sequence has not changed for the past six seasons of Mad Men. Through 79 episodes, audiences are always shown this same opening. Gray mentions the way this affects the viewers, “Through repetition, opening credit sequences may also reaffirm what a show is about, how its characters are interrelated, and how we ‘should’ make sense of them. Precisely because it and its theme song can represent the show, standing in for it metonymically, its constituent parts declare what the show is about” (76). This means that for Mad Men, the audience is reminded that although there are a plethora of other relationships and dynamics within the show, the main focus is still discovering who Don Draper is.
While one of the main functions of the opening credits is to show the elusiveness of Don Draper, it also gives the audience a taste of the setting. Both the decorations in the office— the modular furniture, the bottles of alcohol, the window fan —and the style of the print advertisements, which are superimposed on the skyscrapers, emphasize that the show takes place in the 1950s and 1960s. Although a time frame is given, another function of these opening credits is to develop a surreal quality due to the dreamlike construction. Unlike Saul Bass’ title credit design, which Soar describes as very two dimensional, lacking depth, with no juxtapositions (4), the creative directors for the Mad Men title sequence wanted an update. Fuller said, “I’m a huge Saul Bass fan, but Matthew Weiner said, ‘I don’t want it to look like the ‘60s.’ I like to think that it’s kind of an update of Saul Bass….The graph paper skyscraper
idea, and the ‘60s architecture inside the agency, it all feels very geometric… very right angle.” This updated modern look, along with the three-dimensionality, makes it seem like the silhouette is falling through an almost real world, again establishing the contrast between what is real and what is a dream, further emphasizing a state of confusion.
The focus on modernity follows through in the typography as well. Soar stated in his essay, “type’s chief goal must be to convey, as transparently as possible, the content of a text to the reader; any form of interpretation, embellishment, or stylistic flourish is merely obstructive” (4). This is exactly how type functions in Mad Men, it is there to state the actors and contributors and nothing more. The type is small, sans serif, and each name appears for less than one second. The only characteristic that makes them noticeable is the fact that the first name is in red while the last is in black, which matches the coloration of “Mad Men” at the end. While it is important to give credit, by minimizing the attention of the actual credits, the emphasis, again, is on the story of the silhouette and how that relates to the text as a whole.
Overall, the opening credit sequence for Mad Men is both eye-catching and makes the viewer think. The black silhouette falling through space creates an overwhelming tone of being lost or confused, and trying to find yourself— all challenges the protagonist, Draper, battles. Ultimately, Imaginary Forces was able to create a memorable opening sequence that can stand by itself but also aids the entire text. Creative director, Mark Gardner, left us with this, “[We] wanted the sequence to sum up the ideas of the show. We managed to find something that combined both, making it look cool and sophisticated while still showing that there are actually two stories: the one that you see, but also the real story that you only get glimpses of.”