“Life will eventually end and someone else will get the bill.”
“The whole life and death thing, it doesn’t bother me.”
“What did you see when you died?”
“My mom’s dead.”
“I like the case. It looks like a coffin.”
Well, one thing’s for sure: the fatalism that defines the show hasn’t gone anywhere.
Despite the occasional Zou Bisou, Mad Men season openers tend to be slow affairs with few surprises. It’s only after the season nears or comes to its end that you can see how many of the themes and motifs that defined that season were laid down in the premiere episode. Looking back at last season’s opener, for instance, Lane finding that wallet signaled his entire arc that season, from his general unhappiness to his money problems. And Zou Bisou, for that matter, signaled Megan’s desire to get back into performing, a storyline which pretty much dominated the entire season.
So what can we divine about the coming season based on what we saw with this episode? More of the same, it seems. More fatalism, more upheaval, more dysfunction and more glimpses of people completely un-equipped to deal with the changes in the world around them. If nothing else, you’ve got to give Matthew Weiner credit. The show and its themes have remained astonishingly consistent over five-plus seasons. In fact, this episode contained an unusually high number of unusually overt callbacks to previous episodes and imagery. From the back of Don’s head, “Drapering” out his office window, to the ad campaign that called back to Don shedding his clothes and walking into the sea in season 3, to the use of the Carousel to show the Drapers’ vacation shots, there was a lot of signaling in the script to remind the viewer of where these characters first came from, how much they’ve gone through since then, and in some cases, how little they’ve changed from it all.
Roger’s highly amusing, witty and well-delivered monologue to his shrink about life being an endless succession of meaningless doorways leading straight to the grave pretty much set the tone and openly stated the theme of the episode for us. It seems the tendency of last season’s scripts to be just a little too on the nose at times is continuing into the current season. But as much as we may have complained about the too-obvious theme-announcing last season, we’re more convinced than ever that it’s deliberate, and it refers to the coarseness and bluntness that entered American life by the time of the late sixties. Think back to those incredibly glamorous and genteel client dinners with Betty and Don wearing the finest clothes and entertaining some other couple in equally fine clothes, in a fine setting, eating fine food. When was the last time you saw anything like that in the worlds of these characters? It’s all gotten loud, crude and obvious. Probably no image in the series could illustrate this better than perfect little Betty Francis with her fine coat and sensible pocketbook, standing in the middle of a filthy flophouse, arguing with a bunch of counterculture types. Then again, maybe Betty gleefully indulging in some shockingly dark rape fantasies would illustrate that point just as well. “I can’t imagine it getting any darker than this,” says Mother Francis, very much on the nose, as usual.
Why did Betty take such an interest in this girl’s fate? Because the girl’s despair over the fact that she’s already too old to have the dream she wanted for her life reminds Betty way too much of all the dreams she deferred herself. “My feet are already in wet cement.” Choices being taken away, little by little, one by one, until you don’t recognize the life you’re living or where it came from. This was called back to by the reference to Betty’s modeling days, the death of her own mother, and the comparison of Juilliard to her own alma mater of Bryn Mawr. You could take the less generous point of view and say that Betty’s so self-centered she makes everything about her, even young violinists who run away from home, but we don’t think that’s the case. Yes, it was about once again showing how Betty is damaged by the pressures and expectations of upper middle-class housewifery, but it also illustrated something very rarely shown: that Betty is a pretty good mother, when she gets past all her own bullshit, which is something we suppose you could say about any good mother.
Further signaling of the coarsening of the culture came from the references to atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. First you had the drunken soldier making casually racist and violent quips throughout his conversation to Don, then you had the comic making jokes about severed ears, and finally, in that perfect way that Mad Men manages to blend social changes and business, it echoed in the ads for headphones, which turned Peggy’s world upside-down briefly.
As for our Pegs, she’s fully Don Draper, but just the good parts, so far as we can tell. She’s as smooth, competent, and polished as he ever was at the top of his game. She seems to be surrounded by clients, subordinates, and even a boss who all treat her with tremendous respect. And when she’s up against the wall, she can manage to come up with an utterly brilliant campaign at the very last second. She’s the one character in the entire story whose current situation is a joy to see. Although we predict Abe is not long for her world. We’ll get into the style stuff later, but you see the two of them side by side and you see people living on different planets.
As for Don, he remains the center of the story and he remains every inch the same fucked up mess he always was. Neither divorce, remarriage, or the success of his own company changed anything significant about him. He’s still drinking to excess and publicly humiliating himself, he’s still screwed up over his own mother and his stolen identity, and worst of all, he’s still cheating on his wife. “I want to stop doing this,” he says, and we believe him. For the first time, his cheating really seems to be bothering him terribly. Not that we’re suggesting anyone should feel sorry for him or that he’s likely to make a change for the better anytime soon. But all episode long, we just couldn’t figure out why Don seemed to have such a mancrush on his doctor friend. Don doesn’t get crushes at all, and he sure as hell doesn’t fawn over another man like that. He’s way too hung up on appearing like the Alpha Male at all times. But once it was revealed that Don was sleeping with his wife, we understood. For once, he’s so ashamed and guilt-ridden by his adultery, that he’s seeking out the person he’s perpetrating it against (well, one of them anyway) and becoming obsessed with all the ways he appears to be a better man than Don. It’s part penance, part punishment – and it’s all 100% Don.
“What’s it like to have someone’s life in your hands?” Don asks Arnie, with something that sounds like awe in his voice. We can’t answer that, but we’re pretty sure Don’s going to know the answer before this season’s up. The darkness isn’t lifting and he’s right back to his old ways. We’re not going to get a replay of the quiet detonation of the first Draper marriage. 1968 is coming, and it’s going to get ugly in a whole lot of surprising ways.
Two final things:
Our Mad Style post will be up by Wednesday. Those things take a hell of a time to put together.
“I’ll do without your sarcasm, young man.” We LOVE Mother Francis. We want to drink gin and play bridge with her while we all talk about stupid people we know who don’t have the good sense God gave them.
[Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC]