One of the most critically acclaimed series of 2007, AMC’s Mad Men combines a sexy atmosphere of fun and frivolity with a touch of nostalgia to create a delightful retrospective drama. Set in the chaotic world of advertising in the 1960s, Mad Men takes its title from the self-created nickname of the ad men working on New York City’s Madison Avenue. Among the buildings of the towering Manhattan skyline lies the struggling advertising firm of Sterling and Cooper, the central meeting point for Mad Men’s complicated and conflicted characters. Last season focused on introducing the cast and discovering the intricacies of their past and the problems of their present. The second season promises to continue exploring the characters’ occasionally dark histories, while new clients present the team with new advertising challenges; social change and the continuing modernization of America force everyone to reexamine their priorities and status.
Previously, the mysterious Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Sterling and Cooper’s genius creative director, had to face his shadowy history when his brother Adam turned up in New York, revealing that Don was once a country hick named Dick Whitman. Don allowed his family to believe he had died, assumed the identity of a fallen soldier he met during his stint in the army, and moved to New York to start his life over again. In this season’s opener, “For Those Who Think Young,” Don must consider his rapidly fading youth when Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) calls for younger talent in the office. Even upstart Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) fails to meet Duck’s age criteria and, already insecure about his position at the company, matters are made worse when he’s forced to work with former flame Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss), who is on the rise as the firm’s first woman copywriter in years. Gone is the prim girl of last season, as Peggy has found a new confidence in her position—though the fate of her unwanted son remains unclear (presumably, his fate will explained later in the season). Her rivalry with office tart Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) also lingers, with Joan eventually placing the latest technology, a bulky Xerox machine, in the middle of Peggy’s office.
Outside of Sterling and Cooper, Valentine’s Day descends on the couples. The beautiful but unhappy Betty Draper (January Jones) still demurely attends to Don’s needs but seems more aware of her growing desire to have independence of some kind. Their evening in a Manhattan hotel underscores their tenuous relationship, for though the couple shares affection for—and a strong connection with—one another, they end the evening on a sour note, with Betty begging Don to simply communicate with her. Pete also struggles with his wife Trudy (Alison Brie), learning that all she truly desires is a child, and she does not find chocolate truffles a suitable replacement gift.
Happily, the writers seem willing to exploit their flawed characters, especially their layered leading man. Despite devoting enormous attention to his wife, Draper still pines for something more, mailing a gift to an unnamed person, presumably his intellectual romantic tryst, Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff). Even Betty, arguably the most pitiable character of the first season, cannot be seen as perfect: She flirts with a mechanic, compromising her rigid moral standards to get what she wants. The season premiere also pleasantly taunts viewers by offering a glimpse into the changed lives of the Madison Avenue crowd but leaving enduring questions and loose ends for viewers to mull over later. In addition to the location of Peggy’s son, the premiere also ignores Betty’s confession to her psychiatrist, which should have tipped Don off to his wife’s knowledge about his extracurricular activities.
Sterling and Cooper’s advertising campaigns continue to provide intriguing themes for each episode, even if slightly overt in their intentions. Last season’s highlights included the “Relaxerciser,” the orgasm-inducing electric weight-loss gadget that had everyone working off their frustrations, and Kodak’s photo “Carousel” that pushed the overworked advertisers to reflect on times long past. This season’s premiere episode continues in this vein, with a Mohawk Airlines spread involving familial relationships, specifically the idea of returning to one’s family.
This season holds promise, not lacking in the detail that makes the series so enjoyable. From the fashions to the office supplies, the entire visual of the show embraces the ’60s: A television special hosted by Jackie O. dominates the next day’s gossip; the females wear era-appropriate underclothing, uncomfortable-looking apparatuses that mold their silhouettes to fit the fashions of the time; the males slick their hair down, a neat part showing the division in the shiny strands; both sexes smoke incessantly, though Don promises his physician that he’s cutting back.
Just as the men of Sterling and Cooper struggle to stay on top of their game, Mad Men seems poised to remain on the radar as a cable standout. Nominated for 16 Emmy Awards, including sharing the honor of the first basic cable series to be nominated for Outstanding Drama Series with FX’s Damages, the series begins its second season strong. The junior account managers and secretaries would agree: This calls for a celebratory drink.