Mad Men is a show about themes and characters. Not so much about plot. The action tends to be slow and usually subtle, with pieces moving into place over time. Recapping the show can make it sound like a soap opera, and it's much more than that. Yet in all reviews of Mad Men, there will be substantial spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, you've been warned.
After the set-up in the season opener, "Out of Town," this third season's theme of change kicked into gear in "Love Among the Ruins." But that change is tempered by confusion, and ever shadowed by the overhang of the past.
The episode, named after a Robert Browning poem about the ruins of a once great capital and the need to choose love over passing glory, starts off with a big dose of the coming '60s sexual energy and closes with a reverie about finding peace through touching the earth, followed by a brief coda of mentor Don Draper and protege Peggy Olsen working together.
In between, we learned more about the characters and the changes taking place in this pivotal year. And we tapped into very contemporary themes about corporate disarray and aging parents.
Here's what happened in the Mad Men season opener, "Out of Town."
This was a much bigger episode for Peggy Olsen than the season opener, in which she figures barely at all. With the guys (even Sal, who has little to do in this outing after taking a big step outside the closet last week) enthralled by Ann-Margret's corny but ravishingly energetic number from Bye Bye Birdie, Peggy goes the other way and rejects potential client Pepsi's plan to steal it to sell its new diet cola for women, Patio. (It actually was, quite bizarrely, called Patio until 1964, when it became, hey, Diet Pepsi.)
Peggy doesn't like the song because she doesn't like sexy Ann-Margret or the theme of using the ad to appeal to men's tastes. Is this proto-feminism on her part or prudery? Remember that Peggy was so out of touch with her own sexuality that, after gaining weight all season one, she went to an emergency room complaining of a bad lunch room sandwich only to learn that she was about to give birth. (I actually know someone from this period, also brought up old school Catholic like Peggy, who went through much the same experience.)
New Sterling Cooper co-accounts chief Ken Cosgrove listens to Peggy and then shoots her down, as does Don later.
At home that night, wearing a nightgown straight out of The Sound of Music, Peggy does her own, very good, impression of Ann-Margret in the mirror, showing both her displeasure with the man-getting act and satisfaction with her ability to deliver a reasonable facsimile. The next night, she picks up a clueless nice guy in a bar for some not quite aborted action.
Sterling Coo's other new co-accounts chief, Pete Campbell, father of Peggy's given-up child, fares less well than Ken, letting pompous liberal Paul Kinsey pontificate about the great history of Penn Station to client Madison Square Garden, which is out to tear it down. Paul, as Pete points out after the MSG folks storm out, is fine with "putting an atom plant on the East River," another Kinsey account, but has a problem tearing down an old building.
Of course, Paul is right as well, pointing out that most of Rome's antiquities ended up in other countries as a result of Roman abuse and neglect.
Had Pete not been up to his old self-regarding tricks playing up his old New York aristocracy roots, and listening closely enough to where Paul was going in to steer things in another direction, a crisis would have been averted.
The milieu of Mad Men is compelling, but not all that admirable.
But then we wouldn't have had a very key sequence of events involving Don Draper and the new British owners of Sterling Cooper.
The new Sterling Coo overseer from London, Lane Pryce, turns out to be both decisive and uncertain, not to mention attached to a snooty wife who chills a getting-to-know-you dinner with Don and Betty Draper. Summoning creative director Draper and old agency bosses Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper to complain about the loss of Campbell's Soup UK, he encounters disdain from Sterling and Cooper -- whose roles are increasingly vague and supernumerary -- and bemusement from Draper.
But he's far more decisive when he enlists Don, and to a lesser extent Roger, to win back Madison Square Garden after what the sputtering MSG chief described as Paul Kinsey's "radical, beatnik, Communist" encomium to the history of "Beaux Arts masterpiece" Penn Station.
Roger, tellingly, barely makes it to the lunch before the client, getting some flak from Don, who seems quite perturbed with his old pal. After all, it is Roger who precipitated the sale of the agency to the Brits, through his insistence on ripping off some unrelated advice from Don as rationale for dumping his old wife and marrying Don's 20-year old secretary. And poor Roger has just suffered through a morning session with his ex, his irritated daughter, and his future son-in-law planning a wedding, which is set for November 23, 1963 -- as we know, the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Daughter dearest doesn't want daddy's new wife at her wedding, snitting that they look like sisters. Actually, the evil step-mom looks 21 and, in this scene, Margaret looks all of 15.
Don's not sympathetic, given the trouble Roger's caused, and wonders aloud what Roger does with his week. One thing he does is stop the Madison Square Garden rep from leaving as soon as he arrives, turning things over to Don who carries the day with some clever strategy and positioning that reflects his own philosophy.
An uneasy dinner ensues between Don and Betty Draper and Sterling Cooper's new British overseer and his snobby wife.
With the Madison Square Garden folks whining about public opposition -- the nerve of some people! -- Don allows that if they don't like the conversation, they should change the conversation.
"Let's say that change is neither good or bad. It simply is," Don observes. "It can be greeted with terror or joy. A tantrum that says, 'I want it the way it was.' Or a dance that says, 'Look, it's something new.'"
Reaching back to his California sojourn late in season two, he says: "I was in California, everything's new there, the people are filled with hope. New York is a city in decay. With Madison Square Garden, it's a city on the hill again."
Agree or disagree, it's shrewd, very timely advice, and naturally wins back Madison Square Garden.
Only to have Pryce come in and inform Don that London has decided to get rid of the account he'd just insisted that Don had to get back. Why? Because it won't make so much money the first few years in its start-up phase. And the home office, having sacked a third of Sterling Coo's employees, is focusing on the short-term bottom line.
Don argues that Madison Square Garden is their way into the 1964 World's Fair -- these were enormous global events in the day -- and tremendous business for decades to come, but Pryce's hands are tied. When Don wonders aloud why the not exactly innovative British firm acquired Sterling Cooper, Pryce gives his clearest sign of uncertainty yet: "I don't know."
While Don is pushing the change issue on the business front, he ends up saddling himself with the past on the home front.
Hey, where's Joan Holloway?
Incidentally, before going to big developments on the Draper home front -- which I don't like as much as the advertising side of the show -- it must be said that for the second episode in a row, one of the show's most intriguing characters, Joan Holloway, has almost nothing to do. She welcomes Betty Draper to the office for her dull dinner with the Brits, shares a meaningful look with Roger (redolent of their now very past relationship), briefly charms some clients, and allows how she plans to work only until June 1, when her perfect, and perfectly loathsome, doctor husband becomes chief resident. Or so he thinks. Presumably she'll finally get something to do when that doesn't happen.
So back to the perfect 'burbs of Westchester County and the perfect home of Don and Betty Draper.
As we see early in the episode, Betty is having a grouchy pregnancy. Now I can only imagine what it would be like to be pregnant myself. But I'm fairly certain that complaining that the household is out of Melba toast, a staple of weight-watching women of the time, is more a sign of encroaching neurosis than a healthy pregnancy.
Betty has Don back, and he is being dutiful and loyal, if not entirely faithful, as we saw in his interlude with the stewardess in the season opener. But she's still not happy.
She's especially not happy about her father, whom she doesn't really like but romanticizes. He's coming down with what will come to be known as Alzheimer's disease and has just been dumped by his new wife, much resented even before that by Betty for usurping her late mother's role. Betty and her somewhat weaselly brother William debate what to do about dear old dad.
Do William and his wife move into the family house to take care of him (thus also giving William a leg up on claiming the old homestead down the line)? Do they place him in a nursing home?
This, of course, is a dilemma faced increasingly by baby boomers today, with regard to the likes of Don and Betty.
To make a very long story short, Don reverses his position in the office of choosing the future and ignoring the past and decides to make his wife happy by taking his father-in-law into their home. (Or, as he puts it as he announces this decision to his brother-in-law, his home.)
Despite an idyllic family sequence at episode's end with a beaming Grandpa Gene at a school Maypole dance, this will end well if it ends only in tears. Indeed, we get a foretaste when Gene, hearing sirens in the distance in the middle of the night, empties the Drapers' well-stocked liquor collection down the kitchen sink so as to foil the Prohibition cops.
Not a perfect episode, but again a satisfying one, and one which places many intriguing elements in motion.
While both the corporate disarray and Alzheimer's themes are highly relevant to the present, the latter has been done a lot and plays here like an updating of thirtysomething. But then, I prefer the action in the city to the angst in the suburbs, important though the home front story is to the overall thrust of the series.