Mad Men (AMC) returns this Sunday night, and it is safe to say that business is stable at the firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Pryce is afraid he must be tight with money, and the fifth partner, put-upon Pete Campbell, defines stable as “that step backwards between successful and failing.” Nonetheless, the rank-and-file account execs can spin that business is stable.
On this high-modern merry-go-around, nothing else is. Roger Sterling has a fine night in the two-hour premiere, titled “A Little Kiss.” He is a silver imp constantly sozzled, a splendiferous spendthrift, brittly belligerent, smooth as olive oil. The roll of walking-around money in his pocket would purchase, in 2012 terms, $7,000 worth of goods, services, favors, or indulgences. Roger is the foremost prankster in an episode about hijinx and hazing—about clubhouses, with their power plays, structural supports, institutional barriers to entry, and doorstep drama.
Roger is redeemed as usual by his wit, and we sometimes find wisdom jammed in the wisecracks. At one point during a party scene, 40-year-old Don Draper looks across the room, gently perplexed at the behavior of some young people. He knows that something is happening here, but …. And Roger says, in a tone combining a reassuring back-pat and look-on-the-bright-side shrug: “You’re wondering what they’re laughing about? It’s not you.”
Don seems overly sated. Because this reviewer is complying with Matthew Weiner’s request not to say anything interesting about Don’s love life, I cannot tell you about the crazy-hot Buñuelian sex scene toward which the episode, paced to tease, slowburns. But I think it’s safe to say that Don Draper rolls in late and knocks off early. He no longer really cares about work. He actually says, “I don’t really care about work” and then, ominously, rests his head on a zebra-print pillow. Also, I think I’m at liberty to mention how Pete’s hair and his patience are growing thin and that Cooper still wears a bow tie.
May I discuss what year the episode is set? As it’s been widely revealed thanks to some issues with a Dusty Springfield song, I will risk it: 1966. The episode is framed by a vision of integration of the advertising industry and opens upon the frat house of Young & Rubicam, rival to our noble anti-heroes at SCDP. Some jackasses on the executive floor are dropping brown paper bags of water on the nonviolent civil rights protestors below. The execs are caught out, wet-handed, in their reception area, and shamed off screen. Roger Sterling then attempts a practical joke. The old boy wants to razz Y&R—to subtly rub their noses in their scandal—with a display ad in the Times announcing that SCDP is a equal-opportunity employer. The other partners are not interested in doing this. Pryce, for instance, must be tight with money, and Draper doesn’t really care about work.
Sterling takes out the ad, and we all forget about it while the episode slowly resets some intrigue, lets out a little tension. Very suddenly one thing leads to another, and some people interpret the jest as a want ad. Roger: “Is it just me, or is the lobby full of Negroes?” The episode ends, pregnantly, in SCDP’s reception area, where the scene’s like an open audition for the role of Lt. Uhura. Draper tries to swallow a smirk while watching Pryce collecting résumés, and the promising new receptionist perches lemon-bright at her desk. Doors are opening. Mind the gap.