Welcome back, Mad Men! What has it been? Seventeen months? Not like anyone was counting down to your return. Or that everyone was counting down to your return…. Alright, we missed you, Mad Men. Tremendously. And the fact that you came back with a stellar two-hour episode — entitled “A Little Kiss” — meant that you missed us as well.
So, where to begin? That it is June 1966? How about with the fact that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is back in the saddle, both at work and at home. Over at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, he’s still the big draw even after last season’s full-page, preemptive strike of an ad against cigarette companies (a stroke of genius in my book but a potential business killer in 1965). Clients, like Heniz and Mohawk Airlines, are drunkardly tripping over themselves — Pete Campbell-style — to work with the man. He’s also not playing a game of musical offices like Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Harry (Rich Sommer). In fact, he still has an office, unlike senior partner Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) who, despite returning to the firm, still has to wait about in the conference room or lobby. And while Lane (Jared Harris) continues to force the team to share secretaries in an effort to cut cost, the one Don and Roger (John Slattery) share prefers to work for Don. (In an interesting turn, Roger is now forced to hang out in the lobby to even come in contact with the secretary. So he’s turned into Bert Cooper Part Duex.)
Don — as we know by now — is also now married to the much younger, and obviously sexy, Megan (Jessica Pare). It’s probably the most important personal development for the character, or any character on Mad Men. It looks to be one of the defining aspects of the season, especially if you consider that “A Little Kiss” is pretty much a two-part episode that aired as one two-hour chunk last night. One of the first scenes has young Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) stumbling one morning by her dad’s room, seeing the naked back of her sleeping stepmother. They commute to work together, where she now works under Peggy as a copywriter. One of the episode’s highlights is the newest Mrs. Draper’s burlesque-like performance “Zou Bisou Bisou” (which happened to also be sung by bombshell Sophia Loren in the 1960 film The Millionairess) during the surprise 40th birthday party she threw for her husband. It shocks the guests, and embarrasses Don. He’s not one for public displays of affection — and the hot wifey trying to give you a boner in front of your work friends is definitely in that category.
But we know two things about Megan: 1.) she is trying hard to be the good, if very modern (by 1966 standards) wife. She works, she plays, she’s dressed in the latest fashion, but most of all, she wants Don to be happy. 2.) She knows all about his Dick Whitman past, so much so, that he openly tells her that Don Draper turns 40 on June 1st while Dick Whitman turned forty six months earlier. She’s not shocked at the revelation, It’s a conversation that they’ve had before. But the young lady wanted to celebrate her husband though he doesn’t want to. Despite being on top of the world, Don Draper isn’t happy. He still living a live unfulfilled. And the only person who seems to be openly acknowledging that is Megan. No Betty Draper bubble for her. It makes her a welcome contrast to the rest of the cast. (Due away with the sexpot act and Pare is still giving an excellent performance.)
But it isn’t just The Don Draper Show. Mad Men is about something bigger. But before we get to the social aspects that will define Season Five, here’s a quick recap of the rest of the gang over at SCDP:
-We know now that Don dislikes Harry Crane — and for good reason. He’s now a self-righteous dick. And an incredibly crude and sexist, more so than he’s ever been. Don doesn’t know about his remarks regarding Megan, since she hasn’t told him yet, but if you think that Don hates Harry now….
-Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), who we really didn’t deal with much in “A Little Kiss”, is trying to tow the line between sense of duty and a sense of self. She really doesn’t have that much respect for Megan as a co-worker but she the young Mrs. Draper is flustered by Don’s detachment regarding his birthday party, she feels a ounce of sorrow for her — so much so that she thinks that Megan is mad at her for drunkardly bringing up work during the shindig. And hey, she’s still seeing Abe (Charlie Hofheimer), the lefty reporter.
-Lane is stuck in a loveless, unhappy, boring marriage. So much so, that when he finds a missing wallet in the back of a taxi cab, he pulls out the contents, which include a photo of a young woman named Delores, and falls instantly smitten with it. The phone conversation he has with the woman is very charming, even while knowing how sad and pathetic he’s become. And the blow he fells when the man whose wallet he has shows up instead of the unseen Delores is pretty devastating.
-Roger and Jane (Peyton List), too, are stuck in a loveless marriage. To get his kicks, Roger now intrudes on Pete’s accounts, crashing his various meetings, trying to be of some help — though he’s more of a pest.
-Speaking of Pete, he is slowly turning into the rail commuter Don was in the previous seasons, going back and forth between his home in Greenwich, CT (which looks awfully like the old Draper home) and the New York office. He’s making friends on the train but the travel is slowly making him weary (that, plus Roger’s annoyance and trying to get a bigger office).
-Joan (Christina Hendricks) is making the best of being a “single” mother, having her mother (Christine Estabrook) help care for Baby Kevin while Greg is still in the Army. (*cough* the baby’s Roger’s *cough*) She misses SCDP dearly and gets flustered when she sees an ad in the paper that declares the agency an Equal Opportunity Employer. She rushes into the office, fearing that her job was lost forever but it turns out she’s safe — and that there is a much bigger social aspect at work.
As we know, Mad Men has also been about White privilege, the way folks back before the modern Civil Rights era went about their business. Some did so without a care in the world while others did so knowing full well the damage their influence was inflicting on others. At the start of “A Little Kiss”, a group of African-American protesters picket the rival ad agency Y&R. The employees, instead of being sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed, decided to dump ice cold water on them from the windows high above. Word gets around about their racist shenanigans, revealing them to be nothing but a bunch of bigoted douches (and having Goldwater ’68 stickers on their walls make them even bigger douches). Even the gang over at SCDP — not the most racial sensitive of people — acknowledge that. But they’re more in glee at the fact that their competitors are being ridiculed in public so, thanks to another brilliant idea by Don, they decided to take out the EOE ad in The New York Times.
What happens next is an accident. It maybe a happy one — who knows? — but a group of well-qualified African-Americans show up, with resumes in hand, looking for an opportunity to work at SCDP. Some want to be copywriters (Lane soon dismisses them since the company can’t afford to hire another writer) while others — all women — want to be secretaries. The agency is now at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, whether they wanted to or not.
Now this is a brilliant turn by showrunner Matthew Weiner. After four seasons of upper middle class and rich White folks cavorting about, they can no longer deny the world that is around them. Viewers can no longer relish the drinking, smoking, sexing. We all have to deal with real issues facing the characters. Don Draper is no longer the center of attention — much like he wanted during his birthday party. Don Draper will slowly take a back seat to the millions of people who can not have what he has because of the color of their skin. Who cares about his hot wife problems when people are being killed in the streets because all they want to do is vote. (Or, in 2012, get killed while trying to buy candy from a local grocery store.)
The weird thing is, Don Draper is no longer suited for the impending changes facing society but Dick Whitman is. The poor, Midwestern farmer with no family can easily sympathize with the oppressed. So, Don is going to have to channel Dick for a little guidance or he — and the rest of the execs at SCDP — will be swept away with the rest of history.
“A Little Kiss” is a valuable addition to the Mad Men cannon. It is the best premiere episode since the pilot. It may also be the most important episode since it sets the course for Season Five (and Six and Seven as well) into the unknown (at the time) political waters that will give us the contrast between the characters’ lives and the lives of the unseen masses. It’s the 1% vs. the 99%. It is the thesis that Weiner has been writing all along.
Enough of my musings. What say ye, fans of Mad Men?