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AMC's Mad Men: It's Television Worth Living For (spoilers)

This review was originally published approx. twenty days ago, the morning of July 5.  With so many other reviews coming out this weekend, I thought I’d bring mine back up to the top.  For readers who prefer to avoid such things, there is a spoiler warning at the appropriate point.  

July 5, 2008/11:07 a.m.

With the season two unveiling of Mad Men on Sunday, July 27, executive producer/creator Matt Weiner cements his reputation as one of the smartest, most imaginative creatives working in television.

There is no Sophomore slump for this show set in a Madison Avenue ad agency -  a stylish and multi-layered immersion in the early 1960’s, just when the culture teeters on the cusp of upheaval.

Mad Men topped my 2007 list of television’s best, followed by Dexter (a close second).  In 2008, Mad Men still holds fast to the top spot so far.

It’s been ages since a series captured my attention to such an extent.  Season one, Thursdays at 10p were sacred.  (Now it’s Sunday.) Sure, I can TiVo, but why wait? 

To each his own, of course, but for my particular taste Mad Men is the best series of the last decade.  The season two premiere is, quite frankly, a television masterpiece.

Spoilers begin here!

Season two of Mad Men opens on a perfect moment, perhaps the peak of the Camelot fantasy, pre-dating the Cuban Missile Crisis -  Valentine’s Day, 1962.   It just happens to be the day when "three out of four television viewers tuned to CBS or NBC to watch a A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy…."

The episode, titled "For Those Whole Think Young," plays on the vintage Pepsi tagline from their 1960’s advertising campaign.

The Pepsi commercial below: "the modern light one…for those who think young!"

The air is redolent with youth.  There are toddlers in the White House and the younger generation is abandoning old products for the new.

The Sterling Cooper Ad Agency in Manhattan -  the principal setting for the series - is starting to feel the first effects of 1960’s boomer demographic avalanche.

As the ladies in the office contemplate where they should station the latest bit of innovative technology - the massive, new Xerox copier - the men of Sterling Cooper have other problems to consider, like the threatening influx of young creatives.   (As Matt Weiner remarked, there were three women in the office typing for every man.  The unintended consequences of the Xerox copier, initially a delight, may soon be felt.)

The under-25 demographic are rejecting coffee in favor of Pepsi, and the Martinson Coffee account is uneasy.  Management wants a younger, fresher perspective and they strong-arm Don Draper -  recently promoted to partner, last season -  into recruiting younger staff, against his better judgement.

Peggy Olson, the vulnerable/tough, talented 22 year-old (promoted to copywriter last season) is told she "doesn’t count" and, in fact, the guys in the office gossip nastily, dismissing her rise in status to sexual favors.

Ambitious account executive Pete Campbell remains reliably, deliciously, slimy. 

An event in the opener fuels the frustrations of Don Draper’s unfulfilled, lonely wife Betty.  She begins to flirt, rather ominously, with notions of sexual freedom.  (The Drapers have constructed an elaborate suburban fantasy.  Honest revelations would surely prick the bubble.)

Don Draper is as conflicted as ever, vacillating between his craving for family, connection and acceptance, and his yearning to escape the house of straw he’s built.   (We found out last season that his identity is entirely contrived - stolen, actually.)

In spite of his dalliances, he adheres to old-fashioned notions of gallantry, a point driven home in a wonderful elevator scene.

Draper’s two pack-a-day, hard drinking ways are catching up and the prescribed blood pressure treatment (fenabarbitol) has unpleasant side-effects.  He stumbles upon "Meditations in An Emergency," by Frank O’Hara, Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art and poet (who was also unmistakably, openly gay).

The two, new young (male) recruits interviewed by Don Draper are "partners," perhaps lovers, but their story is unorthodox, if not a little surreal.  One wears (inappropriately) a white Aran (Irish) fisherman’s sweater to the interview.  They appear to be wunderkinds from Doyle Dane Bernbach.  Weiner’s hint: their work has "Julian Koenig’s fingerprints all over it," observes Draper.  

Koenig: copywriter for Doyle Dane Bernbach, the legendary ad agency that David Ogilvy said "just sort of created an original school out of air."  Koenig: coined the VW "think small" ad campaign.  (Bernbach hired the best creatives he could find, irrespective of their backgrounds.)

The discussion about the Mohawk Airline campaign is classically, longingly, Matt Weiner.  Draper suddenly starts channeling.  The irony of this character is that his dual personality and tragic backstory make him a cauldron of conflict and unmet needs, a perfect storm for advertising. "It’s about adventure….taking you places where you’ve never been….you want to get on a plane to feel alive, you want to get on a plane to see just the hint of a woman’s thigh because her skirt is just..this much too short."   (Jon Hamm’s delivery is dreamy and masterful.)

However, Peggy - working in tandem with Draper - eventually crafts the Mohawk Airline theme, pulling from her own deprivation an idea with mass appeal.  The startled emotion crossing Peggy’s face at this moment is beautifully rendered by Elisabeth Moss.  She is truly Draper’s protege.

Weiner has conjured a setting which is the perfect metaphor for character study -  the true geniuses of advertising are the ones who can tap their own yearnings and deprivations.  They are best suited to develop campaigns that trigger that same cravings in a mass audience.

The Mohawk Airline moment is another multilayered scene full of double entendre.  And this is the richness of Mad Men.  So many scenes are double/triple stacked.  Often, it’s like watching two episodes simultaneously - text and subtext.

Layering and subtext are Matt Weiner’s trademark, yet said my husband, succinctly:  "The characters talk in shorthand but it’s not cryptic." 

It’s easy to become completely lost in other-worldliness of Mad Men.  The fabulous cast, the production values, the meticulous attention to detail - the fashions, the furniture, the cocktails, the jewels, the minks, the dressing tables, the props (even down to the fleeting shot of a copy of Advertising Age sitting on Peggy’s dressing table) - Mad Men is a weekly feature film treat.

The shots of the huge, HUGE print on the cover of O’Hara’s book were a little jarring.  I guess we were supposed to get that in a big way.  However, given Weiner’s obsession with detail (down to the wristwatches), the book featured in the scenes may have been an authentic review copy or early edition.

One sequence is destined to become instant water-cooler chatter.   On Valentine’s Day, blond, bejeweled Betty, wearing a lacy pink swing skirt and draped in mink (a gift from Don), floats down the gilded staircase of the Savoy.  A harp being played in the lobby soars into the violin strains (not the vocal/operatic version) of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s "The Song of The Indian Guest."  

The fleeting moment of perfection and yearning is later deflated.

It’s such a contrast to the final, grey misty night sequence when Don Draper surreptitiously (by walking the family dog) drops an envelope (recipient unnamed) into a red mailbox.  The very last scene is a crane shot, looking down at the street corner at night from far above - a red mail box in the circle of light from a vintage street lamp.  It’s, soft, empty, grey and gorgeous. 

Mad Men:  it’s television worth living for.

ETA:  ohhh.  look at this.  A Mad Men fan blog called "Basket of Kisses"

(thanks to Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan for the tip.)

Speaking of Mo Ryan, prep for season two by reading her recent retrospective of season one.

Other very good, detailed reviews include: Alessandra Stanley’s review in the NY Times.  or The Houston Chronicle. or The Boston Globe. or Newsday.  or Rocky Mountain News. or or Futoncritic.   Keep in mind, however, that there are no spoiler warnings.

Also, a focus on the design: from Aaron Barnhart/Kansas City Star