[17 July 2009]
The first season of AMC’s brilliant, meticulously crafted drama Mad Men introduced a wide range of characters struggling with the confining roles and social mores of early ‘60s America, but its overarching plotline was devoted to the dark secrets of ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm). On the surface he has the sort of family, wealth and professional status synonymous with the American Dream, but in private he seems continuously distracted and uncomfortable with his own life.
By the season’s end, Don confesses the truth to his mistress: he was really born to a prostitute and raised by an abusive family, and he ultimately used a tragic accident in the Korean War as an opportunity to switch identities with another man and sever ties from his past completely. His entire life is just another slick work of his imagination, an idea reinforced by a heartbreaking scene in which Don pitches Kodak an advertising campaign for a slide projector by displaying photos of his childhood and current family, while delivering a speech about the nostalgia of wanting to return home.
The mystery of Don Draper’s past made for a great reveal, but it also raised the question of where exactly the show would go next. The second season of Mad Men picks up over a year later in early 1962, and the characters are noticing subtle changes in the air, not quite realizing that the social conventions they’ve staked their lives on will be shattered by the decade’s end.
Don himself has a strange relationship with the post-WWII American culture; he clearly isn’t satisfied by it, but he believes that its insistence on decorum and an almost Victorian attitude towards sex and marriage (even while the men are having affairs in private) are preferable to the alternatives. In the season premiere, Don is stuck in the office elevator with an older woman and two men who are carrying on a frank discussion about casual sex, and Don angrily demands that the one man remove his hat as a sign of respect to the lady in order to shut him up.
Meanwhile, Don’s boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery) informs him that their advertising agency, Sterling-Cooper, needs younger staffers to provide a fresh perspective, prompting Don to bitterly complain that “young people don’t know anything, especially that they’re young.” His hopes are not raised when the new hires turn out to be a pair of beatniks who wear ridiculous sweaters in the office and talk about how their generation doesn’t want to be told what to buy.
More than anyone else, Don can feel the world spinning out of control, and his response is to try to escape his life once again, by exploring still more identities and different sides of his fractured personality. His seemingly endless quest to find himself is familiar ground for Mad Men, so creator Matt Weiner and his writing staff wisely decide to expand the show’s scope this season and give all of their characters more time to reflect on who they are – or mourn who they aren’t.
Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) has enjoyed her time as the queen bee of the Sterling-Cooper secretarial pool and the mistress of powerful men, but now she’s over 30 (scandalously old for an unmarried woman in 1962) and knows it’s time to find a husband. In her desperation she becomes engaged to a young doctor who’s emotionally distant and almost violently jealous of her sexual history. It’s a lousy choice and Joan knows it, but she puts on a brave face for her coworkers and brags about what a lucky girl she is.
Advertising copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has the sort of professional status and freedom that Joan can only dream about, but she’s lost at maneuvering in an all-male workplace and torn over the knowledge that she gave away her baby (the product of an office affair) in order to concentrate on her career.
Account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has to tell his wife that he’s not ready for a child himself, leading her to look around their tastefully decorated apartment and wonder aloud, “What is all this for?” Pete has no response; unlike Don, he’s spent more time coveting the money and sexual conquests of other men than pondering the emptiness of material success that his wife sees.
But the most fascinating character on Mad Men this season is Don’s wife Betty (January Jones), who is no longer able to deny that their marriage is a sham after a cuckolded comedian (Patrick Fischler) tells her to her face that their spouses are having an affair. Betty kicks Don out of the house, forcing him to realize that he could lose even his barely satisfying life as a husband and father. Meanwhile, Betty, left alone in the house with her two children, slips further into madness.
One of Mad Men’s greatest strengths is the way the show weaves pivotal events from the decade into the narrative without feeling gratuitous. The sudden crash of American Airlines Flight 1 terrifies the staff of Sterling-Cooper (especially since no one knows the cause) and forces them to rethink an entire advertising campaign. Peggy befriends a young Catholic priest (Colin Hanks), whose casual, less self-important demeanor is a reminder that the changes of the Vatican II are on their way.
And the sudden death of Marilyn Monroe, which moves most of the secretarial pool to tears, works on a few unexpected levels. Marilyn’s life – which appears perfect on the surface, even while she’s fighting demons that nobody else knows about – is a strange echo of Don’s own dilemma. But even more telling is the fact that Marilyn is a celebrity who self-destructed in the spotlight and who blamed the media for hounding her in her final days; today her death bears not only an eerie resemblance to the recent passing of Michael Jackson, but a warning of the corrosive effect of fame.
Don, however, doesn’t lose much sleep over Marilyn’s death. His horrifying wake-up call arrives in the final three episodes, when he attends a conference in California to woo military contractors to Sterling-Cooper and learns that if nuclear war were to break out between the US and the Soviet Union, all of civilization could be erased with just the push of a button.
For someone who already lives in an existential funk, this sends Don into a tailspin and makes him even more susceptible to the temptation of abandoning his responsibilities for some fleeting pleasures. He ditches Pete Campbell in California and runs off with a beautiful woman named Joy and her circle of trendy, vaguely European jet setters. He’s amazed by their epicurean, world-traveling lifestyle and even more so by their casual attitude towards sex – after waking up in bed with Joy, check out his astonished reaction when Joy’s father enters the room, chats with his daughter and proceeds to subtly hit on Don.
It feels like paradise at first, but Don soon discovers the negligence and self-absorption that make it possible. When he asks the group how they pay for their permanent vacation, everyone gets quiet as if he’s made a terrible faux pas. Later, an angry man arrives with two kids in tow, complaining to Joy that a woman named Isabel has no right to his children.
The jet setters think of themselves as more progressive and open-minded than the rest of society, but they still need someone else to figure out the details, pay the bills and deal with the emotional wreckage they leave behind. In their blinkered idealism you can almost see the beginnings of the late ‘60s and the hippie desire to cast off old social conventions, as well as the druggy fallout that will result.
Don returns home just in time to have his nerves tested by the Cuban Missile Crisis, which allows Mad Men to cleverly juxtapose three different scenarios for the destruction of his life: the nuclear standoff between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the dissolution of his marriage to Betty, and a buyout of Sterling-Cooper that could put Don’s career in jeopardy. Viewers will already know the outcome of one of these disasters, but the finale builds to a deeply ambiguous moment that suggests that it hardly matters what happens. Whether or not Don can win Betty back is less important than his reasons for doing so, but he barely seems to understand his wife and the chilly marriage they’ve shared together.
There’s a similar line of dialogue repeated throughout the season by a number of different characters: “What do you want from me?” Don’s despair at not knowing who he is leads him to the obvious conclusion that he should look to the people he loves to fill in the blanks. But what if his wife doesn’t love or understand him, either? Even after so much soul searching, Don’s identity remains a fascinating enigma.
The extras on this DVD set are terrific and feel more like annotations for a work of literature than the usual collection of promotional materials. Every episode comes with two commentary tracks featuring the cast and crew – Weiner typically speaks on the first track and shares his insights on the making of the series, while the second often focuses more on the actors.
Each disc also contains a collection of short features called The Time Capsule, which explains key historical events and cultural touchstones that the show mentions, from a look at the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to a three-minute primer on the US-Soviet Space Race.
A music sampler provides short clips of songs from throughout the season and seems like little more than checking out the Amazon page for the Mad Men soundtrack, but it’s still a nice thought. The only disappointments among the extras are the two longer documentaries on fashion and feminism in the 1960s: what could have an in-depth examination of the era’s surface glamour and the social problems lying underneath is instead reduced to a few talking heads who repeat the same points over and over again.