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Mad Men: "For Those Who Think Young"

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The first season of Mad Men began airing before our little TV Club convened, though after the final episode, I dashed off a few thoughts on the series as a whole in a blog post titled "Notes On Mad Men". One of those notes is especially relevant to tonight's episode: "Much like The Sopranos, Mad Men creates a world that's chilly and more than a little dangerous, yet also serves as a kind of fantasyland. It's an inviting place to spend an hour each week–if no more."

If you're a fan of Mad Men, you had to feel a little tingle tonight when the opening credit sequence drifted across your TV again, and even moreso when all the main characters were re-introduced in a montage of primping, set to Chubby Checker. On AMC's recent "Mad Men: The Best Of Season One" special, creator Matt Weiner marveled at how privileged he feels to "get to live in this world." And as I shuffled through a stack of notes about "For Those Who Think Young" and its meanings, delights and implications, I felt much as Weiner does. Let's twist again, folks. Like we did last summer.

The title of tonight's episode refers to a famous Pepsi-Cola advertising slogan, as well as to the feeling in the upper-level boardrooms of Sterling Cooper that the creative staff is getting too old and set in their ways to capture the imaginations of clients in the Kennedy era. Hence the spectacle of Don Draper quietly stewing as he interviews cocky youngsters in ridiculous sweaters.

What's he stewing about? Well, he's just gotten back from an annual check-up during which he's learned that his five-drinks-and-two-packs-of-cigarettes-a-day diet isn't doing much for his constitution. His blood pressure is high–"Too high for boys our age," the doctor says, introducing the word "boy" in an episode that will be all about the differences between "youthful" and "childish." Meanwhile, bohemians in bars are telling Don that Frank O'Hara's poetry collection Meditations In An Emergency wouldn't be his cup of tea, and impudent whelps in elevators are telling dirty stories and failing to doff their hats in the presence of ladies, and Don's copywriters keep throwing punny slogans his way, ignoring his plea that, "There has to be advertising for people who don't have a sense of humor."

Mostly, Don seems annoyed by his colleagues' rush to join The Pepsi Generation, while he still believes that the key to success in advertising is "standing out, not fitting in." But does he really mean that? Though this first episode of Season Two makes almost zero references to The Double Life Of Don Draper that dominated Season One–nothing about his fake identity, and only one possible hint about his mistresses–those of us who remember last year know that Don is all about fitting in. It's what he's most invested in. He may covet the freedom of Greenwich Village artistes, but when he decided to become someone else after the Korean War, he risked everything on being just another Man In The Grey Flannel Suit. Now that capital-M "Men" are falling out of fashion, Don stands to lose everything that matters to him. And it's apparently shaking his confidence. Even when he stands up in front of his team and gives one of his standard stirring "What is this advertising pitch all about?" speeches, he lets it taper off to a "blah blah blah," as though he weren't sure he could buy his own line anymore.

Season Two of Mad Men jumps from November 1960 to February 1962, but Weiner doesn't spend a lot of time catching the audience up with what everyone's been doing for the last 15 months. He's more concerned with how they're living . We don't know if Peggy kept the baby she was surprised to learn she was carrying at the end of Season One; though we do see her working as a regular member of the creative team, and still being asked to fetch-and-carry by the men. (She works through her residual frustration by abusing Don's new secretary.) We don't know much about what Joan's been up to, except that she's got a new boyfriend and she's stressing out over what to do with the office's enormous new Xerox machine.

The most significantly changed character over the past year-plus appears to be Betty, who's introduced in this episode taking riding lessons, and spends the rest of the hour clearly in the saddle. She's bossing around her housekeeper, and making jokes about tracking horseshit into her station wagon–"Little children…what's the difference," she cracks–and expressing dismay that her daughter only got a lot of Valentines at her class party because it's a school rule that everyone gets a card. "For Those Who Think Young" contrasts–maybe too bluntly–Betty's life with an old friend she runs into at her and Don's Valentine's Day hotel tryst. Don informs Betty that her old friend is, to put it delicately, "a party girl," but between Betty's seductive lingerie and the way she flirts with a mechanic in order to get free labor on a belt change, it's clear that it's dawning on Betty how she too can exploit her sex appeal. On TV, Jackie Kennedy is giving tours of The White House in what in retrospect will be the epitome (and arguably the end) of feminism's "hostess" era, when women asserted power through entertaining. Out in the real world though, we're a year away from the publication of The Feminine Mystique, and the ripples in the culture that presaged that book are already starting to be felt.

And while the women are growing up, the men…well…their predicament is best summed up by poor, pathetic Pete, who bites into a coconut-filled sweet from his wife's Valentine's candy and mutters, "I should've gotten that kind where they put that chart in the box." In theory, Pete should be the young turk that Sterling Cooper's accounts are looking for, but he got on the caravan a year or two too early, and is too busy trying to be an adult. Trying and failing. He can't get his wife pregnant, and while everyone else is watching what's going at The White House, Pete's scarfing chocolates and watching some juvenile sci-fi show. Apparently it's not just Pete's candy box that lacks a guide to what's what.

If I have one major complaint about this first Season Two episode–aside from my usual complaints that Mad Men can hit its points a little too hard–it's that not much seems to have happened after 15 months. Aside from Betty's transformation into someone less lost and more imperious, the only major hint we get that this is all taking place over a year after the last episode is Don's voice-over quote from an O'Hara poem: "Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to become beautiful again." When last we left Don, he was looking at old family slides and pining to be a bona fide family man again. The closing scene of "For Those Who Think Young" indicates that the strain of being perfect is starting to wear on him.

Another indicator? Betty's reaction to a stain on her daughter's dress. "That's chocolate ice cream," she speculates. "Or blood." It looks like Season Two is going to be all about discerning which is which.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-I saw this first episode on a screener DVD, but from now on I'll be watching right along with the rest of you, so don't expect such speedy posting in the future. My goal is to get each review written within an hour of the closing credits, which means that–given the lag time between pushing "submit" and the reviews actually posting–you should look for most reviews to be up by 11:15 pm central time.

-Can we dial back the Mad Men worship just a notch? Understand that I really love this show. I think somewhere around Season One's "5G," I realized that watching Mad Men each week had become one of those rare delights, like watching The Simpsons from Season Two to Seven, or Lost in Season Four, where I approached each new episode the way I might approach a wrapped gift. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the difference between "good" and "TV good," with the latter referring to an entertainment that succeeds despite the typical sandbagging of episodic television–the compromises of serialization, of keeping actors happy, of courting a mass audience, et cetera. Mad Men is genuinely "good" more often than not, and even legitimately great at times, but it's hardly perfect. The show can be damnably unsubtle, and can overreach for existential mystery. Any time a TV series is as acclaimed as Mad Men is, the knives inevitably start coming out, as contrarian critics and viewers begin finding flaws and carving away. It doesn't help when fans and supportive critics gush so. It creates what I call "The Citizen Kane Effect," where the uninitiated hear so much praise for a work of popular art that when they finally see it and it doesn't change their life, they're not just disappointed, they're mildly enraged. (I can't count the number of times people have told me they hate Citizen Kane or The Clash or some other near-universally beloved critics' darling, and when I ask why, they say, "Everyone says it's so great, but I didn't think it was that great." How "not that great" leads to "hate" is something I've never been able to understand.) Mad Men has its weaknesses, and we'll talk about them some as Season Two rolls along, I'm sure. But it also spins a mood unlike anything else on TV, and something that special shouldn't be shrugged off just because it's not as drop-dead amazing as the hype would have you believe.

-When Mad Men aired last year, I wouldn't have recognized Anne Dudek as anyone I'd seen before, even though she'd had bit parts in many shows I watch. After her turn on House last season, my first thought when she showed up back in Betty's kitchen tonight was, "Hey, it's Cutthroat Bitch!"

-Dig those old-fashioned dollar bills that Betty peels off for the mechanic!

-Let's get this out of the way: Joan is a voluptuous lady with many sensual charms, and Betty's lingerie tonight was a knockout. But lets try not to turn the comments section each week into a lust-fest. Be like Don Draper. Show a little decorum.