Mad Men: Surprise! Don's 40

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Mad Men S05E01/S05E02: "A Little Kiss"

After 17 months jonesing for a Mad Men fix, our first minutes of Season 5 were something of a mildly perverse joke, spent with a group of young ad men we’ve never even seen before. Many stories below, a crowd of predominantly African-American protesters march in support of equal-opportunity hiring. Our only clue as to what year it is a “GOLDWATER ‘68” sign hanging in their window. I could feel my pulse begin to race as questions piled on top of questions: Who are these guys? Where are we? Just how much time has passed between seasons? It’s not until several scenes later, when we see a still-prepubescent Sally Draper stirring from sleep, that I was hit with a sweet wave of relief: Mad Men has indeed moved ahead in time, but nothing so drastic as three years.

Judging from Joan’s baby (yes, she had it, and it’s a healthy boy), we’re no more than six to eight months ahead of where we left off—a rare moment of more time having elapsed between seasons in our own world than in the world of the show. The most jarring change? Don Draper has moved out of his dumpy Greenwich Village walk-up into swanky new uptown digs, replete with a sunken living room and ample balcony space. It’s a recent move, seeing as Sally is still finding her way around it, though all three kids display an ease around Megan that we’ve never seen around any other mother-figure.

Pete, too, has moved into roomier quarters—a full acre in the suburbs. (RIP, giraffe art.) And while he’ll try to deny it to his commuter pal, Pete, now looking a little thicker around the waist, is fighting off a wave of malaise. “There was a time when she wouldn’t leave the house in a robe,” Pete confides about Trudy, his wife. There’s a symmetry in where Pete begins Season 5 to where Don was when Mad Men began: having achieved the career, the family, and the home in the suburbs, yet perpetually nagged by an itch they simply cannot scratch. In Pete’s case, he contemplates a beagle might fill the void. At work, it becomes the quest for a more spacious and impressive office—and thanks to Harry’s big mouth and a pocket full of cash from Roger, at least one of those dreams comes true.

Speaking of the SCDP offices, the walls are still standing, but just barely. Roger is now forced to share Caroline (quickly becoming my favorite supporting character) with Don. Roger came out of Season 4 effectively castrated by the same people who once treated him like a god. Now he has nothing better to do than torment his co-workers and hover over Pete’s girl’s desk in the hopes of crashing future meetings. Has it really come to this, Roger? And yet if the great Roger Sterling risks obsoletion, it’s Bert who seems on the verge of virtual extinction: A little slower of mind and foot, he dawdles out of the boardroom to announce he’s heading to the bathroom, even though the meeting has already been drawn to a close in the hallway. Let’s hope he doesn’t pull an Ida on us mid-season.

And therein is the key to what lies ahead for Season 5—and for lovers of Mad Men, it could prove to be just a little disconcerting. For as the ‘60s roll on, our heroes are too finding themselves cast aside, like last year’s model convection ovens. Case in point is a moment inside Don’s office that verges on blasphemy: As Megan lays out her coupon mockups—as Peggy had feared, she’s been quickly elevated to junior copywriter—Don tries to get a little hanky-panky going, and is softly denied. “Open up that blouse,” her orders her, to which Megan replies, “You’re a dirty old man.” Ouch. Don Draper: Dirty Old Man. And on the eve of his dreaded 40th birthday, no less.

Everywhere in "A Little Kiss," there’s a sense that things have changed, yet it’s hard to put your finger on what. The cues pop in seamlessly, from migrating hemlines to fancier gadgets and appliances to subtle shifts in cast attitudes. Don seems almost blase about his work routine—he’s more focused on getting Megan to open that blouse—while even Peggy, pillar of progressive thinking, seems out of step with the times as she presents her corny “bean ballet” to Heinz. All Heinz wants is something that makes beans seem cool again: “I want the kids in college,” the executive says. “It’s convenient. They have the hot plate, they’re sitting-in … Maybe it’s someone with a picket sign saying, ‘We want beans!’”

The centerpiece of the episode is the surprise party, which had everything short of Peter Sellers in brownface going, "Birdie num-num." While I felt it had pacing problems and ran too long, it did serve in to fill a great number of dangling details. Peggy is still with Abe Drexler, her idealistic journalist boyfriend. Roger is still with Jane, but there are definite signs of trouble in paradise; I’ll be surprised if they are still together four episodes from now. The booze flows, Ken smokes weed, Megan does a downright dirty rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” and for a brief moment it seems as though Megan’s attempts at marrying Don’s professional life to his personal life, and both of those to the hip-swinging times, seem like they might actually succeed. Needless to say, however, they don’t, and Megan finally learns what it’s like to get on her man’s notorious bad side. (But the dirty old man would ultimately get his wish, and then some, when the two converge carnally on a filthy floor.)

The threads weave together nicely by episode’s end: Joan’s undermining mom has pointed out the minority employment ad taken out by Roger as a prank, bringing Joan back to the office in tears, where Lane reassures her she’s still needed. (Meanwhile, the baby is passed off and pushed around the office like a mail cart.) That same ad also fills the waiting room with African-American job applicants, and the last shot is that of Lane reluctantly accepting resumes. SCDP, thrust to the forefront of the civil rights movement, and all because of a petty, inter-agency rivalry. If that doesn’t sum up the blackly hilarious world of Mad Men, I don’t know what does.


Questions:

1. Well? What did you think? Did it live up to the huge expectations?

2. Do you think Don and Megan will survive the season?

3. Was a Betty-less episode a welcome change, or was something missing?

4. Which characters would you like to see return this season?


Fun Finds:

Want to hear the original “Zou Bisou Bisou”? (Here’s a primer on the song.)

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