Starting today, I’ll be reviewing the new season of Mad Men every week. While I’m a little late with this one, I expect new reviews will go up on the Tuesday after each episode. This one is also a little longer than most will be, since it was a double-length episode and I had some preliminary thoughts to get out of my system.
Au revoir, Betty. Bienvenu, Megan. The times, they are a-changin’.
The absence of January Jones in the Season 5 premiere of Mad Men has largely been attributed to the actress’s real-life pregnancy—Betty will be back—but the timing could not be more appropriate. It is no coincidence that the final episode of last season—in which Don proposed out of nowhere to his young new girlfriend—was called “Tomorrowland.” As this season opens, in the summer of 1966, the era of Betty Draper and everything she represents is over, and we’ve taken an uncomfortably quantum leap into a very different future.
Mad Men, as I’m sure we’ll discuss more over the course of this season, has always seemed to me to about the evolution of the American dream. America is a self-invented nation, and the concept of the self-made man is a bedrock tenet of its mythology. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the personification of this questionable but quintessentially American notion in the 20th century: he is, literally, a self-made man, one who has invented his entire identity out of whole-cloth. Born in the Great Depression, tempered (not very honorably) in war, he re-imagined himself in the ’50s and prospered during the golden age of capitalism to reach the height of his powers in the early 1960s. When we first met him, four full seasons ago, he had everything his era told him he should have: a good job, a house in the suburbs, a beautiful blonde wife, and two adoring and adorable children. That this fragile dream was all built on a lie just made it all the more precious; that he knew it was all undeserved just made him all the more desperate to hold onto it, no matter what. He never even seemed to particularly enjoy it, but it was such an important symbol of status and self-worth that he sacrificed his own brother rather than see it threatened.
More than anything else, Betty was the symbol of that life: the pure and innocent trophy earned from all his accomplishments. No matter how many brunettes he cheated with—and they always seemed to be brunettes—he always had his perfect blonde wife to keep his house, to raise his children, to show off on his arm. She was Grace Kelly, Donna Reed, and Emily Post rolled into one, and she both represented and defined the man Don wanted to be. And so, like Caesar’s wife, Betty had to be above reproach: remember how Don shamed her when she dared to wear a bikini? Remember how he blamed her when a drunken Roger Sterling (John Slattery) put the moves on her? Remember how, when he finally discovered that she had fallen for someone else—after years of his own philandering—he lashed out at her and called her a whore?
At the end of the third season Don’s perfect life collapsed under the weight of its own illusions. (Not coincidentally, the destruction of this ’50s-style ideal happened at nearly the same moment as the Kennedy assassination, ushering in the turmoil of the ’60s.) Sterling Cooper lost its independence—moving from self-made company to a cog in someone else’s wheel—and so Don led a revolution and created a new agency. That part he didn’t mind so much: in fact, he seemed to relish the opportunity to reinvent his workplace as he’d reinvented himself. (“I never pictured myself in a place like this,” he told Roger as they closed the doors to the old Sterling Cooper offices for the last time.)
But at the same time his perfect job self-destructed, so did his perfect marriage, and cut loose from that mooring Don Draper was a man at sea. For the first half of Season Four, Don was a man who had lost his mojo: a sullen drunk in a crappy apartment, paying hookers to slap him around. He had had the American dream—the thing he was supposed to want—and he had lost it, and he hated himself because he knew it was because he had never really deserved it to begin with.
Interestingly, he had the opportunity to end up with Betty 2.0, in the form of Bethany Van Nuys (Anna Camp)—a pretty, vapid blonde socialite so proper she wouldn’t even sleep with him—but, to his credit, he wasn’t interested in going backwards. (“She’s a sweet girl, and she wants me to know her,” he said, “But I already do.”) He also had a brief relationship with Dr. Faye (Cara Buono)—another blonde, but one, I’d argue, who arrived on the scene too early. Dr. Faye—an independent, respected, professional woman—was ahead of her time. Ironically, it was probably Faye who taught Don that a different vision of his perfect domestic life was possible, but he was nowhere near ready for her: she wouldn’t have been a trophy, and she wouldn’t have been a homemaker, and she would have expected to relate to Don as an equal. The type of egalitarian power-couple they would have formed is not—yet—any part of the American dream as Don can conceive it, so she too had to be rejected.
Enter Megan. A hot young secretary with professional aspirations, a sexually open-minded brunette who gets along with his children and looks good on his arm: she’s the perfect transitional woman for Donald Draper, existing somewhere between Betty and Peggy (Elizabeth Moss). It was in California that he decided to propose to Megan, and California has always represented the future on Mad Men. “Everything is new, and it’s clean,” he said once, of the Golden State. “And the people are filled with hope.” That’s how he sees Megan as well: she is the future.
In “A Little Kiss” we get our first glimpse of what that future will be. Gone forever is the upright, uptight suburban ideal of the ’50s that Betty Draper represented: Betty and her (older) new husband are living in a Gothic mausoleum that just emphasizes how passé they are, while Don and his new wife are ensconced in a swinging, modern pad in the city. We see Don’s children—the first generation for whom divorce will be commonplace—trying to adjust to the changes. (They seem to like Megan, but it’s interesting to note how Sally [Kiernan Shipka] is already becoming more independent and mature; with her childlike mother and distant father, she’s forced to assume more responsibility, even managing her father’s visitation schedule for him.)
And how far we have come from the proper dinner parties Betty Draper used to throw, where “fun” meant an international menu with some daring Heineken beer on the buffet. Megan—against the wiser advice of Peggy, who knows Don far better—decides to throw Don a surprise party, and invite all of the people Don likes: she’s 25, likes to party, and she promises Peggy that “Everyone is going to go home from this, and they’re going have sex.” It’s a ridiculously ill-conceived notion, which ignores the fact that Don doesn’t really like anyone, and has always tried to keep his domestic life carefully protected from both his work life and his sex life.
In the party, which constitutes the major set-piece of the episode’s first hour, Megan effectively blows down all the walls of decorum that Don—and the society he represents—had put up between the various, carefully compartmentalized aspects of his life. She invites all of his work colleagues to come peek behind the curtain of the Great and Powerful Don; she invites her younger and more liberated friends —including a Black homosexual one can’t imagine entering Betty Draper’s home—to mingle with them and smoke pot on the balcony; and she performs a sexy burlesque routine to “Zou Bisou Bisou” that will—and does—have all the men in Don’s office leching and speculating.
The party scene is filled with great moments of cultural shift, large and small, from the bizarre walking stick Harry (Rich Sommer) gives Don as a gift—“Don Ameche has one!”—to the passing references to Vietnam and the race riots. (The older generation—and the younger people who emulate them, like Pete and Trudy—are largely oblivious to what’s happening in the world.) My favorite moment is very subtle: the first person who greets Don at the party is his accountant Frank (Jack Laufer), who—Peggy has assured Megan—Don “likes.” But there’s also a moment of awkwardness as Don is introduced to Frank’s middle-aged wife, whom he has never met: he likes Frank, but Frank is his accountant: a professional relationship Don has never felt the need to personalize. Everyone at the party is someone Don wants to either respect or fear him, and he would have invited exactly none of them over to watch his hot young wife dance in a short and slinky dress.
But the fallout from this orgy of collapsing generational boundaries is interesting as well. It goes without saying that Betty would never have pulled a stunt like this—the very idea would have horrified her—but if she had, Don would have chewed her out and bullied her, just like he did when she put on a bikini. He doesn’t do that to Megan, and she wouldn’t put up with it if he did. (“It was my money, and you don’t get to decide what I do with it,” she tells him, laughing, signifying another major paradigm shift.) Gone are the days when he could have seized the moral high-ground and lectured her—as he would have lectured Betty—that this isn’t the way to behave; all he can tell her is that it’s not his style, and he can’t change. “I’m 40,” he says, wearily. “It’s too late.” He recognizes that this is the future: that’s what he wanted when he married Megan, but he’s realizing he’s not sure he belongs here.
As large a part of the generational shift as any other is the looming sexual revolution; as I said above, Don always kept his adventurous sex life separate from his marriage, but now—for the moment, at least—they have merged. Whatever else Megan and Don don’t have in common, they seem to share a fairly voracious sexual appetite. It was Megan, after all, who first seduced Don last season, over his demure protests that he really, really shouldn’t be doing this. (“Let’s be clear,” she said. “I’m not going to run out of here crying tomorrow; I just want you right now.”) And she does it again in this episode, resolving their fight by stripping down to her carefully-planned lingerie to create a slightly kinky cleaning scenario, and taunting him into stepping out of his old-man guise and taking charge. “You don’t like presents, you don’t like nice things. Besides, you’re too old. I don’t need an old person. You’re probably too old to do it anyway…You don’t get to have this. Go sit over there. All you get to do is watch.” To our modern eyes, it’s not the most empowering expression of feminist strength, but it is an exercise of her sexual power, in however dark and awkward a manner. (Have we ever seen a woman take the upper hand with Don? She did everything but give him the patented Don Draper Fingerbang.) The days of Don being completely in charge of his relationships with women are obviously over: Megan is clearly a formidable partner for him, and she may turn out, sexually speaking, to be the Don Draper to his Betty.
There are other major paradigm shifts happening all over these two episodes, most notably with Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and his bid to supplant Roger Sterling in the firm—or, rather, to make the other partners acknowledge that he has already done so. We’ll have plenty of opportunities to discuss this, since it is apparent that this season is largely going to be about the passing of the generational torch. Roger has long been teetering on the edge of obsolescence: Pete, in making his power play, is really stepping up to the level Don used to occupy; Pete and Peggy will become the power at the agency. Don is becoming what Roger has been—a mid-life crisis dilettante—and Roger’s moving into the useless emeritus role currently occupied by Burt (Robert Morse).
But before I come to the end of this already very long post, we have to talk about the biggest paradigm shift that was happening in the country, and which here finally shakes the ivory walls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The first half of this two-parter opens with a protest by African-Americans outside the Office of Economic Opportunity that is water-bombed by idiot ad-men at another agency down the street from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. (The scene of black protestors going up to the office to confront the attackers—including the too-on-the-nose dialogue—is apparently taken verbatim from a real incident.) When Don and Roger get wind of this, they decide to run an ad proclaiming their agency “an equal opportunity employer,” for the sole purpose of mocking their competition. And then, at the end of the two-parter—mirroring the scene that began it—they are shocked to find their lobby filled with black job applicants.
Mad Men has frequently been criticised for its treatment—or lack of treatment—of people of color and the civil rights movement. I think these criticisms are both fair and unfair. On the one hand—as I suggested above—Mad Men is about a particular moment in history, in which a certain way of life—and a certain, extremely narrow vision of the American dream—was ending. While it’s fair to question the ways in which the show glamorizes this exclusively white world of privilege—and whether love for the show is driven in part by nostalgia for this unjust time—I do think the representation is fairly accurate. One of the reasons the civil rights movement (already 10 years old by this point in the series) hasn’t been mentioned more often is because almost no one in this world gives a crap about it. And the reason the only recurring black faces we’ve seen have been elevator operators and janitors is because those were the only roles for black Americans in this world. The focus of the show is, by necessity, extremely limited, and provides just a keyhole view of one tiny, fading segment of America. You can call Matthew Weiner’s vision for the show ill-conceived, and you can say that there are other, more important stories to tell, and I wouldn’t argue with you. But I also kind of admire Weiner’s adherence to that vision, and his unwillingness to pretend this was a more inclusive world than it was.
In fact, where I think the show has stumbled on the issue of race is in its half-assed attempts to include black characters or deal with racial issues. Paul Kinsey’s interracial relationship in Season Two—with its passing references to going south to register black voters—was awkwardly handled: though Paul’s phony liberal posturing was on the nose, this was a moment when the show could have given us a fully-fleshed black character, and didn’t. The same is true for Lane’s “chocolate bunny” in Season Four: these women were clumsy plot devices, not characters: Mad Men has yet to create a single, relatable black character. (It probably came closest with Carla [Deborah Lacey], but the very nature of Betty’s horrible relationship to her guaranteed we were never going to learn very much about her.)
That makes me nervous for this season, but I’m excited that Weiner has thrown down the gauntlet and announced, very clearly in these episodes, that now is the moment when the always-present issue of race will be moved to the forefront. History has caught up with Mad Men, and even in their Madison Avenue ivory towers they can’t ignore what is happening in the world around them any longer. I like the mirroring of the scenes that begin and end these episodes: the protestors are demanding that the OEO follow through on the promises made to them by the Johnson administration, demanding that real change follow the lip-service of the so-called “war on poverty.” Likewise, the white men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce may have intended “equal opportunity employment” as an inside-joke among their white colleagues, but they have a roomful of black job applicants who have decided to call their bluff. (Whether the show itself can deliver on the promise of this storyline still remains to be seen.)
And I like very much how the final shots of this scene are composed: after Lane dismisses the black men—for, at the moment, SCD&P can only conceive of a black secretary—we are left with five white men on one side of the room, and a roomful of black women on the other side. It’s a nice way to encapsulate what will almost certainly be two major themes of the season—race and gender—in a single shot. The white men have ruled the world of Mad Men all along, and their entire way of life has been built on racial injustice and the subjugation of women, in ways they’ve never even questioned. But Megan is not going to accept Betty’s role, and the “negroes” in the lobby are not going to take “no” for an answer. Change won’t come quickly, but it is coming.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Lines:
- Future reviews will be shorter, and will attempt to provide slightly better coverage of the episodes than this initial post does; I skipped over several sub-plots, including Joan (Christina Hendricks) and her concerns over balancing her career with motherhood. (I love the evolution of Joan’s character, who was originally perceived as just a husband-hunter. “I learned a long time ago not to get all my satisfaction from this job,” she told Peggy last season, to which Peggy rightly responded, “That’s bullshit.” Joan’s career now means a great deal to her, another mark of the changing roles of women.)
- I also skipped over Lane (Jared Harris) and his weird sexual fantasy about the girl in a photo in the wallet he found; I like Lane’s character, but they need to do something more with him than explore how much he secretly longs to be a sexual adventurer like Don.
- Interesting to note that Megan knows about “Dick Whitman,” and doesn’t care: the biggest, darkest secret of Don’s life—which defined his entire existence with Betty—is something his new wife jokes about casually.
- Harry was comedy gold this week, from his weird gift to Don, to his greedy negotiations with Roger over office space, to his ill-timed comments about Megan. I don’t remember him being such a clod, but I kind of like it.
- I enjoy how Roger can’t quite resist gloating about how Don has followed in his footsteps, and married the hot young secretary, after giving Roger so much grief for doing the same thing. (And there’s a nice, foreshadowy cut at the end of Episode Two, as we go immediately from the idyllic scene of Don and Megan cuddling on the floor to a scene of Roger and Jane, in which they clearly can’t stand each other. “What time is it?” she asks him. “Shut up,” he casually tells her.)
- Let me just say here—to avoid saying it every single week—that I covet Roger’s office even more than Pete does.
And now, a few quotes:
- Peggy, on Don: “Clients are right all of a sudden? I don’t recognize that man. He’s kind, and…patient.”
- Stan’s cousin, after listening to party-goers explain how he’s going to come home from Vietnam in a bag: “I thought there were gonna be girls here.”
- Roger and Jane, on Megan and Don: “Why don’t you sing like that?” “Why don’t you look like him?”
- Jane, on Pete: “Is he going bald?”
- Roger, with his usual observational precision: “Is it just me, or is the lobby full of negroes?”
Next Episode: “Tea Leaves”