Welcome, Re-Watchers, to Mad Men’s second season. The '60s are in full swing, which means Sterling Cooper will be spending much of the season trying to catch up with “youth culture,” who prefer Pepsi to coffee. (Now they drink both.) It’s the season that saw Don kicked out of the house, Freddy fired for pissing his pants, and Peggy charming her first openly gay best friend (who finally gave her a stylish haircut). In other words, Season 2 rocked!
Season 2, Episode 1: “For Those Who Think Young”
What perfect timing: Mad Men’s second season begins on Valentine’s Day. Did you make your own distant, philandering daddy a heart-shaped macaroni card? Don and Betty take Valentine’s Day seriously, planning a staycation at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, a luxury jewel on Central Park that was demolished in 1965 to make way for the GE tower. And there is no more indelible moment in the season premiere than the shot of Betty descending the hotel stairs to an instrumental version of “Song of India,” a gorgeous aria by composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. One of the things that absolutely enthralls me about Mad Men is its cinematic ambitions and immaculate attention to detail. It’s a show that both exalts, and condemns, the craven pursuit of beauty and luxury, and in a scene like that, it’s nothing short of arresting. Other shows only wish they could conjure that kind of bewitchment. That such a moment is paired just minutes later with naive Betty meeting an old roommate who's found her calling as a “party girl,” as Don puts it, is very fitting of the show. Everything for a price—which is one of Mad Men’s recurring themes. (Sadly her gentleman patron’s guilt-faced mugging spoils what could have been a perfect sequence. Couldn’t a director have told him to tone it down?)
Grade: B+ The Betty horseback-riding storyline bored, but office politics crackled as Duck forced Don to interview pretentious, young creatives for a coffee account. Today, they’d be called “hipsters.”
Season 2, Episode 2: “Flight 1”
Ghosts of 9-11 hover over Season 2's second episode, whose centerpiece is the real-life crash of a JFK-to-LAX American Airlines flight on March 1, 1962. One minute after takeoff, the plane banked, flipped, and careened nose-first into Jamaica Bay, as another flight that had taken off right behind it watched in terror. “Flight 1” does something fascinating with the tragedy: It puts Pete’s father—his cruel, abusive, dismissive father—on the plane. At first, he doesn’t know what to do with the information, and he relays as much to Don in a fantastically played scene. Is Pete in shock, or does he actually not care, or is it a bit of both? And coming to Don, of all people, for advice puts both men in the most awkward of circumstances. “I don’t know what to do,” he confides in Don in the same room where he once threatened blackmail over a job promotion. Later, Duck, who quickly proves himself to be a ruthlessly cunning but effective ad executive, asks Pete to attend a meeting set up to lure American over to Sterling Cooper to oversee their image-rehab campaign. Pete’s response is classic: “I haven’t even cried yet.” Of course, he never would, but he would do an excellent job of milking his loss at that meeting. The scene could have easily portrayed Pete as unsympathetic, manipulative, and blindly career-driven, all of which he is. But Vincent Kartheiser, the actor who plays Pete, did a remarkable job of making us sympathetic to his situation. Why not, after all, use this opportunity to advance his career—the career his father always disparaged and minimized?
From Paul’s house party in Newark to Pete’s dealings with his incredibly chilly family, there was a lot to sink one’s teeth into in Episode 2.
Season 2, Episode 3: “The Benefactor”
The introduction of Jimmy Barrett, a fascinating character study of a famous insult comedian (think Jim Carrey meets Ricky Gervais), sets in motion the events that will lead to the end of Betty and Don’s marriage. But at this point, we don’t yet know that. We do know that Bobbie Barrett, Jimmy’s sly minx of a wife, has an itch that only Don can scratch. The classic sequence in this episode is of course the one in the lady’s powder room, when Don insists Jimmy apologize to Mrs. Utz, the rotund woman who found herself on the receiving end of one of his comedy riffs when she showed up on-set to watch him perform. I loved the awkwardness of the dinner that led up to their encounter, with Betty on hand to play charming wife (which she does, effortlessly), the Utzes, clearly mortified but wanting to put everything behind them, and then Jimmy just being Jimmy. (My two favorite moments: When he told Betty that the horses she loves to ride “must love it, too,” and when he bit his fist when Mrs. Utz said she didn’t “have the stomach” for his harsh brand of humor.) But back to that encounter: Don and Bobbie have already had sex once, and Don is giving Bobbie an ultimatum: Jimmy apologizes, or else. Bobbie counters that she had a lawyer look at his contract, and that it’s pay-or-play, meaning he gets his money either way. Then she goes one better, and tries to shake down Don for a bigger payday, which earns her, well, let’s just say a surprise trip to third base on a vanity table.
I also enjoyed Harry’s arc in this episode. Smart and ambitious but definitely not the alpha of the boys’ club, he opened Ken’s check when it accidentally landed on his desk to see what his colleague made—only to learn Ken was earning $300 a week, a full $100 less than he was. Much of this made me laugh, from his pathetic attempts at finding a replacement envelope to his phone call with his wife (“Harry, do I want to hear this?”) to his conversation with Sal later. (Sal's reaction to Ken’s salary is silent, save for a look of death and the sharpening of a pencil that we could only presume he was going to later use to stab Ken in the eye.) Harry gets his moment, though, by trying to sell Belle Jolie on a bargain spot on the justice show The Defenders, in an episode that repeatedly mentions “abortion” and is too hot for most sponsors to handle. While they turn it down, Roger is impressed with Harry's initiative, giving Harry the backbone to ask to head up a TV department and request a raise. The promotion he gets—the raise, Roger is less inclined to fork over, but Harry does earn $25 more a week. Harry’s wife’s instincts are right though: The new title will be a lot more valuable to both of them in the long run.
– Jimmy Barrett was based on lesser-known Rat Packer Joey Bishop.
That threatening, under-the-skirt encounter in the ladies room was as wrong as it was riveting. If "The Wheel"’s speech was fueled by sentimentality, this one was fueled sex, power, and Don’s animal magnetism.
1. Joan, of course, is heading toward that devastating encounter with Greg, the doctor fiance who’d rape her on the floor of Don’s office. She would never be the same after that. And hints of violation were there earlier on, when someone posted her birthday on the office wall. Discuss.
2. I love the song choices in Mad Men. Can you think of any in particular that stood out for you?
3. Betty closes out "The Benefactor" by weeping with gratitude over how happy she is to be “a team” with Don. She also rebuffs the aggressive advances of the handsome young guy at the stables. And despite his repeated insistence that she seems “so sad,” she genuinely seems as if she might be happy. But then she has that weird moment of castigating Bobby for tracing a picture. What do you think is going on in Betty’s head at the beginning of Season 2?
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 5: Carousel of Broken Dreams
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 4: Hearts, Diseased
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 3: The Miseducation of Peggy Olson
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 2: A Basket of Kisses
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch: Here We Go!