You should look pleased with yourself, Don Draper. Not only are you the archetypal Alpha Male, but the show you appear in just got good. Really really good.
Just as Six Feet Under and Big Love really hit their stride in their second seasons, Mad Men just kicked off the last scraps of its metamorphonic cocoon and properly fluttered its wings for the first time. I’ve had issues with it in the past, but most of them are resolved now. The season premiere disappointed me, losing some of the goodwill the end of the first season had generated, but the last two episodes have pushed us past “like” and into “love”.
Things that pleased me greatly include:
Don’s showdown with the obnoxiously confident Bobbie Barrett, played with singular odiousness by Melinda McGraw, last seen being almost as odious on Journeyman as Dan Vassar’s sister-in-law. It was shocking, graphic, erotically confusing (I thought he had stubbed his cigarette out on her leg or ladyparts or something equally awful), and amazing. He sure has got his mojo back at last.
The weak link in the show for us remains Betty Draper, an interesting character played by an indifferent actress (January Jones), who is either underplaying horribly or overplaying someone who is meant to be dead in the soul. While she looks the part (Grace Kelly-esque is insufficient to describe her perfect 60s blonde ice queen aura), she murmurs her dialogue in the most unconvincing way. To make things worse, her scenes are often almost parodic in their silliness. Last season she was almost having an affair with a young boy (well, not rally, but she did seem awfully drawn to him). Her confrontation with Arthur, the supposedly handsome horse-riding student who looks more like Judge Reinhold’s consumptive kid brother to me, was overbaked, with the words “profoundly sad” bandied about way too often (though her response, that it was down to her people being Nordic, was a gem). Maybe the scene was meant to run as a parody of seduction speak, especially with a previous scene featuring Don and Bobbie being so slick as a consequence of their experience with extramarital dalliances, but no matter. It ended with the return of Betty’s Shaky Hands! They’ve been missing since the second episode of the first season, but they’re back, and shakier than ever!
The reveal that art is becoming Don’s kryptonite. After his experiences with Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain last season, and Frank O’Meara poetry collections in the second season premiere, he’s now sneaking out to catch La Notte in the afternoon. Next time he goes after Bobbie, she should throw a copy of Catch-22 at him. He’ll shriek, fall to his knees, and then start reading it, oblivious to the world.
Actually, there is a bit of a back and forth on The AV Club Mad Men talkback about whether it is La Notte or La Jetee that Don is secretly watching on company time. It’s probably the former, but Chris Marker’s sci-fi slideshow is a good fit too, as the movie Don is watching looks like a series of static shots. If so, is this linked to Don’s seemingly growing realisation that he is lying to himself if he thinks he is an out-of-time 50s businessman and not a 60s hippy? Or a psychopath, which is also possible. Even more shocking, perhaps he is a time-traveller! Only those pesky season one flashbacks with him hanging around with Ryan Chappelle from 24 disguised as a hobo renders that theory invalid.
The reaction of Harry after realising Kenneth was being paid far more than him was almost as good as his hesitant slapstick attempts to open his payslip and then reseal it. And then, to put a cherry on top, Harry makes the error of going to see Salvatore, whose withering sarcasm was beautifully judged. Though I had enjoyed the second episode, this scene in the third episode was the one that pushed me over the edge. It was spot on.
Don’s awful demotion of his secretary in an act of sublimated rage and shame after Roger Sterling criticises him for sneaking off to watch a movie. Lois’ responses, a mixture of fear and grudging acceptance, were superbly played by Crista Flanagan, whose demotion hopefully won’t cut her out of the show altogether. What was most pleasing about the scene was that Don’s monstrous behaviour was borne not just of his inherent 60s-era sexism (which has always seemed to be in conflict with his attraction to powerful women), but because of a character moment; his weakness for art (or the promise of some foreign erotica, if indeed La Notte contains any) is something he is truly ashamed of. His other vices of infidelity and drinking, are accepting as normal behaviour by his colleagues, whereas this could be seen as a sign of weakness or, more probably, evidence that he no longer fits in with the boys (several of whom seem to be evolving as the decade progresses without him being aware of it). And so he takes it out on Lois. It was horrible and hilarious at the same time.
The jawdropping scene from Flight 1 featuring Joan’s racism and cutting criticism of faux-boho Paul made my head spin, and sat in stark contrast with the thoughtless racism of previous episodes. Joan isn’t someone who takes African-Americans for granted; she is actively hateful. Plus, she still doesn’t look quite the same as she did on Firefly and I can’t put my finger on why. Good to see that the show has given us an unrepentant bitch to root against. Moral haziness is one thing, but right now she’s just a horrible person, who is either unforgivably dreadful or entertainingly catty depending on the context. Paul’s revenge (posting a photocopy of her driving licence on a bulletin board with her birthday highlighted) was fun too.
For the first time ever, despite Canyon’s continued aesthetic annoyance over Don’s flat butt, we’re looking forward to next week’s episode, which features Don and Betty taking the kids away for a weekend of awkward silences, chain-smoking, and maybe even some tears from Betty due to her Bottomless Nordic Sadness. Let’s hope this newfound enthusiasm of ours isn’t thwarted.