Spoilers for the "Mad Men" season two premiere, "For Those Who Think Young," coming up just as soon as I take off my hat...
"Young people don't know anything -- especially that they're young." -Don Draper
Among the many subjects of "Mad Men" is the great generational divide of the 1960s, as seen through the eyes of a company about to end up on the wrong side of it. But what I've always found fascinating is that the show's hero (of sorts) isn't presented as the lone voice trying to convince his colleagues that a change is gonna come, but one of the guys trying to hold back the tide. Sure, Don's more enlightened about women (to an extent; Peggy or Midge might agree with that notion, but Betty wouldn't if she were self-aware enough to understand it) and minorities. But he wants no part of this new cultural shift. During the presidential election last season, he (and the show) identified himself with Nixon, while the loathsome Pete -- who also happens to have a better handle on these new trends than any other character -- was held up as the Kennedy analogue.
Even if Don hadn't just had a physical where the doctor, in Don's eyes, all but handed him a walker and told him to get ready for the retirement home, I imagine he would have resisted Duck Phillips' request to hire on some younger copywriters. 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. That's what "The Wheel" was about: rather than play up the technological aspect that the Kodak people wanted, Don went for an old-school -- and, I should say, brilliant -- tug for the heartstrings.
What I love about "Mad Men" is the double-edged nature of its take on the period. On the one hand, the series takes great delight in highlighting all the behavior of the time that would and should be unacceptable today -- as John Slattery put it at the TCA Awards, "the show's message of drinking and smoking and whoring." On the other, the nostalgia that Don talked about in "The Wheel" is very real. The series has a very classical storytelling style, eschewing quick cuts and busy plots in favor of a leisurely pace that wouldn't seem inappropriate in a film from 1962, and you can tell that Weiner is no fan of today's youth-driven culture, where every movie is targeted at 14-year-old boys, and where every piece of entertainment has to be as loud and obvious as possible.
And even within that subject, there's a grey area. Yes, it's wonderful that Don can come up with a campaign like the Carousel, or even the "What did you bring me, Daddy?" ad he inspires Peggy to write. But the future isn't all bad, and Don's resistance to it -- not just to youth and technology, but to irony ("There has to be advertising for people who don't have a sense of humor") -- is going to bite him sooner or later, if it hasn't already.
Don's mid-life crisis -- and in 1962, 36 was considered middle-aged -- takes up a good amount of the season two premiere, but there's also plenty of time to catch up with the characters -- to a point. I love the use of "Let's Twist Again" for the opening montage, not just because it evokes Peggy dancing for Pete to the original "Let's Do the Twist" in season one's "The Hobo Code," or because the "like we did last summer" is a meta comment about how much we all enjoyed season one, but because it's a reminder that 1962 is still just as much a part of the '50s as it is the '60s. The jump ahead 15 months from "The Wheel" brings some changes, but they're still subtle. The '60s as we know them won't be arriving for several years yet.
We get hints of what happened during that 15-month gap: Peggy disappeared for three months after giving birth, and no one knows why; Roger and Joan have stayed broken up and she's getting serious with a doctor; Harry patched things up with his wife somehow and now they're expecting a baby, to the chagrin of Pete's wife, who still can't conceive after all this time (and who doesn't know that her husband is more than capable of getting a woman pregnant); Salvatore has gotten married (that's his wife; check the credits) in his quest to run away from who he really is; and Don and Betty have reached some kind of understanding where he makes more of an effort, even if the sight of January Jones in that underwear still doesn't do it for him
Don's equipment failure on Valentine's Day frustrates and confuses Betty, and so she decides to imitate her roommate-turned-hooker pal Juanita and see if she can't use her sexuality to get things from other men. Betty being Betty, she does it in the most childlike way possible, not thinking through the implications or dangers, and there's a moment as she stands on that dark and empty road with the mechanic and he realizes he's not actually going to get lucky in exchange for a fan belt where I began to fear for her safety. Just as Don walking with the briefcase toward his brother's room in "5G" briefly made us wonder if he had a gun in there, I worried for a moment or three if the mechanic might forcibly make Betty honor their unspoken agreement.
Peggy's situation is more of a mystery. We know she disappeared for three months and came back much skinnier, and we know that none of the junior-level guys know what happened. (Pete's "Fat farm! I thought we had verification!" was priceless.) But whatever happened to the baby, somebody high up at Sterling-Cooper -- most likely Don, with a very outside chance of Joan -- has to know in order to cover for her. No secretary-turned-copywriter gets to vanish for three months the Monday after getting the promotion and still keep her job without help from above.
Regardless of what happened after the birth, Peggy has thrown herself full-bore into her new role. She views herself as equal with the other junior execs, even though they don't. She and Don work well together creatively, and you can tell he clicks more with her than he ever has with Paul or Freddy Rumsen. She tries to separate herself from secretarial duties (when Ken asks Peggy about the glasses in the conference room, she avoids answering him) and makes Don's new secretary cry over what was probably an innocent remark.
The premiere closes with yet another mystery, as Don reads some of the poetry from "Meditations in an Emergency" -- his one attempt to connect with the future, though it may have just started as his attempt to prove the beatnik wrong when he told Don he wouldn't like it -- and then marks a particular passage "Made me think of you," puts it in an envelope and mails it to a person unknown. Is he back in touch with Midge? I can't imagine Rachel Mencken giving him the time of day after she got a look at the face of Dick Whitman, though I suppose this could be Don trying to make a peace offering. Or has yet another bold and clever brunette appeared on his radar during the time that we were away?
Matt Weiner has said that we're going to find out everything in due time; I'm more than willing to wait when the episodes are this strong.
Some other thoughts on "For Those Who Think Young":
-I like that, once again, we're reminded that age is a relative thing. Paul isn't that much older than the two guys Don brings in to interview, but he's always strived to look and act older than he is, as he grew up in a time just before youth became the be-all and end-all of the culture. (I also loved his dismissive "You don't count" when Peggy pointed out that she's only 22.)
-As soon as the doctor mentioned Don's age, I started wondering whether Don was actually 36, or if that was the age of the real Don Draper, who was presented as being a bit older than Dick Whitman. Matt Weiner says that this is how old our Don is; in the less bureaucratic period, I imagine fake Don would have an easier time using some of his own statistics instead of having to stick closely to the real Don's life story.
-Even before the boys start chattering about Peggy's miraculous weight loss, the entire scene with everybody waiting for Don was hilarious, particularly Freddy Rumsen hollaring about the "unspoken agreement" that he be allowed to be at the bar by noon. An awful lot of things are assumed but never said on this show.
-The arrival of the Xerox is yet another harbinger of the future, but here it was mostly used as a punchline for the ongoing war between Joan and Peggy, as Joan sticks the enormous thing in Peggy's office as punishment for making Lois cry. I like that Joan can herself get annoyed with Lois for crying in the break room ("which I have specifically forbidden") and yet use her as an excuse to go after the annoying Peggy. Nobody makes fun of my sister but me, right?
-Getting back to the Kennedys, we spend an interlude in the middle of the episode with the characters watching Jackie give a televised tour of the White House, with the characters all projecting their own anxieties onto her. These are the Kennedys before Dallas, before JFK and Jackie both became universally revered, and it's nice to see how people actually reacted to them in those early days of Camelot.
-Good to have Anne Dudek back as Francine, who obviously had her baby during the break and, like Harry's wife, reluctantly agreed to go on with her marriage even in the face of her husband's infidelity. Amber/CTB may be gone from "House," but Dudek's still around.
-Nice little moment where the Draper nanny declines a ride to the train station from Don after seeing him with a glass in his hand. Not everyone in the period was okay with the level of drinking.
-When the chipmunks were all discussing the Don vs. Duck feud and Pete said, "No one makes Don Draper do anything," there was equal parts frustration and awe in his voice. As bad as it had to hurt to fail in his blackmail attempt, and to suffer Don's obvious contempt for him, there's a part of Pete that still really admires the guy and desperately seeks his approval. Of course, compared to his father, Don's treatment of Pete is almost friendly.
-Interesting that Roger is back to something resembling full duty -- and John Slattery is no longer being billed as a Special Guest Star, but as a member of the regular cast -- and yet Duck remains. I'm glad, though, as I think Mark Moses adds a different color to the show; I quite liked his frustrated delivery of "You know, there's other ways to think of things than the way you think of them" to Don.
What did everybody else think?