Buckle up -- episode No. 2 of "Mad Men" gets the plot engines revving.
(Kathy Lyford weighs in with some very smart observations after the jump.)
As slow and deliberate as the pace of last week's opener was, "Flight 1" takes right off -- with a plane crash at the outset that represents tragedy and opportunity for our anti-heroes at Sterling Cooper. This seg is packed with great performances from the core ensemble.
First, I was greatly impressed by Elisabeth Moss' self-assuredness as Peggy, both in her professional set and in the tense scene at her mother's home with her mother, sister and the infant son she'd just as soon forget sleeping in the next room.
"I work with them," Peggy corrects her suitor in the opening party scene when he asks if she works "for" the drunken ad men crawling around Paul Kinsey's apartment in out-of-the-way Montclair, N.J. (More on that later).
Then Vincent Kartheiser renders Pete Campbell in 3-D as he reacts, numbly, to the news of his father's death in the American Airlines crash. Campbell, as we know from season 1, is a craven, self-centered, conniving creep, and it is a credit to Kartheiser and the "Man Men" scribes that us viewers have any feeling for him at all. In Pete's scenes in this seg, we're shown (not told) why he is incapable of genuine emotion, or of having any selfless feeling for anyone else.
The scene with Campbell's shellshocked but ever-proper mother and brother and Trudy in the family living room was wonderfully unnerving -- so many stifled emotions I felt the urge to loosen my own collar more than once.
And then wham! Here comes Jon Hamm's Don Draper, a guy you can never psych-out no matter how much you try.
All of a sudden, Draper's the most stand-up guy in the building, unwilling to throw over a solid loyal client, Mohawk Airlines, for a chance at capturing the star power of a national airline -- one that's in sudden need of image rehab. Back at home, Don's playing the good-husband card with his neighbor, Carlton.
In contrast to Pete Campbell, who's so consumed with measuring up and status that he gets confused by his flashes of real emotion, Draper is a walking exposed nerve, a jumble of conflicted feelings, impulses and compulsions. That's the thing about Draper, zen master of the persuasion business. He is his own best client. You get the feeling he convinces himself that whatever he's doing -- whoever he's seducing, whatever he's selling, whatever load of bull he's giving to Betty, etc. -- it's exactly the right thing at that moment.
I think that's how he justified the long-running fling with the skanky beatnik gal last season. Draper sees himself as a cut above the horny carousing of Roger Sterling. His cheating on his wife is much more purposeful, much more about being a man of the New Frontier, living the Playboy lifestyle, being the erudite reader of Esquire, etc.
(One touch in this seg that seemed to underline the detached coolness expected of the button-down company man in those days: When an ashen Pete tells Draper about his father, all Don can muster at first is 'Sorry to hear about that,' as if Pete had lost a favorite suit at the dry cleaners. Later, when Pete tells the American Airlines exec why he's uniquely suited to feel the company's pain, the exec is visibly taken aback, and then says, 'Sorry to hear about that.')
To understand these characters it's so obviously important keep the context of the era in mind. There's a reason for the reference early on in the episode to "Col. John Glenn" have just pulled off the first manned orbit of the earth in his Mercury tin can. The sky's the limit!
But as good as all of the above was, in my view this episode actually belonged to Christina Hendricks' Joan, for the relatively brief scene about two-thirds of the way in where she emasculates Michael Gladis' Paul Kinsey. In the opening party scene at Paul's place, as he's proudly showing off his new black girlfriend to his coworkers, we're let in on the fact that Joan and Paul were an item in the past.
In a confrontation a few days later at the office, Joan lets her ex know that he's not fooling anyone with his Theodore Bikel beard, kerchief knotted around his neck or his exotic (for the time) new love. Her speech, delivered in between drags on her ever-present cig in her sing-song sex kitten sotto voce, was so good it's worth transcribing:
"It's so obvious why you're seeing her -- A supermarket checkout girl? The conversation must be stimulating. 'Lettuce costs a nickel...You, out there in your poor little rich boy apartment, in Newark or wherever...Walking around with your pipe and your beard. Falling in love with that girl just to show how interesting you are."
The final blow is delivered as Paul smolders, unable to say a word:
"Go ahead... what part is wrong?"
Paul storms off and the camera pulls back to linger on Joan and her firmly planted hips. Then she struts off camera, looking like a warden off to check on her next inmate. Paul makes a feeble attempt at petty revenge by the end of the seg, but that's all it is -- feeble. When WWIII breaks out, I want to be in Joan's army.
"Flight 1" ends on a very intriguing note, letting us know in no uncertain terms that we will be diving deeper into Peggy's denial about being a mother. The closing shot of Peggy in the Catholic church, clutching her son as if he were inanimate object, gives us plenty to chew on for the next week.
(Those who stuck around for the credits might've noticed that this seg was dedicated to the memory of Christopher Allport. He's the actor who played Pete's father last season. Allport died in January in an avalanche at the Mountain High ski resort in Wrightwood, Calif.)
Wow. It will be hard to top that episode this season.
Don Draper as the show’s moral compass. Who’d have thunk it? Poor Pete Campbell is even more lost than I imagined if he’s looking to Don for advice on how to be a man. And I, too, cringed when Don was advising his neighbor on fidelity. How long can Don hew to the straight and narrow? Not much longer I suspect. Surely before too long we’ll find out who he mailed that envelope to in episode one.
The beauty of “Mad Men” is in the details, some so small as to be barely perceptible. In watching the marathon a couple weeks back I noticed that when Don was feeling particularly affectionate toward Betty he would call her “Birdy.” In their more mundane moments he’d refer to her as “Bets” and when angry she was simply “Betty.” Two episodes into season two I’ve heard a few “Bets” but not a single “Birdy.” The pain and distance between Don and Betty is palpable.
I’m with Cynthia — my favorite scene was Joan confronting Paul. Kudos to Christina Hendricks for her spot-on line delivery. The chemistry just crackles between those two. I had completely forgotten the little tidbits sprinkled through season 1 about their past — until I re-watched the first season marathon. I can’t wait to see where the show goes with this dance — especially after the truly mean-spirited way Paul got back at Joan.
Other plotlines that have me intrigued:
** I’m on pins and needles about what happened to Peggy in the 14 months since giving birth. Her catty sister hinted at a stay in a mental institution. I expect that tale to unfold in tantalizing ways as the season moves along.
** And where are they going with Betty and her apparent disdain for her son? First there was her comment last week to her now call girl galpal that she “has a little girl (insert painful pause)… and a boy. And in last night’s episode we saw her rant about what a little liar Bobby is and that “she knows what little boys do.” What do these hints reveal about Betty’s past?
** I see that the lipstick client (remember his brief flirtation with Salvadore last season?) is back in the next episode. I wonder if that potential romance will be revisited. That could be especially poignant now that Sal is married.
** OK, now I'm going to get niggling, but only because Matthew Weiner has been portrayed in various interviews as a stickler to detail. In the scene in the Japanese restaurant the song playing is "Sukiyaki," which was released in the U.S. in 1963, after being popular in singer Kyu Sakamoto's home country. Season 2 takes place in 1962. Small detail, but still. And, as our TV reviewer extraordinaire, Brian Lowry, points out, Sakamoto died in a plane crash, which adds an eerie irony to the use of the song. Was this coincidence or purposeful on the part of the writers? I, for one, believe nothing this show does is an accident.
** Finally, am I the only one who has noticed that Duck doesn’t drink? In last season’s finale he pointedly refused a drink when the team was celebrating Don’s brilliant Carousel pitch. We have yet to see alcohol pass his lips. Is that just a throwaway detail or is it leading up to something? One never knows… and that’s what makes this show so special.
Oh, the anticipation…