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REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 2, 2008) May 7, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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Last year plenty of people interpreted slogan “Make America great again” as a return to a mythical better past that never existed or was better only for tiny minority of Americans. Most of such interpretations have set on 1962 as the last identifiable year of such “greatness”. This is hardly surprising, because even Hollywood leftists tend to watch selective chapters and periods of history through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. In case of 1962, it was a year when many Baby Boomers, generation that shapes today’s perception of 20th Century, lived the last years of their childhood, unburdened by some unpleasant challenges and responsibilities that come with maturity. In some strange way, 1962 was the last “good” year both for conservatives who didn’t know how dramatically the world would change in next few years and for idealistic progressives who didn’t know that some of those changes would be for the worse. It is also a very good year for shows like Mad Men if their creators want to show that those dramatic changes slowly began in a subtle way.

Matthew Weiner and the rest of creative team were very wise to avoid having Season 1 – which had described the “old” and “established” world of Mad Men in 1960 – followed by a season set in 1961. The new episodes begin more than a year after the end of Season 1. It is February 1962 and the America is still strong, confident and optimistic, and this confidence is embodied in JFK as new, attractive and youthful president, more suitable to the role of the leader in a brave new world where astronauts in Earth’s orbit and amazing new technology turn yesterday’s science fiction into reality. Even Bert Cooper (played by Robert Morse), old patriarch at the helm of Sterling Cooper ad agency, is aware that the change is inevitable, and the rest of his partners are trying their best to adapt to new generations by hiring new and younger creative talents. The main protagonist and his subordinate, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) is also faced with changes, both in his professional and private life; while in the office he too tries to connect to brave new world of 1960s youth, his marriage to Betty (playey by January Jones) is in deep crisis, marred by his own reckless infidelity and Betty’s own psychological issues. Don’s former secretary Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss) continues her transformation from lowly office help into highly regarded and respected advertising talent, while trying to reconcile her professional triumphs with private life revolving around unwanted single motherhood, embarrassed family and sympathies towards young Catholic priest (played by Jonathan Hanks). Not all changes are for the better, and Don’s former office rival Pete Campbell (played by Vince Karthesier) experiences family disasters that could ruin both his career and marriage.

The idea to push another season one extra year forward was wise, because it allowed clearer picture of changes, both in lives of show’s characters and in the wider world they inhabited. Again, Mad Men takes subtle approach, trying its best to avoid spelling out the obvious; the show doesn’t show the history and instead it shows how that history reflects on some private and seemingly ordinary lives. There are many scenes in which characters won’t say or do much; instead of that, modern audience is left to connect the dots and thus paint the picture of 1962 being very different in attitudes towards issues of race, gender or sexual orientation. One of such examples could be found in scene that deals with homosexuality – again, this is a taboo subject which is not only deeply uncomfortable, but in many ways also incomprehensible to early 1960s characters. When someone finally not only says those dreaded words but actually clearly identifies with them, Mad Men clearly points that times have indeed changed.

Yet, Season 2 is inferior to the Season 1. This has little to do with general quality of writing or acting, which is superb. For example, the episode titled The Jet Set is one of the best-written, best-directed and best-acted in recent television history. The main problem is in 1962 being more eventful year than 1960, and the history revolves too much around iconic images, words and events that define that era in today’s popular culture. Perhaps the most problematic is Cuban Missile Crisis, which just happens to occur at the same time as protagonists face some serious business and professional issues; the season finale occurs while the crisis is not yet resolved and thus brings rather disappointing cliffhanger. Even those viewers unfamiliar with history probably know how such event ended, because our world obviously looks different than the world of Fallout video games.

At the same time, Season 2 is something of refreshment compared Season 1. Just like Don Draper, the show takes long vacation in California, and uses it as an opportunity to give some hints of both protagonist’s future and present. There are actually fewer flashbacks compared with Season 1; with the mystery of Don Draper’s origin resolved, viewers would probably be less interested in otherwise prosaic portrayal of his early career. More interesting is the future set in sunny and “hip” California, so far away from the suffocating corporate offices of “square” New York and its suburbia. In couple of episodes set there Don experiences shape of the things to come during the brief but seductive encounter with a group of rich world travelers that enjoy nomadic free love lifestyle not very different from hippies. Yet, this new seductive utopia might be an illusion just like those Don sells his clients, and Cold War threats to end is just as violently as Don Draper’s new identity was created. By again reminding Don and the modern audience of all those uncomfortable truths, Season 2 more than justified its existence. Some may argue that America might have never been great. Mad Men has.

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