Everyone in this episode, from the civil rights protestors fighting for a better world, to Pete Campbell angling for a better office, to Joan trying to keep her place in the hierarchy, to Megan Draper putting her foot down in her own unique way, was in the midst of a power struggle. The primary theme of Mad Men is change and how people react to it. This episode reminds us that when the sand is shifting underneath their feet, people will claw at each other to regain their footing. Change breeds power struggles.
But let’s take a step back for a second. Did you sit down last night and, like Tom, turn to your signother to say, “We’re actually going to see a new episode of Mad Men!” in a voiced tinged with wonder and excitement? Did you grin stupidly from ear to ear throughout the entire 2 hours? Is “Zou Bisou Bisou” stuck in your head this morning? How many times did you say “Oh my God!” As in, “Oh my GOD, she knows!” or “Oh my GOD, that apartment!” Or even “Oh my GOD, BABY TESTICLES!” Mad Men is back, y’all, and we’re so happy to see them that it’s a struggle just to give you the long-winded, overblown analysis we’re known for.
And maybe that was the point. Like so many, we spent the week prior to this episode re-watching our season 4 discs and we were struck by how … light this world seems in comparison. The tone throughout these two hours couldn’t have been any more different from last season’s darkened rooms and alcohol-fueled blackouts. If season 4 felt like a morose foreign film of the period then the season 5 opener almost felt like a period sitcom in comparison (that party scene could have come straight out of an unusually sophisticated episode of The Monkees). And in a role she’s never played before, an unsteady Joan stood in for the audience this time, voicing our concerns as she tentatively returned to the world of SCDP, not fully trusting that she will recognize the place, understand the people, or get any of the jokes.
This episode spent its time answering one of the questions we all had going into the season and answering it in some depth:
Did Don get married to Megan? Oh, yes.
And is his life different because of it? GOD, yes.
How many times – and this wouldn’t be fair in real life, but it’s practically encouraged when considering characters in a fictional world – did you wind up thinking “Betty would never do THAT” last night? Betty would never have negro homosexuals at her parties. Betty would never make a spectacle of herself in front of Don’s co-workers. Betty would never wear that dress. Betty would never understand that Don is a twisted little bastard who has a history of tying up his lovers or hiring prostitutes to slap him because he is consumed with self-hatred and that what gets his motor running like nothing else is an angry woman in her underwear, hitting him and berating him (while she waits on him) before finally throwing her legs in the air for a hate-fuck on a new white carpet.
That Megan, she’s got possibilities.
Last season, when Don proposed to her, it felt like a bad idea on his part; an impulse born out of fear and designed to prevent him from dealing with his own demons. Now we come to find out it’s a bit more complicated than that. Number one on the list of shocks last night was the revelation that he not only told her everything about his past, but that she’s so comfortable with the situation she can make jokes about it. What once consumed Don to the point of almost destroying him – and what destroyed his first marriage – is now a passing joke; something to be shrugged over. But this is Mad Men, and one of the primary characteristics of the people who populate this world is that they never really get over the dark parts of themselves; they just move on. So we can stand there wide-eyed and open-mouthed, like everyone else attending that eye-popping party, at the sight of a smiling, seemingly happy Don, but we know that this is still just the surface – and is as much a pretty, glossy surface as his first marriage was at one time. Like Peggy, still the person who knows him best in the world, we’re concerned by his patience and seeming happiness.
Don, drowning in his own happiness, doesn’t really have his mind on work anymore and people are suffering because of it. Don and Megan are both acting in a pretty outrageously unprofessional manner. Even today, the sight of a married couple working in a professional setting can be off-putting to co-workers, but 1n 1966 they barely had the vocabulary to describe a career woman, let alone one who’s married to the boss. Peggy is stuck in a terrible situation, having to serve as a supervisor to her boss’ wife, with no guidelines or clear delineations of power. And because Megan and Don are sexually open in front of a group of co-workers with a long list of sexual hangups, the office isn’t dealing with it in a particularly healthy or grownup way. Enter Harry Crane, who has turned into quite the little sleazeball in the past couple of years. No female character has ever had to deal with a form of sexual harrassment quite so ugly and upsetting as this one. We suppose it’s to Megan’s credit that she didn’t immediately use her standing to get Harry fired, although she would have been perfectly in her rights to do so. Instead, she cast her anger more broadly, indicting the entire culture of SCDP as toxic and too cynical for her free-spirited ways. This was the one time when we saw shades of Betty in her behavior, because that hate-fuck was a Betty-like manipulation to get what she wanted and what she wanted was to be able to say that their work arrangement was making her very unhappy. Once again, Don married a woman and is trying to turn her into his version of the Perfect Wife. Ten years ago, a blonde Grace Kelly in the suburbs was his ultimate dream and he shoved the educated, world-traveling Betty into that role to both their detriments. Today his dream is younger, free-er, with an international flair and no sexual hangups whatsoever. A smart career woman who will flash her tits at him in the office, as opposed to the dutiful robot that was his first wife’s role. But just like Betty, Megan’s not happy in this role and just like he was with Betty, Don ignores her concerns and does nothing to address her needs and wants. It’s a sexier, more fun marriage in a lot of ways, but she’s still Mrs. Don Draper, which means she still has to bear a ton of baggage, even if he is a lot more open about it.
In other SCDP news, Pete is still petulant and whiny, but something new has been added: He’s also Don Draper; or at least, the Don Draper of about 5 years ago, riding the train home to the suburbs and walking into a kitchen that looked eerily like the old Draper one. He’s got the acre of land, the kid, and the wife who spends all day in a housecoat. He’s living the dream but like so many others (and Don before him) he wonders if this is the dream he really wanted. One thing he knows he wants is a bigger office and he tries to shame the partners into giving him Roger’s. It was never going to happen, even if they all agreed he had a point. Roger has little to no power in the firm anymore with Lucky Strike gone, but the one thing he does have is money, and he uses it to get what he wants, paying Caroline fifty bucks to sit outside his office and paying Harry over a thousand to give Pete his office. It’s the last act of a desperate man; something that the Roger of 5 years ago would have been appalled to even consider. You don’t throw your money around so openly to solve your problems, not if you’re part of Roger Sterling’s class and circle. But Roger has no client and even the beautiful young girl he left his wife for has turned out to be simple, stupid, and bitter. He has one thing in his life that brings him a little happiness. “There’s my baby!” And yes, he clearly knows and is clearly lavishing gifts on his son.
Joan, for her part, has made a complete 180. The woman who coolly blew out smoke last season and informed Peggy that she learned a long time ago not to get her satisfaction from the office (a statement that was met with “That’s bullshit!” in response) is practically begging and pleading with the office to bring her back into the fold, into the one place in the world where she feels competent and in charge of her life. Joan, like so many woman of her generation, has found herself turned into a career woman, even though she swore up and down that it wasn’t what she wanted. And why not? Her personal life has never brought her the kind of satisfaction that her professional standing did and it seems to us she’s finally reached the point – spurred at least partially by exhaustion – where she’s going to openly pursue that professional life just because it brings her a measure of happiness. And of course, allows her to spend all day with the father of her child.
And Peggy is still Peggy; driven, ambitious, and talented; all of it topped off by a social awkwardness that gets her in trouble. It’s amazing to think it, but she’s been at the copywriting game almost as long as Don was when we first met him. You can see that smoothness and confidence in her presentation, but you can see she’s still got that need for Don’s constant support and constant affirmations of her brilliance. It’s something that always plagued the character and it’ll be interesting to see if she’s getting a handle on it. If nothing else, Megan’s little tantrum seemed to have affected her and gotten her to question her own selfishness sometimes.
We’ll have much more to discuss when we do the Mad Style post, but for now, let’s all grin and sing a couple bars of “Zou Bisou Bisou” because Mad Men is BACK. And let’s all hope for a fabulous black secretary to come in and shake this world up even further.
[Photo Credit: amctv.com]