Mad Men: Season Two
Special Collector’s Edition
Created by Matthew Weiner
Starring Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery and Vincent Kartheiser
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Release Date: July 14, 2009
It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who once posited that the things that people are ashamed of are the things that make the best stories. Fitzgerald, had he come later and not, y’know, drank himself to death, would have been proud to have come up with Mad Men. It was last year’s Emmy winner for Best TV Drama, and if my estimation of last season’s complete and utter swill that called itself television is correct (a year that spawned a disappointing third season of Dexter, a godawful season of Weeds, and the advent of the neon storm of ass that calls itself “True Blood“), it will win again this year. They should just rename the Emmys “Let’s Throw Gold Shit at Matthew Weiner and Tina Fey for Three Hours.” ‘Cause if I’m a fan of anything, it’s honesty.
For those of you who have yet to fall head-first into Mad Men like the unbearable hipster jackass at the record store told you you should have by now, allow me to set the scene:
In the early 1960’s, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is an advertising executive at the New York agency Sterling-Cooper. He has a lovely wife named Betty (January Jones) and two darling children and a big expensive house. Naturally, someone who has all these things should have deep problems and Don most certainly does. He’s a serial philanderer, has barely any love for his wife at all and bears a huge secret that haunts him at every turn. From season to season, Draper attempts to build up his success while his baser natures do everything they can to tear it all down.
Mad Men has gained a reputation, somewhat, as “That Show Where Everybody Smokes.” And it’s true that, in order to reflect the tenor of the middle of the twentieth century, everyone has a cigarette in his or her hand. As a smoker, no show has ever sent me into crazier nicotine fits. I go through smokes watching this show like fat children go through Tootsie Rolls.
But Mad Men‘s depiction of this disgusting, unhealthy and GLORIOUSLY satisfying habit is just the first of the cultural shocks as Matthew Weiner’s show takes us back to the Kennedy era. At one point, Betty encourages Don to beat their son. They have their five and six year old children fix them drinks for dinner parties. Whenever they have a picnic, they toss their glasses and dump their shit on the grass. Casual racism, sexism and homophobia are present in great hideous dollops.
The not-too-distant past that Mad Men presents is as far from “the good ol’ days” that our parents told us they were. Matthew Weiner’s show gives us a glossy, slick hellscape that acts as a constant roadblock to the needs and desires of the characters. Betty feels completely useless, but doesn’t know why. At one point a character is raped by her fiancé on the floor of an office and she just lies there and stares off into space because, well, this is the guy she’s going to marry. No sense in rocking the boat. There even comes a point where a priest tells a character that she’s going to hell because she won’t tell him that she had a baby out of wedlock.
Which leads to the essential, cockeyed optimism of the show. I know it’s hard to find in a program full of unlikable people staring off into the middle-distance, but it’s there. Because beyond any curiosity of the young or nostalgia of the old, it’s kind of hard to deny that things truly have gotten better. Yeah it’s dirtier and more crowded now, but try pulling the horrible crap you see on Mad Men in 2009. You’ll get your ass kicked. There is no such thing as The Good Ol’ Days, and every generation fruitlessly and baselessly foresees their annihilation at the hands of the next.
Above all, though, Mad Men is about The Lie. It’s different for each person, but it’s still the same Lie. The one that states any amount of gloss or any level of appearance can magically wipe away all of the trauma and fear that keeps us bound within ourselves. We have this mindset that if we have an attractive significant other, a certain kind of house, a set of kids, the right job, etc., then everything will all be okay. And that manifests itself in outer lies: the image that we have it together while we dwindle away in private want. It is, in essence… Advertisement.
The production values are top notch and the acting, from the top down, is brilliant. From Hamm, to Jones, to John Slattery as the lecherous senior partner, to Elizabeth Moss as the shy female copy-writer in a man’s world, to Christina Hendricks as the sultry secretary who knows everything that’s going on in the office. But the absolute stand-out is Vincent Kartheiser as the slimy and emotionally bankrupt Pete Campbell, the accounts exec hoping to angle for bigger and better. An unspeakable tragedy befalls him halfway through this second season and just watch as he stands in Draper’s office, having a drink and processing his grief. He’s spent so much time trying to project a false image of outer perfection that he just isn’t there anymore.
I quoted Fitzgerald at the beginning of the review, and if he’s the kind of guy you can keep up with, then Mad Men is right up your alley. But be forewarned: If you’re the kind of feckless miscreant who watches Paris Hilton is My New BFF, in earnestness or even in irony, then first, fuck you. And I’ll be by later to weed you out of the gene pool with a set of pliers. And secondly, I could recommend other pastimes than watching this wonderful show.
Because Mad Men has three-dimensional characters, unfolds slowly, and with a novelistic density. In fact, I called bullshit on last year’s similarly themed DiCaprio/Winslet ACTING!-fest Revolutionary Road because it couldn’t maintain Mad Men‘s subtlety or icy grace. It was like reading a hastily penned crib sheet. And hell, if a television show can outwit an Academy Award winning director, two beloved stars and a literary classic, don’t you think it’s the show you should be watching?