After 18 long months, Mad Men returned last night with a two-hour episode, bringing plenty of cocktails, office power plays, and surprise-party dance numbers along with it:
Don't let my fake laugh deceive you—I'm so pissed right now." - Don
Andi, Annalee, and I will be recapping Mad Men this season (just like we did with Project Runway All Stars). However, since we assume you watch the show too—and since there are plenty of summary recaps out there—we'll be picking and choosing parts we find most interesting to talk about each week. Be sure to join in in the comments!
The curtain's going up on the bean ballet
In Mad Men narrative time, only 8 months or so have passed since the season four finale. In Mad Men viewer time, however, it's been 18 months, so this two-hour catch-up, full of eye candy but relatively low on drama, is a great re-introduction to our pals.
When we last saw them, Don and Megan had set off the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce gossip circuits with a surprise engagement. Joan, pregnant by (maybe?) Roger, reconsidered an abortion. And new father Pete stewed in his self-righteous, when-will-I-get-some-respect juices. And now? Don and Megan are married, and she's a low-level creative working under Peggy, writing copy for Heinz coupons. Joan has an infant, improbably named Kevin, and is juggling both profound sleep deprivation and a disapproving visiting mother. And Pete is still stewing, only now he's living in the suburbs and has slightly less hair.
In a season premiere that seemed especially carefully paced, the key theme was that of taking steps to secure a place for oneself in the world, despite the roadblocks—racism, hierarchy, Roger Sterling—in the way.
And while there were plenty of interoffice instances of this theme playing out, the action unfolding outside on the street, in the realm of civil rights, was the most riveting. The two hours were framed by instances of fear-based pranks gone wrong. The first, set at rival ad agency Young & Rubicam, involved a clutch of young white executives who, annoyed by the sounds of protest outside their window—black picketers at the Office of Employment Opportunity—decide to throw bags of water on them.
Once the execs are busted, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce decides to ratchet up their rivals' public embarrassment by taking out an ad touting themselves as an equal-opportunity employer—the second case of sophomoric thinking that doesn't play out as expected. As the episode closes, SCDP finds its lobby filled with black job seekers, and the partners are faced with the question of whether they're willing to step up and be the progressive workplace they've unwittingly advertised themselves to be, or remain the fearful, backward-looking status quo the ad was meant to bait. As Tanner Colby's incisive Slate series on race, Mad Men, and the history of American advertising points out, the entire series has been leading up to a racial reckoning: "[Mad Men is] brave for being honest about Madison Avenue's cowardice. While Don Draper and Sterling Cooper may seem woefully behind the times, that just means [series creator] Matthew Wiener is right on schedule, historically speaking." I like that the stage is being set right from the jump this season, and that it's being done in a way that feels exactly in line with its white characters' cluelessness and desperation. Bert Cooper, maybe it's time to stop dressing like Colonel Sanders?
In other finding-a place-for-themselves set pieces, Pete's sniveling "I demand your office!" arc was as eye-rolling as ever, and Sally Draper's attempt to navigate her dad and stepmother's huge, groovy new pad was a dreamily literal look at trying to find one's way in a confusing new world. But it was Joan's story that really stood out. Maternity leave can be a special kind of hell, and Joan is plagued by much more than fatigue, loneliness, and a mother who doesn't seem to understand anything, including where the clean towels go—she's realizing that nothing is as satisfying to her as her job. Her visit to SCDP acted as last night's comic relief, what with the baby getting palmed off on everyone who peered sideways at it, but it also felt like the emotional center of the episode, particularly in Joan's interaction with Lane. Admitting her relief that she wasn't going to be replaced also seemed to function as an admission to herself that it was okay to be the woman she is—the one who loves her baby, but loves her job just as much. And with Roger's marriage to Jane devolving into open hostility (at Don's birthday party: "Why don't you sing like that?" "Why don't you look like him?"), perhaps the appealing-beyond-reason saga of Roger and Joan will get a new twist this season.
This episode was all about the interiors —Don and Megan's new apartment and its inappropriate white carpets; the smallness of Pete's office being a literal smack in the face to him; Joan's bright apartment as a maternal prison, and its elevator being the only place her son will relax and fall asleep. Here's hoping we get to see the inside of Betty and Henry's mansion next week—the Psycho-esque silhouette on view in this episode promises a whole new level of controlled chaos.
Ken and Cynthia may be giving them a run for their money, but nobody dresses for a party like Trudy and Pete.
What's new, pussycats?
In addition to some new settings (Annalee will have more on that in a minute), we got a glimpse of a few new characters in last night's premiere. Most notably, SCDP has hired several new secretaries, including Clara—Pete and Roger's calendar-sharing flirt—and the no-nonsense Caroline, whom everyone watching at my house last night loved instantly. With the absence of the late Ida Blankenship, someone had to step in and keep it real around that office. Though Clara was somewhat receptive to Roger's charms (or maybe she was in cahoots with him to steal Pete's accounts?), it's worth noting that Mad Men's portrayal of secretary culture has changed considerably from season one to season five—or, perhaps more accurately, from 1959 to 1966. I love you Caroline, but the old Sterling Cooper wouldn't have let you near a front desk unless you were willing to drop that neckline and about two decades off your age. Is this a sign that these guys are growing up? Respecting female coworkers for their talents and not their, um, assets? While Peggy continues to kick ass (and Megan appears to be following in her footsteps), Lane's heavy-breathing-filled phone calls and Harry's crass remarks about Mme. Draper indicate that SCDP is still far from an "equal opportunity employer."
The other new faces we saw last night came to us via Joan's oven-fumed, sink-clogged apartment. She has a baby now! Kevin! And her mother has moved in temporarily to help/annoy her! (Did any other American Horror Story fans have a hard time not being creeped out by Joan's mom?) Joan is clearly frustrated at home, and I'm looking forward to seeing a working mother on Mad Men once she makes her triumphant return to the office. While we're talking about Joan's apartment, though—what's the deal with that plumber, Apollo? Do you think her comment about how she's never had trouble getting his attention was hinting at a past affair? Or perhaps a future one? And when is Joan's loathsome husband going to get sent overseas already?
We need to talk about Kevin.
Mrs. Draper 2.0
No character was more polarizing among the people watching at my (paltry in comparison to Don's new penthouse) apartment last night than Megan Draper. Are we supposed to love her? Hate her? Feel sorry for her? Cringe-inducingly pantomime sex with her in the office kitchen? Part of the reason Megan elicits such complicated reactions is that, after five seasons, we've seen so much of Don Draper. Now that Megan is his wife, I for one can't help but project some of my Draper feelings onto her, even though she's known Don for a fraction of the amount of time the audience has. She doesn't know the extent of his cheating and manipulative behavior—though I think she does know that he's a liar—and she doesn't know how difficult being his wife turned out to be for Mrs. Draper 1.0. The fact that I kind of wanted Don's surprise party to fail so that Megan would realize how little she knows about him says a lot more about my feelings about Mr. Draper than it does about the Mrs.
That said, Megan is a complicated character in her own right. She clearly loves advertising work, but she was promoted because of her marriage to Don—a fact that is already causing some interesting dynamics between Megan and Peggy. She seems like an innocent, fun-loving lady, but we're already seeing some signs that she's got a hidden agenda like everyone else at SCDP. We know that she doesn't like the people she works with, anyway, and her outsider's perspective is a jarring one. (What do you mean Peggy's not nice enough for you, Megan!? Next thing we know you'll be saying that Roger isn't all that charismatic!) And of course, we can't discuss Megan without bringing up her "Zou Bisou Bisou" dance number. As awkward as it was to witness, it also underscored the difference between Megan and her friends and Don, Roger, and even former youngsters Peggy and Pete, all of whom are total squares when compared to this fresh-faced ye ye go-getter. This will clearly cause plenty of drama down the line (Don's no longer cool? Say what?), and I can't wait.
This album is actually for sale—on vinyl—from Insound. Jennifer Crane, we've found the perfect boudoir gift for you to give Harry.
As excited as I am for Mad Men to address civil rights this season, I couldn't help but think that last night's "and they call us savages" line was a little heavy-handed for the show—until I learned that that scene actually occurred, dialogue and all apparently. Matthew Weiner's attention to detail knows no bounds, and I love it.
Internet rumors abound that Don and Joan might have an affair this season. Though Joan lit up at Don's compliments last night, I don't think it will happen. At least, I don't want it to happen. It would make for some good interoffice intrigue though, what with Megan and Roger also working there. But still—Joan's too smart for that. Isn't she?
Did anyone else notice Pete's rifle in that box Clara was moving to his new office last night? We've seen that gun a few times over the years and my prediction remains: Chekhov help me, someone's getting shot with it before the series is over.
Ladies be domesticating
While Mad Men has always been populated with a good number of female characters, this episode seemed to push through its lineup of wives and mothers as quickly and thoroughly as possible (with one noticeable exception, but more on that later). We got glimpses of Jane playing the part of Roger's disaffected wife, and a post-pregnancy Trudy reassuring Pete that home is when he walks through the door (no sight of the Campbell baby yet, however). We saw the rarely featured Alex Mack—who I guess is named Cynthia in the Mad Men universe, but that will never stick in my 1990s Nickelodeon warped brain—rock a new hairdo on the arm of Ken as they attended Don's surprise 40th. We watched Megan strive to be the cool Draper wife, with greater and lesser success. And newly svelte perv of the episode, Harry Crane, mentioned his wife enough times that she was practically there while he eyed the unaccompanied redhead or narrated his lust for the second Mrs. Draper.
However, it was the quick introduction of Joan's son's ass that drove home the biggest plot shift for any of the characters. It was jarring to see her miserable at home, nagging her own mother, rather than commanding the SDCP floor. I felt so claustrophobic on Joan's behalf, watching her scenes (and life, for that matter) be limited to the confines of her home. A ride in the elevator must be as comforting for her as it is for the baby, if anything because it implies that she could be going somewhere else. Needless to say, it was a relief to see her stroll into the office and not be viewed as obsolete or forgotten. Additionally, her office visit allowed Peggy and Pete to at some point be stuck in a room with Joan's baby, thus reminding the audience that this child is the second to have been practically or completely conceived within the office's walls (well, the prior office's walls). As per usual, Peggy was a refreshing change from the mothers and wives paraded past the screen, as she looked disgusted at the baby and utterly failed at polite small talk at the surprise party. Peggy, never ever EVER change.
One can't write a blog post about Mad Men wives and mothers without talking about Betty, but apparently an episode can go by without her. Clearly, she hasn't killed the children (yet!) and is probably still married, but we know little else about the terrible, awful person we love to hate because she's terrible and awful. Betty doesn't even warrant a name drop, as Don refers to her once as Morticia Addams and then never again. However, her intentional absence in an episode so fixated on motherhood and wifedom and was even more powerful than her typically wooden presence. The always-cryptic scenes from next week seem to imply that we will see her soon (though, her appearance was avoided in those as well!).
New sights (for disfunction)!
Possibly aiding the sense of Betty's powerful presence-in-absence was the very quick glimpse we got of her new abode. Shown predominantly in the reflection of Don's car's window, Henry and Betty Francis have seemingly moved into a mansion, the size of which must have been the point of Don's earlier Addams Family jab. Just think of the shenanigans Sally and Bobby will commit there (with so many rooms, how will you ever find them?). A dauntingly and excessively large house seems to fit in as a perfect symbol, and setting, for a marriage that we already saw starting to crumble last season.
In comparison, Don's sweet new penthouse apartment seems more like a daydream in the mind of season four secretary Megan than an actual home. Remember Don's old apartment? How he found his keys in a place so dimly-lit and darkly-painted is beyond me. The Mad Men Barbie Dream Loft, in comparison, is accessorized to perfection and seems to be made of windows (and white carpet!). This is by far the most lush setting Mad Men has introduced, so I look forward to watching the drama of a hasty marriage play out here. I fear for the life of that white carpet, though. I give it two weeks before it's covered in whiskey stains and general Bobby-filth.
While nowhere near as glamorous, we were also introduced to Pete's new commute (plus commute buddies!), which indicates that he clearly ponied up and bought Trudy that house she was gunning for at the end of last season (despite Pete's claims that having Central Park for a front yard worked out perfectly well for him, which is debatable). It's unclear to me at this point whether this episode was just particularly train-heavy or if this is a regular feature we can expect, but if anything it opens the door to more characters from outside the advertising world. New clients? Maybe. Card-playing dudes complaining about the wives? Definitely. Stay tuned!
They can't keep their hands on a Bobby, can they? With a son so amorphous, how do they find him in a crowded room? I like the idea that it's not that Mad Men cast a new Bobby, but that neither Don nor Betty have a firm enough idea of what exactly he looks like, so they accidentally grabbed some other kid at the park who saw a Dick Whitman-like opportunity presented in front of him. You would think that Sally, slowly becoming the Draper voice of reason, would say something though. Maybe she wasn't that big of a fan of Bobby 2.0 either?
Notable Historical/Cultural References: The Addams Family, paper bag water bombs (unfortunately those were real), "Johnny Got His Gun," Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" (apparently the premiere originally featured her hit "The Look of Love," but they pulled it when they realized that it didn't come out until 1967).
Inappropriate Office Behavior: Lane's attempts at phone sex (no way we've seen the last of Dolores and Mr. Polito), Harry's surprise party perv routine in the office kitchen (what was with that maribou boa he wore at the party, by the way?), Roger's general behavior around a baby that is presumably his (put out the cigarette at least, dude).