Saturday, July 28, 2007

"They see a rocket and build a bomb shelter.": Mad Men

(My apologies for the lateness of this review. I've been a little nuts and overtired lately, so I'm only getting to it now. Hopefully, things will smooth themselves out a bit this week. -- TV)

If episode one of Mad Men was all about establishing the world of the series and taking us inside of the high-stakes world of the ad agency Don Draper works at, episode two was all about establishing the domestic nature of the world Don occupies. Unburdened of trying to pretend Don doesn't have a wife (as the show weirdly tried to make us think in the pilot), the show's universe expanded to give us a little more about Don's wife, Betty, as well as the other women in his life, from his mistress to the newest secretary in his office. Fittingly titled Ladies Room, the episode was about the ways the genders strike different balances in different arenas of life, especially in a world where women have to fight to move beyond the kitchen or the secretarial pool. What's more, if the first episode struck a tone that occasionally seemed unsure of itself in driving home that, yes, this show took place in the 60s, the second episode was far more at ease with itself and what it was trying to do. The show occasionally beats us over the head with the idea that things were a lot more unfair for minorities and women in the 60s, but it finds its tone in that regard as it goes along.

The episode works as well as it does because of a fine performance from January Jones as Betty Draper. She's nervous and anxious and not entirely sure why. Her hands lock up at key moments, not allowing her to open her lipstick one time and causing her to get into a minor fender bender another (here's a place where the "Wow! Times sure were different!" stuff works dramatically because when her hands lock up, you know the kids aren't belted in and fear for their safety). As I said last week, Jones is not an actress I've had a great deal of affection for in the past, but she really works well as the submissive 60s housewife. The part is almost a cliche at this point, but Jones is able, somehow, to find the rootless anxiety at the heart of the character. You just know the tidal wave of change coming in just a few years is going to sweep her away and she'll either be a complete reactionary to it or flow off with it. It all may depend on how much she finds out about her husband's philandering ways.

But Don's got his own free-floating anxiety (he seems worried about the end of the world when discussing Right Guard, of all things). Even at his mistress' place, he can't seem to relax, asking her why she has a TV and getting into tiny squabbles with her. When he sees his kids watching his mistress' favorite show later, it seems all he can do to hold it together (though he does, stoically). He later calls the therapist his wife goes to see to get the therapist's report on what's wrong with Betty (he's told she's an anxious woman). In a beautiful final shot, the camera pulls away from the closed door Don has put between himself and the rest of the house while he talks on the phone to the therapist, drifting out to the hallway, the stove in the kitchen dead in the center of the frame, lit softly.

Things are also going poorly for Peggy, who finds herself surprised to be attracting most of the men at the office, even after her poorly timed tryst with Pete in the pilot (it was but days before his wedding, and Pete's on his honeymoon for the whole of this episode -- probably as a cost-cutting measure on what must be a deeply expensive show). She laments to a co-worker about how every lunch with her male co-workers seems to come with the unspoken promise of dessert, and she is taken aback when a guy who seems to just be befriending her ends up wanting much more from her. It's as though she's suddenly become aware that she has sexual power over men, and I hope that more is done with this character development and theme.

As far as the advertising campaigns that float throughout the episodes, few were prominent in this episode (aside from the Right Guard campaign that caused Don to wax poetic). We got another story-building moment when Don was told he would be running the campaign for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign (it seems likely this storyline will drive much of the season). Instead, the episode was a bit of a breather, designed to turn much of the focus away from Don and turn it on many of the side players from the pilot. As it happened, most of those side players were female, and the episode was a fine showcase for those actress' strengths. The thing that strikes me as the most promising about Mad Men is the fact that the show isn't just interested in its titular characters. It's interested in all of the characters who orbit them and interested in making those characters as well-developed as possible. When a hint of new possibilities dawns on Peggy's face when she finds out there are female copy writers or when Betty lays on that psychiatrist's couch and tries to articulate her rootlessness, you know this is a show that's dedicated to building an entire, humane world.


Patti said...

One of the things I find really compelling about Mad Men is the way they occasionally show how different the world has become in the last 50 years. In this second episode, I was horrified by the scene where Don and Betty's daughter comes out covered in a dry-cleaning bag. Even worse, totally oblivious of the potential danger right in front of her, Betty warns the girl she'd better not have messed up the dry cleaning that had been in the bag before sending her off with the bag still over her head.

The little boy climbing over the front seat just before Mum's fender bender was another shocker. Especially as I remember doing the same thing when I was a child in the 60s.

It's a wonder any of us survived! ;-)

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