The second season of Mad Men finds the show settling into its groove. As great as Season 1 was (it did win the Emmy for Best Dramatic Series), it feels a tad disjointed in comparison to the rest of the seasons. Season 2 is the first time that the show perfects its “slow burn” style and introspective aesthetic. From here on out, Mad Men demands study, repeat viewings, and close analysis of things not spelled out for the audience. What’s on the screen this season is great, but equally important is what’s not seen.
Immediately apparent right off the bat is that we didn’t see 1961 at all: Season 1 ended on Thanksgiving 1960, and Season 2 starts at Valentine’s Day 1962. Part of the joy of the season is piecing together what happened in that long gap that we’ll never see on screen. For instance, we don’t immediately find out what happened with Peggy’s pregnancy. We do see her in the opening montage, obviously slimmer. We soon see she’s left secretarial work behind, and is learning the ropes as a copywriter. The details of exactly what happened to her and Pete’s baby will reveal themselves in time. But there’s also 1961 events that aren’t addressed explicitly, but teased out in little bits and pieces. First and foremost in what must be pieced together is the state of Betty and Don’s marriage.
By the end of the Season 1 finale, “The Wheel,” Betty confronted Don about his infidelity indirectly by talking to her shrink about it. Betty had found out that Don had been calling Dr. Wayne to get check-ins on what Betty said while on the psychiatrist’s couch. She openly expressed her wish that Don would be faithful, knowing that would make its way back to Don. For his part, Don came to realize a big part of his unhappiness may be related to his serious lack of commitment to his family. Once he realized home is where he can be loved, he came home to an empty house.
In Don’s first scene this season, he’s getting an insurance-mandated physical. Of course, he can’t bring himself to be truthful about his drinking and smoking to the doctor, but he does say something that initially seems to be a throwaway line but is actually very telling: “I’ve been good.”
A Los Angeles Times article published after Mad Men’s finale aired in 2015 (so heads up, spoilers for the entire series are obviously in the article) details the working relationship between series creator Matthew Weiner and star Jon Hamm. Starting with the break between the first two seasons, the two would get together and map out at a high level where they thought Don’s journey would head in the upcoming season. And for their first such meeting, when Weiner wanted Hamm’s thoughts on where Don would be 15 months after the events of “The Wheel,” Hamm replied that he thought Don was behaving, trying to make his marriage to Betty work, and appreciating what he had in his life. But he also speculated that Don would be pretty bored with all this.
With that in mind, we’ll come to see that the “I’ve been good” dialogue actually means a lot more when reading between the lines. But it won’t be shown in any way that is overly dramatic or earth-shattering. As mentioned above, this is the point where Mad Men really kicks into gear, with much to ponder and analyze beyond what’s shown and said on-screen. Season 2, in fact, is probably the most oblique and slow-burning of all the Mad Men seasons. This season opener is a perfect harbinger of the tiny mysteries that will be unfolded over 13 episodes.
The “catch up with everyone” season-opening montage ends with Betty and her friend Sarah Beth Carson at horse stables. Betty’s picked up a new hobby, one perfectly suited to the upper-middle class. There’s also a handsome young man, Arthur Case, who is a regular at the stables who is flattered by the interest the older ladies show in him (and vice-versa).
Back at the office, Don’s absence is felt. A creatives meeting in the conference room is waiting for him to show up so it can get started in earnest. He’s went to the doctor for the insurance physical, and then had an early lunch at a bar where he sees a young man reading Frank O’Hara’s short story collection Meditations in an Emergency. Don asks the stranger if it’s any good; he gets the response “I don’t think you’d like it.” The title of this episode is a reference to a Pepsi ad campaign contemporary to 1962, but early on, the episode is exploring the start of the generation gap that will become a huge part of 1960s American culture, the growing rift between young and old. Along the same lines, Duck Phillips, now with over a year served at Sterling Cooper, approaches Roger about the best way to get a young writer-and-artist team for Martinson’s Coffee. Clients are asking for youth, because America is a young country in early 1962, with a young president who has a baby living in the White House.
The scene between Roger and Duck also drops hints that there’s somewhat of a gap between Duck and Don. Roger asks Duck why he just doesn’t ask Don about it, and Duck replies that he thought Roger was the liaison between accounts and creative at Sterling Cooper. Roger tells Duck that doesn’t sound like something he’d say and encourages him to approach Don the way one would approach a young child who always gets what he wants.
In other catching-up news, Joan is now engaged to a doctor, while trying to find a place for the office’s first Xerox machine, a giant piece of machinery which could take up a whole office. Roger lets Joan know he’s happy/not happy about her engagement––he knew their affair would end at some point, but he’s still not prepared to let her go.
Harry Crane has reunited with wife Jennifer, and Jennifer’s pregnant. Pete Campbell’s wife Trudy is not happy about that, as Campbells have apparently had some trouble conceiving. Pete is somewhat insensitive to his wife’s disappointment about not being able to join the “big club” of parents.
Later in the office, he asks Peggy just what the “big deal” about kids is. Awkwardly for Peggy, Pete also asks her if she wants kids. “Eventually,” she replies hesitantly. Apparently no one knows she had a baby (the office gossip says she went away to a “fat farm” to slim down), least of all Pete, who fathered the child. Pete’s obliviousness while being one of the most dedicated and innovative workers at Sterling Cooper is part of what makes him such a fascinating character.
As the last final bit of catch-up, we see that closeted homosexual Sal Romano has married a pretty young woman named Kitty. Speaking of obliviousness, Kitty is not picking up on the clues that would set off most everyone’s gaydar in this day and age. While the two are watching the television special that Jackie Kennedy hosted on that Valentine’s Day in 1962, a tour of the White House, Sal shows a lot of interest in interior decoration and wonders where Jackie’s handsome husband is in this show.
Don and Betty end up watching the Kennedy special on TV also, although that was not their plan. Don rented them a room at the Savoy Hotel, going all out for dinner, drinks and a luxurious suite. Betty, for her part, is wearing some very sexy lingerie underneath her dress. Everything’s set for a very romantic evening in the city for the Drapers…and then Don suffers erectile dysfunction. Betty asks Don for some help in keeping him excited in bed, but quickly blames the situation on how much they drank. They quickly slip into the same routine they could have done at home, watching TV while having food and drinks.
The Drapers’ plan for a night of passionate Valentine’s Day lovemaking may have not worked out, but that doesn’t stop Betty from letting BFF/neighbor Francine think it was very hot and heavy. When Francine talks about the Jackie Kennedy TV special, Betty pretends like she didn’t see it due to all the (imaginary) sex she was having with Don.
In this episode so concerned with the young and the old––with “young” being defined at a much lower age than before––Betty seems to feel she and Don are getting old and feels the need to lie to cover it up.
Don, for his part, also felt the sting of perceived aging. The young man at the bar reading Frank O’Hara told Don he probably “wouldn’t like it,” but that made Don want to go out and buy the book, intrigued by what the much younger man saw in it that he supposedly could not. Ironically, O’Hara’s writing is something Don would immediately identify with. The younger reader may look at O’Hara’s studies of East Coast suburbia as some sort of scathing indictment, but O’Hara’s writing is actually much more concerned with telling honest and moving stories of people like Don Draper. (Appropriately enough, Weiner has named O’Hara as one of his biggest inspirations.)
The book does resonate with Don, but he doesn’t keep it. He signs it with the mysterious inscription “Made me think of you –D.” Don then puts the book in an envelope, and drops it in the mailbox. We don’t know who he’s sending the book to, or if this person knows “D” to be “Dick” or “Don.” It’s another seed planted to grow in the story of Season 2.
If there was any question of whether O’Hara’s writing would resonate with Don, the selected piece that we hear Don read via voiceover describes a mood and a feeling that Don, always looking for his identity and a sense of peace, surely appreciates:
“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting and modern.
“The country is gray and brown and white and trees. Snows and skies of laughter are always diminishing. Less funny, not just darker. Not just gray.
“It may be the coldest day of the year. What does he think of that? I mean, what do I?
“And if I do, perhaps I am myself again.”
This sets the stage for the ground that Season 2 will cover. This season won’t feature big reveals like a stolen identity coming to the forefront because a long lost brother showed up, or a heart attack in the office while having sex with a woman young enough to be your daughter, and fighting off annoying young hippies with your superior wit. No, this is one of the most literary television shows of all time, and it’s going to tell a tale as small as the everyday lives of a handful of people, yet as big as the pondering the whole of the human condition.