Mad Men returned at the weekend, heralded with breathless articles proselytising about its genius, and interviews with Matthew Weiner treating him like he is the king of all everything ever (not blaming him for that, btw). As I am a sucker for hype, I found myself looking forward to the second season opener quite a lot. Canyon remains unconvinced of the show's legendary brilliance still, and so do I, though I did end up enjoying it a lot more by the end of that season. There were some terrific moments (Don enacting revenge on Roger Sterling by making him eat all the oysters in New York before fooling him into walking up several storeys was vomity genius), and Pete Campbell is one of the best and most weaselly characters on TV right now, but the thing that meant the most to me was the move from focusing on the glaringly obvious comments on the different morals of the era, to concentrating on the characters and their relationships.
After the first episode we had learned that during the 60s, men were sexist pigs, women were oppressed and treated as chattel, homosexuals were closeted, white Americans were racist, and everyone was drinking and smoking way too much and ignoring the health risks. It was enlightening! And then the next six or so episodes did very little to move beyond these points. Thankfully, by the end of that season, the anvil-banging obviousness of the commentary faded into the background, leaving us with the psychological desolation of Betty, the lopsided rivalry between Don and Pete and subsequent destruction of the challenger, Don's identity crisis, and Roger's realisation of his mortality. The character stuff was worth waiting for, and by the end I had started to like the show. Plus, casting Robert Morse in a semi-recurring role was a stroke of genius.
Sadly, the season two opener was business as usual. Even though we have jumped forward two years, we found out little had changed at Sterling Cooper, except that Peggy is now an honorary Mad Man (and total beyotch to the typing pool thanks to her understandable insecurities), and Don can't get it up now he has lost his access to his mistresses Rachel and Midge (well, Rachel was almost his mistress, but he sure wanted to get with her. Oh, and whats-his-name grew a beard. It was very exciting. The references to the mores of the time remain, but the clanging references to the theme of the episode are even less subtle now than they were last year. Every plot thread was about babies, old age, and youth, often with the crashing and gallumphing effect of someone driving a thumb-tack into a corkboard by firing an exploding elephant at it. It's impossible to warm to the show when the writers (in this case, Weiner, who, according to this interesting interview, micromanages the show to the Nth degree) refuse to allow the viewer to spot these thematic threads on their own. Betty's sexual frustration signalled by her sudden obsession with horse-riding a lot? I mean, come on. It's getting all Marnie up in here (which is apt due to her Hitchcock-blonde appearance, but still).
Anyway, despite my misgivings, there were incidental pleasures that made the episode worthwhile. Peggy's bitchiness and subsequent comeuppance at the hands of Joan and Lois, Pete's muttered comment about chocolate prior to watching some sci fi show on TV (the only moment linked to the central theme that I enjoyed), several scenes featuring Don; there was some gold in there. Besides, with Big Love not around right now, this is all that qualifies as "quality acclaimed TV" at the moment. Especially as Tell Me You Love Me has been cancelled, which I'm thrilled and bummed about. Stupid show that makes me have conflicted feelings about its quality!
Of course, Mad Men also featured lots of great Don/Kenshiro Kasumi moments. As I suspected all along (as did anyone who noticed the repeated references to his impenetrable exterior and secretiveness), Don was indeed hiding something about himself, and though it turned out he was hiding the fact that he was a hobo-educated soldier who killed the real Don Draper, I still find that outrageous plot twist less compelling than the thought that inside his head is hiding a second personality that is as violent and dangerous as a man who can make your brain explode just by punching you in the correct spot. At several points during this season opener, this is the commentary I imagined running around behind that rumpled and handsome face of his:
It's like a never-ending maelstrom of hate in there. Which event of the 60s will make him snap? And who will survive his inevitable bloody rampage?
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