The thing that sets Mad Men apart from the other dramas at or near its level is the accumulation of time. When the show started, it was tempting for some critics to write off the 1960s milieu as a gimmick, a way for the show to depict people indulging their appetites in ways we modern-day folks could either sneer smugly at or wish to indulge in ourselves. Over the years, this criticism has rightly disappeared, but it was everywhere back in the first season. Now, however, the ’60s are both incredibly important to the show and something almost incidental to what makes it work so well. It’s a show, on the one hand, about how people deal with sweeping social change, even when it’s happening way, way off their radar (as we see in the final scene of tonight’s episode), but it’s also a show about what it means to live through a decade, to get older and have your position and relationships shift and change. Even worse, sometimes those things don’t change; you keep adapting, but you don’t really do anything to change how you look at the world.
This sense of history animates the best sequence in “A Little Kiss,” the two-hour fifth-season première of the show. In it, Joan Harris has arrived back at the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—still stubbornly clinging to life and slightly more healthy than we left it at the end of season four. She’s brought her new baby along, and, of course, the office crowds around to see it. But the episode’s writer (creator Matthew Weiner) and director (Jennifer Getzinger) keep putting new characters in the same frame as the baby Kevin, continually shifting our thoughts about where the show has been and where it might be going. Placing Peggy (who doesn’t want to hold the child) and Pete in the frame with the baby carries different meanings to us than placing Don and Megan there. To the former two, Kevin’s a dim echo of a life they didn’t lead; to the latter two, he’s a beacon for a life they may not want to lead.
History also informs the episode’s most prosaic concern: Where is everybody after the seven-to-eight month gap between seasons? (Season four ended in October of 1965, and though it’s not stated specifically anywhere, the young age of Joan’s baby sure suggests the Memorial Day being celebrated is Memorial Day 1966.) Weiner likes to play around with these questions, and he teases out revelations like few shows have since The Sopranos, taking his sweet time hinting at the fact that Don and Megan did, indeed, get married, before having someone confirm it by referring to Megan as “Mrs. Draper.” Peggy seems to have a touch more authority, though she still defers to Don on all matters. (In terms of creativity, she’s close to where Don was when the series began, but she’ll always be limited by her gender.) Joan’s got that baby. Betty and Henry—whom we don’t see—live up in that giant house with the Draper kids. Rebecca has joined Lane on this side of the pond. Jane and Roger’s marriage has grown even more decayed and tension-filled. Pete’s keeping the company together and coming apart at the seams.
Oh, and Don Draper is about to turn 40—even though Dick Whitman turned 40 six months ago.
One of the things I like best about “A Little Kiss” is that it dares to take both Don and Megan seriously as people, while showing that their marriage is a colossally bad idea. Many fans were terrified at the end of “Tomorrowland” that the show was tossing Don into a new, perfect marriage—and that would be the end of that, especially after his dalliance with the much more interesting Dr. Faye. I’ve always wondered just what show those folks thought they were watching. (You really thought Weiner would let us see Don happy and content for even an instant?) “A Little Kiss” bears this out. Don’s now “kind and patient,” in the words of Peggy, whose Heinz pitch of a bean ballet is shot out from underneath her by first the client, then Don, who agrees the firm can come up with something else. And yet the two hours we see mostly feature tension-filled moments in which Don’s happiness seems to be curdling into something else, something a bit bleaker.
Consider, for instance, the first hour’s centerpiece, that terrific birthday party sequence, in which the SCDP regulars (including new series regular Stan) mix and mingle with, among others, Don’s accountant and Megan’s younger, hipper friends. Peggy’s journalist boyfriend stirs the shit. Bert Cooper proves that, no matter his age, he’s exceptionally good at just fitting in wherever he ends up (even if SCDP has almost completely passed him by). Trudy and Pete almost get drawn into a political conversation, then back out. Stan’s cousin—on shore leave before shipping off for Vietnam—is turned into a prop in a political argument, rather than someone who could very well lose his life. It seems like a pretty good party, the kind of party where everybody will go home and have sex (as Megan insists will happen), but there’s tension boiling underneath, not least of which is in Don’s eyes, which constantly seem to be looking for an exit that refuses to open in front of him.
I’m intrigued by the way the Don and Megan pairing allows us to get even more insight into the start of the Don and Betty relationship. As we’ve seen from flashbacks, Don was just as excited about his marriage to Betty at one time, and even if we’ve established that Megan doesn’t have a lot of Betty’s hang-ups, there’s something weirdly predatory about her relationship with Don, where you’re never quite sure who’s in charge. Don’s a character we’re used to seeing command a room, so when, say, Megan forces him to sit down and watch her sing and dance at his birthday party, letting everybody he works with get the full view of just what he’s sleeping with and just what they’re not, it’s both sexy and just the slightest bit creepy. These two are in love, sure, but they’re also mired in a power play that won’t resolve anytime soon.
Even more telling than that, though, is the moment after that, when Megan forces Don to let her into bed beside him. He wants to sleep. He didn’t want the party, and he’s embarrassed to have been the center of attention. Betty was forbidden from throwing such parties, he says, and he didn’t celebrate birthdays growing up. For as much as Don wants to embrace the Don Draper identity, little things will always remind him that it’s a sham. But the true shocker here is that Don has apparently told Megan he’s Dick Whitman, a piece of information he only offered up to Betty just before their marriage fell off a cliff and the thing he’s told other people in his life only after great duress. Even Peggy, the person who knows Don best, most likely, only knows a very small sliver of the truth. When Megan calls Don Dick Whitman, there’s an element of the taunt to it. It’s a shock. He told her? The power play goes on.
Of course, Megan’s not a cardboard villain. This is Mad Men, after all. The show dares us to take her dissatisfaction seriously, when she realizes she greatly misread her new husband. (The first hour—which will be the first episode whenever this thing winds its way into cable reruns—ends on that shot of her overlooking the city, alone in the world.) She oversteps her boundaries and isn’t afraid to sleep her way to the top and butted in on the main character when we might have preferred anybody else, but would you have done things any differently? If that first hour is all about building Megan up as the predator triumphant—one of the commenters on Keith’s review of “Tomorrowland” nicely summed her up as standing over a “freshly killed gazelle”—then the second hour tears her down almost mercilessly. She’s still a woman in the 1960s. She’s still subject to the kind of sexual harassment (intentional on Harry’s part or not) that would get any man fired today, and her railing against the cynicism of the ad men only gets through to Peggy after a few perfunctory apologies. (Isn’t Peggy Megan’s direct superior? It seems odd that she could have an outburst like that, Draper wife or no Draper wife.)
When she goes home, the positions of the two from the shot in “Tomorrowland” are reversed: Now, Megan’s the one laid low, while Don has all the power As she cleans in her underwear, telling him he can’t have her, he strides forward, dominant side returning to the surface. He grabs her by the hair, and there’s the slightest moment where you fear he might do something awful, before she consents. He “wins,” even if the pillow talk is all about how much they love each other. At the same time, she “wins,” because she gets to taunt him childishly and rile him up, even if it’s a hollow victory.
Shifting power dynamics have run throughout the series, of course, but they seem to be taking on a renewed importance early in season five. One of the consistent storylines on the series has been the ways that the characters back themselves into progressive social change largely through accident. Peggy ends up as a copywriter when she was hired as a secretary because of an unusual set of circumstances (and because she’s damned good at it, of course), while the other characters mostly ignore the social changes swirling around them, as they tend toward rock-ribbed conservatism. And why not? These are the people who stand to lose something—even if just a tiny amount—if the African-Americans protesting outside of rival advertising firm Y&R get even some of what they want.
One of the things I love here is that the SCDP folks assume everybody will understand their ad in the New York Times is a swipe at their rivals, yet the only people who understand it are in the office. Even Joan comes to think it’s an ad that points to her being fired, thanks to her mother (though this leads to the wonderful scene where Lane assures her that’s not the case), while the African-Americans reading the ad assume that SCDP is looking to hire them. The company, filled with people who couldn’t give less of a shit about the African-American plight, is backed into a corner where it has to hire one anyway, if only to save face.
Mad Men is a series about uncovering the lies and hypocrisies underlying the American dream, so it makes sense that it would finally be turning its sights on race at this point. The opening and closing images of the episode are of people who have been kept from places like SCDP by men who treat these offices as their birthright and a social system designed to prop those men up and keep them in power. At first, those out of power demand to be let in. And then they flood through the door the second it inches even slightly open. This is another way Mad Men plays with history: We know where all of this is going, but part of the fun is seeing the characters utterly ignore that which is going on around them until they blunder into the middle of it anyway. Put another way: Megan’s party feels like the stereotypical “swingin’ ’60s affair,” of the sort you might expect to see parodied in an Austin Powers movie, but our main characters feel awkward and out of place while attending. Yet there they are, the doors shutting on their era, even as they refuse to leave.
That’s the sweep and scope Mad Men provides at its best. That baby can mean any number of things. But so can a shaving brush, given to a father by children from his first marriage as he embarks on a new decade of his life, with a new wife by his side. When he shaves with it later, it’s a little visual cue for us, a dividing line between his past, a time when he was a man at the center of everything, and a future uncertain to him but known to us, a future we know may very well push him aside. The dinosaurs refuse to admit their own extinction, refuse to leave their offices in favor of the man bringing in business because he’s just a “junior partner” (and because, let’s face it, he can be annoying). Yet here they are, staring in the mirror, on the other side of 40, time nearing its end.
- Welcome to Mad Men season five, everyone. Keith’s going to hopefully drop in in the comments from time to time, and he and I might be doing a Crosstalk later in the season, but the lack of screeners for episodes past this one meant he was unable to continue covering the series. So I’ll be your guy going forward (And, yes, I’ll still be doing Game Of Thrones, because HBO is much nicer about screeners than Matt Weiner is.) Mad Men has long been one of my favorite shows on TV, yet it’s one I haven’t gotten a chance to write about regularly, so I’m looking forward to talking about it with all of you. I’m also less of an expert on advertising and ’60s culture than Keith was, so I’ll be relying on you guys for much of that.
- The Mad Men character I most identify with, sadly, is Pete Campbell, whose brash nature and annoying ways roughly parallel the ways in which I have gotten promotions. I love Pete’s heightened stress levels in this episode, and I also love how his marriage with Trudy remains fundamentally sound, so long as he’s not letting the guys on the train convince him otherwise. (The scene where the two Campbells talk about getting a beagle to scare off gophers is another highlight.)
- Also on the Pete Campbell front: He gets Harry’s office! But it’s yet another hollow victory, as Pete Campbell is not one for compromise.
- Hands down the funniest scene in an episode full of funny scenes is Roger getting Harry to give up his office. Favorite line: “No, I won’t. I just gave you a lot of money.”
- Historical irony alert: When Tammy’s 16 in the early ’80s, Elvis will be dead. Also, what kind of name is Tammy Campbell?
- Welcome to the opening credits, Megan, Stan, and Henry, even if we don’t get to see the latter in this episode. (I presume the Francises will sit out a few episodes, due to January Jones’ real-life pregnancy. I almost like the idea of their new home looming over Don as a symbol of all he will never have more than I like actually seeing them.)
- Don’t tell Roger Sterling about how watching Megan cavort turned you into an animal whose sexual appetites could not be sated. He doesn’t want to hear about that.
- The story of Lane and the wallet is a nice little way to differentiate episode two from episode one, but I don’t know that there’s much more to it, other than showing that Lane, like everybody else, is rather unfulfilled. He is pretty charming when he’s on the phone with Dolores, though.
- My favorite new character is Don’s secretary. When she explains to him how she got him a plant, I laughed. This show is great at coming up with weird secretaries for Don, as Joan attempts to combat his need to sleep with/marry the entire office.
- This week’s required reading: Slate argues that this will be the season the show tackles race and points to the advertising industry’s reluctance to hire African-Americans in the ’60s. (If you’ve got a link for Mad Men required reading, please send it to me on the Twitter.)