Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mad Men and Drinking, Season Two, Part II

For anyone who watches the AMC series "Mad Men" partly to enjoy the way the characters heedlessly enjoy themselves, Season 2 was a difficult one. The men and woman still smoked and drank and caroused with abandon, but this time around the bill came due and it was a whopper.

This was particularly true of the characters' drinking. The cocktails were still classic. The glassware and ice buckets were beautiful. The bars were atmospheric. But, beyond that, little else was pretty.

Last year, Roger Sterling, one of the partners in the Madison Avenue ad agency Sterling Cooper, was the man who paid the price for his lifestyle, suffering two coronaries after one too many cigarettes, one too many Martinis and one too many chippies on the side. This year, the much younger Don Draper learned you can't do whatever you want to do and get away with it. The first episode of the season finds a doctor telling Don to slow down, for his health's sake. Typically, Don takes no head. By episode 5, "The New Girl," he's gotten involved with the wife of a comedian, Bobbi Barrett. While on a night ride to a trysting place, Don, drinking from a bottle while at the wheel, totals the car and nearly kills himself and Bobbi. He is forced to turn to his former secretary Peggy Olson to bail them out, give Bobbi a place to hide while she heals, and lie to his wife about the accident. In the series to date, this is the most humiliating situation the otherwise in-control Don has ever found himself in. On the surface, he seems to learn nothing from it.

Since Draper is good at covering his tracks (and holding his liquor), he gets away with this malefaction (for the time being). The easygoing, feckless and guileless Freddie Rumsen is not so lucky (that's him above, in the brown hat). Freddie is a senior copywriter and an outright lush. His years of drinking show on his bloated, red face. Yet, he's a harmless drunk, amiable, and fairly decent at his job.

Freddie's career ends in the excellent episode 9, "Six Month Leave," when, having drunk too many Bourbons just before a presentation for Samsonite, he unconsciously pisses his pants and then passes out. It's a hilarious and horrifying scene. In the world of "Mad Men," this would have been forgiven and forgotten, but jealous tattletale Pete Campbell rats on Freddie to controlling, teetotaler Head of Accounts Herman "Duck" Phillips, who insists Freddie be fired.

Don resists, but has no choice when Roger sides with Duck. We learn a lot of Sterling Cooper's history during Roger and Don's kiss-off lunch with Freddie. Apparently, Roger's father (presumedly the original Sterling of Sterling Cooper) drank more than Roger and Don put together, and used to come in in the morning with his shirt on inside-out.

Perversely, after telling Freddie he needs to go somewhere and dry out, Roger and Don try to console him by taking him out on a goodbye bender. What kind of mixed message is that? It's that sort of jumbled men's code that ultimately led to Rumsen's doom.

As for Duck, he falls off the wagon soon afterwards, when he finds out he shouldn't expect to be made a partner at Sterling Cooper. The effect is not attractive. After downing two straight Martinis in a lunch with a couple old London colleagues, Duck begin to plot his takeover of Sterling Cooper via a merger with a London agency.

Meanwhile, through all this, Don's wife Betty, lonely and depressed, drinks more and more red wine in solitude.

The overall message: drinking is a lot of fun, until it stops being a lot of fun.

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