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Bamboo Reviews: Mad Men, Season Two

By Amanda Marcotte
Sunday, November 23, 2008 17:45 EDT
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Warning: Pure spoilage.

We just finished watching the second season of “Mad Men” yesterday, and boy, is that a satisfying show. It’s hard to review an entire season of a show, especially such a complex one, so I’ll make this post more just a collection of observations. Feel more than free to add your own in the comments; I’m happy to hear the buzz around this show is gaining it the large audience it deserves.

The second season was quite self-consciously packed with literary allusions on top of all the other allusions the show makes—to products, TV shows, historical events, and movies. Last season, there was a tightness to allusions—they were never made in vain. Joan’s reference to “The Apartment” foreshadowed her eventual dropping of Roger, and I suspect that Bert’s reference to Ayn Rand is supposed to make you realize that for all his pretensions, he’s intellectually shallow. (We get this again this season with his mercenary approach to the Rothko painting he’s purchased.) This season, the Frank O’Hara book (and poem) “Meditations In An Emergency” bookends the season, and if you didn’t get the hint, then the fact that the last episode is also called “Meditations In An Emergency” should clue you in. Personally, I was thrilled, because while I’m lukewarm on a lot of poetry, I’m fond of Frank O’Hara, who is not only a beautiful writer, but brash and funny. And of course, so very New York. The allusion is a multi-layered one, and if you keep it in mind during the whole season, you can pick up little threads where they were using O’Hara as an inspiration to riff off of, right up until Curt says, without blinking, that he’s a homosexual. (From the poem: “Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. (How best/discourage her?)”) Actually, if you read the poem, you can see how the themes in it echo throughout the season, but especially in Don’s situation. Right off the bat you get some lines that, in the hands of the writers of “Mad Men”, become the paradox of Don’s situation:

Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous
(and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable
list!), but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with
which to venture forth.

He briefly considers reinventing himself again after his separation from Betty, but he finds that tying yourself to people means that reinvention isn’t as easy as it is when you are alone. The final lines of the poem describe to a T how Don, in an emergency, is able to “spit in/the lock and the knob turns,” and get back with his family. But I’d say the O’Hara reference is about more than just how this poem echoes Don’s dilemmas (and the various uneasy reconciliations at the end of the season). Sterling & Cooper is filled to the brim with young men who feel they are creative people, but who are largely stuck in a mentality they probably developed in college, and are unaware that the world of the arts is about to eclipse them in a big way. Contrast Kenneth, who gets stories published in The Atlantic about maple trees in Vermont, with O’Hara, and also with Bob Dylan. It’s not, in my mind, a coincidence that Ken features prominently in the scene where they’re talking about Bob Dylan and then Curt (like O’Hara) announces he’s gay without any pretense of shame over it. And Ken chortles and carries on. He’s getting passed by. And he’s the one who is most open-minded!

The allusion to “The Sound and the Fury” plays the same function—its themes echo the show’s theme of how the dominant class of people undermine themselves with their own dysfunctions, and a world passing by those who live in a bubble. I have to wonder if there’s significance to Don tearing out the last page (from the O’Hara poem: “It’s like a/final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.”), but one thing I suspect is strongly true is that the allusion deliberately doubles as an allusion to “Macbeth”. After all, after “The Sound and the Fury” is prominently displayed, we’re treated to Duck Phillips pulling a Macbeth on the bosses at Sterling & Cooper, overthrowing them to assume their positions. And even though it’s a little ambiguous at the end, I think we can conclude that, like Macbeth, Duck’s actions resulted in his own demise, and someone else (Don, probably) will step into the role. Which means that Peggy is probably going to be head of creative next season.

Of course, the other biggie is “Ship of Fools” by Katherine Anne Porter, which is what Betty is reading during the height of her despondency over her failing marriage. That, I think, is a way to indicate that the Betty of the past—who clung to her optimistic illusions in the face of overwhelming evidence against them—is now going to be a more cynical, but blessedly mature Betty. Were we the only ones yelling, “Go get you some, Betty!” when she picked that guy up in the bar? I hope not. That was nearly as awesome as Joan’s fiance raping her was terrible.

On that, there’s not much to say. The season ends with Peggy and Betty gaining their footing in this new world they’re stepping into. But Joan’s downhill slide is heart-breaking. It’s absolutely no coincidence that Marilyn Monroe’s death happens as she is betrayed by a terminally stupid Harry, who fails to realize that the perfect person for the job is right in front of him, but he can’t see it because she’s been shoved into a box for so long as the office sexpot. When Roger catches her crying in her office, she claims it’s over Marilyn’s death, and at first I scoffed, but now I think it’s true in the symbolic sense. Monroe’s death was traumatic, I think, because it was this white hot reminder that reducing women to their curves and making them objects and jokes withers the person inside. Roger says to Joan that Monroe had everything, but obviously she didn’t. And everyone thinks Joan has everything—doctor fiance, beauty, a mother hen position at work—but she knows that she’s got nothing. The fiance is worth than nothing, but what other options does she have? Unlike Peggy, she’s not going to be able to be a career girl.

What I appreciate about the show from a feminist perspective is it really illustrates the various traps laid for women, and how stupid it is to blame the victims, as anti-feminists are fond of doing. Abused women are told just to leave, but in Joan’s case, she really is stuck. And you can see how easy it is for her to rationalize this incident away, but it’s just going to get worse from here. I was impressed with the handling of Betty’s unwanted pregnancy, and how it showed how hollow the excuses we put on women who are considering abortion are. And how the doctor and Francine both allowed that there’s more going on in any woman’s life than an outsider can see, and that if Betty thinks termination is best, then that choice should be respected. Of course, it doesn’t happen, but what’s going to be interesting is seeing this new, more cynical Betty go forward with the marriage when her coping mechanisms of self-delusion have been stripped from her. Peggy is the most fun character, but if you step back, it’s incredibly disturbing what she’s had to go through and the choices she’s had to make to get that fancy office at Sterling & Cooper. I will say that the writers bought Don a lot of sympathy by showing that he saved Peggy’s life.

I’m fascinated by the whole Anna Draper story. What a great character. I hope we see more of her in the future.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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