Fourteen months, thousands of cigarettes, and one beard later, we return to the offices of Sterling-Cooper and its denizens. In the first season of Mad Men, creator Matthew Weiner braced his agency against the rising tide of youth culture. But even against the backdrop of JFK’s generational campaign, 1960 was still dominated by the ways and mores of an earlier time. The few cracks that did show were personal rather than cultural.
Now in early 1962, the future is seeping through a bit more.
By making the timejump, Weiner has pulled a cover back over his characters. At the end of last season, we knew too much about these people. Less than we might know today about a stranger in a restaurant, carrying on a cellphone conversation oblivious to the people around her, but more than Weiner wants us to know about Don Draper and those around him. What we can surmise is that accommodations have been made all around:
- Don and Betty have achieved some sort of detente. He seems to be putting more effort into his marriage, even as the two of them are drifting further apart emotionally. The obvious joke about a woman and her horse is certainly applicable here as Betty attempts to sublimate her unmet desires. Don meanwhile, is trying to reach out to someone with whom he feels a more substantial connection. Whether that’s Midge, Rachel Mencken, someone new, or someone from Dick Whitman‘s past is a mystery for now.
- Harry and his wife have also found a way beyond his infidelity.
- Peggy got a three-month break after giving up her baby. The rumors swirl around the office – whether she was pregnant, who the father might be – but they remain rumors.
- Pete’s still Pete. Clueless as ever, he believes he’s failing to give his wife the baby she desperately wants. The only person who doesn’t seem to know Peggy had a child is the one who fathered the child.
- Salvatore’s married. If you’re new to the show and maybe missed the opening montage of scenes from last season, suffice it to say that the flamboyant art director should not have a wife.
Mad Men is an impressionist painting in progress. We watch in closeup as Weiner lays down seemingly disconnected strokes; a dab of emerald green here, a touch of eggplant there. Only with time and distance does the picture form. Tonight’s episode began a new canvas to be filled over the course of the season, but even when it’s complete our understanding and appreciation of it will be subjective and partial.
As always, Jon Hamm plays Don with perfect reserve. Like figures dancing in our periphery at night, we can only catch glimpses of his loneliness and confusion when glancing askew. This isn’t a showy performance, but one of the most subtle ever seen on the small screen. In his silences – sitting alone in the bar, thinking of the Mohawk account – we hear his thoughts rumble below the surface. Even a throwaway line to his daughter – mockingly upset that she greets the dog before her father – has layers. He really is upset. His reality doesn’t live up to his perfect family of still images projected on wall.
The rest of the cast is as good as always, from January Jones frightened and thrilled on a lonely country road as she plays the role of make-believe party girl to Vincent Kartheiser as clueless as ever about his wife, Peggy, and everything in between. Finally out of her fat suit, Elizabeth Moss can now pair her missing sex appeal with the cruel and laser-like focus she honed in its absence. In many ways, Peggy and Pete are the future of advertising, but they still have to wrest control from Don.
What did everyone else think?