I haven’t written a ton about Mad Men since fairly early in its run, though I have loved it from the beginning, back when I had no idea how big it would turn out to be (at least in terms of buzz, if not in terms of actual people watching it). I wrote this shortly after. But since then, with the exception of the occasional note that Jon Hamm is really hot. (I know I’m trying to be all serious writer here, but, I’m sorry, he is! There was a whole episode of 30 Rock about it!)
Anyway, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped watching. I’ve watched and watched and watched. I took Frank O’Hara’s collected poems out of the library after they used Meditations on an Emergency. But I’ve kind of never really felt equal to writing about it – I just have so much to say about it, and I think it says so much for itself.
But I’m rewatching it, and this time I will write out my thoughts more. I will, in all posts, be talking about stuff that’s happened up until the end of Season 2, so if you haven’t been watching the show, my posts will not be a very good primer. You should watch the show though, it’s a good show. (In Canada you can watch every thing for free at the ctv website; I do not know if there is any streaming version available to US audiences?)
Or, if you like rewatches that are about fun, not serious art shows being grad schooled to death when they are basically already doing all the stuff grad schooling usually does, like gender analysis and Making Points About America, and you are in America where the website works for you Tara is doing a 90210 rewatch at her work that is funny.
EPISODE 1: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”
This is the first episode of the show, where we see Don Draper talk to a waiter, have sex with a lady, insult another lady whose business he was supposed to be trying to win, and ingeniously save the Lucky Strike account at the last minute. We also meet Peggy Olsen, “the new girl,” who gets sexually harassed by Pete Campbell, who has his bachelor party that night, and shows up drunk at her house. Rather than turn him away, Peggy makes the genius move of boning him in her tiny Brooklyn apartment. It will take her some time to realize that the birth control pill doesn’t kick in the day you start taking it. My favourite scene, of which there are many possibilities, is Don and Rachel having a drink. Don gives her all his posturing “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there is none” speech, and Rachel doesn’t buy it for a second. Her observation: “it must be hard, being a man, too.” My second favourite is Joan’s advice to Peggy. I always remember how she tells her to really evaluate her features, and be honest, but I always forget how she prefaces that advice by telling her to do it naked with a bag over her head. She makes it sound so stern and sensible, but it’s such a horrifying Also, I want to reproduce Don’s big speech about what advertising does: “Advertising is based one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? It’s the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance, that whatever you’re doing, is okay. You are okay.” I want to think about the need for reassurance, and why Don understands it as a human need.
EPISODE 2: “Ladies Room”
This episode doesn’t just focus on the ladies, but it does have key scenes in the ladies room at the beginning – Betty’s hands going numb putting on lipstick, our first real chance to find out anything about her, and the end, with Peggy, who straightens her scarf and silently seems to promise herself to not be one of those women crying in the washroom. It is also week one of Betty’s therapy, in other words, week one of Don calling her therapist to find out what she said, which would be so illegal now. The first two episodes are, I think, what people think of when they talk about Mad Men as just reinforcing this kind of “look at how terrible things used to be” kind of complacency – but if Matt Weiner had wanted to make a show that was about how awful 1950s Eisenhower America was, he probably wouldn’t have mentioned the Nixon-Kennedy election in the first episode. There are other hints, of course, that things are going to change, particularly in Peggy. After sleeping with Pete in week one, Peggy spends the whole rest of the episode fending off the advances of the various office lotharios – including Ken and, actually slightly more convincingly, Paul, who talks to her like she’s a real person. The scene where we learn what Peggy’s really about (though I had no idea how much this was showing us the first time around) – is when she complains to Joan about the constant sexual harassment. “You’re the new girl, and you’re not much, so you might as well enjoy it while you can,” Joan says, thinking she’s being mean, but Peggy takes it as assurance that this will go away. She slips into the bathroom, standing at the mirror where they’d seen someone crying earlier on – you think you know what’s going to happen, but then she sees another woman crying and she steels herself and straightens her scarf. Elizabeth Moss communicates so much with that one look.
EPISODE 3: “Marriage of Figaro”
Aaah, so much happens here. I think, based on the images I used in my “Mad Men is my new favourite show” post, that this was the moment that I went from liking the show to loving it. The first half of the episode focuses on Don, with his broken cufflink, going to see Rachel Menken’s store, the one he’s supposed to be advertising. She gives him new cufflinks and shows him the roof, where her only childhood friends the guard dogs are kept. In light of later revelations, I find it interesting that Don is moved to kiss Rachel when he finds out she didn’t have a mom. He relates to her outsiderness; she mentions her sense that he seems to know what it’s like to be on the outside in Episode 1; it’s clear here (and from what we know about Don now), that this is what so moves Don about Rachel. The second half of the episode is little Sally Draper’s birthday party. Don walks around filming his gross neighbours – who slap other people’s children, hit on divorcees when their wives are in the next room, and tell gross sexist jokes while the ladies are present – watching his life through the camera’s lens. The scene cuts between a full soundtrack of party noises to just the opera score (I’m pretty sure it’s from The Marriage of Figaro, but I’m not good on opera) and the sound of Don’s movie camera running. I want to remember this sequence of Don filming the suburban neighbourhood party he’s desperate to get away from when I get to “The Wheel.” Don drinks some more (we see him drink a lot this week) and watches the kids play the most depressing house ever (“You dented the car!” “I like sleeping on the couch!”) before he mercifully gets a reprieve to go pick up some cake. But he can’t bear to go back, so he just drives off and sits under a bridge, reappearing after the guests have gone, after being served some Sara Lee from the freezer of Helen Bishop, divorcee and obviously the smartest person at the party, including Don. He shows up, tellingly, with a dog for his daughter, which I never connected to Rachel’s comments about “sometimes a dog is all a girl needs” until now. Duh. This episode doesn’t start on Don though, it opens with the image of the famous Volkswagen “Lemon” ad, which he’s sneering at when someone recognizes him as “Dick Whitman.” It’s an early hint of the way things are going to be with the show – the first two episodes mostly seem to set up how things are right at that moment, but this is the first inkling that the Sterling Cooper way is not going to last forever. Also, that Don Draper thinks everything is a construction because he is a construction.