Monday, July 28, 2008

Mad Men: 'For Those Who Think Young' (2x01)

Mad Men season two starts off strong, with an episode that draws you back into the series’ world, and shows how distinctly insightful the show is in exploring human behavior in social systems. Almost no other film or TV work is as precise in showing the subtle ways that people interact with each other. Amidst all the big themes and character arcs, what stands out is the show’s ability to construct single moments that are incredibly and real.

I will say that it took me until about halfway through the episode to really get back into the world. It’s always tough getting back into a show after a year away, you’ve got to remember what was going on, where the characters were at, and once again get used to the style of storytelling. Opening status quo update montage aside, Weiner seems to have gone with the throw you back into the world and let you catch up approach. I think it works, it flows seamlessly out of the first season, and it didn’t take too long for me to get back into the swing of things.

The most interesting segment of the episode for me was Betty’s encounter with her old roommate, who’s now a call girl. It makes her realize that in a lot of ways she’s prostituting herself as much as her old friend. She sells herself for fur coats and fancy dinners, for the life she claims to have always wanted. The series always keeps Betty’s past as a model near the surface, a reminder that she used to support herself and live a single life. She was probably still mostly cared for by men, but there was no guarantee that things would go this way for her.

Betty remains as delightfully removed from reality as she was last season, most notably during that moment where she compares her children to manure. I’m guessing her arc this season will further develop the contrast between the life she thinks she should be living, and actualizing more of her own identity. This is set up in the fascinating scene with her and the tow truck guy. The brilliance of that scene is we’re not sure how far she’s going to go. What will she have to do to get her car fixed, and will she be willing to do that? Even just hustling the guy for six dollars is a move we likely wouldn’t have seen from her earlier. She’s still aware of how she can use her sexuality, and the power it gives her over men. The scene reminded me a lot of what we saw with Brenda in Six Feet Under season two, where she tested the boundaries of what was acceptable within a relationship. And, Betty’s arc as a whole has much in common with what we saw from Carmela in The Sopranos.

More than ever, the show reminds me of The Sopranos. While the mob storylines got all the attention on the show, what made it so great was the incredible ability to accurately capture the tiny details of social interaction, and to have so much unsaid subtext in every scene. Weiner clearly learned a lot from Chase. What’s remarkable about the show is the fact that it could very easily play as soap opera, there’s no life or death events, it’s just everyday relationship drama, but they manage to make everything subtle, yet significant.

Part of that is the period setting, and the way the series is incorporated into history. We know the changes that will come to this world, so there’s a kind of inevitable tragedy to Don. Even as he claims that the youth will never have what he has, we know that the youth will change everything, and this entire world will be gone in six or seven years. Again like The Sopranos, it’s a show about the inevitability of generational change, and the older generation’s struggle to deal with a world with changing rules. Don is better equipped to deal with these changes than some of his bosses, he has a self awareness they lack, but is too stubborn to really change.

And, as always, the show looks amazing, like nothing else on TV. The subtlety of the series is something you could never do in a film. We know the world, we know the characters, there’s no need for obvious exposition or narrative tricks, we just look at their world and get out of it what we will.

No comments: