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Games People Play: Thoughts on the Fifth Season Premiere of Mad Men

"Nobody loves Dick Whitman."

It's been seventeen long months since we last saw Mad Men and the breathless two-hour season premiere goes a long way towards curbing our addiction, quickly bringing us up to speed in the changes within the lives of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and the rest of the ad men at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

If Season Four began with a provocative question ("Who is Don Draper?"), the fifth season opener ("A Little Kiss"), written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, begins with more than a few declarative statements, about both the characters and the era in which they live, and those four little words, uttered by Megan (Jessica Paré), speak volumes about the sort of relationship Don is enmeshed in when Season Five begins.

For a man who cloaked himself with secrets as a woman might a mink coat, Don Draper is living a life that's far more free and open than we've seen the past four seasons. In fact, his entire identity--previously predicated on a monumental lie--seems far more at ease at both work and home, though it's still, as always, fraught with complication. This is Mad Men, after all, and a Don at peace with the world is very dull indeed...

The world itself is far from at peace with itself when we rejoin the story: riots in three cities, racial tensions, and organized protests right under the windows of SCDP rivals Y&R in the opening sequence of the episode. Said sequence finds Y&R execs callously tossing water-filled bags onto the protestors, soaking a young African-American boy and leading his mother to go up to the executive floor and offer a piece of her mind. While the entire scene seems at first disjoined and separate from the action, the two-hour opener proves just why it was constructed as a double-episode, rather than just two single episodes strung together. Folding in on itself, the episode is bookended by considerations of the protests and of the semblance of equal opportunity.

While Don and Roger's "equal opportunity" ad is meant to be a jape at the expense of Y&R, it has serious implications, not least of which is that SCDP must hire at least one person of color in order to save face. While the show has had African-American characters in the past (Lane's Playboy Bunny girlfriend and Paul Kinsey's girlfriend, to name two, as well as the Drapers' housekeeper, Carla), the office itself has remained a lily-white place of business, populated largely by the old guard and one or two (Peggy, Joan, and Megan to an extent) women who have managed to carve out positions of power. But the doors of the lobby have more or less remained closed to anyone who didn't fit the mold of Roger Sterling and his cronies. Until now.

I'm curious to see just who gets the sole secretary job that Lane (Jared Harris, astonishing as always) has been forced to carve out of the budget, lest SCDP find themselves the subject of a protest, and how this new woman fits into the microcosm of the company amid some very turbulent times.

But while there are clearly external pressures at work here, not all of the changes occurring are taking place from the outside-in. Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is once again adjusting to change in her own life, adjusting to the sight of a naked woman in her father's bed, a woman who is the new "Mrs. Draper," and is drinking black coffee while it's Don who is cooking breakfast for the kids. There's clearly some unease on behalf of Sally towards Megan, a mixture of curiosity and ambivalence, seeing her role as her father's favorite co-opted by a newcomer into the household. She's largely trapped between the half-finished bedroom at her father and Megan's gorgeous new Manhattan apartment and an empty skulking castle of her mother and Henry's in Rye: the city and suburbia, the past and the future, stability or revolution.

Megan herself is entirely grounded in modernity: a modern woman who is the exact opposite of Betty Francis (January Jones) in every respect. She drinks black coffee, works for a living, has her own money, and isn't afraid to engage in provocative and sexually forward behavior, something that would mortify the icy Betty. Megan's surprising performance, at Don's surprise party, of "Zou Bisou Bisou" is a landmark for the show: the ownership by a woman over the male gaze of her partner. While the song is performed for Don, while all eyes (both male and female) in the room are on her, Megan is clearly getting off on the attention and claims ownership over the sexual energy she gives off. (She even tells Peggy earlier in the episode that when she throws a party, people go home and "have sex.")

It's both a sexually charged performance and an intimate gift for Don, offering him a piece of herself in front of his colleagues, bringing the private into the public sphere. It also backfires magnificently. The always-private Don is embarrassed to see his sexually hungry bride so blatantly charged up; it's a collision of the ordered sectors of his own life. And there are casualties as a result.

Don's furious response, as he tries to go to bed while Megan is still keyed up from the party sums up a potential chasm in their nascent marriage, of ideals as well as emotions. If Megan sums up liberty, both sexual and social, she represents the potential and promise of progress. She's the pretty young thing that Don wanted to own, but she's proven that she won't be owned by anyone ("It's my money," she tells him) or controlled. Her sense of fashion, her friends, her outlook are sharp call-outs to the cultural revolution making its first steps here. But unlike Roger and Jane's dreary marriage, Megan won't be captured in a gilded prison, even one of her own making. She's fiercely independent, fiery, and passionate, in touch with her emotions ("I don't like those people") and her own body. (Paré is fantastic, eradicating the sense of Megan as an innocent naif from last season, rendering her a full-blown liberated woman here, all polka-dots and black undergarments, a French coquette with a body and a brain.)

The sense of the male gaze is reflected back in the cleaning scene after Megan goes home early from work. As Don finds her cleaning up after the party, the tension between them turns into something else: a sex game, in which Megan, stripped down to her bra and panties, begins to "clean up" while flaunting her body, telling Don that he doesn't deserve to touch her, let alone look at her, that he's old and probably can't even have sex. A moment of potential dominance/submission (she tells him to sit and watch her) turns into a moment of sexual release on the white carpet of their palatial place, a far cry from the desperation of Don's bachelor pad on Waverly.

While Don has moved more firmly into a wealthy sphere of Manhattan, it's Pete who has traded his apartment for a house in the suburbs, while Trudy--now a mother herself--waits at home or drops him off at the station. His sense of loss, embodied by his line about hearing the traffic over the party music, said wistfully, is keenly felt here, the "sacrifice" he's made in order for his family. But whether he comes to resent Trudy (as suggested by his commuter train passenger friend) or whether he softens and changes remains to be seen. At work, however, Pete is just as vengeful and territorial as ever, demanding a larger office (he ends up getting Harry Crane's office with its windows, while Harry embarrasses himself in front of Megan, showing his true colors) and tricking Roger into a 6 a.m. meeting.

It's this sense of gamesmanship that powers the episode in several ways: the Y&R ad, Megan/Don on the floor, Lane's efforts to make believe with the "girl" Dolores, another fixation for the sensible Lane, torn once again between his duties as a "gentleman" and family man and that of a man in the 1960s.

Lane is unexpectedly captivated by the sultry promise of Dolores, a kept woman rolling around in bed at 11 a.m. in her undergarments, especially when he sees her slob of a boyfriend, Mr. Polito, who is nothing like the man that Lane had imagined. His decision to keep Dolores' photograph, with its girlish "XXOO" inscription, in his own wallet is the keeping of a talisman, something that connects him to an alternate self, a garter on the arm of a knight, an emblem of both chaste chivalry and of wanton sexuality. He's a man trapped between relationships, between countries, between cultures, something we're reminded of both by Dolores and Polito, who immediately know that Lane isn't "from here."

It's also Joan who finds herself cast adrift. Now a mother, she's torn between the duties of her station and of her own desires. She admits, only to Lane, that she missed work, missed what was happening without her, the jokes (again, that return to games) and the daily goings-on. While she clearly loves her baby, her identity is predicated on more than just her role as a mother and wife; she herself is intrinsically connected to the office and the professional sphere. Her emotional breakdown in Lane's office, as he chivalrously offers her his handkerchief to blot her eyes, comes when she realizes that she has value in the eyes of her coworkers, that she still has a job. It's not so much an escape hatch from her life, as it is part and parcel of it.

There's also a clear connection between her baby being soothed by the movements of the elevator and Don as well: the shot of Joan and her mother rocking the baby to sleep in the elevator is juxtaposed with a shot of Don and Megan in the elevator at the office. If Don is at his best at work, as we've seen the last few seasons, what does it mean that he's now defining himself in terms that go beyond that? That he's not as driven, not as severe (as evidenced by his lack of support in front of the clients of Peggy's "bean ballet" concept for Heinz), and not as decidedly grim? If work isn't everything, than what is to Don? Even after his argument with Megan, there's the sense that these two have something deep and mysterious between them, built on honesty and truth, and that the Don Draper we thought we knew has perhaps changed somewhat.

Who is Don Draper? I feel like we're only just beginning to know the answer to that question. But what we're seeing here is a Don Draper altered by his surroundings, his relationship, and his outlook. A man in summer, casting off the memories of the past, fittingly on Memorial Day weekend. A household of children and a twinkle in his own eye when he looks at Megan holding Joan's newborn son. Personally, I can't wait to see just what happens next: felicity or misery? Opportunity or adversity? Pleasure or pain? Is it true that nobody loves Dick Whitman, or that someone finally does, warts and all?

But regardless of what happens next, Season Five of Mad Men began with enough style and substance to power a season of most other shows. I'm curious to know what you thought: what did you all think of "A Little Kiss"? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Mad Men ("Tea Leaves"), as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce tries to build upon its current business, Peggy is given new responsibility; Don and Harry indulge a client.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Very insightful analysis of the episode. Bravo!
Anonymous said…
Excellent review. But, you ignored how painfully slow the episodes were. While this is the typical pace of the show, I think 2 episodes in a row where virtually nothing happened was overkill. I think this will prove to be a good set-up for the season, but as self-contained episodes they were hard to get through live.
Ally said…
Great analysis, as always.

I actually found the episodes to be much zippier than normal.

I loved Megan's line to Peggy about how "you people never smile."
Anonymous said…
Like any season premiere, a whole bunch of things were set in motion. This is not a network show with network rhythms and for those of us who appreciate it, these two eps were precisely what the doctor ordered. And as always, the precise manner in which you break down this show comes through in your insightful writing. I hope Matt Weiner has recognized your work on his behalf!

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