It's that time again! Mad Men is back for another stylish, symbol-packed season, and your faithful recappers Kelsey, Andi, and Annalee are here to break it down and hash it out. For those of you new to our Mad Men recaps, be forewarned that these aren't linear summaries, but rather discussions of the key plot points and most compelling questions of each episode—and yes, you can be sure there are some spoilers, so proceed accordingly.
Last night's season premiere was a two-hour mood-setting piece that took us from Oahu at Christmas to the sunken living room of the Draper's New York pad on New Year's Eve. We know that 1968 is a big year, filled with civil-rights protests, the assassinations of both RFK and MLK, and the advent of the Nixon administration. But right now, all our friends in the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Price know is that it's a time when fondue pots are on sale at Bloomingdale's and everything smells like reefer.
New year. Same old Don.
The more things change…
Oh Mad Men, how I've missed you! Like facial hair in the art department at SCDP, you make everything better (seriously, looking good, Stan and Ginsberg!) Last night's two hours had us laughing ("Everything turns you on, doesn't it?"), crying ("Now I know that all I have to look forward to is losing things."), cringing (WTF was going on with Betty and those rape jokes?), and ready to see 1968 through the eyes of our favorite ad execs. But while some characters are welcoming change with the excitement of Megan scoring weed on a Hawaiian street corner, others are being left in the dust.
Like the times they live in, the women of Mad Men have moved far beyond where we left them in June. Peggy is a straight-up boss at CGC, with her feet up on the desk and her underlings working nights to impress her. Joan—though we only saw a glimpse of her polyester wardrobe—has clearly come into her own as a partner at SCDP, standing tall on the new staircase (!) for the company photographer, and everyone else, to look up to. Sally is wise beyond her years, claiming to hate the cops and calling her mother "Betty." (I can't wait for this new, 14-year-old Sally. I'm glad Matthew Weiner agrees with me that she's the only Draper offspring who deserves screen time. Sorry new Gene and new Bobby, but no one cares what you think of your mom's haircut. DOES SALLY LIKE IT?) And say what you will about Betty and her bizarre behavior, the woman is clearly embracing new things. Betty Draper wouldn't have been caught dead with those hippies in the Village, and she never would've attempted that awkward, unsettling pillow talk. As if her trip to the city to look for a version of her former self wasn't enough to convince us, she's dyed her signature "bottled" blond hair as dark as her feelings. Welcome, Betty, to the world of brunettes!
The more the women of Mad Men change, though, the more the men stay the same. Don is a dead ringer for his 1959 self, and Roger's sideburns and therapy sessions aren't fooling anyone. These men are stuck in the ruts they dug for themselves decades ago, and the rest of the world is moving on without them. At his mother's funeral, Roger throws a childish temper tantrum and tries to sleep with his ex-wife. Don drinks to excess at said funeral and then, despite his season five fidelity, cheats on Megan with his neighbor's wife (we see you, Lindsay Weir!) In an era of civil rights and women's lib, it's no accident that Mad Men's resident white males are becoming as old-fashioned as their drinks.
What do you guys think? Do we need some mustaches? Beards?
• Death was a major theme last season, and with its Vietnam War timing, coffin-like violin cases, collapsing doormen, and Dante's Inferno, season six is bringing us more of the same. Will this be the year Pete finally uses that gun in his office?
• How could the premiere mention the office Christmas party but not let us see it?! I need a session with Roger's therapist to help me move past my disappointment.
• I fear we've seen the first and last of PFC Dinkins, but I want to know more about the dude who had, "In life we often have to do things that are just not our bag" engraved on a lighter.
All About My Mother
Mother issues have always been among the central themes of Mad Men, and in this season opener, they cut through to the issues closest to the heart of the show's main players. For Roger, his mother's death is another thing that he fears he's become too old and irrelevant and essentially silly to process; in one of two monologues delivered to a beleaguered therapist, he muses on the limits of the old adage about doors closing and windows opening:
"What are the events in life? Like, you see a door. The first time you come to it, you say, 'Oh, what's on the other side of the door?' Then you open a few doors and then you say, 'I think I want to go over a bridge this time. I'm tired of doors.' Finally you go through one of these things, and you come out the other side, and you realize that's all there are: doors! And windows and bridges and gates. And they all open the same way. And they all close behind you."
Perhaps this is Mad Men's way of acknowledging that the show itself increasingly seems to require everything from a Lexis-Nexis account to a dictionary of symbols to parse, its way of saying, "Chill, everybody—not everything means something." But tell that to Don, who is literally overflowing with feelings of dread about his own past at the funeral, upchucking in the corner as one elderly guest reflects on mama Sterling's love for her son. ("He was just saying what everyone else was thinking," says Roger later, unstoppable with a quip even at this low moment.) And tell it to Betty, who—in perhaps more screen time this episode than she had all last season—is undergoing mama drama unrelated to her own children. As the episode opens, she's dealing with her always-encroaching mother-in-law, who insists that she invoke Henry's name to try and get out of a speeding ticket. ("That doesn't even work for me," says Henry, when Betty tells him this.) Later, in pursuit of a wayward young friend, she ends up spending an afternoon with Heinlein-quoting squatters in Greenwich Village, helping one of them cook goulash like his mother used to make, and returns home to Rye with a dark new 'do and no explanation for her confused husband and unamused kids. (Whoa, black Betty!)
As with every new season of Mad Men, there are a few new characters who stand out. The first is Arnold Rosen, the Drapers' neighbor. Rosen is Jewish—the first time we see him, Don's wryly asking whether it's okay to wish him a merry Christmas—a heart surgeon, and enough of a pal to drop by the SCDP offices for a visit and a free Leica. The two men clearly admire one another: For Don, who is up on current news about heart transplants, Rosen is a steward of unambiguous good who goes to work—on skis, if necessary—and saves lives. Indeed, Don's interactions with Rosen offer a rare glimpse of Don seeming slightly in awe of another man's powers. But Rosen is just as enamored of Don's life; visiting the capacious, lively SCDP offices, he checks out the secretaries and, from a doorway, observes Don doing his Don thing. Until the show's final minutes, it looked like an intriguing friendship had blossomed. Now that we know what's been going on in the Rosen's apartment while Arnold is off saving lives, will that mutual admiration society look more sinister?
The second one to watch is Bob Benson, a young upstart in SCDP's accounts department who also makes no secret of his interest in Don. We're not the only ones weirded out by his brownnosing; Ken Cosgrove's not having it. It'll be interesting to see whether Benson's interest in Don is, like Rosen's appears to be, that of a hunger to be near creativity, or something more untoward. But then again, the character may have been introduced with more fanfare than he's worth—after all, we all thought Michael Ginsberg would be last season's disrupter, right?
• For all the mothers in the air this episode, the funniest bit of the whole episode involves a father—specifically, the pastor in charge of the retreat in Colorado where a frantic Peggy is trying to track down her boss, Ted Chaough. "It's about the Super Bowl," she insists, and it quickly becomes clear that while the holy man isn't willing to put Chaough on the line, he will pause his pious chiding for football talk. "I don't know, I think it's gonna be Oakland or Houston against Green Bay," Peggy concedes before awkwardly hanging up.
• Can we talk about the expansion of the SCDP offices and creative staff? In particular, there's a grand new staircase that seems to be the locus of some heavy symbolism this episode. There's also a new woman working with Stan and Ginsberg, and she's not a bright young Peggy manqué, but an older woman.
• "I don't know if it's the writers or the photographers, but it really smells like reefer in here." Actually, Joan, it's the whole episode! Don's "I smell creativity" line was choice, but he also seemed less than enthralled with Megan's interest in weed. Another signal of an insurmountable generation gap, both at the office and at home?
Don't bogart that joint, Megan.
You're hot, then you're cold...
Mad Men! It's been too long! The season opener wastes no time at all, opening with a body appearing to go cold under bright lights, transitioning to Megan sprawled out on the beach next to an Inferno-reading Don. Temperature stood out as a method of differentiating characters and circumstances this week. Don returns to work from his Hawaiian "vacation" to an office of envious and sun-deprived SCDP-ers. Like the Don we all know and love, he appears as disconnected as ever! Roger's daughter Margaret appeals to her father to help out her husband in his quest for self-made refrigerator success (a situation Roger's never known due to his own inherited advantages in life). In the most fish-out-of-water setup of the episode, Betty struggles to be taken seriously by some West Village squatters living without much heat or water in December. And, showing how far she's come, Peggy demands her secretary Phyllis to get her new coffee since her current cup has gone cold, a task that Season One Pegs surely would have scoffed at for its level of entitlement. Beyond Hawaii's water and air, temperature generally is representing these characters occupying different states.
Additionally, this episode included lots of cooling down. Peggy's coffee and Abe's sandwiches might have just been due to the late December chill, but the double-whammy deaths of Roger's mother and his shoeshine guy, and the near-death of the doorman in the Draper's building indicate that Weiner has something else up his sleeve. It's no news to us that Don's career has fallen away from him, but this season seems to be setting the stage for both the death of his dominance and the ascension of Peggy's success. Obviously, Don's career cooling down would benefit Peggy's heating up, so I'm interested so see if SCDP ends up losing clients to Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, Peggy's new firm. And in an opener as morbid as last night's, you know that, once again, no character is safe. (Pete Campbell Suicide Watch 2013, anyone?)
• Stan's beard! This has been my most hotly anticipated development of the new season, ever since I saw its appearance in pictures from the set. It looks like he's hiding woodland creatures in there! Little did we know, Peggy and Beardy have kept in touch and appear to be best friends forever. I can only hope that we see that she's maintained a friendship with Ken Cosgrove as well.
• Do we think Don is abusing meds supplied to him by his new friend Rosen? We've never seen him handle his alcohol as poorly as he did at that funeral, and there's got to be some incentive for him to hand out a free camera, other than staying on his mistress's husband's good side, right?
Got your own thoughts? Share them in the comments. And don't forget, life, unlike this analysis, will eventually end, and someone else will get the bill.