Wednesday, March 7, 2012

More on "Mad Men"

A series like "Mad Men" really deserves an episode-by-episode analysis, and I don't have the space or the time to give it one at this point. I've marathoned two seasons of the show so far, and I'm probably going to watch the rest by the time the fifth season premieres on AMC in a few weeks. That's how hooked I've gotten. I don't think this is the best way to watch the show, but at the end of each episode, I'm awfully glad to be able to move on to the next one. Trying to do any kind of meaningful analysis on the accelerated schedule, however, has gotten harder. I'm not keen on spending so much time recapping plot points and monitoring incremental developments, so I've decided to take a different tack. Today, since the last post was all about historical and social context, I'm going to devote this one to characters and performances. Spoilers up to the end of the second season.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) - My favorite character on the show. Pete's a weasel, an immature brat, and there's just something about him that rubs the wrong way. Vincent Kartheiser was a child actor, and he does a great job of using that lingering superficiality that child actors radiate, channeling it into Pete, the eager-to-please but utterly self-centered jerk whose weak smiles easily dissolve into sulking scowls. And yet you pity him for his ambitions, for trying to live up to the image of Don Draper that the show reveals to be a beautiful lie every week. I don't know where "Mad Men" is going with him either. Will he continue to play the antagonist? Now that he's had his hopes dashed by Peggy, is he in for his own emotional freefall?

Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) - The ascent of Peggy, from Don's secretary to burgeoning copywriter has been fun to follow. I really like Elizabeth Moss here, another former child star who didn't grow up to look like a supermodel, but has such an interesting face, and clearly has the acting chops for both Peggy's fresh-faced go-getter exterior, and the more morally ambiguous side of her that I hope we'll see more of in later seasons. Peggy is the most sympathetic character in "Mad Men" by far, despite a few bad decisions, but I worry a little that she's too sympathetic sometimes. It's nice to root for Peggy to get ahead at the office, but she's more interesting outside of it, where her success is clearly taking a toll in other areas of her life.

Betty Draper (January Jones) - I didn't like January Jones in the last "X-men" movie, but she's a great fit for Betty. It's becoming more and more clear how damaged this woman is, raised to be obsessed with perfection as a wife and homemaker, to the point where much of her self-worth is wrapped up in maintaining the shallow image. Yet she's cold as a mother, self-deluding when it comes to her husband, and her few flirtations with rebellion go nowhere. However, clearly something is building up in Betty Draper, and it'll be interesting to see where her dissatisfaction will lead her, after the diversion of the new baby is gone and her options open up. I don't think for a minute that she's forgiven Don, or that their marriage will ever be the same again.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) - The most intriguing storyline of the first season was learning that Don Draper wasn't really Don Draper, but an imposter named Dick Whitman. He's been struggling with his identity ever since, and operating under the increased pressure of his separation from Betty. By the end of the second season, during his trip to California, a new possibility emerges - why not just chuck Don Draper and all the baggage and start over? Jon Hamm's performance as Don is much more impressive when you see him playing Dick when he's not wearing the facade of Don. I also love the new wrinkle of the real Mrs. Draper, who he's ironically much closer to than his own wife. How much longer can he be satisfied with the current status quo?

Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) - The show's signature redhead seems to be on the path to being another Betty Draper, with an impending marriage built on very shaky foundations. However, she's also had a taste of Peggy's career-oriented life in the second season, filling in briefly at the media department. Joan has quietly become one of "Mad Men's" most solid players, thanks in no small part to the solid work of Christina Hendricks. You can see the character starting to struggle against traditional expectations, realizing she's been sold a false bill of goods. Joan has proven that she's smarter and tougher than Peggy and Betty put together, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if she ends up being the one who gets to have it both ways.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery) - Oh Roger. That's what I find myself saying more often than not about Sterling Cooper's most notorious skirt-chaser. He's had two heart attacks, the second resulting in a graphic event in the agency's lobby. He's left his wife to take up with a pretty young secretary, Jane (Peyton List), after a lengthy affair with Joan in the first season. And he's frequently the source of the best one-liners, the most inappropriate jokes, and worst examples of good-old-boy corporate culture. And John Slattery is so charming, you can't help but love him for it. However, I also suspect Roger's the one closest to the precipice, who isn't going to make it through the cultural upheaval of the 60s without some serious wounds, if he survives at all.

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