Welcome back to the world of Mad Men, where time has moved forward and the young Turks aren’t so young anymore, but where life, surprisingly, hasn’t changed all that much. Or has it?
Fortunately for us, the things that made the series great in its first season last year are back in great abundance in Sunday’s second-season premiere: Subtle but forceful writing and direction (from creator Matthew Weiner and regular helmer Tim Hunter), good acting all around and an almost tactile sense of time and place.
These spoilers don’t come with the little chart.
Season two begins on Valentine’s Day 1962, with Jackie Kennedy giving TV viewers her Tour of the White House and the men and women of Sterling Cooper giving and receiving heart-shaped candy boxes. That means roughly 15 months have passed since we last saw Don Draper, sitting on the steps of his empty house at Thanksgiving.
So what’s new? On the surface, not a heckuva lot. This show, though, is about the stuff that lurks just underneath the surface. So let’s try to take a peek.
The Drapers. We open with Don at the doctor’s office, getting mildly upbraided by his physician for his high blood pressure (160 over 100, yipes) and high levels of booze and cigarette intake (and also mildly hit on by the nurse who takes his vitals: "My, you’re a big one"). That lifestyle and his job seem to be taking a bit of a toll on him — he forgets/blows off a meeting with the creative staff, and when he does make it, he seems pretty uninspired by what they offer up, particularly Paul Kinsey’s half-assed, punny lines for Mohawk Airlines.
Meanwhile, Betty seems to be doing her best to fill her time, taking riding lessons and tending to kids Bobby and Sally, who’s made a Valentine for her dad. "I’ll see that he gets it," Betty tells her somewhat noncommittally. I was picturing an awkward, let’s-get-this-over-with sort of conversation between the two of them, but when they finally do meet nearly halfway through the episode — well, look here, they’re still together. And despite the way things ended last year, it makes a perfect kind of sense: Betty, for all she may have discovered about herself last year, isn’t prepared to live on her own, and Don needs the anchor that his home life provides. (See, for instance, his speech to Peggy and Sal tonight about the importance of sentiment in selling a product: "You feeling something, that’s what sells. Not them, not sex.")
Betty, meanwhile, rediscovers that beauty can be a powerful bargaining tool after running into a former roommate who’s now a call girl (even if Don has to explain it to her at first). Intrigued by the idea that her old friend’s looks are still paying the bills, she tries out her wiles on a mechanic after the car breaks down. I sense a slippery slope in the future.
Peggy. She’s taken to her job as copywriter quite well, as evidenced by the fact that she’s the only one in the creative meetings who seems to offer anything like a worthwhile pitch. She’s also rather enjoying her (slightly) elevated position at Sterling Cooper, upbraiding Don’s new secretary for not giving a good enough answer about his whereabouts. But she’s still seen as an interloper, both by the men who are now ostensibly her peers — who freely speculate on how she got thin again and how she got her job when she’s not around — and by some of the women from whose ranks she rose. It’s tough not to read Joan placing the new copier in her office as anything but a little payback.
Pete and the boys. Harry Crane is about to be a daddy, which has Pete’s wife, Trudy, fretting over their lack of children and making catty comments about a pregnant woman she saw on the street. Pete is at first obtuse ("The daughter was pregnant?") and then cavalier, assuring Trudy that the woman on the street doesn’t have what she has. "Jennifer Crane does," Trudy replies. Ouch.
Paul Kinsey, meanwhile, has given Sterling a list of young bucks who might inject some energy into the office, unaware that "he’s signing his own death warrant," in Sterling’s words. He has an unlikely ally in Don, though, who dismisses the youth movement — which accounts chief Duck Phillips is pushing hard for — as a fad. "Isn’t it possible the recently weaned have some unique perspective?" Sterling asks. Nope: "You talk as if they’re some fresh version of us. They’re not. Young people don’t know anything, especially that they’re young."
Draper himself is hardly an old man — 36, we learn at the doctor’s office — but the generational line he draws is a pretty stark one. I think we can expect his efforts to resist the youth explosion we all know is on its way to be a big theme in the coming season.
For us, though, the big takeaway this week is: What the heck happened in the time in between seasons? I really can’t wait to see what the intervening time has done to Don and Betty’s marriage, how Peggy is (or isn’t) handling motherhood and just why Joan still seems so antagonistic toward Peggy. In the meantime, some thoughts and observations from "For Those Who Think Young":
- The book Don’s fellow barfly is reading is Meditations in an Emergency, a collection of poems by Frank O’Hara. So who do we figure he was sending the book to at episode’s end, Midge or Rachel?
- Roger Sterling line of the night, on entering Don’s office and pouring himself a beverage: "They say that once you start drinking alone, you’re an alcoholic. I’m really trying to avoid that." Don’s reply: "Then I guess I’m helping us both."
- Loved the varying reactions to the Tour of the White House, from Betty’s insistence that Don flip back to the show to Sal’s "Where’s her husband?" — and by the way, who’s that woman he’s with? — to Joan’s distraction while her boyfriend’s putting the moves on her. And of course, Pete scarfing candy and watching something else.
- Did you catch Betty’s subtle retelling of her encounter with her ex-roommate when she was chatting with Francine the next day? "She wasn’t with a date, she was with a ‘companion’ — Don agreed with me." Also, Francine’s reaction: "If prostitution is Don showing up with a fur coat, I’ll take it."
- When Don meets Betty at the Savoy, he’s wearing a blue shirt with his suit. I may well be wrong about this, but I can’t remember him wearing anything other than white shirts with a suit before.
- The Draper Code in action: Don forcefully removes the hat of a lout in an elevator when a female passenger becomes uncomfortable with the lout’s sex talk. It’s not always easy to figure out where the moral line lies with him, but one of the reasons it’s hard to dislike Don, for all his faults, is that he sticks to his principles.
How’d you like the season premiere? What would you like to know about the 15 months we didn’t see, and is Don’s resistance to the youth movement going to be his downfall?