Well, it’s been a while since I’ve returned to the offices of Sterling Cooper. My father bought me the first season of Mad Men for Christmas, and I finished watching the last disc in early February. After I finished that first season up though, I took time off to actually finish all of Doctor Who and Dexter which I had been watching for the better part of a year by then. When I finally managed to catch myself completely up with those shows, I knew it was time to start watching Mad Men again. I’ve officially made my mind up that the two shows I’m going to bounce back and forth reviewing on here (like I did with Doctor Who and Dexter) are going to be Mad Men and Joss Whedon’s cult hit Angel (The Avengers comes out this summer bitches!). Since Angel has 22 episode long seasons like Buffy did, there will likely be lengthy hiatuses between seasons of Mad Men but I’m ultimately okay with that because Mad Men is heavy stuff, and I could use decent breaks while I let the myriad themes and subtexts of the season continue to sink in after the season ends. As for Season 2, I have sort of mixed feelings because while certain characters seem to be getting much more fleshed out (Peggy, Joan, Pete, Roger), there’s been a frustrating lack of development for Don Draper and he’s the heart of the show.

It’s Valentine’s Day in 1962 (which I guess means well over a year has passed since last season ended) when Season 2 begins. Trouble is already brewing in the tense marriage of Betty and Don Draper when, after a romantic evening at a restaurant where Betty runs into an old roommate who may or may not be a call girl now, Don is unable to perform sexually for Betty. Don will do anything that moves so this is probably an issue. When Don visits the doctor, we discover that he has high blood pressure which he hides from Betty until the fifth and final episode of this disc in order to cover up being in a car accident while driving drunk with his mistress. Duck Philips, who was brought in at the end of last season to help bring in new clients to Sterling Cooper, is also insisting that Sterling Cooper hire younger talent in order to ease concerns among clients that they can’t sell to young people which sends all of the people in creative into panics that their jobs are on the line. After the crash of American Airlines Flight 1 (which was carrying Pete Campbell’s father), Sterling Cooper decides to abandon their existing airline (Mohawk) to try and sign American who are looking to rebrand their image in the face of the tragedy. Pete Campbell has little time to mourn the loss of his father when Duck ruthlessly uses him to try and gain sympathy with American as  a face of the tragedy who knows what American would have to do to sell themselves back to America.

One of the companies that Sterling Cooper represents is Utz Potato chips, and they use acerbic comedian Jimmy Barrett (who I just discovered is not a real historical figure like I had assumed) as the spokesman. When Barrett insults the Utz CEO and his wife (cause he’s an insult comedian), Don is in charge of damage control to get Barrett to apologize. Don being Don, this winds up with Don banging Barrett’s wife who is as much of a power-addict as Don. Bobbie is really in charge with Jimmy, and while she gets him to apologize, she and Don continue their sexual relationship even after their business is concluded. I left this out earlier, but we finally learn what happened to Peggy’s baby. After she had it, it was taken away from her by the city of New York and now it lives with her sister. We meet Peggy’s family which brag to everyone about her job in advertising but also mercilessly judge her for having a child out of wedlock and her jealous sister ruins Peggy’s friendship with a local priest (Colin Hanks so apparently along with Doomsday on Dexter, he just only plays religious characters). Sterling Cooper is unable to sign American Airlines which means they betrayed their first client for no reason which is sure to cause even more tension between Don and Duck. Don ends up in a car accident with Bobbie (as I mentioned earlier) and Peggy has to bail him out of jail. Bobbie stays with Peggy as she heals and we learn even more about Peggy’s childbirth where she was held basically as mentally ill at the hospital and only an unexpected visit from Don got her out of her funk when he told her to just pretend it never happened. Bobbie gives Peggy some self-empowerment advice which will hopefully mean that Peggy stops being such a wallflower. We also discover that Pete’s wife Trudie (Community’s Alison Brie) is sterile which is causing stress in their fragile marriage as well.

When the season began, I kept thinking about how I could write a good thirty page essay entitledThe Virtues and Vices of American Hedonism as Presented Through the 1960s Screen of Mad Men. Hedonism lies at the core of the series. Virtually every character is a completely selfish caricature of an Ayn Rand protagonist doing what they want and not giving two fucks how it effects anyone else. Don drinks, sleeps around, lies, keeps secrets, and uses other people to accomplish his goals. Despite all this, we root for him (most of the time) because he represents that American ideal of the go-getter and achiever. Despite his myriad flaws, we don’t want to think of him as a bad person (even when he most certainly is) because the allure and glamour that his hedonism provides (because it’s allowed him to be so successful and therefore enviable and desirable). This is probably an effect of the series that I’m reading too much into that may not even be intentional but I love the dichotomy that the series creates between just how detached from typical social mores from the 1960s Don and the rest of the boys in advertising have to be in order to be as creative as they are. If Don weren’t a womanizing rake, he wouldn’t be as good at his job as he is because he knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. Therefore, he knows how to hit exactly on what it is that other people want. So the series creates this interesting back and forth between when the hedonism of our heroes accomplishes something productive (mostly at work or when they simply release their inhibitions and just live) and when it’s damaging (the way Don treats Betty, the way Betty treats everyone on the planet, the way they all use and abuse each other without fail).

One of the things that I’ve also been noticing about this season (at least since “Three Sundays”) is the heavy debt that the cinematography from episodes four and five (“The New Girl”) owe to the French New Wave. There were so many fast cuts and a use of naturalistic lighting that during those two episodes I kept on expecting for things to turn out to be a dream. In movies, these kinds of shots are normal, but on American television, it’s very rare for these kinds of cinematic artifices to be used and it really lent a surrealistic and dream-like quality to the whole proceedings. It really blew my mind because now Mad Men can officially join Breaking Bad as being tied for the best shot show on TV. Thank you AMC for realizing that television no longer has to be a slave to ancient three camera conventions. While there was a lot of the French New Wave stuff, the series still had plenty of the smoke-filled rooms and exciting fashion that made the first season so famous, but there was just something about those last two episodes where I found myself paying nearly as much attention to the way the show was shot as I did the actual story itself (which in true Mad Men fashion is unfurling itself very slowly).

The acting in this series is as phenomenal as always. Whatever complaints I might have about the lack of anything interesting happening with Don as a character (there has been nothing along the lines of a Dick Whitman story for him so far and I find it frustrating), Jon Hamm still sold every one of his scenes like a champ. The best example I can think of comes from the episode where Betty is having trouble disciplining Bobby, and at the dinner table, Don finally loses it and throws Bobby’s toy across the room. It was the way in which the perpetually calm and collected Don finally snapped and then almost instantly returned to normal. Then to make things better, Jon Hamm shares an equally tender scene with his son who comes to apologize. Elisabeth Moss is the unsung hero of the cast and the show. Yes, she’s incredibly unfortunate looking, but that comes with her character, and once we finally got a look at what her personal life was like, we can now understand even more why she is the way she is. Elisabeth Moss was able to add plenty of subtlety and nuance to her interactions with the priest (which I at first assumed were going to be played for sexual tension) as well as her growing confidence when she had to take care of Don’s mistress Bobbie. Vincent Kartheiser is also coming into his own this season and the scenes immediately after his father died were easily his best in the series so far. I still hate Betty Draper (I’m going to avoid giving an entire paragraph about how Betty Draper almost makes me want to become asexual. She makes women look that bad) and January Jones is still an awful actress, but I guess the show can’t be perfect.

I have more to say (mostly about the character paths that were charted for several people: Joan’s engagement, Peggy’s increasing confidence (she called Don “Don”), Pete’s marriage strife, Betty’s flirtation with a man at her horse stable, but I don’t want this review to run on forever because lord knows that tomorrow’s review for tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones will be lengthy enough. With the exception of Don, all of the characters this season seem much more fleshed out and realistic (even C-list people in creative like Ken, Paul, and Harry), and I think the show is trying to make the world a little more detailed and intimate than last time around. Which I appreciate, but I would love to have even more background and insight into Don who seems stuck in a rut as a character as there is very little difference between this Don and last season, and I know almost nothing new about him. I’ve still got eight episodes left of the season though so there’s plenty of time for the show to change my mind or prove to me that there was so much happening right now that I didn’t even realize because I didn’t have all of the pieces in front of me (which is what happened last season).

Final Score: A-

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