Last night’s HIGHLY awaited season opener left us momentarily a little disappointed, we’re ashamed to admit. Despite the fact that it moved briskly, gave us a peek at pretty much every major character, and set up the new status quo at Sterling Cooper, there was a bit of a “That’s it?” when the credits rolled. Shameful of us, we know.
But in a strange way, it reinforces a big part of what makes the show so great, because to really enjoy Mad Men in a way that goes past “Look at all the clothes!” and “They’re smoking!” (which, to our irritation seems to comprise 90% of the press about the show in the last month), you really have to shift your thinking regarding the medium of television and approach the show the way it needs to be approached. Things have more than one meaning; events move slowly; themes and motifs repeat themselves; and all of that requires something of a level of commitment from the audience, which is why the show is generally considered one of the best on television right now yet never manages to score in the ratings the way it should.
So, before we delve any deeper, let’s look at the new status quo: It’s spring 1963, about 6 months after the events of the Season 2 finale. Sterling Cooper is in the throes of a post-British invasion takeover orchestrated by Duck Phillips (who appears to be long gone). The air is heavy with change (as evidenced by Don’s darker suits and less Brylcreem’d hair, as well as Pete’s slightly longer and Joan’s slightly bigger hairstyles) and the fear and suspicion that comes with it. Snooty British Financial Officer Lane Pryce (along with his equally snooty assistant, Mr. Hooker) is in charge and making the kinds of changes that always come when two large companies merge: people are getting fired and there’s a feeling of doom hanging over the office.
Don and Betty are giving off the impression of connubial bliss and a newfound commitment to their marriage. “I just want everything to be perfect,” says Betty, revealing that despite everything that happened last season, she’s still (unfortunately) the same Betty. Roger has returned from his Greek honeymoon bearing gifts and Joan appears to have gone ahead with her Christmas wedding to her rapist husband and also appears to be leaving SC in the near future. Peggy is as ambitious as ever and can’t get any respect from her new secretary, who ignores her on a regular basis, it seems. Pete, who we last saw drowning his sorrows and holding a rifle in his darkened office, is back to Pete form: insanely ambitious, wound way too tight, and attempting to be a man in the Don Draper mold but succeeding only in revealing what a child he really is. On the surface, his marriage seems to have stabilized, at least. Trudy is doing what childless women of her social class are expected to do: social climbing by entertaining a group of wealthy museum docents.
There. Is that everyone? Then let’s begin.
We wondered how the writers were going to handle Don’s commitment to making his marriage work. After all, a Don getting up in the middle of the night to make some warm milk for his pregnant wife might give us all a little of glow of contentment, but it hardly makes for an interesting character. And a Don whoring around the way he’s done in the past would lose some of its enchantment for the viewer because falling back on old ways would be disappointing to see and a little boring to boot. The opening scene gave us everything we need to know about the new Don. He’s committed to his family yet haunted by his own past still. The scenes of his past intruding on his modern life were masterfully shot and beautifully acted. We didn’t think there was anything left to reveal about Don’s past and truth be told, those little vignettes didn’t reveal much, but we had to laugh a bit grimly at the revelation that he was literally named after his father’s dick as an act of hateful defiance by his dying prostitute mother. That tells you an awful lot about him right there; born into a family of spite, shame and hatred, and named after the male sexual organ.
The company sends Don and Sal down to Baltimore to smooth over some business with London Fog. Like almost every other aspect of the show, even the clients the writers choose to focus on are heavy with meaning. Sterling Cooper is in the throes of a “London Fog” of its own as everyone is unsure of what’s happening with the new Brits in charge. On the flight down, the adorable stewardess in her adorable uniform flirts her ass off in the presence of these two suave, good-looking men. After a highly flirtatious dinner with two stewardesses and the pilot, wherein Don and Sal both display the ease with which they can smoothly lie to people (a skill they’ve both honed to perfection out of necessity and for different reasons), they both score; Don with a flight attendant and Sal with a bellhop. Apparently, they both have a thing for uniforms.
We’ll get to Sal in a minute, but we just want to point out a few things about Don’s tryst interruptus. It was heartbreaking (and completely in character) to hear Don admit to this woman who didn’t even know his name and would never see him again that it was his birthday. When she asked to see his driver’s license and he said it wouldn’t do her any good, we were reminded once again that Don’s life is a lie. Dick Whitman’s birthday is known to no one and celebrated by no one. That he is so …amputated is the word that comes to mind, from his past is all the explanation one needs as to why he does the shitty things he does over and over again. “I keep going places and ending up somewhere I’ve already been.”
So yes, Don went ahead with cheating on his wife again, but there was a difference this time. We don’t buy this from our point of view, but from Don’s point of view, he was being more respectful of Betty by choosing a stranger in another city that he would never see again. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that to Don, what he was doing didn’t even constitute cheating in the strict sense. She’d never admit it, but we suspect a part of Betty would co-sign this point of view.
It’s notable that Don made the one mistake he’s never made before: he allowed evidence of his tryst to enter his home when he inadvertently left the stewardess’s flight pin in his luggage. That’s so far away from the Don we’ve come to know, that it forces a ton of questions about what’s going on inside. Last season, Betty went through every drawer and every suit he owns and couldn’t find any evidence of the man’s infidelities, but he has one brief fling with a stranger and almost fucks the whole thing up by making a rookie mistake. And we got echoes of last season, when Sally said “I’ll be quiet, Daddy,” reminding him of his order to Bobbie Barrett to shut up. This time, Sally proudly wore the pin of the woman Don tried to fuck. Much like Bobby Draper unfairly serves as a stand-in for Don when Betty needs to vent her frustrations, Sally Draper serves as a stand-in for all the women Don has had. It’s a little sick, but it’s very real. Children are always doomed to take on roles in the psyches of their parents for which they are not suited and which they shouldn’t have to bear.
Now let’s talk Sal. If we can cheer on someone being unfaithful to their wife (which is almost a prerequisite for watching this show), then we cheered the loudest for poor repressed Sal when he unexpectedly got what he wanted more than anything in the world. Kudos must be paid to the writing staff for doing it in such a way that was perfectly in line both with Sal’s character and with the times in which he lived. Gay sex was a quick and furtive thing carried out by strangers in those days more often than not. Sal would have never pursued an opportunity so one needed to literally be thrust upon him. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: only a gay actor could pull off the emotions required here. Sal’s complete disbelief at what was happening coupled with fear and an unleashed, breathless joy is something that most gay people can remember feeling at least once in their lives and Batt pulled it off beautifully. Another thing that needs to be pointed out was the hysterically funny gag of the exploding pen in Sal’s pocket. Do we really need to point out the layers of meaning there?
As we saw last season with Peggy, Don deals best with someone when he knows they have a secret. In fact, Don is the best person to know when you have a secret. Don is made of secrets and lives a very lonely life because of it. When he encounters someone with a secret as great as his own, he can’t help but respect that person for carrying it off as well as he does. He cemented a bond with Peggy that has benefited them both and now we’re curious to see if such a bond will grow between him and Sal, now that he knows Sal’s secret. He dealt with it in the best Don Draper manner. “Limit your exposure” was both a tag line, a form of acceptance (he is, after all, the ONLY person in Sal’s milieu capable of accepting his secret) and a smart bit of advice on the same level as his “it will shock you how this never happened” plea to Peggy last season.
And Sal appears to have taken his advice, because back at the office, he seems completely comfortable in his own skin. Like Don, he didn’t get to complete his tryst, but we speak from experience here that once you open that box, you can’t shut it again no matter how much you may want to – and it doesn’t look to us like Sal wants to. He’ll either go ahead with an affair with the Belle Jolie guy or he’ll wind up visiting some very interesting bars in the Village very soon. Count on it.
In other Sterling Cooper news, the new British overlords are content to have the staff engage in gladiatorial combat to get ahead. It speaks volumes of the differences between Pete and Ken’s characters when you look at how they both reacted to the same news. Ken thinks it’s a hoot and a half and absolutely refuses to lower himself to treachery in order to further himself. He’ll blithely forge ahead, doing his job to the best of his ability and ignore management’s attempts to get him to jump through hoops for them. Of course, Pete can’t do that. Grimacing and huffing and puffing and all but stamping his little feet in rage, Pete is reacting to this maneuvering in the worst possible manner and he’s going to shoot himself in the foot if he doesn’t get it under control, Draper-style.
Of course, Pete has good reason to be filled with rage and we got the tiniest little glimpse why when he was going over his accounts list and noted with no small amount of anger that Peggy seemed to be handling most of them. He practically spit her name out. We’re a little afraid for Peggy this season. Her rise was meteoric last season and ended with the kind of bombshell drop that can make an enemy for life. With Pete in a position of power over her and carrying around a tight little ball of resentment that he can’t reveal, it’s anyone’s guess what he could do.
In a more general sense, the show is revealing itself to be firmly set in the ’60s by now. Prior to this episode, the show was built around the idea that the ’60s hadn’t started yet for these people. With their own British Invasion in full swing, looser hair on the men and bigger hair on the women, the show finally has moved fully into the decade it represents. Expect to hear more (and more familiar) cultural references this season, as evidenced by the hysterically funny nickname “Moneypenny,” for the officious, awful Mr. Hooker, who declared SC a “gynocracy” after having to deal with the formidable Joan Holloway, of whom there was far too little last night. Of course, any episode that doesn’t have Joan modeling clothes, smoking, and saying bitchy things 40 minutes out of 60, is a show with too little Joan.
[Photos courtesy of amctv.com]