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).
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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