Well, it’s been a while since I watched the first disc of Mad Men (a day shy of a month to be specific). We’ll chalk that up to the whole moving to NYC and starting a new job thing as well as my renewed drive to finish David Tennant’s run as the Doctor with Doctor Who. However, now that I’m on a temporary break from my travels with the TARDIS, it gives me time to explore other programs and movies I enjoy. Can my readers tell that I haven’t been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic or Skyrim very much lately because my blogging returned to its pre-Elder Scrolls level of activity (my computer died and hence I can’t play SWTOR). My current goals for my television watching is to fit in at least one disc of TV for every three films I watch (although if I’m enjoying a show a lot, I’m likely to exceed that ratio), in addition to watching Glee, Justified, and The Walking Dead as they air (also Luck which I won’t be reviewing even for reasons of free time though it’s better than everything there except for maybe Justified). I’m going to finish the first season of Mad Men and then watch the fifth and sixth seasons of Dexter and then start either Twin Peaks or Angel. On that note, let’s dive back into the misogynistic world of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency.
After the shocking revelation at the end of the last disc that Don Draper wasn’t eve Don’s real name (it is instead Dick Whitman) and that he is willing to pay his biological brother huge sums of money to stay out of his life, this disc doesn’t spend very much time trying to unravel the web of “Who is Don Draper?” and instead devotes time to better developing the intertwining relationships of the large staff (and families) of Sterling Cooper. It is revealed that Joan Holloway has been having an affair with Roger Sterling. Roger wants Joan to get her own apartment so they don’t have to meet in hotels. It appears that Roger is growing increasingly estranged from his wife and after tagging along to Don’s house for a late night of feasting and drinking, Roger makes a move on Betty which fractures Roger’s friendship with Don, to the point that Don sets up a rather elaborate plot to embarrass Roger in front of Cooper and some potential clients. Peggy has her moment in the sun when the ad guys drop all of the women into a room to study how they react to lipstick, and Peggy proves that she isn’t quite like these other girls. She even comes up with a catchy slogan for the company unwittingly and she gets asked to write copy for the ad. Of course, she’s not getting paid any extra to do this, and she has to write the copy in addition to her secretarial duties. Pete is also learning what Roger has learned and is facing marriage troubles of his own when he returns a wedding present without consulting his wife.
We do get some looks at Don’s complicated past. During an evening where Don smokes marijuana for the first time with his bohemian mistress Midge (and her hippie friends), Don looks back on an incident from his youth where a hobo stayed the evening at his family’s farm (working for a day in exchange for food) and the way that Don’s father screwed over the hobo as well as the advice the hobo gave to Don about getting out of that environment. Peggy’s success at writing copy gives her more confidence to pursue Pete who also happens to be vulnerable in the wake of his marital problems and the two sleep together again for the first time since the pilot. My opinion that the head of the art department, Salvatore, was a closeted homosexual were confirmed when another man from a client’s company pursued him but Sal was too scared of the consequences to act on his feelings. On the last episode, a rival ad agency tries to hire Don away from Sterling Cooper. Don nearly takes the increased money offer but decides to stay at Sterling Cooper when he realizes the rival agency was trying to use Betty (and her wish to be a model) to get him to come over. Despite the fact that Pete was a bit of an ass (shocker) to Peggy when her copy is used in the final lipstick ad campaign, Pete still stands up for her and fights Ken (L.A. Noire‘s Aaron Staton) when Ken insults Peggy’s noticeable weight gain (does someone have an eggo in her preggo?)
I’ve come to two conclusions while watching this disc concerning the acting on the show. I actually believe that John Slattery may be a little bit better playing Roger Sterling than Jon Hamm is playing Don Draper. During “Red in the Face,” he simply personified this misogynistic, egocentric culture while still layering this embodiment of greed and power with layers of vulnerability and nuance. Jon Hamm is great, but I think people think he’s a lot better than he is just because he’s so handsome. Women believe his character’s full on seduction not necessarily because of his acting or charisma but because they are so sexually attracted to him. The other thing I realized was that Elisabeth Moss is much better at playing Peggy than I had given her credit for. Even in my first review, I complained that her characterization of Peggy was just too bland and boring even though Peggy was my favorite character (in terms of writing) on the show. Then I thought about it a little more and that restraint and demureness is intentional. Unless Peggy wants to be branded the office floozy like Joan, she has to be very restrained and unemotional and meek. During “The Hobo Code” which focused heavily on Peggy, I really got a chance to see a lot of the subtleties and hurt and intelligence she puts in the character that we only get to see in those small moments when she isn’t forced to fit in this specific image for the men of the office.I guess I learned something else as well which is that January Jones was terribly miscast as Betty. She’s gorgeous enough for the role but she’s not talented enough as an actress to handle the complexity of the part.
Just like the first disc, the series’ writing is as sharp as ever. It takes chutzpah to make a show centered around such unlikeable characters (Peggy and Sal remain as the only decent people left in the cast). Breaking Bad and The Sopranos are the only series I can think of which such detestable pricks as the heroes (well anti-heroes) of Mad Men. Well, I don’t think we’re meant to look at Don Draper as hero any more than we were supposed to see Walter White or Tony Soprano as heroes. They’re simply deeply flawed and egomaniacal protagonists. The most grating person in the cast for me is Pete Campbell, yet he gets nearly as much screen time in some episodes as Don. He’s done exactly one decent thing in the entire series (which is decking Ken for insulting Peggy), and I’m still unsure if that wasn’t for somewhat selfish reasons. Yet, he’s also one of the most complex and well-written characters on the show. It’s really a testament to the series writing that I can enjoy the time I spend watching these characters lead their miserable and selfish lives and not want to punch them all in the face in disgust (though to be fair, I regularly want to punch Pete).
Despite the fact that I have nothing but praise for the complexity of the characterizations on this program and its dogged determination to be quiet adult programming in the face of so much stylized and fast-paced TV, it’s still a miracle that I can gain any pleasure from watching these weekly bouts of hedonism as told through the viewpoints of fairly legendary douche bags. At one point, Don Draper’s boss told him to read Ayn Rand and that the self-interest on display in that book and in Don’s personality was something to be commended. I nearly threw up a little in my mouth. These characters essentially stand for everything I hate and despise in the world, but I can’t look away. One of my friends referred to the men of the series as “the advertising bros” and it makes perfect sense. The frat-boy sensibilities they display every episode is even lampshaded when Pete and one of the other advertising guys reminisce on their frat shenanigans back in college. I still can’t understand why this show is so popular because of how dark and cynical it is. Yet, I’m glad there are as many people watching this first-rate bit of programming because intelligent TV doesn’t come around like this often enough.
Final Score: A-