Season 2 of AMC's Mad Men opens with a lush tableau: The employees of the Sterling Cooper ad agency linger in front of their morning mirrors, readying their public facades with perfume and pomade. They look gorgeous, edible, consumable. It's Valentine's Day on Madison Avenue, and as junior copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) proclaims: ''Sex sells!''
The premiere jumps the series from 1960 to 1962, but it plays coy with most of last season's cliff-hangers, including the whereabouts of Peggy's son with married exec Pete Campbell (played with oily brilliance by Vincent Kartheiser). It's quite a tease, but the debut proves Mad Men is as smart as ever: A holiday that puts a price tag on love is a rich stage for this Golden Globe-winning drama, because romance at Sterling Cooper is generally followed by sticker shock. Last season, ambitious Peggy got knocked up just as her career was taking off. This season, creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) woos his lonely wife, Betty (January Jones), with a fur, champagne, and a posh hotel room, only to find himself unable to seal the deal.
The staffers are equally entranced by the ideal of the happy family. As the creative team debates whether a hot stewardess or a joyful child will better market an airline, several Mad Men are concentrating on procreation. In this macho world, a successful marriage means having babies but the guys don't consider what kids entail. Remote Betty, mother of two, does. When a fellow equestrian from her club worries about Betty tracking manure into the Draper family car, Betty replies: ''Little children, what's the difference?'' Betty's as hollowed-out as her hubby, Don, but she feels more dangerous (she even looks like one of Hitchcock's troubled blondes). Her isolation has an edge; this seemingly bland beauty has become one of Mad Men's most layered characters. In one frightening-funny moment, she tells her wheedling daughter why she can't go riding with Mommy: ''Do you remember what happened to the little girl in Gone With the Wind?'' Nothing like the threat of accidental death to shut a kid up.
Mad Men's characters look like stereotypes from one of the agency's own ads the earnest working girl, the scotch-swilling exec, the dutiful wife, the lusty secretary, WASPs, and more WASPs. Even Jackie Kennedy pops up on TV, discussing how important the White House decor is for her husband: ''[It's] the setting in which the presidency is presented to the world.'' The dialogue plays with these Kennedy-era clichés: Redheaded bombshell Joan (Christina Hendricks) exchanges a string of double entendres with a deliveryman that borders on Austin Powers territory. In lesser hands, this is a dangerous game, but Mad Men always stops short of the satiric, a powerful feat. With a strange gesture or a brutal bit of dialogue, it takes its characters' careful, false fronts, and strips them clean away. A-