Mad Men, Season 3

Week 1: Happy Birthday, Don
Talking television.
Aug. 17 2009 6:45 AM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 1: Happy Birthday, Don

Mad Men.
Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men 

Dear Patrick and Julia,

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

There's a tremendous amount to discuss in this premiere, but let's start with what was clearly the biggest revelation: Sterling Cooper is the go-to advertising agency for the biggest companies in Boston. We learn in this episode that Don & Co. represent Bay State powerhouses Gillette, Gorton's, and, best of all, Dunkin' Donuts. I should perhaps pause here to explain that all three of the participants in this TV Club are Boston born and bred. But I believe all of our readers, no matter where they hail from, can appreciate the implications of this development. In some future episode, we may be treated to the sight of Don Draper, Boston Kreme in hand, pitching Dunkin' executives the legendary "time to make the donuts" campaign. That would just about make my year.

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The theme of this episode is birth. It opens with Don warming up milk for a quite pregnant Betty and ends with Sally Draper asking her parents to tell her about the day she was born. The episode also takes place on Don's birthday—or rather, on Dick Whitman's birthday. As he's warming Betty's milk, Don gets that glassy look in his eye, and we're treated (or subjected, depending on your point of view) to one of his flashbacks. Although this time it's perhaps more accurately called a vision, since the events he conjures are ones he was not a witness to, namely the circumstances of his own birth. (In a turn I found rather silly, we learn from this vision that Dick was so called because his prostitute mother had vowed to cut off his father's member if he got her pregnant.)

The question looming over the episode is also related to birth, specifically whether Don has been reborn as a family man, the kind of guy who doesn't go around sleeping with random stewardesses. (We've been here before: In the Season 2 opener, a newly uxorious Don treats Betty to a night on the town for Valentine's Day but before long is back to his old ways.) Don and Betty share a sweet moment early on in this episode as well, suggesting the events of last season may have reformed him. But then he is dispatched on a sales call—to see the London Fog people in Baltimore—and even before the blond stewardess starts making eyes at him, you know this is trouble. Soon enough, the ditsy but determined stew is making a pass at our ad man. I sensed a reluctance about Don—a halfhearted resistance to this woman, but a resistance nevertheless. Did you guys notice this, too? In the end, though, Don just can't help himself, and they retire to his hotel room, where we're given yet another lesson in period lingerie (one of my favorite Mad Men, um, themes). Meanwhile, Sal Romano, also along for the trip, finds some after-dinner entertainment of his own—in the form of a fresh-faced and rather forward young bellboy.

Neither Don nor Sal gets to consummate his tryst, however—they're rudely interrupted by a fire. Did you guys find that conflagration as contrived as I did? I actually laughed out loud when Don, the second he hears the alarm, springs from bed for the fire escape. This man may have no moral compass, but don't you dare impugn his commitment to fire safety. On his way down the fire escape, he glimpses Sal and his bellhop, still somewhat compromised, suggesting this season may explore a bond between two men living a lie. I may yet forgive the writers their fire drill if this proves to be the case.

On the plane ride home, Don shares with Sal an idea for a London Fog ad featuring the tagline "Limit Your Exposure." There have been some amazing moments in Mad Men when Don's ad copy works both as a pitch and as an ironic comment on his life and its deceits. (Recall the private, "executive" bank account he dreamt up to help men keep their secrets, or his use of his family photos in the Kodak Carousel pitch I mentioned last week.) Here, however, I found the connection between the ad and the action a little too literal and couldn't imagine it passing muster with the dowdy fellows we met at London Fog. Did you guys find this scene as heavy-handed as I did?

Man, I haven't even managed to discuss the birth of the new global Sterling Cooper or the coming rivalry between two of my favorite characters, Ken and Pete. But rather than hog the ball, I'll toss it to you, Julia: What did you make of the machinations at Sterling Coop? Do you think the limeys from PPL will make for good drama this season? Will Burt and Roger grin and bear the Brits? Or might all those Boston accounts portend a revolution afoot?

One if by land, two if by sea,
John

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