I keep meaning to call up my old screenwriting prof and ask what he thinks of “Mad Men.” Watching Joan sadly rub the bra strap mark on her shoulder this week was a revelation of great writing — exactly the sort of detail that reveals everything about a character without a word being spoken, with the added bonus of being something I’ve never seen before. God, I love this show. I hope you do, too.
It’s hard to do even one good season of television like this, but the mark of greatness is how it flowers in its second, and I haven’t seen a second season like this since “The Wire,” and before that, “The Sopranos,” so take that however you will. The gorgeous thing about this show, set in the world of Madison Avenue ad firms in the early ’60s, is how we know what the characters don’t — that their world is about to be upended by the cultural storm of the ’60s. It’s like a disaster movie, when we can see the killer sneaking up behind the clueless sap about to be hit with an ax, only in slow motion and with all the carnage emotional. But the early breezes of the coming storm are already starting to blow. This season is focusing on the women, who have a mighty load of resentment to tote around from week to week. This week, a marriage shattered and a woman who’s been successful in the one feminine strategy that transcends eras — knowing how to work a bodacious bod — finally realized the limits of her power, and both of these events were conveyed the way they are in real life, with strained conversations, a flicker of expression across the eyes, a change in a tone of voice.
I once read some advice on playwrighting: No character needs to walk onstage and say, “I’m tired.” All he needs to say is, “Has anyone seen my magazine?” In “Mad Men,” characters love and compete, support and betray, sometimes at the same time. A few weeks ago, a woman named Peggy seemed to be having a flirtation with a young priest. He pushed her away with a gesture and comment aimed directly at the most vulnerable spot in her psyche. This week he was back, trying to coax her into confession, and his plea was 50 percent wheedle and 50 percent genuine concern. Neither acknowledged the elephant in the room, a very early-’60s thing to do. The final scene showed several characters at the end of the day — Peggy in the bathtub, Joan the bombshell rubbing her strap mark, and the priest stripping off his collar and picking up his guitar. He strums a couple of tight chords, then belts out “Early in the Morning,” which you might not know was Side 1, Track 1 of Peter, Paul & Mary’s very first album.
The song takes the form of a prayer, and the prayer says what most prayers say: Help me find the way. It’s the perfect prayer for that character at that moment in time, and it serves as distant thunder for the coming storm and — as this show is justly famed for its maniacal attention to perfect detail — the album it’s on was released in 1962, and guess what year it is in “Mad Men” this season?
You just can’t watch this show and fail to be impressed. Not if you’re paying attention.
Bloggage later. I have a busy morning tomorrow and I think I won’t be back until afternoon. Talk amongst yourselves.