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Binge-Watching the Brilliance of Mad Men's Season 2
I've been spending the past week caught up once again, re-watching episodes of some TV series I have already seen, continuously hitting the 'next' button on Netflix. I watch like I work. Sometimes more effectively, actually, and certainly more consistently.
This time, it's Mad Men. But it's just Season 2.
Season 2 of any series is the season that defines the show. This is true for any show – from The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, two of the finest series in television history, to Entourage and Weeds, two of the better forgettable ones.
And it's certainly true of Mad Men. Season 2 got serious. It set its constantly rotating depth chart of characters up for years of either disappointment, or prosperity, desperate sideburns, or vanishing hairlines. It was a little darker, and sometimes funnier. It was historic, with the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the sequel to the groundbreaking Season 1, but also the prequel to Season 3, when Madison Avenue and Manhattan finally turned itself inside-out, first with the Kennedy assassination and then with the oncoming Swinging Sixties era, the unavoidable second half of the series we were waiting for from the Lucky Strike-set pilot.
Season 1 was about the suits and the haircuts, the way the men smoked in the office and the way the woman – all but Peggy and Joan – giggled like toddlers while the boys spoke like frat brats. Season 1 was about Pete Campbell and Don Draper's affair in Greenwich Village. It was about re-introducing the world to the Sixties, about Matthew Weiner propping his product up so it could outshine all the other pimpled competitors – where have you gone, Pan Am and The Playboy Club? – with ease.
Season 3 is about Kennedy, about things never going back to what they once were, about race and about new agencies. It's about betrayal, uneasiness, and the final at-bat for a still-honourable home run king.
Season 4 is a completely new direction. The walls are whiter, the sunglasses are Wayfarer-er, and Don finally realizes he's not just an alchoholic, but an unhappy one. Peggy comes about, the bears are still five o'clock shadows, and everyone is clear a new age is upon them.
Season 5 and Season 6. Well, the plaid is out and in full force. There's an episode built around a highway diner and Orange Sherbet. Megan is somehow not only a full-time cast member, but the new Betty, the new Jane, and sometimes the new Joan.
There are unforgettable moments, like (*SPOILERS) each of these seasons' conclusions, where Lane hangs himself in his office and Don is basically fired from the agency he was once the logo of.
Mad Men is, after six season and almost seven years, the sort of show you already call an all-time great. But it's also one of those all-time greats that connected early and carried you through. You don't remember how much better it got all that time, and you forget the bits in between. It's a Johnny Cash song – "Steady like a train / Sharp like a razor" – that can crack any decade's Top 40.
Season 2 is, not surprisingly, the greatest season in the show's history and also the most forgotten.
It's the season where Don has an affair with Bobbie Barrett. At the time, I thought that was hardly watchable, painful, and just awful for everyone involved. But after seeing it again, it was chock-full of everything that has made this show great – take Bobbie's line, "I like being bad, then going home and being good" – and it ultimately destroyed Don's marriage to Betty, the only wife you might ever say deserves to be cheated on night after night.
It's the season with Duck Phillips. 'Nuff said. We all know a Duck, and we hate them Ducks. They're small time and small thinking... and somehow, they have not only a place in the office but respect, too. Well, for a little while, at least.
Duck says things just so somebody else will hear them. He's confident, but only because he's so self-conscious. He gets off on everything he does wrong, but he thinks he's doing it right.
And in Episode 6 of Season 2 – titled 'Maidenform' – Duck just walks his dog out the front door of Sterling Cooper and lets him go. The dog barks as Duck walks away. It's the most heartbreaking scene in the show's history... yet, watching it this week, it was like I was watching it for the first time. I don't ever remember seeing it before. And I nearly cried.
If you've watched all of Mad Men and you know it's one of the greatest TV series ever, but you don't know why, I have a solution for you.
Pay $7.99 for your Netflix account and watch Season 2. You'll figure it out pretty quickly, and you won't even need to write about it like I'm trying to.