Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 5, Episode 1 of AMC's "Mad Men," entitled "A Little Kiss."
Is everyone ready for the status meeting?
All together now: Ahhhhhh!
We went a long time between "Mad Men" seasons, my fellow fans, and Sunday's two-hour premiere was a chance to just exhale and hang with them. Didn't it feel good?
Sure, nothing cataclysmic happened in the season premiere -- Lane finding a wallet, Don not scolding a client and Joan not being fired don't exactly count as earthshattering events. But so what? Surely there are big events to come, and, as has happened in every other "Mad Men" season premiere, no doubt things were set in motion that will continue to play out for the next 11 hours of the show's fifth season.
I don't know about you, but I just luxuriated in the season premiere, which revolved around the set piece of the party, which, more than anything else, felt like a big, shiny present to fans. Don's surprise birthday bash was brightly colored and amusing and, like the best "Mad Men" moments, full of lots of intersecting layers. Was Megan wrong to throw Don a surprise party and then act like a cabaret vamp in front of all their co-workers? Was Don wrong to be pissy and annoyed regarding Megan's impulsive, but well-intentioned gestures? Were the onlookers at the party feeling lust, embarrassment or just plain old shock?
This is "Mad Men," so all those things and more were in play. What I've always loved about the show is that there are so many different ways to read key moments, and I'm sure there were a million details in "A Little Kiss" that I didn't pick up on. That's why I'm glad we'll be convening here each week, highballs in hand, to talk about what we liked, loved or were mystified by. And of course, it's okay to dislike parts of the show too, but good Lord, after more than 500 days away from "Mad Men," I can't find anything to criticize about the premiere. I'm just so delighted these people are back. I've missed the SCDP gang.
And no, I'm not just pleased because the season premiere took place in the month and year I was born (June, 1966), which amuses me greatly for some reason. I'm just intrigued to see how their lives have and have not changed. Let's take a look at where the key players are:
- Don Draper (Jon Hamm): He's now married to Megan and living in a swanky apartment in Manhattan. He appears to be relatively happy and content. Nothing good can come of that, am I right? Though I'll admit, it's nice to see Don in a relatively serene mode, given how his professional and personal life cratered in Season 4.
- Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss): She's still with her journalist boyfriend, Abe Drexler, and still has her nose stuck to the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce grindstone. She has to work with her amusing frenemy, Stan Rizzo, with whom she shares a detente after their entertaining Season 4 confrontation.
As a career woman from a traditional family and culture, it's Peggy's lot in life to always have to deal with tricky, unexplored territory, and the presence of Megan in her office is yet another complex situation she has to finesse. Megan is smart and she appears to be hardworking, but she didn't quite earn her place at the creative table -- being married to the boss didn't hurt when it came to moving up the food chain. So Peggy's got to not only look out for her own interests and navigate through SCDP's sometimes inhospitable waters, she also has to make sure she doesn't ruffle the feathers of Don's young bride. But she's Peggy, she'll figure it out (she always does).
- Roger Sterling (John Slattery): He's still Roger, tossing off bon mots and draining martini glasses like there's no tomorrow. Despite the appearance of placidity, however, things are not going well for Roger at all. He's clearly seen as something of a joke at the agency, and given that Bert Cooper is about as productive as Caroline's gift plant, there is a sense that the firm has far too much dead weight at the top. Let's face it, Roger can't coast along forever without bagging a major client like Lucky Strike (which exited the agency last season) or a string of minor clients, but he's never been one to aggressively pursue anything but pretty girls. But even Roger, on some level, understands that his position is probably untenable, hence his expedient solution to Pete's office complaints.
There's little appreciation of Roger on the home front as well; he and Jane now have the kind of toxically bitter marriage that he and Mona once shared. How much longer can Roger keep skating by and not doing much to justify his position at home and at work? I don't have any inside information about what's to come, but I predict that will be one of the major storylines of the new season.
- Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser): Now living in the suburbs with Trudy and their baby girl, Tammy, Pete still feels unappreciated, and despite his tendency to whine and think of himself as put-upon, it's hard not to think he's right about a lot of things. He has been bagging clients for a long time, maybe not white whales like American Airlines and Coca-Cola, but the kind of clients that have kept Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (just about) in the black. Trudy may be right -- his dissatisfaction has only brought him more success -- but there's only so long he's going to want to play second fiddle to the increasingly irrelevant Roger.
- Harry Crane (Rich Sommer): He is such a douche. Because of that, his scene with Stan was absolutely priceless; that comedic moment and his confrontation with Roger were among the episode's high points. But if you ever find yourself thinking that the message of "Mad Men" is that people don't really change, just look at Harry. He's changed a lot -- for the worse. His transformation into a glib, self-serving jackass is a little amusing, but it's also a little sad, given that Harry's sentimental, emotional reaction to Don's "Carousel" speech in Season 1 was one of the high points of the early days of the show. Now Harry's just gross .... terrifically amusing, but gross.
- Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton): That hack! The agency's calmest employee is doing fine and still apparently happily married.
- Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka): I found it quite interesting that the two main images that began the season premiere focused on children. There was a lingering shot of the young African-American boy who was among the protesters outside Young & Rubicam, and we went from that scene to a long shot of the young Sally Draper, who is still adjusting to having a weekend dad, a new little brother and a new stepmother. I wonder if "Mad Men" is telling us that the season will be about the ways in which the young people are really taking over and that SCDP is completely unprepared to handle that (aside from possibly Peggy, who's young and relatively plugged into youth culture, and Pete, who's always been more enlightened on matters of race than his colleagues).
As for Sally's brief screen time, I'm betting she really did know where the bathroom was and just wanted her dad to get up and make her pancakes. I can't blame the kid for wanting her father's attention, but who knows how much quality attention she's getting from any parent these days. The idea of Sally as a future Weather Underground activist or radical of some kind -- a fate many have predicted for her -- does not seem that unlikely. Let's face it, she's already got the kind of issues and baggage that could drive her in extreme directions in the not-distant future. For now, though, Sally's just watching everything with those big eyes of hers, which miss nothing. (Actress Kiernan Shipka talks about Sally's relationship with new stepmom Megan here.)
- Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks): How much did I absolutely adore the scene between Lane and Joan? So, so much. Here are two characters who don't let people in often, who are so proper and so careful in everything they do -- and they're both lonely. I love that they got to comfort each other, but in one respect, I still think Joan will stay lonely.
I bet few of her contemporaries -- certainly not her disapproving mother -- understand what it's like for a new mother to want to return to work, not just for the money, but for reasons involving self-esteem and accomplishment. I so related to Joan's plight; when I had my son almost a decade ago, I was almost ashamed of the fact that, though I love him a lot, there were many times during my maternity leave when I wanted badly to be back among my co-workers. It's hard to go from being good at a job that puts you in contact with a lot of other smart adults to feeling at sea at a very different kind of job that can leave you feeling isolated, lonely and confused. Joan loves her baby, but she wanted to go back to work because she's good at it, she derives a sense of satisfaction from it and she commands a lot of hard-won respect at the firm, which she helped build. Not that having a kid isn't an incredible feeling, but, as Lane said, the home front doesn't always supply everything a person needs. But, probably like a lot of women Joan knows, her mother takes it as a given that her daughter would want to quit at her first opportunity, even though it appears her mom supports herself and is no longer married.
The incongruities of her mother's position aren't lost on Joan. Speaking more generally, Joan's undermining mother certainly does explain a lot -- we see why Joan is so strong (she had to be) and why she occasionally makes really terrible decisions (she doesn't truly believe in herself and her instincts). On some level, Joan wants to follow "the rules" for being a successful woman, but there are precious few rules and rewards for the kind of life she's trying to lead as both a mother and a successful professional. And speaking of motherhood, what exactly does Roger know about the parentage of young Kevin? In Season 4, I believe Roger was left thinking that Joan would have an abortion, but when (some time after the Season 4 finale) she showed up at the office very obviously pregnant not too long after their post-mugging encounter, he must have figured out the truth. But being Roger, he's probably quite able to suppress whatever information he doesn't want to know. No doubt we'll get some enlightenment on that front soon. (Side note: If only Joan and Peggy were better friends, they could commiserate about their dilemmas as working women and as women who became pregnant via co-workers. That will never happen, given the secrets both are keeping, and it was especially poignant to see the visibly uncomfortable Peggy and Pete try to offload the baby on others.)
- Lane Pryce (Jared Harris): Lane and Rebecca have a very proper marriage and Mr. Pryce is ever correct in his behavior and demeanor, but we know there's a passionate side to the stiff-upper-lip Brit. He had much more than a fling with his chocolate Bunny last season, and he's clearly taken with the buxom Dolores, with whom he has the Lane Pryce equivalent of phone sex (he made a reference to underwear! Oh Mr. Pryce, behave!). How much longer before Lane turns those buttoned-up longings into reality? I wonder, could he and Joan find themselves together? It'd probably be a terrible idea for her to have another office affair, but these two lonely souls, I think, would actually treat each other well. Goodness knows they both deserve it, given the kind of parenting and relationships they've had.
- Bert Cooper (Robert Morse): "Do not begin this meeting without me!" Oh Bert. Don't ever change.
- Betty Draper Francis (January Jones): As creator Matthew Weiner said in a pre-season interview with HuffPost TV, January Jones doesn't appear much this season due to her real-life pregnancy and the birth of her son, so we won't be seeing a lot of Betty (or presumably Henry) this season. When she does return, who expects her to be in a happy marriage? Yep, nobody.
And why are these characters so unhappy? I've been thinking a lot lately about how "Mad Men" is, in some ways, a meditation on narcissism (as was "The Sopranos" before it). All of these characters are trapped inside their own concerns and frequently unable to see beyond their own agendas and desires. Even when they're in relationships, they tend to see their own idealized or disillusioned version of the other person, not who the person really is. (Don't we all? And that's why the show's so fascinating: Not because they're wearing Pucci prints and drinking gallons of whiskey, but because they're every bit as hopeful, confused and self-deluding as we are.)
Don wants Megan to be his toy; he wants a tigress in the bedroom who's also a tame pet that he can bring to work. He wants Megan to exist on his terms and do his bidding, but what about her own desires and agenda? What if she's young and likes to party and show off (not just show off her handsome husband, but her own lithe body and looks)? What if she wants a real career, not the one Don has condescendingly handed her? She may not really care about his secret identity as Dick Whitman, but does Don know her secret dreams and desires? Or is she another bauble that makes him feel good about himself? We all saw how his last marriage to a decorative, unfulfilled young woman worked out.
Even Roger's maneuvers to give Pete a better office aren't about Pete; they're about the old lion defending his turf, emphasis on "his." Roger doesn't know or care what Pete or Jane or anyone else wants; he just wants things the way they always were, and he doesn't stop to think about the big picture or the agency's overall health. It's all about his self-gratification and his need for stability and attention. If he were more aware of the feelings of others, would he have said, "There's my baby" as he walked up to Joan, given their history? Did he stop to think about how those very charged words might land with her? Of course not. Even more than Don does, he lives inside his own bubble of selfishness.
Hang on, I seem to be getting all serious here, but this wasn't one of those "Mad Men" episodes; it was all about letting us visit some of our favorite people and watch them engage in the kind of office politics and Saturday-night shenanigans that make us think a little, but also make us laugh.
But allow me to indulge in one more serious thought before I start to list my favorite moments and lines: Could "Mad Men" finally be taking on race in a real way? It's about time. I give the show credit for, from Day 1, reflecting the racism of the era in its full ugliness. We like to think these characters are special, and in many ways, they are; but their "jokes" and comments (the hideous "tote that barge") are alarmingly typical of the kind of casual prejudices that existed then (and are still present in our society now). I really do hope that SCDP takes on an African-American employee and/or otherwise takes this theme seriously this season. Despite having shown ad men and their wives interacting with black characters in the past, "Mad Men" couldn't really think of itself as the ultimate '60s drama unless it took on the issue of race in a much more forthright, concrete way.
And now, on to a bullet-point list of some favorite moments and lines:
- I like Don's new secretary, Caroline -- she has spirit. Anyone who stands up to Roger when he's in his most patronizing mode is okay by me.
- I loved the subplot about Roger and Pete; Pete's frozen grin when he showed up to the Mohawk lunch and saw Roger already there was priceless, as was Pete's diabolical Staten Island revenge.
- Lane, who toted a clipboard to the impromptu status meeting, reminded me of Murray from "Flight of the Conchords." I half expected him to take attendance ("Lane, present!").
- Megan is very young and naive, but she's got to realize (if she doesn't already) that working at Don's agency is a bad idea. Sure, she's got all the job security she could want, but nobody takes her seriously, and that'll be the case as long as she's both an employee and the boss' wife. Also, that's another reason her chanteuse routine at the party wasn't such a great idea. These weren't just Don's co-workers she was shimmying for, they were her co-workers too. If she wasn't taken seriously before, her cabaret number wasn't exactly about to get everyone to think of her as future copywriter material.
- It's indicative of the level of complacency in many parts of society that Trudy honestly didn't know why 1966 had been a "bad" year and that the Heinz folks thought that the way to be "in" with the kids was to have protestors agitating for more baked beans. No matter what year it is, there are always some people who are fully capable of living sheltered, blinkered, superficial lives.
- Speaking of Heinz, a great line from Peggy: "Clients are right all of the sudden? I don't recognize that man. He's kind and patient!"
- Speaking of beans, a great line from Stan: "I got tickets to the bean ballet, and the curtain's about to go up."
- Roger and Jane: A cautionary tale for Don and Megan? Discuss.
- I am completely sure that Harry is the kind of guy who will be among the first to adopt leisure suits and gold chains when those become the fashion. He is so that guy.
- What was most delicious about the party at Don and Megan's? The costumes were to die (costume designer Janie Bryant outdid herself with the period-appropriate mix of bold colors and prints). The band was very space-age bachelor pad, and the pad itself was insanely fun in a mid-'60s, cool-cat sort of way. Topping off the party like frosting on a cake were the series of frozen smiles that Don supplied: One to his wife, who threw a bash to remind him that he's 40; another to his guests, who he has to see all week at work anyway and, therefore he couldn't really relax; another to Peggy, who couldn't resist launching an uncalled-for dig about the Heinz account; and another to Megan herself. The naive French-Canadian minx was undeniably sexy during her dance, but the look on his face said that Don would have rather gotten a private dance and not have had his wife displaying her wares for everyone from a slack-jawed Harry to Don's rumpled accountant. Having said that, his discomfort turned to super-heated desire when she decided to clean up the house in her sexy black underclothes. As you do.
- Oh snap, Sterling-style: Roger - "Why don't you sing like that?" Jane - "Why don't you look like that?"
- One question I had: We saw Don's fairly brutal dis of Megan's party late Saturday night, then they went to work together Monday morning and made up that afternoon, in typical Don Draper style. But what happened on Sunday? Did they just avoid each other and avoid the inevitable fight? It was a bit inelegant, but it seems as though script required to have Megan pour out her troubles to Peggy, hence the show had to awkwardly skip the day on which any other couple would have likely had their post-party fight.
- Harry: "So this is every month?" Roger: "Get out of my office!" The Roger-Harry scene was comedy gold.
- So typical of Roger's casual sexism and selfishness: "They're all great girls, until they want something." Yes, God forbid that anyone but you want something, Roger. I love the character -- five seasons in, his raffish wit is intact -- but he can be such an ass.
- I'm sure hardcore Campbell fans spotted Pete's rifle in the office-swap scene.
- "You don't know her at all," Don says about Megan. But does he really know her? Time will tell.