Monday, August 31, 2009
Three episodes in, it's time to talk Mad Men Season 3. Spoilers, ya hosers.
“My Old Kentucky Home” is a carnival of surprising character vignettes: Roger dons blackface and sings, Joan plays the accordion (!) and sings, Paul gets high and sings, Peggy demands marijuana, Pete and Trudy dance the Charleston, Jane falls down drunk and grabs Don’s belt buckle. Together they sound garishly un-Mad Men. But that’s not new: to date, Season 3 has felt soberingly distant from the past two years of Mad Men with the office dynamic irrevocably changed.
I’m not just talking about the British invasion, although Jared Harris and Moneypenny are excellent additions to the cast, if regular, sad reminders that Bert Cooper is no longer head honcho (though he is thankfully now a series regular). Roger’s position is also in flux as is his formerly rock-solid relationship with Don, and Pete and Ken are competing for the same position. Peggy’s found a happy place finally, but Joan is out of sorts in her final days as office maven. This isn’t the Sterling-Cooper we’ve come to know and love.
Luckily, the shake-up at Sterling-Cooper has only made Mad Men more intense, with a vague sense of unease hanging over every scene at the ad agency. It helps that the historical scope of the series, generally confined to early 20th century America, has been expanded to a global stage and is currently preoccupied with the Roman empire. Between Paul’s obsession with Roman ruins and Price’s suit of armor (not to mention the sex-and-death of Cooper’s latest Hokusai and Gene’s nighttime reading), I think the stage is set for a barbaric downfall, underscored by our knowledge of where the season is heading: Margaret’s wedding is scheduled for the day after Kennedy is shot.
The series is still obsessed with identity. Last night revealed that Paul’s insufferable sophisticate personality is, thankfully, a put-on. Joan is, expectedly, the perfect hostess, but she’s no shrinking violet, and her preparations to become a housewife have compromised her office dynamism. Also adapting to their new roles are Roger, Peggy, Pete, Ken, and Sal, who delivered the performance of the premiere. Speaking of which, the season opens with a shot of Don’s bare feet, purportedly a symbol of his naked self, his true identity, though the imagery leaves something to be desired, no?
If Season 1 launched Jon Hamm into the pop hunkosphere and Season 2 elevated January Jones, so far Season 3 seems to be Elisabeth Moss’ time to shine. That’s not to say Moss’ Peggy Olson hasn’t been an entrancing favorite for years now—she just earned an Emmy nomination—but here she is front and center, the only character who is perfectly comfortable with her status in the world, and the one the audience can safely root for.
Between “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana” and “She’s taken to your tools like a little lesbian,” I feel comfortable saying this season is the funniest yet, although Mad Men has always been pretty funny, a characteristic overlooked amidst the scores of “soap opera” dismissals.
As Matthew Weiner has told anyone who will listen, this year is all about change, and how people respond to change. Fitting for a decade noted for its volatile fracturing of the American dream. Three episodes in, we have some tastes of which characters are headed where, and who will be left behind, but I imagine the heft of the iceberg lies ahead.
By individual pieces, Mad Men Season 3 has been a charming, complicated return to my favorite television drama, but it’s not quite the same. At this point last year, we had just met Bobbie Barrett and hadn’t even touched on the coming Betty Draper awakening, so I have no doubt the season will only tighten its grip on me. But my responses aren’t as enthusiastic as they were after each of the first three episodes in Season 2. There’s much to love, but outside of Sal’s scenes in the premiere, not much substantial has happened yet, certainly nothing on the level of Pete’s father’s death or Don groping Bobbie.
So I’m pleased as punch to have Mad Men back, and I love the little pieces like Joan’s conversation with Moneypenny and Joan playing accordion and Joan being Joan. I just hope these pieces start to resemble a monument more than a ruins.