SPOILER ALERT: No reading this post until you’ve done an honest day’s work for it, you bum.
So who knew that Mad Men would also turn out to be Carnivale? I’m impressed that, within this already detailed period piece, there turns out to be another period piece (Don/Dick’s childhood in the Depression) that’s just as engrossing and detailed in its own way. As in the 1960 “present,” the detail is as much social and historical as it is about the sets–Dick’s stepmother, for instance, picking up on the cue that the hobo visitor worked in factories out East and asking him if he was a Communist. (Also, nice contrast between the off-the-grid, hand-to-mouth hobo Dick met as a child and the vapid, cliche-spouting faux-bos slumming it at Midge’s pot party.)
Working with relative freedom at AMC, which must be grateful as all hell to have it, Mad Men is taking its sweet time fleshing out its characters rather than (in the manner of many cable dramas) piling plot twist on plot twist to ratchet up the stakes. We found out that Dick Whitman was a “whore child” (which probably kills the Jew-passing-as-Gentile theory, no?) And we painted a few more layers on Salvatore and Peggy. I’ve been close to writing off Sal as a too-obvious period prop, but his storyline last night (as Alan Sepinwall writes at his blog) twisted our expectations by having him turn out to be much less experienced. Meanwhile, we got to see Peggy’s capacity to be confident and insecure, and to see how Pete–creep that he is–like insecure Peggy much better.
When basic cable dramas fail to measure up to HBO shows, it’s often in their peripheral characters: the lead antihero may be complex, but the supporting players are often much more narrowly cast. But Mad Men’s supporters are tough to figure out, and in a good way. Peggy is both quietly sharp and easily cowed. Joan is worldly yet strangely naive. (Really, of all people wouldn’t she have seen through Salvatore’s closet?) Pete is genuinely creepy–in fact, beginning to seem downright scary and damaged–and yet sometimes sympathetic, and smarter than people credit him for.
Mad Men is still a little inscrutable, in other words, and I’m OK with that. Sometimes it works a little too hard to establish its intellectual-historical bona fides; for instance, you could bring Ayn Rand into a conversation without giving us a tight shot of Atlas Shrugged. (Between that and Exodus, this is turning into BookTV.) But I really like how–usually in an organic way–Don is shown as being the product not only of his family history but of the ideas of his time: Cooper’s ethical egoism; the hobo’s rejection of social ties, born of the 1930s’ social upheaval; and the general nihilism that seems to stem from his experience in the war. All of this culminated in his cold dismissal of the hipsters’ conspiracy theories–“There is no system. The universe is indifferent”–which manages to bum even them out. Existentialist beats beatniks! Woo-hoo!