Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bombs Away on S2 Finale of "Mad Men"

“Mad Men” may take place in the 1960’s, but there’s a reason why it speaks so eloquently to viewers today. It simultaneously indulges and punctures our nostalgia for a period that even the most enlightened of us can’t help romanticizing—even though we know better. We can drool over the beautifully tailored clothes, exquisite lighting, and Hopperesque art direction while shaking our heads at the excessive drinking, thoughtless littering, and even more thoughtless sexism, racism, and homophobia on display. We tsk-tsk at the sight of a stunning young woman smoking what must amount to a pack a day even as we secretly, enviously wonder how she manages to light each cigarette with such effortless elegance. It's that combination of the alluring and alienating that keeps us returning for more.

But “Mad Men” is never better than when it reminds us that at bottom, its characters are human just like us, moved by the same impulses, fears, and desires, however differently they’ve been taught to handle them. And this season’s finale was a near-perfect exercise in that age-old truth: the more things change, the more they stay the same. In times of great fear and uncertainty—whether it’s the Cuban missile crisis, 9/11, or the economic meltdown of 2007—human nature tends to distill itself down to its barest essence, good, bad or ugly. Some panic; some stand firm; some seek out loved ones; and most interestingly, some even tell the truth.

What I particularly admired about this episode was how sharply yet delicately it drew parallel storylines that brought out the contrasts between its characters. Betty’s surprise pregnancy, on a lesser show, would have reeked of contrivance, yet its juxtaposition with the other, bigger bombshell—Peggy’s “confession” to Pete—was nothing short of brilliant. What it did was set up two starkly different ways of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy (and, for that matter, a belated declaration of love), each reflective of the characters’ respective arcs, and each, in a very distinct way, an expression of the woman’s choice, not the man’s.

Some will probably see Betty’s decision as a concession to convention and in effect an acceptance of defeat. I don't, though I did get a strong impression that up till the very last moment, she was wavering over which of her two “secrets” to tell Don, approached the precipice, and then retreated. But her choice was also the one most calculated to save the marriage, and she made it with her eyes open, with a clearer understanding of the alternative than she’s certainly ever had before in her life, and from a mixture of motives that weren’t purely rooted in fear. (What woman watching didn't melt at least a little at Don's letter?) Betty’s outlook on life has darkened, but she’s also moved several steps closer to maturity, albeit at a stiff price. I have to admit I was disappointed at her little experiment in random sex—I rather liked that she was the one character who saw adultery in black and white terms—but the dynamic between her and Don will probably be more interesting now that she no longer has the moral high ground.

As for Don, all signs indicate he’s making a sincere effort to be a new person or at least a better model, a hybrid of Dick Whitman’s tenderness at home and Don Draper’s impassive cool at work. But will it last? His face was a fascinating study after Betty’s revelation, and one that’s given rise to some very different interpretations. What I saw, after the initial shock, was a glimmer of happiness struggling with uncertainty and a growing, sobering realization that this might be the only reason Betty’s taking him back. Betty’s expression, for her part, was completely inscrutable, and the last shot of them before the fadeout—appropriately, in light of the historical backdrop—felt more like an uneasy detente than a reunion.

Still, it was a rapprochement, however fragile, which is more than one can say about their doppelganger couple, Pete and Peggy. Ok, I’ll confess: after being mostly outraged and creeped out by Pete throughout all of season 1, I’ve become quite fond of him this season, and my heart cried for him as Peggy heaped the coals on his head. I know I’m not alone, and I know the feeling’s not totally irrational, because the fact is that Pete, like Betty, has been growing up. He’s still a boy, not fully a man—as evidenced by his propensity for throwing perfectly good chicken dinners out the window—but he’s getting there. Plus we’ve had the benefit this season of seeing a glimpse of the dysfunctional family upbringing that contributed to his stunted development, and Vincent Kartheiser’s done wonders showing us Pete’s immaturity, his selfishness, and at the same time his flashes of talent, charm, and genuine feeling (mostly displayed towards Peggy).

Oh Peggy. Have a heart. As I’ve said since the beginning, I’ve been rooting for her without really liking her. Her smarts and her pluckiness are appealing, yet on a personal level she sometimes behaves in a way that seems at best emotionally tonedeaf and at worst, not quite human. I don’t get how she could twist the knife into Pete—without malice but also without mercy—and then pray at night with the serene expression of someone whose soul was now untroubled. (I don't think this is quite what Father Gill had in mind when he was importuning her to confess.) Not that Pete didn't have it coming to him, not that it was wrong to tell him—it was just the way she did it that felt needlessly cruel. Maybe it just seemed cruel because I’m still hoping against hope that she and Pete will end up together. They have a weird but undeniable chemistry.

The rest of the cast mostly receded into the background for the finale. A couple of them – Father Gill, Duck – behaved in ways that seemed out of character for them, but perhaps we were meant to see that that’s how they react in moments of crisis. I think I am one of the few members of the “Mad Men”-watching population who came to like Duck and therefore couldn’t enjoy his spectacular crash and burn. His vindictiveness didn’t ring true to me, even if he was drunk, and felt more like a lazy way of writing him off the show. Still, I had to laugh at his fake surprise after being told he’d be made president (“My, my," or was it "Well, well"?)—that’s some good Bad Acting right there. I’m going to miss Mark Moses. Don needs a good foil, esp. now that Pete seems effectively to have adopted him as his surrogate father figure.

All in all, a riveting conclusion to a sophomore season that showed anything but slump. If anything, “Mad Men” upped its game, adding more depth, more dimension, more nuance to an already meticulously crafted show. Here’s hoping that season 3 will raise the bar even further.