Monday, January 28, 2008

Mad Men redux: Ambivalent women

(Note: Because AMC is rerunning the first season of "Mad Men" every Sunday at midnight, and because a lot of people missed the show the first time around, I'm reposting my blog reviews for each episode the morning after. These are written as they were back in the summer/early fall; if I feel differently about anything in retrospect, I'll mention it in the comments. Also, while comments from both newbies and people who watched the first time are welcome, if you've seen these episodes before, please be vague about events in later episodes so as not to spoil things for the newcomers.)

Spoilers for "Mad Men" episode two coming up just as soon as I buy a new child safety seat for the car...

After devoting much of the pilot to the title characters, episode two of "Mad Men" is for the ladies -- mostly.

Betty Draper, kept off camera for most of last week to serve the pilot's not-so-shocking twist ending, gets to play screentime catch-up. We learn that she's suffering from some kind of condition where her hands freeze up at inopportune moments. (I don't know enough about medical history to understand whether Betty's condition is really psychosomatic, as her doctor suggests, or simply something a doctor in 1960 wouldn't be able to diagnose.) She's out of sorts, depressed about the recent death of her mother, crushed by her role as homemaker but not understanding that there could be an alternative, frustrated that Don is just as big a mystery to her as he is to everyone else. When they lie in bed together, she looks at him and whispers, "Who's in there?" It's not apparent yet whether she suspects Don is sleeping around, but she's thrown by the news that a divorcee has moved into the neighborhood. As claustrophobic and terrifying she may find her life, being a single mom in 1960 Westchester sounds infinitely more terrifying.

It's really scary to see how constrained Betty's life is, how much control of it is placed -- by her ignorance and by the standards of the time -- in the hands of Don. He's the one who pushes her to see a therapist, and he's also the one who can then call up the therapist to find out what Betty talked about in her session. January Jones has a look that works really well with the style of the time (in present-day movies, I don't usually notice her, but she has this vaguely Grace Kelly quality when you put her in the dress and the hair and the makeup), and I'm glad she's portrayed as more than just the ball and chain that Don escapes from with work and with Midge.

And speaking of our resident beatnik floozy, we find that she's not just Don's mistress, but rather a free love type who sleeps around, an arrangement that has its pluses and minuses for both of them. Don doesn't have to feel completely guilty that he goes back to Betty the next day because he knows Midge has other guys, but he also can't help getting upset when evidence of those guys -- say, Midge's new TV set (on which her favorite show is the same as Don's kids') -- stares him right in the face. And Midge doesn't have to feel like a kept woman who's breaking up a marriage, but she still can't stand to hear about Betty. When Don says, "I can't decide if you have everything, or nothing," she tells him, "For the moment, nothing is everything." On some shows, that line would sound like psychobabble masquerading as profound insights, but the small details of how these characters are written and played gives it real meaning.

With Pete off on his honeymoon (an excuse to sketch in the other young guys at the agency), Peggy gets a bit closer to Paul, one of the copywriters on Don's team. Paul is set up to be everything that Pete and his cronies aren't -- well-read, semi-enlightened (he at least sees the value in women copywriters for certain types of jobs), not as blatant in his advances -- but in the end he's revealed to be just another horny guy trying to get with the new girl, and Peggy is only able to fend him off by hinting at her involvement with Pete. (Paul assumes the man she's talking about is Don, and in one of my favorite lines of the episode, says, "Do you belong to someone else? Shit. I don't even like to sit in Don's chair.")

I'm just very taken with this show, and if I wasn't so burnt-out from being at press tour for two weeks (see the latest iteration of my Bon Scott/Alex O'Loughlin problem), I'd attempt to elaborate more about what it continues to well. Instead, it's on to our friends the bullet points:
  • Yes, People Really Lived This Way moments of the week: the Draper kids drive without child seats, or even seat belts, and are completely unharmed in Betty's fender bender, and the daughter runs around the house with a dry cleaning bag over her head and Betty's only concern is that her dress might get ruined without the bag on it.
  • John Slattery has just nailed the arrogance and indifference of a guy like Roger. Again, an exchange like the "What do women want?" "Who cares?" bit between Don and Roger could have come across as being written in italics, but Slattery makes Roger's attitude seem like the natural thing.
  • Robert Morse! How perfect is that? They cast Robert Morse -- star of the original version of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" -- as Mr. Cooper, head of the agency.
What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Woah. The ending of this episode certainly had a bite.

It's easy to view the 60s as one massive male conspiracy when watching this show, not a million miles away from Stepford.

I'm still uncertain as to who I'm supposed to really sympathize with in this show. For a minute or two, I thought it would be Paul, with his love of science fiction setting him up as some sort of proto-geek, before putting his awkward moves on Peggy. Even Peggy just seems a little detached for me to truly be able to sympathize with. Is it part of the show's MO to present the past as a strange world, populated by people who might as well be aliens themselves? Perhaps Paul's reference to the Twilight Zone was strangely apt.

Anonymous said...

I'm on board for now because of all the raves, but this one seemed like a big step down from the pilot, and I wasn't in love with that either. Not a particularly subtle show so far, and rather dull here. Can fans reassure me it gets stronger as it moves forward?

I'm finding Draper less a man of mystery than kind of a hypocritical creep. Slattery's character is interesting in a supporting role. I wish they'd focus more on Christina Hendricks' character though, as what we've seen of her has me more intrigued than the rest of this cast.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Can fans reassure me it gets stronger as it moves forward?

It absolutely does. Early on, lots of people were complaining about the lack of subtlety, but there comes a point in the season where I think the writers realized they didn't have to keep hammering the Then Vs. Now differences quite so hard.

As for sympathy/rooting interest, I was largely with Don, especially as the season went along and you realized that he's by far the best of a bad lot. Sort of like The Sopranos; on paper, Tony is a murderous scumbag, but juxtaposed with the other characters (and played with the charisma of Gandolfini), he's the guy you care about.

Anonymous said...

on the dole - hang in there, and you'll be richly rewarded with more Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and everything else.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, guys. I've been looking forward to this show for a while, and I recognize my expectations are bound to impact my early take on it, much as I try to go in with a blank slate.

Anonymous said...

on the dole - I don't always agree with your FNL postings but I thought your summary here was absolutely spot on. That's exactly what both my spouse and I see in the show so far (like you it's only the second time we've watched the show and we thought the second ep was a step down). What intrigues me is not that Alan and others assure us that better things are to come but even after seeing only two episodes Alan was at this stage barely critical. One additional thing that struck me was that in the same way that football plot lines drive what some people think is FNL greatness, I'm guessing that clever advertising plot lines may do the same here. In the episode, I didn't see anything too clever about the advertising of deodorant in a can. And the conversations between the characters are interesting but are mostly too well-written to be believable.

Unknown said...

I too am glad to hear that the show picks up. I am finding the dialogue too cutesy in a Juno-type way and I get that people smoked a lot and were chauvenistic back then.
I'm taking a cue from The Wire which started slowly and developed into one of the greatest shows the world has ever known and hanging in there.

Anonymous said...

I noticed something while watching this - in the scene with Paul and Peggy in his office, when Paul's lips clearly say "shit" there was a horribly dubbed-in "shoot." Based on Alan's review and a reference to the iTunes version, it seems that in the initial run of the series the word was clearly "shit."

Is AMC rerunning this series edited for content and/possibly time? Why would they do that, when it originally aired on their network and is now on at midnights? Also, if they are doing that, how much are we missing out if we watch these reruns?

I was excited to finally check out this series, but I don't want to watch it in bastardized form.