Monday, July 28, 2008

"There has to be advertising for people who don't have a sense of humor.": Mad Men

(Man, it's been so long since I've done one of these, I forgot our house style for naming these things! It's a COLON, not a hyphen! -- ed.)

Mad Men seems sort of gleefully confident in its second season premiere. It doesn't really care if you think it's too slow-moving or if you think that nothing ever happens on it or if you find its alternating positions between nostalgia and deprecation for the period it's depicting to be somewhat frustrating. It's a show that, in some ways, is ABOUT racing up to the precipice of something happening and then stopping just before it tumbles over the cliff. In that way, it seems far more influenced by the final three seasons of The Sopranos (which include the ones that Matthew Weiner worked on) than the first three, when the series was closer to the grimly-paced "a whacking a week" show some of its fans always imagined it to be. That's also why I'd hedge my bets against the show ever becoming a huge hit. It's an appealing world to visit once a week, but a lot of people aren't going to want to live there. Still, the air of confidence Mad Men has in its storytelling prowess overhangs the entire episode, which is a terrific premiere, more interested in the sorts of things that hang around the edges of the frame or performance than in doing anything straightforward. That won't win over the show's critics, but it's manna to fans.

The only character who seems to have changed appreciably in the interim between season one and season two (season one left off on Thanksgiving, 1960, and season two picks up on Valentine's Day, 1962) is Betty Draper, and January Jones (whom I am contractually obligated to give a shoutout to as a fellow South Dakota native) is up to the task of suggesting the ways that Betty is realizing her own power as a very good-looking woman while also being incredibly naive about the dangers of exploiting that power too much (a late scene where a mechanic seems to be hopeful that Betty will pay his bill in a way not involving money is one of many that seems to race toward something exciting happening and then backs off in the way that anticlimactic real life more often does). Betty's a gorgeous woman, but she often seems incredibly flippant or incredibly stupid about the world she lives in (I suspect she just doesn't think about it all that much). She and her husband have sort of changed roles (she's out testing the waters, while Don is trying to stay home and be a good family man -- something he's struggling against) without either really having shifted all that far in one way or another. It's an interesting dynamic, and the fact that Don is having trouble in bed suggests that he compartmentalizes women enough that he can't ever be satisfied with just the one and that his attempts to understand Betty (a woman he's always been more interested in for her image -- check out that sequence of Betty descending the staircase to Don's wry smile) have largely resulted in just more frustration and ennui for the 1960's most ennui-ridden man in many a year.

Don's more or less the same, even though he's dealing with the fact that he's getting older and that his health is not what it was (one of the few times Mad Men makes one of its oft-clumsy "Man, the '60s were different!" jokes is when Don reacts to the news by eating a nice big lunch of steak and eggs). He's also increasingly aware that the world is passing him by, and rather than try to go along with the times, he's fighting against them, reprimanding a lewd kid on the elevator who doesn't remove his hat when a woman steps on the car (I loved the placement of the actors within the frame in this microcosm of a scene), saying that not every ad has to have an ironic sense of humor and rejecting the idea that there should be younger creative people at the agency to land accounts (Don is pretty clearly going to get swept aside by the '60s, and it's part of the genius of the show that we find that both inevitable and kind of sad -- many of Don's attitudes are incredibly retrograde, but there's also a sense of dignity to him that preserves him in our eyes). His pining for something that's slipping away from him -- be it respect for women (which goes hand in hand with subjugation of same) or his own family -- and he's able to trap that pining in a bottle every so often (in this episode, when he and Peggy pull together the airline ad at the last minute), but even he's increasingly unsure of what he's trying to sell. One of the best jokes in the episode is when Don begins to launch into one of those "What are we trying to tell people here" monologues that centered so many episodes of season one, then lets it descend into "blah, blah, blah." He's increasingly sensing that he's lost, and it's one of the best things about the show that it doesn't push too hard on this point, letting us read all manner of things into Jon Hamm's eyes.

In the first season, I wrote quite a bit about how one of the things that drives Mad Men is its sense of inevitability -- it's like a Lost flash forward episode without the flash-forwards. We know that the '60s are just around the corner (footage of Jackie Kennedy showing a camera crew around the White House anchors the episode -- it originally aired on Valentine's Day, 1962, after all -- and it brings a whole host of interesting things to bear -- not only for just how pre-feminist Kennedy seems to us now but for all of the rumblings beneath it of things we know are coming that the characters don't). The show's triumph or failure rests entirely on how much it makes you feel a little sad that Draper is going to get swept aside and yet also manages to make you understand that this sweeping aside was inevitable. To that end, Don reads a little beat poetry, then sends it off to a mystery person (I know everyone says it's Rachel, but I'm going to say it's someone with some connection to his dead brother), while musing on his own mortality and his own end.

At Sterling Cooper, Duck (how excellent to see Mark Moses return) is trying to persuade Roger into talking Don into taking on the young talent that he feels will help the firm land new clients. Roger, in a very typically smarmy Roger move, tries to tell Don the order comes from Bert Cooper himself (Robert Morse sits this episode out), but Don smells through it, even as he does interview some young talent (will he hire any of them? Who knows?). Meanwhile, Pete is trying to conceive a child, even as we know he's not the problem, and failing. The scene where Pete sits with his wife and tries to comfort her is incredibly well-done, a perfectly observed little look at this marriage, where both characters seem to be dancing around each other. The montage of the various characters (including a somehow married Sal) watching the Kennedy footage closes with a great gag -- Pete watching a science fiction movie. Pete's about the only guy at Sterling Cooper who gets what's coming, but he's still a creep and a dork deep down.

The biggest question from last season's finale -- what happened to Peggy's child -- is left hanging, and, in a nice bit of meta-commentary, the people at Sterling Cooper are just as curious about what happened to Peggy during her three-month absence (I'm betting Don knew about the child somehow) as the audience is. What, exactly, is going on burbles along beneath so many scenes that I'm impressed the writers were able to push this revelation back at least an episode (if not more).

All in all, though, catching up with the gang at Sterling Cooper was a great return to this world. It also allows fans to breathe a sigh of relief. Mad Men is not terribly worried by its own success with critics and awards bodies (though it could use a few more eyeballs, thanks). It's going to continue marching along as it always has, and it's up to us to see if we enjoy it or find it ponderous. I'm still in the former camp.


David Sims said...

Todd. Do you know who plays Sal's new wife? OMG?

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