Good evening and welcome to spring of 1963. The Cuban Missile Crisis is behind us now and we still have a glamorous young president in the White House, one whose influence has even prompted some men to stop treating hats as a de rigeur element of office attire. So why does it still feel so damn tense, as if everything could fall apart at any moment? Of course, it always seems to feel that way around Sterling-Cooper, but the now-regular firings going on in the wake of last season’s British takeover have heightened that feeling. It’s changing inside and outside the office. Good luck finding solid ground.
First things first: Welcome back to our coverage of Mad Men. I’ll be taking over for Noel Murray who’s asked to focus on other accounts this season. (We hear he’s cooking up great campaigns for Utz and Relaxacisor.) I’m happy to be covering my favorite show on the air right now and excited to have it back. The season premiere, “Out Of Town,” puts a lot of pieces in motion for the season to come. The British are here in the form of Lane Pryce (the always-welcome Jared Harris) and John Hooker (Ryan Cartwright), Pryce’s secretary. (But, he insists, not that kind of secretary.) As the season opens, they’ve already burned through a lot of S-C fixtures and have waited until a tasteful moment to remove Burt Petersen, whose wife is recovering from cancer. (If they were counting on him not raising hell anyway, they calculated wrong.)
By way of a next move, Pryce decides to appoint both Ken and Pete to Head Of Accounts, divvying up S-C’s clients down the middle. The move’s real motives are apparent to all. (Even Pryce doesn’t try to hide them: “Of course it’s possible someone could distinguish themselves...”) But Ken and Pete’s reactions are a study in contrasts, Ken openly refusing to compete with his rival and Pete emerging all fangs and frustration. So which one understands the situation better? Does Ken really not care about the implications of the arrangement or is he adopting a cooler strategy from the start? I’m guessing we’ll ultimately see it to be the latter, but there’s no need to speculate about Pete, who reacts exactly as we might expect from past episodes: like a child denied a toy he thought was within his reach. Between this development and Petersen’s noisy departure, Sterling-Cooper is starting to take on a Lord Of The Flies vibe.
Elsewhere in the office, Peggy continues to take to the job, even complaining about her secretary like one of the boys. Joan remains engaged to or has married—it’s not clear at this point—the jerk who raped her. She’s also developed a fractious relationship with Hooker with suggestive undercurrents. (Note the way she defends him against the hated “Moneypenny” nickname.) Roger’s largely a non-player thus far but John Slattery still makes his presence felt in every scene. And Bert Cooper’s Rothko has given way to a print of Hokusai’s “The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife,” whose thematic connections are not lost on Cooper. “It also, in some way, reminds me of our business,” he says. “Who is that man who imagined her ecstasy?” Even if he’s rarely called upon to deliver visions of erotic encounters with sea creatures, Cooper’s very much in the business of making products look like the long-wished-for fulfillment of some seemingly impossible desire.
Sometimes that comes in the form of raincoats. The “Out Of Town” trip of the title sends Don and Sal to Baltimore to secure the faith of London Fog, an American company whose name conjures up romantic imagery on this side of the Atlantic but gets dismissed as a relic of “Dickens and whatnot” by those who know London has no real fog of which to speak. (I suspect that cultural dissonance will only grow more pronounced as the season goes along, perhaps helped along by the imminent British Invasion the S-C takeover appears to foreshadow.) A flirtation with some “game” stewardess leads to Don’s first infidelity of the new season, a hotel dalliance he treats with businesslike directness; his guilt, if that’s the right name for the emotional aftertaste it leaves, will become evident when little Sally Draper grabs a pair of stickpin wings from his luggage.
It also leads, less directly, to Sal’s thwarted encounter with a bellhop, a moment interrupted by a hotel fire and made more uncomfortable by Don catching him in the act. Don’s immediate reaction is tough to read and his considered reaction even tougher. Seemingly on the verge of talking to Sal the next day about what he’s seen, he instead spins into an ad idea designed to give London Fog the sexy edge it needs to compete in the marketplace that produced the tacky Fleischmann’s ad the two men mocked on their flight down to Baltimore. Don seems simply tamping down any reaction for the moment. But he also knows what it means to lead a secret life. Whether he’s a man ahead of his time or of it in his gut feelings about Sal’s sexual orientation, he must also recognize that he has a lot more in common with him than he thought.
So we return again to the many lives of Don Draper, once known as Dick Whitman and here known briefly as “Bill,” an accountant on a top-secret mission. From the looks of this episode, he’s resigned himself to striking a balance between his desire to be a good husband and father (“I’ll always come home”) and the possibilities to cheat that keep coming his way (“I’ve been married a long time. You get plenty of chances.”) “I keep going a lot of places and ending up somewhere I’ve already been,” he tells the stewardess. But I wonder if that will still be true at the end of this season. We’ve moved forward only a few months from the end of season two and the world around Draper and company seems not to have changed all that much. I have no idea where season three will end, but for now we’ve landed in the last moments of the era already being mythologized as an American Camelot at the time. It feels a bit like some place we’ve already been, but not someplace we can stay for long. Grade: A-
- Don and Sal take on multiple identities this episode while interacting with characters whose uniforms keep their identities fixed and public. Discuss.
- The episode begins and ends with two childbirth scenes. In the first, Don recalls what he imagines is own origins to be in reveries that look like Eugene O’Neil plays. In the second, Sally asks to hear her own origins and, notably, Don can’t finish the tale.
- Betty had a “little stuffed Eeyore” set aside for Sally. Does that seem terribly sad to anybody else?
- Then again, Sally always make me sad. Destroying Don’s luggage to keep him home? How tragic is that? (But it did yield this wonderfully period-appropriate bit of insensitive dialogue: “She’s taken to your tools like a little lesbian.”
- Anyone care to speculate on the extent of Sal's previous physical experience with other men, if any?