Film Length: app. 616 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1
Audio: English DD 5.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
Original Airdates: July 27-Oct. 26, 2008
Release Date: July 14, 2009
I am just old enough to have several salient, if dim, memories of the early 1960s. These tend to be fleeting images—like the weekend after President Kennedy’s assassination, when no cartoons were on (something of great import to a child)—or, perhaps a little more wafting if nonetheless more deeply ingrained in my emotional make up, aural memories like the soothing sounds of Percy Faith’s version of “Theme to A Summer Place.” That fleeting era in American history that has been rightly or wrongly dubbed Camelot (roughly 1961-63) was a transitional time that didn’t reveal a lot of change on the surface, but was roiling underneath like nobody’s business, paving the way for the epochal upheaval that would rock the United States for the bulk of the rest of the decade. That surface calm—virtual stasis—may be what has put off so many people from AMC’s brilliant series Mad Men, a show which redefines the Seinfeldian notion of “nothing happening” in more dramatic terms, while simultaneously delving into the often tortured psyches of a cast of characters whose public and professional “masks” are slowly peeled away, episode after episode, like layers of a slightly rotting onion. Everything may be “picture perfect” on top, but lift the covers, as it were, and a rat’s nest of emotional and other psychological dysfunctions is there in all its ugly display.
My colleague Michael Reuben offered an excellent review of the BD release, portions of which I’ve included below. I would only add a couple of other observations. First, though the title of the series is a play on Madison Avenue advertising professionals, and that other meaning of “mad” (i.e., crazy), and only mentions the male of the species, more and more as this series ventures into this second season and beyond, it’s the women who really are the focus of the most penetrating changes, while the men look on haplessly and sometimes helplessly as their roles are being rewritten before their very eyes. The first season utilized Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) as a sort of stand-in for the viewer. She was the “new girl” at ad agency Sterling Cooper, and we got to meet a lot, if not most, of the characters through her eyes. She remained the rallying point of change (even more than John Hamm’s “lead” Don Draper) for a lot of the first season. The distaff side of things in Mad Men becomes even more important in this second season, especially the arc of Don’s wife Betty (January Jones), who seems poised to hop on the Friedan-Steinem bandwagon as the series moves into its third season in August.
Before I move on to Michael Reuben’s analysis, let me just urge reluctant viewers to give Mad Men a little time to weave its admittedly slow magic. This is a series that wends its way into the subconscious, offering some very pointed observations about life in America in the early 1960s. Replete with one of the most astounding production designs recreating a specific era ever offered on series television, and with a standout cast at the top of their collective game, Mad Men is a distinctive, thoughtful and thought provoking series that deserves a wider audience.
And now for Michael’s thoughts (other than Video and Audio sections, which are my analysis of this SD-DVD version):
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Familiarity with Season One is assumed. I will do my best not
to reveal major plot developments of Season Two, but if you haven't seen Season One, you
should not continue reading past this point.
Season Two opens about fifteen months later, on Valentine's Day 1962. That evening, vast
numbers of Americans sat transfixed before their TV sets as First Lady Jackie Kennedy took
them on an unprecedented tour of the White House (Note from JMK: also set to music by Percy Faith). This was Camelot at its brightest.
Meanwhile, at Sterling Cooper, signs of change are everywhere. One of the male staffers has
grown a beard (a truly shocking sight after the aggressively clean shaven Season One). A huge
Xerox machine, the legendary 911, is delivered one day, presenting office manager Joan
Holloway (Christina Hendricks) with the challenge of finding a room in which to put it. It
ultimately comes to reside in the office occupied by the firm's first female copywriter, Peggy
Olson (Elisabeth Moss), whose mysterious two-month absence a year ago remains unexplained,
though office gossip says her promotion was a payoff for having Don Draper's "love child". It
takes several episodes to discover the full story of what happened to Peggy after her sudden
delivery at the conclusion of Season One. Only the viewers and her family really know about the
baby, and only viewers know that the father is Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is still living the hard-charging life of a high-powered ad man, but there
are warning signs. At an insurance physical, a doctor warns him to slow down, but he does it
with the resigned air of someone who knows his advice is falling on deaf ears. At the office,
Draper routinely locks horns with "Duck" Phillips, the tee-totaler who showed up at the end of
Season One, and who thinks that "creative" has entirely too much say over the business of
Sterling Cooper. On the creative side, Draper has to contend with clients who want to go after the
youth market and insist that he hire younger copywriters - people that Draper has trouble taking
While Draper's conflicts at work are running plot devices throughout Season Two, they are only
devices. As we know from Season One, Draper's real issues come from a deeper place. Try as he
might, he cannot settle comfortably into the picturebook-perfect life represented by his gorgeous
wife, Betty (January Jones), ensconced in their suburban home with their two children. As his
previous pursuits have shown, Draper cannot resist the allure of women who are just the opposite
of Betty: independent, exotic, ultimately unavailable. In Season Two, he falls for a true femme
fatale in the person of Bobbie Barrett, the wife and manager of a comic that Sterling Cooper
employs for one of their ads. She's played by Melinda McGraw; who knew the actress previously
best known as Dana Scully's sister had this hellcat in her? Bobby is the kind of woman who
enters a room with a virtual neon sign over her head flashing "Trouble!", and Draper can't resist
her. This involvement leads him to dangerous and surprising places that, by the end of the
season, reveal even more about Draper's mysterious past.
Other men in the firm are also facing change. Roger Sterling (John Slattery), having recovered
from his heart attacks, is facing the question what to do with the rest of his life. By the end of the
season, he will make several major decisions, each of them fraught with consequences. Bertram
Cooper is being nudged toward retirement by ill health (the actor, Robert Morse, genuinely looks
ill); he clearly sees Don Draper as his logical successor, but Draper's mind is elsewhere.
Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), who we learned in Season One is a gay man so far in the closet
that he can't even acknowledge his homosexuality to himself, has made a startling decision that
is only gradually revealed; it too has consequences that I suspect we will not discover in their
entirety until later seasons. Paul Kinsey has thrown himself into the civil rights movement, but
whether that involvement is based on conviction or romanticism remains to be seen. Only the
writer, Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), seems unchanged; he's still working on his stories. (Listen
carefully in the episode where he nervously shares a story in draft; the story's title is explained in
a brief bit of dialogue, but it resonates throughout the season.)
Of all the male characters, though, it is Pete Campbell who sees the most change in Season 2: in
his family circumstances, in his situation at the firm, even in his approach to the job. It is a
tribute both to the writers and to Vincent Kartheiser's finely calibrated performance that, for all
the character's poor behavior, by the end of the season Campbell registers as a sympathetic
character. Born into a blue-blood family, Campbell has always sensed that the world in which he
was raised was a lie, and he set out on his own path in a business his family didn't accept. Now,
even that world isn't making sense, and life keeps pulling the rug out from under him.
Campbell's future direction is a giant question mark hanging over the end of Season Two.
Where Season Two really distinguishes itself, though, is in its treatment of the female characters.
Substantially more time is spent on their lives and points of view. Betty Draper has traded the
shrink's couch for the horse's saddle, where she enjoys the attention of a handsome young
admirer (Gabriel Mann). At home, she grows increasingly restive within the confines of the
wifely role to which her husband has assigned her, and the Draper marriage grows increasingly
strained. Like many women married in the 50s, Betty Draper has no conceptual framework in
which to understand or articulate her discontent, and she's batted back and forth between the
proprieties she knows and deeper impulses she can't resist but can't explain. January Jones gives
an exceptional and moving performance as a woman who, even as she is baffled by her own
actions, is determined no longer to remain trapped beneath her husband's thumb.
Back at Sterling Cooper, the formidable Joan Holloway is no longer Roger Sterling's mistress,
but she still runs the office like a curvaceous drill sergeant. Every so often, though, she betrays an
awareness that her sell-by date is fast approaching. A generation of hungry newcomers populates
the secretarial pool, like Jane (Peyton List), the new girl who replaces Peggy at Draper's desk.
Too late, Joan discovers that she has more to offer the world than tits, ass and attitude, and
though she has a fiancé by the end of the season, the future she's contemplating is not one that
appeals to her.
The most complete and remarkable arc of the season is Peggy's, and Elisabeth Moss pulls off the
nearly impossible job of telling Peggy's story while holding everything inside. Only occasionally,
and only for a split second at a time, does she let Peggy's mask slip. We see her at work
developing ideas and pitching to clients; at home visiting her mother and sister, who has taken
custody of her baby; at church, where a well-meaning but ultimately clueless priest played by
Colin Hanks tries to "save" her (while incidentally getting some free advertising services for
parish functions); and in various unusual situations with Draper, Sterling, Freddie Rumsen (Joel
Murray), the lush who runs the accounts department, and finally Campbell. Quiet though she may
be, Peggy is the polar opposite of Betty Draper, because she does know what she wants. That's
why, at the end of Season Two, she is the woman who is standing on the firmest ground (to the
extent there is any).
Purists with HD capability may well want to go for the BD release of this series, since it is visually so resplendent, but, that said, this is a wonderful looking SD-DVD, one of the sharpest in recent memory. Colors are brilliantly saturated, black levels are consistent and contrast is excellent. This series seems to delight in the difference between the sunshine bright “exterior” worlds of its characters and the darker, more shadowy “interior” lives a lot of them are leading, and everything is reproduced here with a very vibrant palette. This was the era of herringbone and other close-cropped patterns, and you will notice very occasional moiré patterns in some episodes.
The DD 5.1 mix is subtle, much like the series itself, sporting good to excellent separation, if not amazing use of surround channels. Dialogue is unfailingly front and center, but ambient noises like office sounds do creep into the surrounds with some frequency. Underscore, again like in Season One, utilizing a variety of popular source cues, is well mixed and never overwhelming.
Commentaries. As with Season One, there is commentary for every episode, two for each. I did
not have time to do more than sample them, or this review would have taken another two weeks.
As is generally the case, the writers tend to be more articulate about the intentions and themes of
an episode, while the actors and directors focus on mechanics. Creator Matthew Weiner is by far
the most voluble and enthusiastic commentator. Since there is no master listing of commentary
participants, I am providing one below:
1. "For Those Who Think Young"
- By Matthew Weiner
- By Jon Hamm and January Jones
2. "Flight 1"
- By Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm
- By Lisa Albert and Vincent Cartheiser
3. "The Benefactor"
- By Matthew Weiner
- By Lesli Linka Glatter, Melinda McGraw and Rich Sommer
4. "Three Sundays"
- By Matthew Weiner and Maria and Andre Jacqumetton
- By Elisabeth Moss and Colin Hanks
5. "The New Girl"
- By Jennifer Getsinger and Robin Veith
- By Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and Melinda McGraw
- By Matthew Weiner and Jamie Bryant
- By Phil Abraham and Mark Moses
7. "The Gold Violin"
- By Matthew Weiner and January Jones
- By Bob Levinson and Bryan Batt
8. "A Night to Remember"
- By Matthew Weiner and Robin Veith
- By Lesli Linka Glatter and January Jones
9. "Six Month Leave"
- By Matthew Weiner and Mike Uppendall
- By John Slattery and Joel Murray
10. "The Inheritance"
- By Matthew Weiner and Lisa Albert
- By John Hamm, January Jones and Vincent Cartheiser
11. "The Jet Set"
- By Matthew Weiner, Phil Abraham and David Carbonara
- By Scott Hornbacher, Dan Bishop and Amy Wells
12. "The Mountain King"
- By Matthew Weiner, Blake McCormick and Jason George
- By Christina Hendricks and Robert Morse
13. "Meditations in an Emergency"
- By Matthew Weiner and Elisabeth Moss
- By Kater Gordon, Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser
Mad Men Season Two Music Sampler. A promo for the soundtrack album with brief
selections of songs heard throughout the season.
Birth of an Independent Woman, Parts I and 2. A two-part documentary,
blending interviews with scholars and footage from the show, that traces the birth of the feminist
movement and ties it to social trends emerging from the aftermath of World War II. By providing
a strictly contemporary point of view, the documentary acts as an interesting counterpoint to the
An Era of Style. With narration by the show's costume designer, this
documentary gives an overview of 1960s style, using interviews with contemporary designers
and fashion historians. When they reached the mid-60s, I found myself hoping desperately that
Matthew Weiner concludes Mad Men before we're forced to look at those styles again.
Time Capsule. This is an entertaining and sometimes useful historical guide, with facts
both significant and trivial. For each of the 13 episodes, it lists two or three historical references
and then provides background, sometimes in the form of text (e.g., excerpts from John O'Hara's
Meditations in an Emergency), sometimes as video (e.g., an overview of Students for Democratic
Society, or "SDS", and the Port Huron Statement).
Season Three promo and Clorox ad. Appearing at the start of disc 1, this says nothing about the
third season other than to expect it beginning August 16, 2009. Disc 1 also opens with a brief and
amusing ad for Clorox bleach. You'll understand it when you see it. Both of these can be skipped
with the "next chapter" button.