The second season starts up two years later, with Don feeling old, Betty getting edgier, and Peggy pulling rank
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Thanks to costume designer Janie Bryant , Hamm's '60s ad man single-handedly revived an interest in the classic two-button suit.
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I wonder if people who have never seen an episode of Mad Men have started to feel a little like folks who never watched The Wire. Everybody around them is talking about the authenticity of the show and the complexity of the characters, how it really nails this and gets that just right. At a certain point, the uninitiated can only take so much slobbering before they decide Well, screw it, now I’m never going to watch that stupid show because I’m sick of everyone oozing over it and I don’t want to feel late to the party and the show is probably overrated and do I even get the AMC channel? (And hats off to the network, which must feel like the nerdy girl at the dance who suddenly finds herself wearing the homecoming crown. They’re putting the marketing big guns behind their critical darling in a way HBO never seemed willing to do.)

As somebody who had never seen the show until a few short weeks ago, when I plowed through my DVD of season 1 over a few itchy, intoxicating nights, I understand the hesitation. But try to walk away from the watercooler, and ignore all your friends on Facebook with their little Mad Men fan badges. In a summer where it seems like the only shows worth getting excited over are on Bravo, here is a chance to savor a crackly scripted drama that gives off the impression that it doesn’t really need or care about the audience at home. The energy and wit and callousness of a world like Sterling Cooper is so powerful that you just may find yourself left with that childlike feeling that once you turn off the tube and lumber off to bed, Roger and Don will still be going, motioning to the bartender for another round.

And so, in the glorious tradition of The Wire, the premiere of Mad Men‘s second season didn’t throw out a rope to newcomers lured in by the hype. Catch up, people: We’ve skipped ahead to 1962, and Peggy doesn’t have a gummy toddler stashed in her stapler drawer. The action opens to the sounds of the twist — ”like we did last summer!” — on a tight shot of the finest ass in television. Joan, jersey knit hugging her enviable junk, is staring down the new Xerox machine with narrowed cat eyes. Duck may have given her girls candies for Valentine’s Day, but once Joan decides on the proper place for this hulking beast, they may find themselves yesterday’s news. Joan, the canniest of all the characters, knows it, too.

Everywhere this evening, power was shifting. Don, our hero, our rogue, looked so tired, and there was a sluggish pouchiness to him when he was up there in his undershirt on the doctor’s table. Doc rapped his knuckles good and warned him that mortality smacks hard-living people like him in the gut when they least expect it. Thirty-six years old, and Don is already being told he’s over the hill. By his doctor, by his bosses (who, he says, want him to ”dangle a Pepsi out the window and see if I can hook a stroller”), even by the guy at the end of the bar. Don, looking increasingly out of step in his crisp suit, asked how the man was enjoying Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency. ”I don’t think you’d like it,” he’s told with a sniff. Crueler still, Betty busted out a surprisingly hot little black number on Valentine’s night, and Don wiggled around on top of her a little before rolling off with a sigh. (Women and gay men everywhere let out a similar dejected puff of air.) ”We drank too much, I don’t even know where I am,” said an unconvinced Betty, nicely summing up her global ennui, and then promptly commandeered the room-service order.

NEXT: Where is Peggy’s baby?Peggy, who the boys in accounts theorize disappeared for a few weeks either to go to fat camp or to suckle Don Draper’s love child, is feeling flush with new power. Her skirt still gets yanked on, by the guys asking her to fetch ice and play nice secretary, by office doofs who photocopy their faces while she’s trying to nail copy. I’m perplexed when I read or hear critics, mostly male, parse Peggy’s character. Is she hiding a wicked streak? Will her ambition get the best of her? What are her motives? Well, I’d argue that in the office she’s no different than Don — a worker with a fierce code, who gets high off her own triumphs, and trusts that she can rewrite her own destiny. When she cut Don’s new secretary down to size for being too chatty about her boss, she tried on a withering tone that I imagine we’ll hear more of throughout the season. Rather than engaging in petty games of hierarchy, I bet Peggy thought she was doing the girl a favor, schooling her in how to be a better employee. This is work, and these are the rules. Follow them. Joan, who verbally slapped Peggy in the face throughout much of last season, later chastised the crumbly new secretary for not referring to Peggy as Miss Olson. Like her former underling, Joan lives by the code.

Don, though, seems to be losing his grasp on it. Twenty-three-year-olds in turtleneck sweaters acting smug and seen-it-all in a job interview? Men spouting crude in an elevator without regard to the wincing lady in their midst? Don, working under the code that discretion is the best gift a gentleman can give the women in his life, couldn’t comprehend the scene unfolding in that little airless box. So he zeroed in on the man’s most banal offense, snatched the hat off his head, and shoved it into his chest. Earlier in the episode, Don got rolling about Mohawk Airlines in one of his airy brainstorms, which were so enjoyably rousing throughout season 1. But for the first time — well, the second time, if you count the Savoy — Don didn’t spin it to a climax. His speech petered out with a ”blah blah blah,” as if he had grown sick of his own spiel.

Finally, my favorite lines of the evening. One of the more memorable scenes last season was Salvatore‘s quiet, wistful dinner with a man who had his number and a room booked upstairs to boot. Cut to the present, where Sal and his guileless new girl are watching Jackie Kennedy drowsily purr about the interior design of the White House on TV. Enough about her, though: ”Where’s her husband?” asks Sal. The next morning Betty’s neighbor offered up her own impressions of the First Lady. ”She seemed nervous,” said Francine. ”It’s like they were playing house.” Betty, who shrilly fought to maintain her dollhouse version of reality in season 1, had a cooler, almost cruel edge in the premiere. She looks like if pushed too hard, she might toss a match to her world.

A few questions: Who do you think Don was mailing the copy of O’Hara to? Do you think Pete suspects that Peggy might not have gone to fat camp after all? Does Mad Men live up to the hype?

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Thanks to costume designer Janie Bryant , Hamm's '60s ad man single-handedly revived an interest in the classic two-button suit.
Mad Men

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama

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