Mad Men was one of the most successful product launches in the history of cable television, pelted with awards and producing record-breaking ratings for AMC. Who knew that square (and square-jawed) Wasp admen in 1960 could make for such addictive TV? The questions at the outset of season two, which kicked off last night, are these: Where do you go once you’ve littered a plot with affairs, heart attacks, corporate betrayals, and a pregnancy? And how do you sell a prestige product to a demanding Sunday-night audience who now expects nothing less than the next Sopranos? Our recap looks at this episode through — what else? — the lens of advertising.
The Pitch (doubling, conveniently, as the episode title)
“For Those Who Think Young”
Mad Men creator Matt Weiner isn’t a traditionalist or a rebel. As Don Draper might say, he’s about finding the essence of the thing — the satisfaction of smoking, the excitement of travel — and refreshing core brands. So nobody’s messing with the show’s core interests, from midcentury glamour and male anguish to casual lechery and executive-class assholery. The last season collapsed into a beautifully depressed mess on Thanksgiving 1960. The second kicks off fourteen months later: Valentine’s Day, 1962, just enough time to push the story forward and raise the stakes, with little risk of ruining a (very) good thing. Apparently, though, Don Draper wasn’t screwed up enough in the first season. He might have been a wreck at home, but he was invincible at work. Now he’s not safe anywhere. A visit to the doctor’s office reveals that he’s suffering from a bit of middle-age pudge, high-blood pressure, and what doctors used to call “executive stress syndrome.” (In the late fifties, scientists did a specious study with monkeys, finding that simians who administered shocks died earlier than the poor monkeys who received them.) Worse, a Valentine’s night at the Savoy confirms something truly awful: The old stud can’t get it up, not even with his wife dressed in kinky lingerie. Since Pete, the sniveling, cretinous striver, was proven not to be a threat to Don’s office fiefdom, Weiner and company now reveal that Duck, the account manager Draper hired at the end of season one, is stepping on Don’s toes and meddling with his creative staffing, demanding young blood (and implying that Don doesn’t get kids these days). Don is on the defensive for the first time at work. He even installs a deadbolt on his office door.
Meanwhile: Va-va-voom Joan shtups a doctor — and not aging Roger Sterling — while she watches Jackie Kennedy on TV, and Pete delivers his most casual and cluelessly cruel line yet by asking the once-preggy Peggy, “You want to have kids?” “Eventually,” she says. “Exactly,” he barks back. (Ugh!) In the world at large, the age of Aquarius is dawning. Boomers are everywhere, and Duck’s targeting them in his new coffee campaign (the kids are all drinking Pepsi). So threatening twentysomethings in cute white sweaters suddenly appear in the office, rattling Don and his crew. There are even frisky young men at the stables, where Don’s wife, Betty, turns her nose up at her friend’s harmless flirting — before revealing that Don isn’t the only Draper with a libido. After finding out an old model friend of hers is a prostitute, Betty can’t stop thinking about it — and nearly trades sex for a fan belt when her car breaks down. Her friend’s young horseback rider could be next.
The Early Result
It’s the same old Mad Men, thank God — only a bit younger, friskier, and with more enemies lurking around the corners. To cap off the grand movement afoot, Draper reads three full stanzas of a Frank O’Hara poem at the end of the episode (with an unfortunate, highly clichéd shot of him taking a drag on a cigarette). Will Draper get his groove back? O’Hara says yes. The final line goes: “And if I do / Perhaps I am myself again.” Of course, the reading — heavy-handed but effective — supplies a different worry: Will Matthew Weiner succumb to his own highbrow hype? —Logan Hill
Check out Vulture’s complete Mad Men coverage:
Jon Hamm of ‘Mad Men’ on the Future of Don Draper
Don Draper’s ‘Mad Men’ Bookshelf
Emily Nussbaum on Pete Campbell and His Poignant Crumminess
Logan Hill on Don Draper, Granite Statue and Train Wreck