The second season of Mad Men premiered almost exactly six years ago today (July 27, 2008). By that point the show had already won a Golden Globe for Best Drama Series (along with a Best Actor Globe for Jon Hamm – one of the infuriatingly few awards he has won for his work on the show), and it was just about to become the first basic cable show to win the Emmy for Best Drama Series. Mad Men had suddenly gone from a show that aired on an obscure network best known for showing old horror movies to being the most talked-about show on television. This was definitely the height of Mad Men‘s popularity. It wasn’t a particularly well-rated show (its ratings would never be that good), but it was the coolest show. Most people at this point were just discovering the show, but if you were a fan of the first season and were tuning in for the second season premiere, you might have been surprised -even disappointed- by what the show had in store for you.
After seven season we have more than grown accustomed to watching Mad Men. We know its rhythms. We know the seasons usually start out slow, often a little shaky, but we also know most story-lines will come together and wrap up wonderfully by the end of the season. We are also familiar with the time jumps the show usually makes between seasons. This last characteristic of the show turned out to be particularly surprising when it came back for its second season, because after the critical moments in which we left the characters at the end of season one, fans of the show were perplexed to find the show making what is still the biggest time jump between seasons jumping almost fifteen months from Thanksgiving 1960 to Valentine’s Day 1962. It’s not that the first season ended in a huge cliffhanger or anything, but rather that creator Matthew Weiner decided to use the premiere as yet another episode that would teach people how to watch his show.
“For Those Who Think Young” was particularly confusing for fans of the show (like myself) because it didn’t seem particularly interested with had happened the previous season. It was almost disconcerting to find oneself watching an episode that didn’t address any of the big developments of the last episodes of the season. For the first ten or so minutes of the episode, we don’t even know what has happened to the Draper marriage since the finale; then we discover that it is pretty much at the same place it always was. Similarly, we don’t hear anything substantial about Peggy’s baby, except that the guys at the office are wondering why she lost so much weight after taking a suspiciously sudden break (they actually think it was Don that got her pregnant). As for other characters, Roger is back working full-time at the office after his heart attacks, and he is no longer seeing Joan, who is soon going to be engaged to a “non-jewish doctor”.
So, if we have the power of hindsight and are expert watchers of Mad Men, what does “For Those Who Think Young” tell us about the season that is to come? Well, like most Mad Men premieres it hints at themes that will be important throughout the season while setting other important character dynamics. The clearest thing that this episode is trying to get across seems to be the fact that Don is getting old. Being a show about the 1960s, the quintessentially transitional decade of the modern American history, Mad Men has always been interested in the tension between the old vs. the new. Nixon vs. Kennedy. Don vs. Pete. In this case, we first see Don as he visits a doctor that tells him he should be more careful about his health, and it’s not too long until people at the office are pressuring him to hire younger talent. By the end of this decade, the youth would have become the be-all-end-all when it comes to dictating what is important in the culture, especially when it comes to advertising. We are not quite there yet, but we know it’s coming, and the first signs -like Kennedy’s win over Nixon- have started to show.
In any case, Don seems pretty lost at this point. He spends Valentine’s Night with Betty, and isn’t able to perform sexually. He is suffocated by the idea of having to turn to younger people. You can tell because after a young bohemian tells him that Frank O’Hara poetry collection Meditations in an Emergency might not be his cup of tea, he decides to buy and the book and read some of it himself. This book is particularly important for the season thematically. For starters, it shares its title with the last episode of the season, and perhaps more tellingly in the short run, this episode ends with Don mailing the book to an unknown person along with a message that says “Made me think of you”. Who is Don sending this package to was the first big question that was supposed to hook us on this second season of Mad Men, but one that the show, being its true self, would take its sweet time to answer.
Also in this Episode
I talked a little bit about what the main characters’ situation is at the start of this season, but let’s make a quick round-up of their psychological standings.
- After that rather heartbreaking moment she shared with Glen in “The Wheel“, Betty seems to be pretty much in her usual place. More than anything, she seems to be particularly interested in filling whatever void she feels in her life by being the object of men’s desires.
- Pete continues to be a jerk. He seems to be a little resentful of Don, but understandably not as willing to openly go against him. Most importantly, he and Trudy are having trouble conceiving, a development that seems to be taking a huge on toll on her, while it’s pretty clear that Pete isn’t really interested in having a child at this point.
- Roger and Joan are no longer a couple, but they remain incredibly (and delightfully) flirtatious even despite the fact that Joan has been dating the aforementioned doctor and is expecting him to pop the question pretty soon.
- Perhaps the character that has changed the most is Peggy, who has now been working as a copywriter for quite some time. She is much harder and unafraid to speak her mind, but when you think about it, she is as unpopular with the girls, and as under-appreciated by most of the men as she was when she started. She also has to share an office with a gigantic Xerox machine.
This all brings me to remember that Mad Men is also a show about change, or more accurately, how hard it is for people to do so. One of the frustrating things about this premiere when it first aired was how, despite certain changes, everyone seemed to be at the same place they were on the first season. I know now that is an important thematic decision, but it did bother me at the time.
- Paul Kinsey has a beard now. The question of whether he looks more or less like Orson Wells now is up for debate.
- The guys wonder how Peggy lost all that weight, to which Pete responds: “Far farm. I thought we had verification”.
- “Didn’t you tell me you were the bridge between Accounts and Don?” “Doesn’t sound like me” Roger is definitely back to work, as John Slattery gets promoted from “special guest star” to regular cast member in the opening credits.
- In case we had forgotten who exactly Betty is as a character, we get a quintessentially Betty line when Sally says that her teacher made her class give a valentine’s to everyone, to which Betty responds with a “well, that defeats the purpose”.
- We can breathe a sigh of relief as the show were quickly pointed out the fact Sterling Cooper has both a person called Donald and a guy nicknamed Duck working under the same roof.
- “That’s why I don’t allow crying in the break room (…) there are places for that, like your apartment”