Don’t believe what the advertising people or the critical consensus tells you. For all the accolades it received, Mad Men’s second season is really bad. The first few episodes are satisfying enough: despite the focus on Don Draper’s constant and banal adultery there are a few promising storylines and tantalising glimpses of interesting secondary characters. But about halfway through the season, the writers make a clear decision to go all-in with the boring and lame soap-opera melodrama surrounding Don and his wife, Betty. By the end of the season I’d gone beyond irritation and anger and accepted that, despite what I’ve heard from so many people, this show almost certainly is not worth investing in for the long-haul.
The first season established Don Draper as some kind of quasi-mystical advertising shaman as well as a serial liar and philanderer. In the second season we barely see him do any work at all: he’s entirely unproductive, spending the first few episodes in the throes of a new liaison and the rest of the season getting deeper and deeper into a mire of self-indulgence and depravity. At the same time, he’s presented in a sympathetic light throughout, and everyone is endlessly nice to him (especially, of course, women). It doesn’t make sense: sure the actor is handsome, and several times an episode new characters, male and female, comment on his ‘beauty’; but much of the time he’s sullen and mean, practically mute, tongue-tied rather than silver-tongued. Hamm’s acting skills are limited, which is made obvious in those sections where he plays his younger self. One scene where he talks about meeting Betty he adopts a kind of lovesick puppy-meets-schoolboy schtick that made me cringe.
The show tries to add depth to Draper by associating him with works of culture or literature, showing him at the cinema watching an arthouse film or reading a book of poetry. The problem is that it never shows how this interest or experience manifests itself in his personality or his work, other than by making him some kind of decadent nihilist. It’s hard to sympathise with someone like this. I particularly resented how, late in the season, they show one of Draper’s floozies reading a few lines of William Faulkner’s The sound and the fury during post-coital bonding. It’s just about the most inappropriate book you could picture in those circumstances. I suppose something by Fitzgerald might have been better suited; but even then, I hate how they use a classic work of fiction as a prop, with Faulkner as a canvass for Don Draper’s skidmarks.
Betty, Draper’s wife, is not much better. In the course of this season she matures into an indolent and manipulative cold-hearted bitch who is unpleasant to pretty much everyone and consequently hard to relate to. But Betty and Don are the suns around which all our other characters orbit. The show would have done well to show more interest in the employees at Sterling Cooper, and indeed some of the best sections revolve around characters like Joan Holloway, Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson; or it could show us something of the life of Carla, Betty’s black maid who looks after her children. But no, everything revolves around Don and Betty. Roger Sterling, often the most entertaining character, is reduced to a figure of ridicule by the end of the season, while the liberal “intellectual” Paul Kinsey is just an egotistical buffoon. The show constantly seems to undermine its own characters in order to show how bad everyone was in the 60s, presumably compared to Mad Men’s intended audience of the knowing and superior liberal-minded middle class.
Colin Hanks, an actor I dislike immensely, was also an unwelcome presence here and dragged the season down even further. Hanks Jr previously did his best to ruin my enjoyment of Dexter and Fargo, and his turn here as a smug and smarmy Catholic priest made my skin crawl. One episode finished with him playing guitar and singing a song, about the most hackneyed and indulgent sequence imaginable. What’s worse is that he takes up most of Peggy Olson’s time during this season, preventing one of the potentially interesting characters from doing anything interesting.
Considering how much genuinely good TV there is out there, I don’t think it will be worth persevering with Mad Men much further.