“For Those Who Think Young”
July 27th, 2008
The breakout success of Mad Men has been a huge surprise – when I started watching the show last summer, it was a cable show from a network that didn’t do such shows. It had the pedigree of Matthew Weiner, and it had some positive kudos from the critics, but what person would have predicted sixteen Emmy nominations, two Golden Globes, and a cultural firestorm so powerful that it even compelled the Canadian networks with the rights to the series to air the second season premiere before the first season has even completed airing?
But the time for kudos, set visits, really fancy DVD sets and excessive hype is over: while last season’s finale seems like ages ago at this point, it’s time to see whether the emotional resonance of “The Wheel” can be rekindled as the show picks up fifteen months later and in a whole different critical context: once a show without expectation, it has become perhaps the most closely watched sophomore session of the year.
And the series is showing its age, to use the opening episode’s central theme: it is a show that allows its characters to feel all of their insecurities in a way that ages them. If we look back to each character’s trajectory, and the series’ central transportation back to another era, a lot of it is about time and the way it changes people: whether it’s Betty Draper looking back to her modeling days or Roger Sterling having an affair with Joan, the voluptuous secretary, it’s all inevitably about returning to a younger self, a younger identity.
As the show begins its second season, it strongly and intelligently hits on this note, framing a story of a Valentine’s Day where “Young” is in and where those feeling time slipping away from them are hoping to hang onto everything they can. With a large ensemble cast and a number of emotional cliffhangers to deal with, the jump forward in time brings new facial hair, new jobs, and new rumours; in the process, it’s a new season of one of television’s finest dramas.
While Don Draper is the only person who actually receives a physical during the show’s second season, a lot of the episode is really like a checkup of sorts for the various cohorts at Sterling Cooper. For most characters, what we get is really just an update: a pregnancy here, a new beard there, and a general undertone of uncertainty. Valentine’s Day, being a time for lovers, does tend to mean that we spend most of our time with central relationships versus individual characters, but that doesn’t mean that every character doesn’t get a vignette of sots.
Take, for instance, Joan – for the most part, Christina Hendricks goes through her paces from last season, whether it’s her voluptuous red dress, her flirtatious manner with men, or her stern attitude towards the clerical staff. However, there are small differences, whether it’s her lack of direct flirtation with Roger (John Slattery) or her new relationship with a doctor (And one that seems fairly serious considering that we get to meet him and he seems quite taken). While the changes are subtle, the changes are surely there. And Joan is one of the rare characters going in the unusual direction of maturity, a quest nicely framed by the over-large Xerox machine delivered to the office. Just as she doesn’t quite know what to do with this new piece of technology, never quite finding the right place for it, there’s a sense that her newfound stability is similarly bulky.
But most everyone else is thinking younger, searching back into other parts of them for some sort of new security. Valentine’s Day means that romantic security is paramount: whether it is the cure for loneliness provided by a callgirl, or the simple pleasure of a night in a hotel with fancy lingerie, there is an attempt to hearken back to older times, to younger pleasures. This is nothing new for Betty Draper, who spent much of last season reconnecting with some part of herself she lost, but now she seems more confident in her actions. If last season she was the reluctant patient, scrutinized at every turn, this time around she seems almost devious in her attempts to overcome her husband and her life in general.
Take, for example, her entire conversation with Francine. In reality, her time with Don at the hotel on Valentine’s was marked by her naive ignorance to the fact that her friend was a callgirl, and an awkward sexual encounter with Don. You could tell there was frustration here, remnants of the fallout from last season’s finale where (unlike he imagined) he wasn’t there for them at Thanksgiving. She took the time to have a cigarette, order some extravagant room service, and catch some of Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House that was on television.
What she told Francine, however, was that they hadn’t had time for television, and that she and Don had both agreed that she was most certainly a callgirl. All of this is quite different, of course, and is a clear attempt at defining her own live separate and distinct from reality. What we have here is the classic role reversal: whereas Don spent Season One living two lives, here Betty (On a smaller scale) has her own form of this with her riding lessons (Which she won’t allow her daughter to partake in, craving the exclusion), her conversations, and eventually her late evening altercation where she owns her sexuality and gets away with a cheap fan belt installation. It’s a different Betty because she has newfound agency – she is the one returning home to Don holding down the fort, and she is the one who is worried about keeping accounts that he will find.
And, to complete the cycle, Don Draper is learning how to relax. After the aforementioned physical reveals that he is struggling with high blood pressure and stress (Natural considering his position and his high cigarette/alcohol intake), he sits down with a book. Meditations in an Emergency, a book of poetry by Frank O’Hara, is a book he saw someone reading in a bar, and he views it as some sort of signal for his own situation. Last season, Draper was caught up in being someone else and living a double life: now, here he is totally prepared to settle into the one he has, and yet he’s still stressed out, and he’s still having problems being intimate with his wife.
He’s late for meetings and has his issues in bed, sure, but he’s stable: he’s normal, he’s seemingly true to his wife, all of these things. There isn’t what we saw in the pilot, with the philandering and the like, but rather a man who is doing everything he is supposed to be doing and still finding himself struggling to keep it together. He, then, is doing what Betty did before, playing his role but never feeling comfortable, always searching for some other part of himself. It doesn’t help, of course, that the only thing he has to fall back on is a corrupted self, one that will fall apart again. While Weiner’s influences are many, this feels straight out of The Wire Season Four, which I just finished, echoing the journey of McNulty as he tries to find a better, but not as fulfilling, path on the side of righteousness.
Considering that the book is of poetry from the New York Poets movement, the likely recipient of the noted copy is Midge, who we haven’t seen for quite some time now (I wouldn’t see how it relates to Rachel Menken, although I’m guessing she’s still kicking around as well). I’ve seen this referred to as a mid-life crisis, but this implies that his earlier behaviour wasn’t actually a crisis. This could, in fact, be true, but only from Don’s own perspective: it has come to the point where he himself, not just those around him, is suddenly aware of the frustration to the point where it’s not just bubbling below the surface but acting in direct opposition to his actions.
And Draper is contrarian, there’s no doubt about it: he is a man who is stuck in his ways, and there’s a great point that Alan Sepinwall makes in his review that bears further mention:
Don has always resisted the flash of the new. His entire career is built on older values. Again and again, he’s given chances with his ad campaigns to look forward, and again and again he chooses to look back.
There is no question that this dialogue between old and new plays an important role, and Duck Phillips’ shiny potential coffee account is a lynchpin for the discussion. Sepinwall makes a number of great points on why Draper does tend to represent the traditional side of things in these arguments, and thus resists hiring younger copywriters (I loved him seeing right through Roger’s “Cooper wants…” opening) because he doesn’t believe in their talent. And yet we root for him, and for his ideals: we were so captivated by “The Wheel” and so idealistic in his personalized and emotional approach to this work that we are just as likely to ignore the realization that he might well be wrong.
And it’s especially true because taking that advice is hard: he only came up with “The Wheel” when it was his own family, and he doesn’t share Peggy’s gift of instantly grasping such emotions. His pitch for Mohawk Airlines was emotional garbage that he ended with “blah blah blah,” knowing how fill in the blanks simple it all was. His comment that “young people don’t know anything…especially that they’re young” is ridiculous when you consider that he has no idea who he is, and that he is in many ways struggling with the same emotional fits of youth even at his older age (36, as the doctor informs us).
As usual, though, it’s not just a few characters feeling the same thing: whether it’s something as small as Paul’s new beard or something as complicated as the mystery of Peggy’s departure, there is a lot of unrest amongst this group of people. The fact that Salvatore got married, after last season coming dangerously close to coming out of the closet, is a small tidbit of information, more surprising than say Pete’s wife inability to conceive (A final nail in the coffin when the news of Peggy and Pete’s baby breaks). The episode actually leaves a lot of that on the table, if you will: Peggy’s baby, for example, is barely mentioned, and only the brief scene of conference room chatter about her weight loss and Pete’s question of interest in parenthood he asks of Peggy really even directly address it.
Which means that this is still a world of a lot of secrets, a world driven by their pasts and their infinite desires to be other people, to do other things, or simply to be capable of doing without having the world collapse around you. As some are thinking young, some are thinking old; while some are pushing for change, others are stodgy in their insistence in the way it’s always been. As their world collides, so too does the world of Mad Men ignite beyond its beautiful sets to become a lifeform of its own – and one that only gets better with age, by this example.
- The scene at the end with Betty, as we realized what she was about to do, was gut-wrenching – I was simultaneously confirmed and shocked, and wondered how far she’d be willing to take it (and how far the mechanic wanted to take it) before eventually things calmed down and you realize how naive she really is.
- I really liked Peggy in the episode, clearly having been forced to own her new role and to continue to place a certain aura around herself. Her treatment of Lois, Don’s new secretary, is a perfect example: she snaps at her for an innocent remark mainly because she talked to Peggy like she was Peggy, Don’s former secretary, and not the new Peggy. How much of this comes from hidden grief or trauma from her pregnancy, and a desire to totally redefine herself in new terms, will have to wait until we get more of her story.
- I’m sure I’m missing all sorts of little tidbits here, but I’m dead tired after the weekend. If there’s anything else you’ve noticed, post below in the comments – this episode surely warrants further discussion.