See all of Slate’s coverage of Mad Men, Season 5 here.
Julia, Patrick, Clipboard,
Tonight’s long-awaited season premiere was titled “A Little Kiss,” but it was more like a big wet kiss, the kind you plant on a loved one you haven’t seen in way too long. Matthew Weiner has said he wanted to welcome fans back after the long hiatus with something special, and did he ever. It wasn’t that this episode was groundbreaking—it was actually rather mundane in its outlines. But what Weiner wisely recognized was that after 18 months, we Mad Men fanatics were desperate just to spend some quality time with the gang again. We didn’t need ominous plot developments, looming historical events, or lawn equipment mishaps. We needed to put on our party plaid and head over to Don’s new apartment for drinks and dancing.
And what a party. Julia, you noted last season that no TV series knows how to throw a shindig like Mad Men, and tonight’s was a worthy addition to a list that includes Sally’s Cheever-esque birthday from Season 1, Roger’s retrograde Derby Day bash from Season 3, and last season’s conga-rrific Christmas party. I loved Harry’s perfectly terrible gift to Don (“the Steinway of walking sticks”), Peggy’s beatnik dance steps, and the revelation that Cosgrove’s literary side lives on, in the form of tea-infused poetry recitals. And, of course, the pièce de résistance, Megan’s NSFW performance of Gillian Hill’s earworm “Zou Bisou Bisou,” which is sure to be as much a subject of water cooler talk around America tomorrow as it was at SCDP.
One of the biggest questions we all had going into this season is how Megan would fit into Don’s life. That question remains very much open, but I learned enough in this premiere to make me far more interested in this plotline than I ever thought I’d be. In my preseason post, I accused Don of impulsively marrying the latest pretty face to succumb to his charms. I take it back—and not just because Megan is a devotee of the French way of housekeeping.
There’s far more to Don’s new wife than I’d given her credit for. She’s ambitious, working over the weekend to get her coupons done, yet enough of an outsider at SCDP to be a clear-eyed critic of the place. “What is wrong with you people? You’re so cynical,” she says to Peggy. “You don’t smile, you smirk.” You people—Mrs. Draper isn’t sure she wants to be part of this world. Her relationship with Don is equally fraught. On the one hand, she’s clearly still figuring him out—she’s the only employee of SCDP who thinks this is a man who will appreciate a surprise party. And she doesn’t appear to grasp the seriousness of the secret Don has shared with her—perhaps as a former actress, the idea of assuming a new identity doesn’t seem so foreign to her or a cause for such protracted brooding. But in other ways, Megan knows exactly what makes Don tick. Patrick, I shared your fear that Don would “lose interest and subject her to the standard indignities.” Well, he subjects her to some indignities all right, but I don’t see him losing interest any time soon. When it comes to the bedroom—or the living room floor—Megan knows what Don wants, and knows how to get what she wants out of him. Megan Calvet is no Betty Draper, who was conspicuously absent tonight. And she’s no Jane Siegel. Just ask the unlucky so-and-so in the three-piece suit.
Of course, we’re talking about Mad Men here, and this is clearly not going to be a season entirely given over to party-planning and sexual experimentation between Masters and Johnson. Anyone needing a reminder of the mine field that is the SCDP offices got one when Joan brought her baby boy in for a visit. The sequence was Mad Men at its best. The coded repartee between Joan and Roger was priceless (“there’s my baby!”) and a stark contrast with the exchange between Peggy and Pete, who goes white as a sheet when he sees Pegs standing next to a pram. This was as joyous an episode as I can recall, but the season’s coming conflicts were hiding in plain sight, like a rifle poking out of a banker’s box.
A theme Patrick identified two seasons ago seems primed to take center stage this year: The conflict between workhorses and show horses. Pete and Peggy have long been the company’s workhorses, putting in the long hours to advance the firm and their own careers. And they’re growing increasingly irritated that their contributions aren’t properly recognized. Pete has solidified his status as SCDP’s rainmaker and is understandably upset that his reward is an office with a load-bearing beam and a pickled senior partner determined to poach his leads, even if it means riding the Staten Island ferry at dawn.
(A not unrelated aside: Pete seems to have joined some kind of cult run by management consultants, or maybe Barney Stinson. When Cosgrove reassures him that the firm’s finances are “stable,” Pete offers this proverb: “Stable is that step backwards between successful and failing.” When Pete shares his frustrations with Trudy, she reminds him, “Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition; it’s the coal that fuels the fire—you know that.”)
Peggy, meanwhile, continues to annoy everyone around her by nattering on about how hard she works. She seems headed for a showdown with Don, SCDP’s most prized show horse. Don’s work habits have always been … untraditional. But despite the naps and nooners and the unannounced retreats to Palm Springs, he’s always had drive. He’s relished swooping in at the last minute, making the show-stopping sell, reveling in the awed hush his ideas inspire. But tonight we glimpsed a different Don, one who seemed unusually contented. He doesn’t have a single appointment on his calendar. When he waltzes in during Peggy’s pitch to the Heinz people, he doesn’t pull a Draper and convince them that they would be Neanderthals not to recognize the genius of the bean ballet. He lets them off the hook, promising to do better on the next go round. Granted, that might have been the sound business move in this situation—they clearly weren’t buying the dancing legumes (“where’s the bite and smile?”). But recall the Don of last season, who kicked the guys from Jantzen out of the boardroom for not appreciating his risqué bikini ad. As Peggy says, “The clients are right all of a sudden—I don’t recognize that man.” I certainly didn’t recognize the man who, after a roll in the white carpeting, tells his new wife that he doesn’t care about work. The workhorses have never been this uppity, the show horses so logy. I can’t imagine it will be long before there’s drama in the paddock.
There’s so much more in this rich double episode to discuss, but I’m running late for the status meeting, so I’m going to pass the walking stick to you guys. One major development I’m eager to hear you guys discuss is one that Tanner Colby predicted in Slate two weeks ago: It seems that race may finally come to the fore this season. As the protests that opened the episode suggest, de world’s got troubles, and SCDP won’t be insulated from them for much longer. How will hiring a black secretary change the firm? And what did you guys make of Joan’s testy relationship with her mom? Of Sally’s newly husky voice? Will either of you come to the defense of what I thought was the episode’s only wrong note: Lane and the case of the missing wallet?
Can’t wait to hear what you guys zink of all of zis.