I feel compelled to write about Mad Men, having watched the first two episodes of the new season (and about to watch the third.) I don't know exactly what I want to say, or how eloquently I'll say it, but I need to put my feelings about this show down.
It's been...a long time since I've seen TV this good. TV that made me feel so much. And not neat, tidy, easy feelings, but messy and complex feelings - that's why I don't know exactly what I want to say. The show doesn't want me to be able to talk about it in an allegorical sense - like all great art, it's too smart for simplistic metaphors and morals. Summer TV doesn't offer much in the way of true emotion - it's mostly fun fluff like Burn Notice and Eureka. (Of course, I guess that's true of most television in general.) Before I even say anything, I think AMC is to be commended for allowing Matthew Weiner (who really doesn't seem like the easiest person to work with) to fully realize his vision, even when that vision is harrowing and unnerving. Or joyous, for that matter. As Don Draper says in the second episode of the season, “Let’s also say that change is neither good or bad. It simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy. A tantrum that says, ‘I want it the way it was’ or a dance that says, ‘Look, it’s something new.’” And change is life. And life is what Mad Men documents.
It's no secret that I empathize greatly with Peggy Olson. I love watching her evolve from a young naif into a smart, successful woman. And honestly, no matter how fascinating Don Draper is, no matter how interesting the various historical-themed plots are, Peggy's story is the story I care about. I care about Don and Betty, and Joan, and even Pete, sometimes, but Peggy has my heart. But before I talk about her, I want to touch on another subject that is the focus of these episodes - the tearing down of Penn Station. I talk about this a lot with my friends, and I loved hearing Paul's line about how New Yorkers need a memory; they need to have a past. It's a little surprising how many people my age don't know anything about the original Penn Station, and more than a little sad. And it's change.
For Don, though, it almost seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It's obvious how much he still loves Betty, and it's just as obvious that he still feels he can be more open with a stewardess that he just met than his wife, with whom he's had two (and soon three) children. And so he beds the stewardess (or at least, he would've if he could've) while his loving wife believes he doesn't cheat on her anymore. Because he's alone; he can't open up to the people who love him.
Peggy's alone too. From the moment Ann-Margaret starts singing "Bye Bye Birdie," she feels that loneliness more keenly than ever. We've explored Peggy's...uniqueness before, in the "Maidenform" episode (Peggy: "...am I [a Marilyn or a Jackie]?" to which the boys respond, "You're more classic...like an Irene Dunn." That's not what anyone wants to hear.), but here we see exactly where this feeling takes her. As the guys are panting over Ann-Margaret, they casually dismiss and insult Peggy because she's NOT one of the girls. But she's not one of the boys either, so she can't exactly trade barbs with them. When she talks to Don about possibly taking the campaign in a different direction, he gently chides her for fighting the obvious hook - men want Ann-Margaret, and women want to be her. In a line as poetic and elusive as Don himself, he tells her, "Keep some of your tools inside the toolbox."
In order to combat these feelings of inadequacy, she goes to a local college bar after work, and manages to pick up (using one of Joan's lines, no less) a boy who seems even younger than she was when she started at Sterling-Cooper. Elisabeth Moss manages to turn inscrutability into an art form yet again, as Peggy's seduction of this boy is at turns a cathartic/happy release and a depressing low point for someone who deserves so much more. The post-coital (kind of, although they didn't actually have sex) scene between Peggy and her boy is pitch-perfect - two people saying one thing and talking about another. And what is the effect that this event has on Peggy?
Well, I think we can take any experience and take something positive away from it. I think that will happen here. Peggy's too smart for it not to.
The episode ends with Peggy and Don, but before that happens, there's another scene of great beauty that would be trite and maudlin in a lesser show. Don and Betty watch their daughter participate in a May Day dance. Don is captured by the beauty of the teacher leading the dance while softly touching a blade of grass. It is, quite literally, a dance that says, look - it's something new.
These two episodes make me want to dance. This is umbrella-shattering art here, as DH Lawrence would say. Mad Men is back, and it's still the best show on TV.
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