The first season of Mad Men was well-written, entertaining, engaging; the second was the same, no doubt, but with a more explicitly intellectual bent: the question of identity, alluded to in the first season, became in the second season not just a narrative device (who is Don Draper?), but the central concern – who are we all? how do we create our identities? or, alternatively, how are our identities created for us?
If the first season established the characters and their milieu, the second season – especially its second half – undid them; by the last episode, almost nothing remained of what we thought we knew – identities, seemingly stable, had been altered radically, including Sterling-Cooper’s itself. If this seems like a strange way to advance a story, I can only imagine things becoming more uncanny; we’ve only reached 1962 after all…
A potential for greatness existed from the outset – there’s almost no better place to confront the question of who we are than a Madison Avenue advertising firm at the beginning of the 60s (watch the documentary, The Century of the Self, for a potent critique of PR, advertising, the creation of desire and mass control – scary stuff) – but for the most part while watching the show I thought I was being entertained, not interrogated; which makes this is some of the cleverest TV I’ve ever watched – I actually found myself surprised at the depths the show achieved, wondering how we had arrived and where the show could possibly go next.
I realize I’m not talking about the characters, the plot – anything materially relevant to the show itself – but I’m still getting over my initial shock at its depth. I love almost all the characters, particularly those drawn with more detail, and I hope I can write contemporaneous posts as the third season airs, and do justice to their stories.