As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Mad Men Season 2 (Warning: some spoilers)

Posted by Hedwig on October 29, 2008

I watched the last three episodes of season 2 of Mad Men yesterday, and all I can say is: wow. That, and poor, poor Joan.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl that the fate of the women on this show touches me so, but whatever the motivation, I laud Matthew Weiner for writing such well-rounded, different characters. They might be confined within their 1960 and then 1962 surroundings, but he never sees them as simply as the men in that context do. Even the simple secretaries with a secondary rule such as Lois and Hildy are real characters, and you can feel that each of them interacts with the limited options presented to them in their own way.


But let’s get back to Joan, because that scene in episode 12 got to me like few others did (Salvatore’s dinner in season 1’s The Hobo Code comes to mind), especially since her behavior afterwards is so thoroughly predictable, and so thoroughly tragic. The early sixties Weiner presents can sometimes seem appealing, what with the cocktails at lunch and the obliviousness about lung cancer and AIDS and the luscious look of everything, but he’s constantly punching holes through the facade, and Joan’s fate… well, let’s just say I’m glad I was born in a time in which marital rape is acknowledged as a crime, being single at 31 is – while still sometimes seen as sad – a viable option, and girls are no longer systematically overlooked for jobs. 

Speaking of that, let’s give it up for the girl who refuses to be overlooked: Peggy. When the copy machine repairman assumes she’s a secretary, she doesn’t mope, she doesn’t accept it: she marches to the boss, and uses her recent achievement as a bargaining chip to get herself an office. And she even jokes about sleeping her way to the top: I was glad Joan’s excruciating defeat, truly crushing because she was always such a strong, composed character, was counterbalanced by this triumph. 

Remember in the early days of Sex and the City when every girl declared herself a Carrie, a Charlotte, a Miranda or a Samantha? It’s tempting to do that with Mad Men as well (as aknowledged in Maidenform with the Jackie/Marylin ad), but who can really tell? I like to think I would have been a Peggy, but so much depends on upbringing. I could just as well have ended up a Betty (or rather a Mona, or Trudy, or Francine, or in a slightly more optimistic scenario a Sarah Beth or Helen Bishop), stuck in a marriage with no outlet for who I was. Maybe even moderately happy in that situation, who knows. But I’m glad I have so many options to choose from, not least of them the option to choose what Betty cannot – as her doctor reminds her.

I wondered at first why they’d chosen the early sixties instead of the fifties as a backdrop, as the culture they’re depicting is on the way out. Now I realize that’s exactly why they picked it: the sixties – as in, what we mean when we refer to “the sixties” now – are coming, and it’s the tension between this world and the inevitable changes that are coming that makes it so fascinating. I’m not even talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis (though it’s incorporated beautifully into the fnale), but women’s lib starting, the civil rights movement gathering steam, some gay men starting to come out of the closet, Bob Dylan performing at Carnegie Hall…  

I’m trying not to ramble on here, but you almost have to. There’s so much to speak about, so many characters and so many layers and such intricate symbolism. This is writing at its best, and watching it just makes me feel ashamed that I’m still watching Heroes (which truly has been getting crappier and crappier, with leaden dialogue and sloppy plotting) and some other not-too-great shows. This is just so many levels beyond. Not that there aren’t slightly clunky scenes (the tarot-card reading scene was on the verge, I could have done without the wise african-american nanny cliche, and while the coming out scene was great, did they have to make Kurt a great hairdresser?) but those only stand out because everything surrounding it is so facinating. I usually mustitask when watching shows: I’m a characteristically restless product of my generation. But this show, I often just can’t look away.

And let’s give credit where credit’s due: much of this is due to the gorgeous, the amazing, the mesmerizing Jon Hamm. The shades of emotion this man can convey… just watch the closing scene of the season, for example. Or the scenes in which he shifts back into being Dick Whitman: he doesn’t change anything too obvious, but he’s a different person. It’s somewhat akin to what Viggo Mortensen does in A History of Violence, but because his two personae are less diametrically opposed, it’s even more impressive. 

I’m sorry for gushing. But episodes like The Jet Set are simply… well, let me put it this way: when I was 14, 15, watching movies like Reservoir Dogs and Fight Club (and later Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Donnie Darko) made me go “wow! Movies can do that”. Watching Mad Men makes me go “wow. TV can do that!”. I realize it’s my own fault that I come to this discovery so late (not having followed The Sopranos or The Wire or Six Feet Under), but it’s truly amazing to me that a television show can be so literary, so deep, and so lingering.

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4 Responses to “Mad Men Season 2 (Warning: some spoilers)”

  1. Lanchka said

    I keep re-reading this entry because I can’t stand Mad Men. Yep. Sorry for the sacrilege 😉 I need to figure out what you see that I don’t. What you understand that leaves me in the dust. I hate how everything on this show seems to have a subtext that I’m incapable of reading. “The past is a foreign country.” As a medievalist, you don’t think such a statement would also be true of a time within living memory.

    To be fair, it took me about three and a half seasons to get into The Wire, which is one of my favourite shows. I’m in the midst of rewatching the whole series now. I love the Avon Barksdale/Stringer Bell relationship — how a single look, a single word can communicate the years they shared. Avon is my favourite character for one of his few scenes in Season 5. And that’s the crux of the whole matter: there’s not a single (male) character on Mad Men who engenders any sympathy from me. (Maybe they’re not supposed to. In which case, I should stop wasting my time.) On top of that, I know that I should see past Joan’s bitchiness, but I don’t want to waste affection on a character who treats others the way she does.

    OK, it’s way too late and I’m rambling. Mad Men just makes me mad. It’s like some joke that I’m not in on, so I’m going back to The Wire tomorrow. (You should come visit and we can do a marathon!)

  2. Kaj said

    You don’t want to waste affection on “a character who treats others the way she does”, yet your favorite character on The Wire is a callous killer/drugsdealer? Don’t get me wrong, Avon is a great character, but this strikes me as strange. Then again, The Wire’s characters are so good that my only complaint with a top 50 characters list I recently encountered was that it wasn’t long enough.

  3. Lanchka said

    Few if any of Joan’s dealings with others give me any indication that she possesses the ability to be nice at all. On the other hand, Avon follows a code, even if it’s a murderous one, and takes care of his own. In the context of his own world, his actions makes sense. I have no understanding of Joan’s motives leading to her behaviour, but like I said, I’m doubtlessly missing the subtext and whatever’s written between the lines. Anyway, having written this, I’ve realized that I apparently lack the ability to understand the motivations of any character on Mad Men.

    Let it also be said that I WANT to enjoy Mad Men. Erik really likes it and I wish I could sit and watch it with him without scowling for an entire hour.

  4. Kaj said

    Apparently, because I would say that “In the context of her own world (and worldview), her actions makes sense.”

    Also, she has been genuinely nice on numerous occasions – For instance, her conversation and subsequent dance with Kinsey at that office party in season 1, are nothing but gentle and nice. In fact, overlooking her limitations towards race and sexuality, she strikes me as a nicer person than Avon. Both are complex beings though.

    Also, Avon’s code isn’t exactly set in stone, but to get into that would require detailed analysis of what he does in the first three seasons, which would mean a great deal of spoilers for readers who haven’t seen that yet. Maybe that discussion could take place somewhere else?

    I do wonder now, how come it took you 3 and a half season to get into it?

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