Was it really that bad? Yes, people drank and smoked up a storm, but were all men such abject womanizers? Could the sex have been that fast and furious while women were wearing such huge foundation garments?
Or is it as if we're rediscovering a buried civilization, and the curators were just a few degrees off on recreating it?. Still, the set-up may have been painful to watch, but it established the kind of flawed, three-dimensional characters whose deliciously unpredictable story arcs will really pay off this season. The first episode was fa-brilliant (combination of fabulous and brilliant), and the second was even better.
The season opens on Valentine's Day (a wholly commercial holiday) in 1962: women are expecting bonbons but also eating up Jackie Kennedy's televised tour of the White House. What a metaphor: Everything was changing, from television (which had never before brought cameras into the White House) to the replacement of frumpy Mamie Eisenhower with the first modern First Lady. The Kennedys opened the White House to culture and style-and to all of the revolutions, both political and social, in gender and race, that were to come.
Let's not forget that the main focus of the show is on life in an ad agency-Sterling Cooper-which, like the White House, will have to open itself up to immense change. Founding partner Roger Sterling himself would appear to be a changed man after his heart attack. Our main character, Don Draper, has a shadowy past. As a ''whore child'' he's a Jesus -like figure; having completely recreated himself from his cruel childhood in the Depression to a Kennedy-like master of the capitalist universe. He too is lectured by his doctor on living too hard. More importantly, a creative revolution is brewing in the industry, and advertising itself provides a brilliant window through which to observe almost 50 years of American history.
When Don misses a meeting to sit at an artsy bar, he finds a guy with horn-rimmed glasses (i.e., intellectual) reading poet Frank O'Hara's ''Mediations on an Emergency.''
Don later picks up the book and reads it-a nod to the fact that he's now willing to look beneath the surface. At the end of Episode 1, he's shown walking his dog in his suburban neighborhood, the most quotidian of acts, while in voiceover he quote from the high-falutin' book and says, "Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern."
So much to analyze, so little time. So with that in mind, with "Mad Men," we will start with a synopsis of episode 2, and open the doors to discussion of every episode from now on in.
Episode 2 opens on a party that Paul the copywriter is throwing in his bohemian pad in Montclair, N.J., which he claims is cooler than Greenwich Village. (Inside joke, maybe?) He's now got affected full-beatnik regalia: a beard, a pipe, a pretentiously-tied neckerchief. (No bongos, though.) He introduces Joan Holloway, the va-va-va voomy red-headed office manager (and scene-stealer) and someone he obviously has had an affair with, to his new girlfriend, an African-American who works at a local Food Fair. He calls Joan a secretary, and she corrects him.
Meanwhile, Peggy is asked by a young guy in a skinny tie whether she works ''for'' these clowns. She corrects him by saying she works ''with'' them. She's later shown in the hallway, making out with the guy, but to differentiate her behavior from season one, is shown going home alone.
Later Peggy is seen walking into the office carrying a vacuum. (Dr. Freud would have a field day.) But the most literal meaning is that though she lives on her own, she's still tied to her old good Catholic girl life in Brooklyn, as she has to borrow her mother's vacuum to clean up.
In the Sterling Cooper office, a crowd has gathered around the radio: an American Airlines flight has crashed into Jamaica Bay, with many fatalities.
There's a pivotal plot point concerning Pete Campbell, the WASPy account guy who retains his job through powerful family connections. (As opposed to Don, who has no lineage and can't stand him.) It turns out that Pete's dad was on the flight, and is dead. Pete, whose father made it clear to him that he had no respect for the business of advertising, has no idea how to feel, or how to react. (The coldness of this family is, well, chilling. His mother is mostly concerned with canceling her flight to Sarasota.)
He goes to Don's office, and says, '' I don't know what to do. Make arrangements?''
''Go home and be with the family,'' Don says. ''That's what people do.''
He later tells him, ''There's life, and there's work,'' a distinction that Don clearly needs to make in his own life.
On his home front, at a card party with his wife and another couple, Don talks with the other husband, who has cheated on his wife and is now behaving himself. The neighbor man starts describing a teenaged babysitter in a lascivious way, and Don says something very predictive:,''I'm enjoying the story so far, but I have a feeling that it's not going to end well." The next conversation is all about lying, as Don and Betty's little boy has lied about a drawing he made which he actually traced.'' My whole art department runs on tracing paper," Don says.
Indeed, the recently hired New Business Guy in the office, aptly named ''Duck,'' has decided to go after the American Airlines account, even though the office has been doing well with Mohawk, a smaller competitor. Don's job is to tell the client, who he says, likes the agency and pays his bills on time, that he's being dropped (for a nibble on another bigger account.).
''What kind of company are we going to be?'' Don asks.
''The kind where everybody has a summer house?" one of the partners responds.
Meanwhile, we see Peggy dragging the vacuum home to her mother's house in Brooklyn, where every period detail is perfect, starting with the toaster sitting proudly on the kitchen table. She gets lectured on not going to church. As she's about to leave, her sister asks her ''Don't you want to say goodbye?" She opens a bedroom door where two little boys are in bed, next to a blonde toddler in a crib. (The baby she had and quickly disposed of last season?) She shuts it quickly.
Don fires the client, who is clearly outraged, in an Asian restaurant. The camera pans to one of the wall lights, and then in a deft edit straight out of The Godfather, cuts to the light coming through the enormous stained glass windows of a Catholic Church. Peggy sits in a pew with her relatives, but does not get up to take Communion with the priest, as her mother and sister do. Her sister leaves the toddler on her lap, as he screams. She's as disconnected in her feelings as Pete Campbell was in his. (Last season we were led to believe that Campbell is the putative father.)
Wow!! Okay. Let the commenting begin!"Mad Men" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.