Tuesday, August 4, 2009
The first season of Mad Men proved to be a surprise success: for a show with barely any driving plot and deliberately offensive, period-appropriate dialogue, it was an irresistible snapshot of American decadence in the era of postwar greed. Its lack of a solid story arc outside of character development moved the season with all the speed of molasses, but I couldn't help but love the immersive experience. Still, I hoped that the second season addressed this problem and gave us something to keep the episodes moving.
For the first half to 2/3 of the season, I didn't get my wish. The second season of Mad Men inherited a great deal of intrigue and loose ends from the previous season finale, which it must labor through despite the two-year advance in the timeline. Don is still struggling with his marriage, Peggy secretly carried Pete's baby to term when she couldn't get an abortion, and the rest of Sterling Cooper crawls toward the impending tumult of the decade.
As with the last season, focusing on the characters yields far more interesting rewards than keeping track of its lethargic story arc. Don worked in the first season because his past was shrouded in mystery, and I was slightly concerned how Weiner and the writers would handle him now that we knew enough about him to strip away the audience's perceived need to learn about his secrets. However, I found Don more captivating than ever, because he evolves from a mysterious ad king into the perfect symbol of the typical American man as he changed throughout the '60s.
The illegitimate child of an impoverished, abusive farmer, Don was born Dick Whitman and assumed his current identity when he stole it from his dead comrade in Korea. His postwar reinvention matches America's own (albeit with different wars defining them), and his lack of a traceable past makes him the ideal candidate for change. Don wavers between the traditional values of gray flannel suit America with a hint of progressiveness. Notice that the women he chases are all proto-feminists: last season, he engaged in affairs with a Jewish store-runner and a pot-smoking beatnik. He lost both of them by the season finale, and now he pursues the ambitious, business-oriented wife of an obnoxious comedian Sterling Cooper hires for an Utz Potato Chip campaign.
Don cares for these women more than he does his complacent Stepford wife, but he also cannot fully commit to any one of them. He admires, perhaps fetishizes their independence, but he also wants them ultimately to answer to him. When he begged Menken to run away with him, she knowingly saw through his desperation, saying that he didn't want to run away with her, he "just wanted to run away." Don was simply too busy placing these women on pedestals to realize how much he wanted them to conform to the standards of the day. Slowly uncovering her husband's infidelity, Betty begins to assert a certain independence, to Don's horror. He clearly loves his wife and children, but he'd grown bored with the complacency of suburban life. Now, he experiences the sting of an independent woman, and it nearly destroys him.
Betty's growing dominance dramatically alters Don's life views, but he must also weather disillusionment with the men in his life. Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper represent the noble older generation to which Don aspires, and they both move in directions that challenge Don's notions of the greatest generation. Roger gets wind of Don's marital strife and his projected indifference over it and decides to divorce his own wife. After confronting his wife with papers, he declares his love for new secretary Jane (am annoying character created solely for this plot point). The old generation stuck to marriage until death, and for Sterling to throw it away on an adolescent fling with a woman half his age scratches the veneer we place on our elders.
Compounding Don's growing resentment of these older men is their decision to hire a new executive to increase revenue. Duck (Mark Moses), an abrasive alcoholic, cares only for business and sees ads as nothing more than avenues to more profit. "This place has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich," Don once joked, but his words contained a surprising truth: the ad men on Madison Avenue were, at the start of the decade at least, pop artists years before Andy Warhol lent this work a bizarre credibility. Compare Don's brilliant, genuinely moving speech about the possibilities of the Kodak Carousel in the previous season's finale with Duck's behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing; Duck is the dismal future of heartless advertising, while Don's view of semi-artistic endeavors already seem nostalgic. Personally, I see Don and his old team working toward the same goal, but Duck serves as a sort of Michael Corleone to Don's more endearing Vito.
As always, though, the women prove to be the real focal point of the show. The three main women of the series -- Betty, Peggy and Joan -- held my attention as much as Don did when I sat down with the first season, and they are even more interesting this time around. Betty gradually imploded under the pressure of domesticity, and she appeared well on her way to some murderous rampage when the discovery of her psychiatrist's collusion with her husband only steeled her. Now, she readies herself for the crumbling of her marriage, and a slow fire builds in those eyes. Betty only grows stronger as she converses with a new neighbor, a divorced woman, who informs her that the hardest part of confronting your husband is "realizing you're in charge."
Where Betty's arc reflects the growing changes in home life for women, Peggy Olson must struggle in the workplace. To the chagrin, even outrage, of the men at Sterling Cooper, she continues to climb the corporate ladder. Her aptitude in marketing to women (and men) makes her an invaluable asset as women like Betty begin to make their own decisions. However, her pregnancy threatened to ruin all of that, so she managed to hide it and gave the baby to her sister, who suffered a miscarriage. Peggy strikes up a friendship with a young priest, whom she helps with fliers for church dances and such. Their relationship sours, however, when Peggy's sister tells the priest about her illegitimate child out of spite. Peggy's arc remains the most interesting on the show to me, because her advancement demonstrates a woman coming into her own subconsciously; she does not actively seek to break the glass ceiling, but her ingenuity and resourcefulness cannot be ignored, even by the chauvinists who run the agency.
I must say, however, that Christina Hendricks walks away with the season. We saw her Joan as a fiery temptress in the first season, a woman who, unlike Peggy, knew exactly what she wanted out of her career but resigned herself to the barriers placed on women. So, she exploited her -- shall we say, talents --- and bent the rules around her voluptuous frame. Here, though, we see a woman more constricted than any other, caged on one side by a woman who actually does advance the ranks (Peggy), and on the other by the repercussions of her sexual strategies. When Roger pursues the new secretary, he abandons Joan as much as his wife for a younger woman. As a result, she flees into the arms of a doctor who's threatened by her sexual knowledge and compensates by establishing a cruel dominance over her. She catches a small break when Harry creates a television department for Sterling Cooper that will monitor shows and films to ensure that ads do not clash with the preceding programming. He asks her to help him read the scripts, a job she takes to with vigor. Then he brings in a man to take the job full-time, and Hendricks deserves an award just for her single moment of completely concealed yet plain-as-day pain.
The season kicks into high gear in its second half, when the marital strife between Don and Betty forms a solid storyline that propels both characters as well as shaking things up at Sterling Cooper a bit. Combined with the uncertainty these people feel as the Cuban Missile Crisis looms overhead, Mad Men attains a level of tension it never had in the first season. The finale leaves a number of interesting threads to explore with the new season, and it cements the series as the best show on television. This is must-see TV, people.