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'Mad Men': For those who think young

July 28, 2008 |  8:01 am

When "Mad Men" left us after what seemed a very fast 13-episode first season, change was in the air. Kennedy defeated Nixon. Don Draper discovered his brother had committed suicide instead of embracing Don's generous "here's $5,000; never contact me again" offer, and then, in the throes of nostalgia, Don nailed the Kodak pitch. Peggy Olson, recently promoted to junior copywriter, discovered that the movement in her gradually expanding belly wasn't just a bad sandwich after all. Betty Draper sought solace from 9-year-old Glenn in the bank parking lot and admitted to her shrink that reams of data all but guaranteed that Don was unfaithful. Pete Campbell, fresh off his failed attempt at blackmailing Don, was issued an edict by his jovially invasive in-laws to "tend your own garden," by which they meant "knock Trudy up already." Roger Sterling had a heart attack and turned a whiter shade of pale.

And us? We just had to sit there and endure the hiatus. We'd met a show that we liked, and there weren't four additional seasons we could order up on Netflix and watch in one lost weekend. The media, in a similar bind, could only profile Matthew Weiner, the show's creator, repeatedly and admiringly, and speculate about season two. And we can only assume that HBO kicked itself daily.

At last, season two is upon us. Could the Weiner and his team sustain the tension of the show after the novelty of the stylish set and costume designs wore off? It's too soon to say for sure -- episode one served mainly to get the cogs back into motion -- but early signs and key narrative choices suggest that they will.

One thing I've associated with HBO shows is that they are allowed to start slowly, with plot lines unfolding with nuance and complexity instead of exploding improbably or melodramatically, and AMC seems to have bought into this approach with "Mad Men." This isn't to say that not much happens, because there is a great deal of action -- sex, lies, and advertising pitches (to say nothing of the smoking and drinking) -- but you can see larger, multiseason plot lines creeping forward. For instance, the tension between Pete and Don reached one boiling point last season, but do we really think that's the end of it? And while Betty acknowledged that Don was probably unfaithful, we find she is just as concerned with appearances as we open season two, even as she is changing as a character.

Episode one did offer up a few answers, if only partial ones. Time has jumped from Thanksgiving 1960 to Valentine's Day 1962. Harry Crane (last seen living in the office and roaming the floors in briefs and undershirt) has been reunited with his wife, Jennifer, who is now pregnant. By contrast, Pete and Trudy have still not succeeded in their own procreation efforts, something that weighs heavily on Trudy, who unfortunately did not have access to Dr. Google and infertility blogs. Roger has recovered and returned to work, and his affair with Joan is over, though the flirtation is not. Joan herself has moved on to a relationship with a doctor. Peggy has returned to her slim form -- the subject of much speculation in the office -- and is enjoying a "charmed career" in copywriting.

But there are new developments. Don, looking more haggard, presents himself for an insurance physical, where the doctor advises him that his blood pressure is high and that his smoking, drinking, and high-stress lifestyle will "hit you all at once." Helpfully, the doctor prescribes not just blood-pressure medication but also phenobarbital. Those were the days! Betty has taken up English riding, and there is a brief scene involving a young man at a lesson, suggesting that we will see him again. For Valentine's Day, Don meets Betty for drinks at the Savoy, where they run into Juanita Carson, an old roommate and former fellow model, all dressed up and blinged out, with a much older man. Betty naively muses that the man is not whom she thought Juanita would end up with, and Don points out that Juanita is a "party girl." Later in the episode, when relaying this story to Francine, Betty says she was the one who observed that Juanita was a call girl, making herself out to be an oasis of cosmopolitanism in the provincial and sheltered world of the suburbs.

The Drapers retire to a hotel room at the Savoy to celebrate the holiday, and, underneath her classic early '60s dress, she's wearing the kind of old-fashioned bustier-and-garters get-up that would really just pool the cellulite on most normal bodies. She looks great. Alas, Don can't get the job done -- maybe it's the phenobarbital? Or ennui? Having encountered a beatnik type in a bar who was reading Frank O'Hara's poetry collection "Meditations in an Emergency," Don reads the book himself. At the end of the episode, he scrawls "Made me think of you" inside the book, and mails it -- we do not see to whom -- as a voice-over of one of the poems plays.

After her encounter with Juanita, Betty's car breaks down when she's on the way to pick up her daughter from ballet. Short on cash and not wanting Don to find out about it, she overtly flirts with the tow-truck driver to get him to fix it on the cheap. As she hands over the three dollars she has, he grips her fingers for a few moments too long. Perhaps this is indicative of danger to come for Betty, who last season seemed focused on both appearances and her appearance, and who seemed to miss the adulation that came with being someone paid for being pretty.

At Sterling Cooper, Duck Phillips persuades Roger that clients want younger creatives, and Don begins interviewing them. A Xerox machine arrives, and, for lack of a better location, it ends up in Peggy's office. Peggy terrorizes Don's new assistant, Lois, who, it seems, is easily terrorized and prone to tears. The team goes through several iterations of a pitch to Mohawk Airlines, finally settling on the sentimental approach.

Fellow viewers, do you have any predictions for this season? More important, what do you think it is about the era portrayed in "Mad Men" that resonates so effectively with today's audience? Richard Yates's brilliant tale of postwar suburban anomie, "Revolutionary Road," is being adapted for the screen and will be released this year in prime Oscar-consideration season, so there's something in the air. Speculate at your leisure.

-- Sarah Rogers