Judge Jennifer Malkowski would love to see Don Draper pen an infomercial. ShamWow, perhaps?
Our reviews of Mad Men: Season One (published July 2nd, 2008), Mad Men: Season Two (published July 14th, 2009), Mad Men: Season Three (published March 22nd, 2010), Mad Men: Season Three (Blu-Ray) (published April 1st, 2010), Mad Men: Season Four (Blu-Ray) (published March 28th, 2011), Mad Men: Season Five (Blu-ray) (published November 12th, 2012), and Mad Men: Season Six (Blu-ray) (published November 11th, 2013) are also available.
"The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are
Season Two of Mad Men opens with a montage set to the lively lyrics, "Let's twist again, like we did last summer." Indeed, last summer AMC suddenly found itself with a runaway hit as this early '60s period drama swept the nation like the latest dance craze. Fortunately, creator Matthew Weiner's sleek and stylish series proves that it can "twist again" with a powerful second season, very nicely presented on this Blu-ray release.
NOTE: Images are not taken from this Blu-ray release and do not reflect its picture quality.
Facts of the Case
Spoiler Alert! I'll be discussing plot points through the end of Season Two.
In Mad Men's first season, we met our protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm, 30 Rock)—a smooth, powerful ad man on Madison Avenue with a picture-perfect family out in the suburbs. We also found out that Don's polished persona at work and at home covered over a secret he was hiding from both colleagues and family: that he'd faked his own death during the Korean War and stolen a fellow soldier's identity. His wife Betty (January Jones, American Wedding), who spends her days raising their two children, has no idea about his past, but she did find out something unsettling about his present when she discovered he'd been having an affair.
When they're not busy having their own affairs, Don's fellow ad men work hard at making their small-but-sophisticated company Sterling Cooper a success. At the top there's Bert Cooper (Robert Morse, Pound Puppies), a fussy little executive who cloisters himself in his office, where no one is allowed to wear shoes. His partner, Roger Sterling (John Slattery, Flags of Our Fathers), is both witty and wistful—a little past his prime (as his two heart attacks of Season One demonstrated) and always looking for a way to recapture it. In the first season, he tried to do it through an affair with Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks, Firefly), the bombshell secretary who's advanced to the head of her pack, and who doesn't let the rest of them forget it. One of her former underlings, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, The West Wing), was working her way up to a bona fide writing job at Sterling Cooper until she gave birth at the end of Season One—an event that came as a surprise to the viewers and even to her. The unknowing father, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, Angel, who looks like Wesley Crusher: The Next Generation), is a married up-and-comer in the accounts department and forgot all about Peggy around the point when she inexplicably started gaining weight.
Other m/ad men at Sterling Cooper include art department closet-case Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt, Jeffrey), upper crust fiction writer Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton, August Rush), middling yes-man Harry Crane (Rich Sommer, The Devil Wears Prada), and wanna-be bohemian Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis, Third Watch).
Mad Men: Season Two includes all 13 episodes of the season, spread over three discs:
• "Flight 1"
• "The Benefactor"
• "Three Sundays"
• "The New Girl"
Special Features: Season Two Music Sampler
• "The Gold Violin"
• "A Night to Remember"
• "Six Month Leave"
Special Features: "Birth of an Independent Woman" Parts I and II
• "The Jet Set"
• "The Mountain King"
• "Meditations in an Emergency"
Special Features: "An Era of Style," "Time Capsule—Historical Events of the 1960's"
Sometimes while watching Mad Men: Season Two you'll encounter a few seconds of footage where characters strike poses reminiscent of advertisements from the period and hold them just briefly. Early in the season Don and Betty cuddle up in the front seat of his big car and we see their profiles, looking boldly into the future; then in the last episode, the family gathers around the television together with Mom and Dad sitting contentedly on the couch and the little ones scooted up on the floor to perch a few feet from the screen. It's not at all stagey—one could easily miss the connection, in fact. Seeing them this way, though, is a visual reminder of the lie put forth by the media of the '50s and early '60s: that America was a place of blinding optimism brought to life in its perfect nuclear families. Of course, Don Draper and his colleagues are both the victims of that lie and its authors as ad men who use sentiment and family values to sell candy and soap. Both at home and at work, Mad Men endeavors to strip away the glossy surface of these mid-century advertisements and show us what the American family or the busy executive was really like back then. It's an endeavor that's been undertaken many, many times, as the '50s and its wake in the early '60s is probably the most popular period of American history for today's film and television makers to pick apart and infuse with a dark side (just to name a few other recent examples: Far From Heaven, Revolutionary Road). You'll be willing to watch it happen all over again with Mad Men, though, because few have rendered the period with such nuance, insight, and sheer entertainment value.
This hidden pain of a generation is beautifully manifested through complex characters and sophisticated storytelling. Don Draper is, of course, the centerpiece character and he remains compelling despite our having learned his "secret" in the first season. The second season works because Don's real secret wasn't that he faked his own death in Korea a decade ago—it's that he's achingly unhappy now. As he descends into yet another extra-marital affair that fails to relieve his misery for very long, we then begin a more interesting journey of self-discovery in the second half of the season that delves further into his past and also reveals Don's curiosity about the possibility of an entirely different life. Jon Hamm's performance as the enigmatic Don Draper is impressive to be sure. He manages to balance Don's confidence and power with his weariness and uncertainty, maintaining that volatile mixture that bubbles under his calm exterior. The only place Hamm falters, interestingly, is in his brief portrayal of a younger, happier Don toward the end of the season. Don Draper can sell anything, but Jon Hamm can't seem to sell us a happy Don Draper!
Draper's journey is heavily supplemented by a large collection of other characters portrayed by a very strong supporting cast. The women seem to shine most, with Elisabeth Moss's hardworking Peggy Olson getting a lot of attention this season. In addition to her struggles at work, Peggy is also shown more with her family and we're given a sense of where she came from—namely, from a working class Catholic household in Brooklyn with an overbearing mother and sister. Her friendship with Father Gill is a wonderfully crafted story that culminates in a breathtaking scene between Peggy and Pete in the final episode, and Moss really steals the show here. January Jones is also very good as the beautiful-but-icy Betty Draper. One of Mad Men's boldest moves with her character is to portray her as a mother who actually isn't very interested in her children most of the time. Jones plays this casual disinterest just right. Lastly, Christina Hendricks' Joan is the most fun to watch of any of these characters. The screen seems to crackle with energy every time she appears, and I love that the series cast Hendricks, who actually has the curvacious, bosom-y body type that was very much in style for women of that era. As one of the ad men remarks in wonder, "she's so much woman."
In its writing, Mad Men is the kind of series that resists simplicity and predictability at every turn—one rarely knows where a plot will end up. For example, in the first episode of the season we see Betty intrigued by an old friend's work as a high-class prostitute, and later in the episode Betty aggressively and dangerously flirts her way into discounted car repair on a deserted stretch of road at night. In a different series, this episode would be setting up a season-long arc in which Betty experimented more and more with these kinds of behaviors. In Mad Men, these are instead moments that flow from and build on her rich characterization more subtly. They don't directly lead to much of anything, but you can see their origins earlier in the series and their echoes later in the series.
In addition to strong writing and characterization, Mad Men's other main attraction is the way it transports viewers back to the early '60s—sometimes with thoughtful critique and other times with retrospective humor. The series, for example, is very aware of how amusing it is today to think about a time when people smoked on airplanes, when doctors casually wrote out prescriptions for barbiturates to help patients relax, and when an enormous office copy machine would seem the height of modern technology. One of my favorite moments of the first season was one of these retrospective jokes: Betty sees her young daughter running around with a plastic dress bag over her head and yells at her that the dress had better not be on the floor. She tops that instance of bad priorities in the second season when we see her shake out a picnic blanket at a park and leave paper plates, napkins, and bits of food strew all over the grass as she drives away. That was the probably the most shocking moment of the season for me!
While it's happy to poke at the quaintness of a bygone age, Mad Men is also a series that seems to take its duty to represent the period accurately very seriously. You can tell it has an investment in real history partly by the cavalcade of professors and museum curators it trots out for its featurettes! In this second season, American history gets even more interesting as the times they are a changin'. The season's 1962 timeline falls right on that temporal boundary between the conservative '50s and the revolutionary '60s, and the writers dig in to that mood of change, focusing on youth, race, gender, and sexual orientation. We feel the rumblings of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement through Paul's relationship with an African American activist and their (off-screen) trip down to Mississippi protests. The two even share a would-have-been-scandalous interracial kiss at the office:
One of the new young guys Sterling Cooper hires, Kurt, has a thick European accent and goes to Bob Dylan concerts. When he publicly offers to take Peggy to one, snickers erupt and people assume they're dating. Kurt corrects the assumption in front of everyone:
Kurt: "I am homosexual."
The office is stunned to hear anyone admit to such a thing—and no one is more stunned than closeted artist Sal, who has a wife and who has been secretly pining for Ken. This humorous moment with Kurt foreshadows the more sweeping changes that would be coming later in the '60s as the gay liberation movement brought people out of the closet in droves. Peggy doesn't seem to mind that her new friend is a homosexual, but of course she's got her own identity politics to worry about. Amazingly, she's landed a real copywriting job despite her gender, but at the beginning of the season she's still getting treated like a secretary by her peers. Should she try to be "one of the guys" and climb the ranks by virtue of her (considerable) skill? Or should she—as both Bobby and Joan advise her—accentuate her womanhood and assume that feminine wiles are the only skills that will get her promoted? We also see a little more of Joan's career predicament: she's mastered the skill set of a '50s secretary, including those most-important social skills, and risen to the top of that food chain, but where can she go from here? When she gets engaged, everyone assumes she'll quit her job and settle into her "true" vocation of housewife. I don't know how much further Mad Men's third season will advance into the '60s, but there will surely be more storylines about these compelling social movements.
Though the selection of special features appears to be the same on both the Blu-ray and standard DVD releases of Mad Men: Season Two, if you have a Blu-ray player you'll want to enjoy its excellent production values with the best visual quality. It really provides a feast for the eye with sumptuous costume design, well-crafted sets, and a carefully chosen color palette that really takes the viewer back to 1962. These elements are very well rendered on Blu-ray, with most scenes being impeccably sharp and bright. The colors, especially, look so dense and rich you feel you could just melt into them—especially the serene blues (Betty and Don's headboard, Father Gill's car, Pete's suit) that often mask the real lack of serenity in many of these lives and relationships. The image quality does have a few weak points, including a surprising amount of grain visible in daytime interior shots and one or two clunky green-screen exteriors. Sound work is both less showy and less impressive on Mad Men, with mostly the quiet ambience of a well-ordered and well-mannered office environment. That we don't hear a lot of chaos and raised voices to match the characters' internal states is a nice reflection of the suffer-in-silence spirit of the era. However, I can't say the same for the mumbly dialogue and off-balance sound effects. Listen to the scene that begins "Three Sundays," for example, when Don and Betty fool around in bed: you can't make out what they're saying to each other, but you can hear every tiny rustle of the sheets as they move around.
Lionsgate adds a hearty helping of special features to Mad Men: Season Two (Blu-ray) including a whopping 26 commentary tracks (two for each episode). I've noticed high-end TV releases loading up on commentary tracks lately, which I think is a nice touch. While I can't imagine even 1 percent of this set's buyers listening to all 26 tracks, it does provide an excellent variety for fans to sample from. From what I sampled (and no, I'm not in that less than 1 percent either—somehow I couldn't find 20 hours in my week just for commentary tracks), I noticed a casual joking atmosphere between writer Lisa Albert and Vincent Kartheiser that made for a lively listen on "Flight 1" and a general style of commentary from creator Matthew Weiner that I enjoyed. When he does solo tracks, he has that bad habit of narrating what's happening on screen, as if we weren't watching it, but he also provides a lot of fascinating insight into the characters and what he (as the writer) imagined they were going through in each scene. Considering how delightfully ambiguous many of the show's scripts are, that insight was welcome. In addition to the commentary tracks, we get a lot of well-made and varied featurettes. Among the big ones is the two-part "Birth of an Independent Woman," which nicely fleshes out the history of gender in America during that period—a topic Mad Men is deeply interested in. Part I identifies "the problem" for women in the '50s and the pressures to live this Barbie doll life. Interviewees, drawn from well-known feminists of academia and journalism, describe the suffocating domesticity of the period and how a woman was considered "an unnatural aberration if [she did] not enjoy cleaning." Part II gets into second-wave feminism and the move women made toward independence in the '60s and '70s. These two featurettes (totaling 42 minutes) are an excellent primer on gender in that era for anyone new to the subject. "An Era of Style" provides a similarly sophisticated 21-minute overview of a lighter subject: the fashions of the '60s. Designers, stylists, and museum curators walk us through three periods: the classic era (1960-3), the modern era (1964-7) and the rebellious era (1967-9). I'm not much interested in fashion, but the interviewees really managed to frame clothes as compelling and historically relevant in this segment. Lastly, "Time Capsule: Historical Events of the 1960s" is a big collection of short videos and text pages that flesh out the bits of American history features in Mad Men: Season Two (Blu-Ray). Sorted by the episode in which they are mentioned, the people, events, art and media of the period shine in these informative tidbits. Varied and interesting, they range from an actor reading us passages from Meditations in an Emergency, to the owner of the restaurant Lutèce giving us a cooking lesson, to interviews with some of the original Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights movement. A particularly good one features a USC film and art professor analyzing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and drawing comparisons between the themes of that film and the themes of Mad Men. We also get lists of the best-selling books, movies, TV shows, albums, and plays of 1962 and some less interesting text bios/histories of people and places mentioned in the series. There are two or three of these little features for each episode, so "Time Capsule" is a very substantive extra.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To begin the previous section, I argued that Mad Men strips away the surface gloss of the happy American family of the '50s and early '60s. A factor that makes the series a bit hard to watch is that it routinely goes beyond stripping off that surface gloss and proceeds to gouge mercilessly at all the layers beneath it. By that I mean the series isn't satisfied to expose the lie of American mid-century perfection and seems hell-bent to prove everyone who lived back then was selfish, callous, and dang-near despicable. The relentlessly cynical worldview of the series centers on the band of mostly loathsome characters Weiner and his writers have created. With very few exceptions (Peggy being the biggest), the inhabitants of this fiction are flawed beyond the point of being likeable—and really almost all of them are downright mean.
This deep-down meanness doesn't make them any less compelling. The characters are fascinating to watch, but I think there's a subtle difference between television writing and film writing that comes into play here and diminishes my enjoyment of Mad Men ever so slightly. When watching a film, you're in the presence of characters for a couple of hours. If you hate them, you can do so merrily for a short while and then move on to the next set. But for a television show to deny its viewers characters to like or identify with, for it to put them in a room with a set of fairly unsympathetic people for 13 episodes a year, is to take a bigger risk. For me, it just becomes a little exhausting to sit there despising so many people on screen for so many hours at a time.
I'm sure not everyone feels this way about the characters on Mad Men, and that many would disagree with me about the trials of enduring unlikeable characters on TV. But in my life, the shows that have made the most lasting impression on me—that I've loved most dearly and returned to over and over—are the ones that have given me flawed, complex characters I still root for at the end of the episode. When Mad Men's second season ends with Sterling Cooper being sold off, Paul remarks sadly that he likes the company and doesn't want it to change. I suspect that much of the episode's emotional weight depends on me feeling that same fear and sadness as I watch, but I don't. Despite keeping my brain enthralled, Sterling Cooper's employees have yet to worm their way into my heart.
Full of beauty, wit, and deep sadness in addition to its addictive drama, Mad Men is a phenomenon worthy of its hype. It's truly one of the very best shows on the air today, and this Blu-ray release of its second season doesn't disappoint.
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