Lionsgate // 2008 // 611 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // July 14th, 2009
"I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't."
In 2007, a show called Mad Men made its debut on AMC. Created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, this soapy but intelligent look at 1960s ad men and their assorted wives/girlfriends became a critical favorite, winning several Emmys and Golden Globes. A second season followed in 2008, which is being released by Lionsgate in a first-class DVD set.
It's 1962, and changes are afoot at the Sterling Cooper ad agency on Madison Avenue. Secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) continues to make strides professionally, while personally, she deals with a shaky relationship with her family due to her having a child out of wedlock. The unwitting father, account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), has problems of his own: His wife Trudy (Alison Brie) wants a child, but the couple is having trouble conceiving. Meanwhile, creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) butts heads with account services chief Herman "Duck" Phillips (Mark Moses), while continuing to exhibit an ennui that flings with a comedian's wife (Melinda McGraw) and a California free spirit (Laura Ramsey) can't seem to fix. Don's wife, Betty (January Jones, American Wedding), has taken up horseback riding but bristles at her confined suburban homemaker existence, and has escalating suspicions that her husband has not been faithful. Nothing a smoke and a cocktail won't cure, right?
My paltry Facts of the Case doesn't even begin to cover the events of Mad Men's second season. In 13 episodes, the show covers a lot of ground, so let's take a look at a few of this season's points of interest. [Spoilers to follow.]
Don Draper's secret past was an important part of Mad Men's narrative in season one. While most of this mystery was cleared up by the end of that season, Weiner and his writing team dole out some more tidbits in season two, including the revelation that Don has maintained a close relationship with Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), the wife of the man whose identity he assumed during the Korean War. With Anna, we see a surprisingly vulnerable and open Don, and by not showing how these two developed their relationship (their first encounter does not go well), Don still retains some of his enigmatic nature.
Overall, Don seems to have less prominence in the second season in lieu of larger storylines for other characters such as Betty and Peggy (more on them later). There is a noticeable decrease in the poetic ad pitches he delivered so many of in season one (and which were amusingly spoofed by Hamm himself on Saturday Night Live). In fact, Don seems to be in the office even less during this season than he was in the first, between conducting his affair with Bobbie Barrett and then disappearing in California to temporarily join what seems to be a prototype hippie commune. The latter represents one of the rare missteps for this season; I understand that Don is trying to escape, but this particular scenario is silly and hard to believe.
Even with his diminished presence, Don makes a complete journey as a character in season two. It will be interesting to see what happens with him in season three, as he seems to have got the malaise and aimlessness out of his system.
Whatever developments occur with his character, one can be sure that Jon Hamm will continue his brand of skillful underplaying. As Don, Hamm carefully controls his performance so that while he's not a complete cipher, it's difficult to figure out what's going on in his head. Don's actions don't lend themselves to a lot of viewer sympathy, and yet he's a character you want to keep watching, for which Hamm deserves a lot of credit.
Through no fault of Elisabeth Moss, I have to admit that Peggy Olson held little interest for me as a character in season one. This attitude changed drastically after watching the second season. Over the course of these episodes, Peggy makes a gradual, subtle and completely believable transition from meek, deferential employee to assertive, confident professional. This is accomplished through strong material for her character both inside the office and out. Peggy is a great example of how complicated the characters on Mad Men are. On the one hand, who wouldn't want to root for Peggy as she continues to advance herself professionally? But on the other, it's seems that Peggy will let nothing prevent her from achieving her goals in the workplace -- even if that means ignoring her young son.
Something else that is striking about Peggy in this season is how her relationship with Don develops. The two characters have been linked since season one, as Peggy started as Don's secretary, and Don was the one who gave Peggy her first shot at writing copy. In season two, Peggy has to bail Don out of jail and take care of Bobbie while she recovers from a car accident she and Don were in. We also learn via flashback that Don visited Peggy in the hospital following the birth of her son. The advice Don gives her -- namely, that she can move on with her life as if none of this ever happened to her -- cements the two as kindred spirits, and it will be interesting to see how their relationship evolves through the life of the show.
Don's advice takes on a greater significance with season two's introduction of Father Gill (Colin Hanks, The Great Buck Howard), a priest who senses that Peggy is troubled and tries to get her to open up about her past. He is persistent but kind for the most part in his efforts to get Peggy to come clean, but in his last appearance, he suddenly becomes more aggressive in a move that feels rather out of character. Still, based on her progression in season two, I can't wait to see what's in store for Peggy in season three.
Season one of Mad Men gave the viewer some indications that not all was well with Betty Draper. Season two continues in this vein, although she is no longer seeing her therapist, for reasons that are never explained. Betty's behavior is erratic, unpredictable; when she discovers that one of the dining room chairs is wobbly, she proceeds to bang it into the floor repeatedly. She drinks a lot of wine. She flirts with a tow truck driver to get her car repaired but then rebuffs the advances of a young man (Gabriel Mann) who rides at the same stables that Betty does.
Ultimately, one gets the sense that Betty is fed up not only with her role as a stay-at-mom, but also as wife to a controlling, emotionally distant husband. In this season, she is not afraid to challenge Don, and she ultimate throws him out of the house after comedian Jimmy Barrett (Patrick Fischler, The Black Dahlia) tells her that Don and Bobbie (Jimmy's wife) have slept with each other. Later in the season, Betty has sex with a complete stranger who she meets in a bar. She does allow Don to come home in the end, where she reveals that she's pregnant (with Don's child). By the end of the season, the couple seems reconciled, but of course, only time will tell.
As good as she was in season one, January Jones really gets to shine in this season, expertly handling her character's shifts in mood. In a role that could easily have veered into shrill caricature, Jones makes all the right choices, creating in Betty an alluring but disturbed young woman reminiscent of a character out of a Hitchcock film.
Pete Campbell spent much of season one trying to get the upper hand on Don, even resorting to blackmail by the end of the season. By the beginning of season two, his zeal for ousting Don seems to have waned, although you still get the sense that Pete would not pass up an opportunity to force him out if given the chance. At the same time, Pete is deeply insecure about his position and craves Don's approval.
All in all, while Pete isn't quite the weasel in season two that he was in the first, he still manages to be a compelling character, mostly due to a shift in focus to his personal life. When American Airlines Flight 1 plunges into Jamaica Bay, Pete comes into Don's office and reveals that his father was on the plane. He is clearly reeling from the loss, but in a distracted and detached manner. The tragedy also reveals Pete's lowly position within his own family.
Then there's the conflict between Pete and his wife Trudy (Alison Brie). She wants a baby, and he doesn't understand why she can't wait. Not surprisingly, Trudy's parents side with her, with the whole situation coming to a head when Trudy's father takes a major client away from Sterling Cooper. By the end of the season, like many of the other characters on the show, Pete and Trudy are at an impasse.
Pete is a more vulnerable character in season two, which Vincent Kartheiser does a great job conveying. His acting during the aftermath of his father's death and also after Peggy reveals to him that he fathered her child is top notch, and really adds depth to his character.
The Supporting Cast
Most of the rest of the cast is relegated to the background, with occasional subplots that pop up here and there, such as art director Salvatore Romano's (Bryan Batt) crush on accounts man Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) and Paul Kinsey's (Michael Gladis) dabbling in the civil rights movement. While none of these storylines are uninteresting, since these characters are clearly second-stringers (especially compared to Don, Peggy and Betty), their stories don't resonate as strongly. The subplot following Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who talks his way into being the head (and initially, sole staff member) of Sterling Cooper's television department, for instance, just doesn't add much to the bigger picture.
The main exception here is office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks). She becomes engaged during this season, and we witness this headstrong and high-powered Sterling Cooper employee become a subservient, poorly treated sex object when she's at home. One particularly disturbing scene between Joan and her fiance Greg (Sam Page) at the end of the season foreshadows an unhappy marriage.
I was also disappointed to see Roger Sterling's role diminished. With Duck in Roger's old job as director of account services, it seems like both Roger and the actor who plays him have less to do. Roger was one of the highlights of season one for me, and while I think that Mark Moses is terrific as Duck, I wanted to see more of Roger.
Much of Mad Men's appeal lies in its 1960's setting. The meticulous production design of the show totally immerses the viewer into the world of the characters, and the writers throw in countless historical and pop culture references that complement (and sometimes drive) the narrative. Examples include the Flight 1 crash and a scene where Roger complains about all the hoopla surrounding John Glenn's orbital space flight. The season's last episode, "Meditations in an Emergency" (the title taken from a 1957 book of poems by Frank O'Hara), unfolds amid the Cuban Missile Crisis. Beyond providing the show with context, these elements shape the characters in meaningful ways, and their presence on the show never comes off as trivial or gimmicky.
Lionsgate has put together a very nice DVD package for Mad Men: Season 2. The company is continuing their trend of creative packaging with a shirt box design (from Menken's, no less) that is a huge improvement over the well-intended but clunky and awkward Zippo lighter packaging of the first season. The season's 13 episodes are spread out across 4 discs. Image and sound appears about on par with the season one release; there are some occasional flaws in the image (usually in darker scenes), but on the whole these episodes look and sound good.
Like season one before it, Lionsgate has stacked Mad Men: Season 2 with extras. Each episode has 2 commentary tracks, making for a total of -- that's right -- 26 commentaries. Participants range from cast members to writers to directors to other members of the team, including costume designer Janie Bryant, production designer Dan Bishop and set director Amy Wells. Series creator Matthew Weiner is a frequent commentator. The quality of these tracks varies, but the sheer quantity of tracks and the diversity of speakers make them a valuable addition to the set.
Also included in this set are two featurettes, "Birth of an Independent Woman" and "An Era in Style." The former is spread out across discs 1 and 2 and runs a little over 40 minutes in all. In it, writers and academics discuss the evolving role of the American woman in society from World War II up to the civil rights movement. While clips from the show are thrown in, no one really talks about Mad Men; it would have been interesting to hear the participants' opinions on the women of the show. "An Era of Style" is a look at the fashion of the 1960s, covering the entire decade in about 20 minutes.
Like season one's DVD release, this set contains a soundtrack sampler of some of the music featured in this season. Each disc also has "time capsules" -- brief featurettes of different historical and cultural elements touched on in the episodes, ranging from topics such as Jackie Kennedy's tour of the White House, Sardi's restaurant, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
All in all, the extras are impressive, although beyond the commentaries, there isn't really much on the production of the series; a "making-of" documentary would have been nice.
The richly detailed period milieu, combined with complex characters brought to life by nuanced performances, make Mad Men exquisite television. With its second season, Matthew Weiner and his team have deftly avoided a sophomore slump and in the process delivered 13 strong episodes. Lionsgate has done their part with a solid DVD set that, while not perfect, will likely please most fans.
Not guilty. Now if you'll excuse me, it's 3:00 in the afternoon, so I'm off to the bar.
Review content copyright © 2009 Ben Saylor; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 611 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Soundtrack Sampler