Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "For Those Who Think Young" (season 2, episode 1)

Mad Men - "For Those Who Think Young" (season 2, episode 1)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on July 27, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Tim Hunter): Having left off on one holiday, we resume on another - but far longer than two and a half months have passed between that Thanksgiving and this Valentine's Day. The series has jumped a year forward and signs of change are everywhere: the clothes and decoration are subtly different, more in that early sixties brownish-checked look than the lingering lushness of the late fifties. It's a style that initially seemed fresh and modern but might later ring a little kitschy (if still charming, especially from a glamorized forty-years-later vantage point). Most of all, it's exciting to see one of the series' central conceits (the evolving nature of the sixties) kick in as it only could in a second season. The Kennedy influence is everywhere, not just on the TV sets - every character watches Jackie Kennedy's tour of the White House - but also in a particular zeitgeist. Betty certainly channels the First Lady's upper echelon grace and independence as she strides into her redecorated home from a riding session, still wearing her high boots and posh equestrian outfit; no more domestic duties for the demure housewife of season one, who has housekeeper Carla (Deborah Lacey) working in the kitchen.

Indeed the marital dynamic of the previous season feels subtly reversed. If the pretty but childlike Betty was in over her head alongside her smooth, assured husband, Don now appears slightly schlubby and tired compared to the confident, glamorous Betty. Her entrance into a swanky hotel lobby for a dinner date is shot like the introduction of a movie star in a Hollywood melodrama, in which the earthy antihero is smitten by a cool high society blonde; when their date night turns out to be a dud, Don's status falls even further. This steady approach toward middle aged impotence is reinforced by Duck's push for younger recruits and a doctor's stern lecture at an insurance-mandated physical...no wonder his approach to an airline campaign shifts mid-episode, from skirt-chasing wanderlust to patriarchal beneficence. Don may feel like the rumpled sturdiness of fatherhood is all he has left now - see also his speech to Peggy (who comes up with the line, "What did you bring me, Daddy?"). If Don's relevance and virility are in question, however, he still retains a certain worldliness that Betty lacks. He (and we) are reminded of her naivitee when she runs into an old friend and doesn't immediately recognize her as a call girl; when she later flirts with a mechanic helping her out of a jam, she seems both newly cognizant of her potential sexual power and slightly, nervously in over her head.

Peggy's newfound confidence, gained under very different circumstances, is also on shakier ground than it may initially appear. She's no longer a fish out of water in the all-male conference room although still very much the exception to their rule. She may have established a tentative toehold in the male world of Sterling Cooper, but she's more at odds than ever with the other women. After Peggy has a snippy exchange with Don's receptionist Lois, Peggy's old rival Joan sticks up for her while scolding Lois (or rather, uses "Miss Olson"'s authority as a cudgel against this weak target)...but by the end of the episode, Joan has stuck the newfangled fax machine inside Peggy's office, a power play against one of the few women to escape the secretarial pool ghetto.

My Response:
As noted, it was a delight to watch Mad Men advance into 1962. Initially I wasn't sure what year this was supposed to be; the seemingly fresh curiosity about Peggy's dramatic weight loss and the First Lady's TV tour (which I assumed was earlier in the Kennedys' term) suggested the dawn of Camelot in '61, while the notable and extensive re-design - suddenly the wood paneling and patterned outfits are emphasized - suggested a sharper shift into '63, on the eve of the sixties really starting to swing. It makes sense that the series has landed where it did, however, if for no other reason than that the Cuban Missile Crisis will make quite a backdrop eventually (should the season manage to stretch its dozen-plus episodes over eight months). The series no longer seems thoroughly ensconced in the afterglow of the fifties, as the premises established for these characters early on face new, tricky challenges. Time has moved along because it must, but few have found their footing on this shifting terrain - a sensibility captured in Don's reading of Frank O'Hara's foggy, melancholy Meditations on an Emergency. Joan is waiting for her boyfriend Greg Harris (Sam Page) to propose while spurning Roger's advances, Peggy has won her spot but is still constantly told "she doesn't count;" the antsy Pete (completely clueless that he's actually already a father) is in no rush to have children with his wife, who very much is; Salvatore cuddles on the couch with a girlfriend, as ill-suited as ever for heterosexual normativity ("Where's her husband?" he sighs while watching Jackie); and the not-so-long-ago young guns of Sterling Cooper feel threatened as even younger interviewees wander into their halls. Everyone seems a little...lost.

I experienced my own time jump in reviewing this episode; I watched on a family vacation in April 2018, immediately after writing about the season one finale. Eager as I was to see "what happened next," I had to stop there - I was covering way too many other topics at the time - and didn't even attempt to review the episode until the summer, when I was too foggy to pen much more than a partial synopsis. So I rewatched the episode in autumn, hopefully the last time I'll view an episode twice before recording my reflections in a viewing diary. I've now experienced the events of "For Those Who Think Young" both as novel and familiar, appropriate for a series that immerses us in the day-to-day freshness of its world while also quite consciously casting a nostalgic gaze over its own shoulder. Incidentally, if my "story" and "response" sections seem a little blurred this entry, perhaps that's at least partly due to the nature of this episode. There isn't a particularly strong narrative arc for anyone here because the point is to reacquaint us with these characters in classic season two fashion, while also catching us up with what's happened during the fifteen months offscreen...in these characters' lives and in the broader world.

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