Monday, July 28, 2008
Mad Men's hotly anticipated Season 2 premiere aired last night (just in time, I hope, for it to ride the Emmy buzz to new viewership), and if you haven't seen it yet, snap to it, because here there be spoilers:
Matthew Weiner and company are back from vacation, and they brought us so many presents. My face lit up repeatedly throughout the episode: first for the opening shot of my favorite Mad woman Joan in her iconic red dress, again for Betty learning to ride horseback, then for Paul and his lovely bearded face, strangely for Pete who has a surprising appeal now that he's been dismissed so thoroughly, for John Slattery's perfection as Roger Sterling, and finally for the glorious return of Anne Dudek's Francine.
I know I sound like a rabid fanboy (I only wish there were a Comicon for Mad Men), but not having seen this show since it ended last year (and I only rewatched "The Wheel" since) has filled me with unexpected glee upon its return. It helps that Weiner's atmospheric portrait of American life builds from characters rather than contrivances. I'll admit most of my reticence to return to Mad Men since its exemplary inauguration was because I didn't want it to lose any of the magic.
But now that we've all seen the beginning of a new season, I think we can agree: the magic remains. Maybe not for Don and Betty's "marriage," or Don's once youthful physique (did Jon Hamm put on some weight for this season, or is it just me? Again, it's been a few months since I last saw Don Draper in action), or Don's firm handle on his office, his romances, and himself. But for the show as a whole, the magic is alive and well.
By which I mean the series has not lost its knack for the subtle art of details illustrating greater points, like Don wearing a hat post-Kennedy, Peggy's copy evoking Don's distant family (both of them), Peggy's neglected parenthood, and the generation gap, and Betty riding giving way to Betty "riding." Magic also lies in the series' determination to avoid the obvious, as in Don's reaction to the "sex sells" suggestion or Betty's roadside encounter (and did you notice how Pete stayed up alone on Valentine's, after a conversation in which his wife cried about not being able to get pregnant?).
It's disconcerting to see that Don seems to be suffering more than the rest of them. Not surprising, considering we first see Don at the doctor's office (where nothing good occurs) with high blood pressure promising to cut back, and we follow up with a hearty lunch of steak and eggs. On top of which, the Don Draper who improvised a paean to nostalgia to sell a slide projector is aloof about the Mohawk Airlines account. What's more, he can't even celebrate Valentine's Day properly.
I'm worried for Don, but confident he'll come through. The rising tension with Duck is certain to be a great draw this year. Don hired Duck as a means to keep Pete in line--also, Pete is manifestly unqualified--so it's weird knowing that Duck is not only decent (trying to go through the proper channels) but right. Don's no stranger to the wrong side of history, but it's never comfortable to see him so adamantly wrong.
Peggy may be the jolt he needs. They make an excellent team, partially because she seems to be the most diligent of Don's staff, and I hope to see them learn from each other. Peggy standing up for Don, though misguided and overblown, was a wonderful testament to her dedication to her old boss. But the charm here is that Don also admires Peggy, constantly encouraging her to improve her natural penchant for salesmanship.
Meanwhile, Joan remains fabulous as the keeper of Sterling-Cooper. Dealing with the copy machine, she works all the angles: treating it as a reward for the secretarial pool, using it as a means to give Lois minor consolation after her scolding (by apparently valuing Lois' opinion), and ultimately firing it at Peggy, the latest volley in what I hope is an endless struggle for office dominance. Christina Hendricks is consistently reliable to play many interesting tactics at once, again displayed in her scene with Lois (as she cocks her head mischievously, puts on a naive face, and asks about Peggy, "Why would she do that?"). I adore that Joan really wants what's best for Sterling-Cooper, and if placing the copy machine in Peggy's office--she said at the outset that it was so big it needed an office--wasn't the best fit, I believe she wouldn't have done it. On the other hand, I'm dismayed that Joan may be engaged shortly, because I don't want this show to lose Joan's flirting.
Of course, the non-Jewish doctor who may soon be proposing to Joan is a welcome addition himself, although we barely got to see him in the premiere. Meanwhile, Lois nailed her scenes with Peggy and Joan, and I hope to see more of her. I also want to see more of Carla, the Drapers' housekeeper, if for no other reason than race relations haven't been explored to nearly the degree promised by the pilot's opening scene. Finally, Duck is already a welcome addition to the cast, providing the voice of reason amidst the Draper/Sterling Stodgy Club.
As for the remaining mad men, Pete won me over when he demanded Trudy open his gift to her because he wanted a chocolate. But more importantly, Sal got married?! Of the many hanging chads, I was less looking forward to the fate of Peggy's baby than Sal's personal journey. And it looks like we've got plenty left on that road.
So for the big cliffhanger (and what other show would have their cliffhanger involve mailing poetry to an unknown recipient), who did Don mail the poetry to? My immediate thought (read: fervent wish) was Rachel Mencken, who I felt was a better foil for Don than Midge. But the more I think about it, the more likely scenario is Don sending poetry to his former beatnik mistress in the midst of a mini-sexual crisis with his wife.
Now I'm busy anticipating next week's episode, and the rest of the season, glad to have the current king of drama back. Don Draper's universe can only stave off tension for so long. Or as his secretary Lois might put it, "I think it looks good now, but I think it will become messy."