Mad Men, the ’60s-era drama that airs on AMC, had a lot to live up to after its first season. The television series was an across the board critical success, receiving the kind of attention that can kill a series if the writers and directors get too caught up in the hype. But series creator Matthew Weiner is a smart man and has been through this kind of media storm before (he was one of The Sopranos’ producers). He knew well enough to stay focused on the characters and let their lives dictate the direction of the series and the stories to tell.
The second season of Mad Men, now out on DVD, takes place in 1962, picking up 15 months after the end of season 1. The theme of this season was about identity — most importantly, that of Don Draper, the enigmatic, brilliant ad man from the New York ad agency, Sterling Cooper, as played by Jon Hamm. Moreover, this season was also about the identities of Betty Draper (January Jones), Donâ€™s wife who slowly realizes that her husband is a cheat, and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), the young woman who began the series as Donâ€™s assistant and worked her way on to the writing staff with her talent and a little bit of a shove by Draper himself.
With Don, we saw small bits and pieces of his past in season one. His real name is Dick Whitman. He grew up poor and while serving in the Korean War, took on the identity of the real Don Draper, a fellow soldier who died in an explosion. Whitman switched dog tags assumed the identity of Don Draper. Having always been able to just drift into a new town when things got rough, becoming a successful ad man has caused Don to struggles with the idea of staying settled down. He realizes that he loves Betty above all others and despite his wanderlust, losing her would crush him. Of course, his inability to remain faithful contradicts how he feels about Betty, which makes his character so interesting, and sometimes despicable. Part of me thinks that Draper was that kid who was never popular growing up and never had a girlfriend. His fame and wealth has suddenly made him very attractive to women and he just canâ€™t resist. Draperâ€™s second season story reaches a climax in a multi-episode story in which he travels to California for a convention and leaves Pete Campbell (played with wonderful complexity by Vincent Kartheiser) alone at a hotel while he goes off to some commune of ex-patriots to escape. Campbell returns to New York with no idea whether Draper will return. In the meantime, Don goes to visit an old friend and we learn how he has been able to keep the Draper faÃ§ade alive for so long.
Betty seizes control of her life throughout the course of the season. She begins taking horse riding lessons and begins to feel some independence away from her husband and the suburbs. She flirts with a stable romance, but a remains faithful to her family, even though she suspects Don has been cheating on her. Everything comes to a head for Betty and Don when the husband of his latest fling confronts him at a party. In one of Mad Menâ€™s many classic moments, Betty vomits all over the interior of Donâ€™s brand new car (the same car he had scolded his kids for fooling around in) when upon the understanding that her husband is a lout. Betty eventually kicks Don out of the house as she figures out who and what she wants to be. January Jones is simply marvelous in this role. She is especially effective during a scene in episode 9, â€œSix Month Leave.â€Â Betty takes Don back to visit her parents after her father suffers a stroke. In a devastating moment, her father mistakes Betty for his wife and gropes her in front of the entire family. The mortified look on Jonesâ€™s face slowly turns into pity as Betty grasps the fact that her father is seriously ill and wonâ€™t be getting better.
Peggy ended season 1 giving birth to a baby she didnâ€™t realize she as having. When the season opens, we arenâ€™t sure who is taking care of Peggyâ€™s baby. Perhaps her mother, perhaps her sister. Since the season take place fifteen months later, Peggy has jumped back into her work routine. The only person who knows that she had a baby turns out to be Don. We soon learn that he visited her in the hospital after the delivery while she was suffering from some post partum depression. Don convinces Peggy to put the past behind her and to move forward. In that moment you begin to see how Peggy is not just a go-getter, smart, trailblazing girl of the 1960â€™s, but that she has the potential of becoming a Don Draper. Working with him she has already learned the art of deception, and she already has the talent to put her male co-workers to shame. Fortunately, she also has a conscience. Whether itâ€™s through guest star Colin Hanksâ€™s priest or the fact that sheâ€™s seen what lying has done to her former boss, Peggy seems to have a level head on her shoulders and there is hope for her.
While these three characters are the central focus of season 2, there are also wonderfully written sub plots for every other actor in the show as well. Among the standout storylines involve Salvatore (Bryan Batt), the recently married Itlaian-American art director. As Salvatore develops a crush on co-worker Paul (Michael Gladis), he begins to see that he is gay, even though he refuses to admit it. Meanwhile, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) is the media buyer for Sterling Cooper and happens to fall into being the head of the television department. While others scoff at his position, Harry knows that heâ€™s in at the ground floor of the trend that will change advertising. And there is Joan (Christina Hendricks) the office manager. One of the strongest, most independent women on the show, we sadly watch Joan succumb to her possessive husband and suffer an unthinkable act by him when he grows jealous of the men she works with.
No mention of Mad Men can go without pointing out John Slattery as Roger Sterling, the wonderful character actor who has popped up as a recurring or guest star on shows for years. His portrayal of the chain smoking, boozing Roger (the flip side of Peggy in Donâ€™s work universe) is one of the finest performances on television last year.
Production value on the show is impeccable and the music selections are always very spot on. Moreover, the quiet, sometimes method direction of the show compels the viewer to pay attention to the dialogue, the acting and the camera moves in a way that isnâ€™t required much of us in the fast cut style of modern television. Mad Men is a treasure, like a novel slowly unfolding in front of our eyes. It should not be missed.
The lovely DVD box by Lionsgate comes with cast and crew commentary on all thirteen episodes. In addition, there are three fine featurettes. The featurettes reveal a look at the rise of women in the work place, the influence of 1960’s fashion, and the historical events that defined the era. Packaged in a limited edition sleek shirt box with a see-thru window this is a nice introduction to any newcomers to Mad Men.