In terms of quality, Sunday night was the best single night of TV I’ve seen in months. The centerpiece was the season premiere of “Mad Men” on AMC, and I was delighted to find AMC re-airing the Season 2 premiere of “Breaking Bad” after “Mad Men.” (I caught up with “Breaking Bad” on DVD too late to catch Season 2, and if AMC continues to pair the two shows back-to-back, my head’s going to explode every Sunday night, the two shows are just so mind-blowingly good.) Then over on HBO was another fine episode of “Hung” followed by the funniest episode of “Entourage” in probably three seasons. That was three hours of excellence.
What can I say about “Mad Men” that hasn’t already been said? It’s a thinking-person’s show, so rich and deeply layered and subtle and slow to develop. I’ve said this about “The Wire,” but it applies perhaps even more so to “Mad Men”: It’s like watching a book. Each episode unfolds at its own pace, and it may seem like not a lot happens. But that episode is just one part of the bigger puzzle, and the season has to be taken as a whole. That seemingly insignificant conversation in Chapter 1 may lead to the climax of Chapter 13. It requires patience and forces viewers to actually think about what they just saw, to process it all and figure out where it all fits into the big picture. That’s an absurdly ambitious goal for a TV show, but “Mad Men” succeeds at that like few other series ever have.
Here’s what had me thinking about last night’s episode:
— That opening scene with flashbacks of Don’s — errr, Dick Whitman’s — birth was jarring, but in a good way. The way it was presented, as more of a play being performed in front of an audience of one than a traditional dream sequence, was really interesting, and worked well. Actually it reminded me of a handful of scenes this season from “Rescue Me,” with the deceased men from the Gavin family haunting Tommy’s mind. That Dick Whitman was named for a prostitute’s graphic threat was a nice bit of comic relief. We’ve seen before that Dick/Don didn’t have a happy childhood, and it was kinda heartbreaking to see just what awful circumstances surrounded his birth.
— In case there was any doubt, Dick’s adopted mother wanted a baby but wasn’t able to have one – she kept having stillborns. The midwife gave her the prostitute’s baby after she died in childbirth. And did anyone notice the guy who played Dick’s father (the birth father, with the prostitute) looked kinda like Don? It’s also an interesting stigma Don feels about his birth – adopted son of a prostitute probably wouldn’t come across too well to the New York society crowd.
— Birth seemed to be the theme of the night, from Dick/Don’s birthday to the new and improved Sterling Cooper to the ending, with Don’s daughter asking about the day she was born. But Don’s rebirth seems short-lived. At the end of last season, he seemed to gain new perspective on life, and the premiere seemed to continue with that theme, with Don as the rededicated, caring husband and father. But then a saucy stewardess put an end to all that. Old habits die hard. He didn’t seem particularly taken by the stewardess, it was more like picking the low-hanging fruit. The opportunity was there, so, ehhhh, why not? It’s easy and it’s what he knows how to do.
— Poor Sal. He finally got an opportunity to act on his impulses, to fully embrace his true self, and an inopportune fire alarm ruined everything. The question is, will this what-coulda-been moment liberate him to explore his sexuality or send him further into the closet? This being 1963 WASP-ville, I’m thinking the closet. But maybe he’ll try to get sent on a few more business trips out of town.
— Speaking of the fire alarm, Don was pretty quick to run scrambling to the fire escape. Maybe he’s heavy into fire safety. I would have been more likely to roll my eyes and grumble about a stupid false alarm. Maybe that’s why Don’s a survivor.
— So after getting a glimpse of Sal’s near-tryst, Don knows his biggest secret. But really, if there’s one person who understands what it’s like to live a secret life, it’s Don. He won’t be judging or – more importantly – blabbing. Nice how it went unmentioned.
— I loved the British Invasion theme at Sterling-Cooper. Season 3 seems to be set in March or April 1963, so that ties in nicely with the rise of the Beatles.
— Everybody wants perfection. Betty confessed in bed to Don that she wants everything to be perfect for the baby when she comes. A perfect marriage and family life, when married to Don Draper? Dream on, Bets. Pete, too, yearned for more, whining “Why can’t everything good happen at once?” after his promotion was revealed to be less than ideal. Actually, the promotion worked out pretty perfectly for the new British bosses – I have a feeling Pete and Ken (especially Pete) will be cutting each other’s throats over control of the accounts.
— I had to laugh at that piece of erotic Japanese art on Bert Cooper’s wall, with the octopus doing, um, something, with a woman in the throes of ecstasy. A friend of mine was telling me just last week about the theme of tentacle porn in Japanese anime and video games. Weird stuff. Guess I’ve been sheltered all these years.
— Not much screentime for Peggy or Joan. Much more will come, I’m sure.
— “Limit Your Exposure.” Don’s ad line for London Fog summed up the episode, and maybe the season. Don won’t truly open himself up to anyone. It also served as a not-so-subtle hint to Sal to safeguard his secret. But was I the only one thinking the raincoat-flasher ad was a little racy for London Fog, especially in the stodgy, pre-Sexual Revolution part of the ’60s?
— How crushing was it when Don’s daughter found the stewardess’ flight pin in his suitcase? You could almost feel Don’s facade shatter. But the guy really knows how to live a lie, and it was kinda scary how well he managed to just roll with it. (Like how he seamlessly took on his brother-in-law’s identity while with the stewardess.) Yeah, sorry Betty, that perfect life just ain’t going to happen.