Mad Men season premiere recap: A Tale of Two Cities
Two months have passed since Don Draper took the elevator down to the metaphorical center circle of Dante’s Inferno after a season spiraling towards booze-soaked disaster. Recall that he snagged defeat from the jaws of victory during his self-sabotaging pitch to the Hershey people, was exiled from the company and ordered to “regroup,” and then celebrated Thanksgiving by taking his children to the former brothel that was his tragic childhood home. Good times. But was it really rock bottom? Or does Don Draper still have further to fall?
“Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.”
The beginning. Interesting.
That’s how the final season of Mad Men begins: Blast from the past Freddie Rumsen pitching Peggy for Accutron watches. “That is not what I expected,” says an impressed Peggy after Freddie wraps up his high-concept TV commercial, and she may as well be speaking for all of us. Freddie Rumsen? He’s freelancing; she’s in charge. Except that she’s not. Despite last season’s finale’s imagery of Peggy in Don’s office, symbolically wearing the pants, Peggy isn’t running the shop. Instead, crusty ol’ Lou Avery is calling the shots, and he’s everything that Don was not. He dresses like Mr. Rogers, chuckles at his own corny jokes, and brags about his “peachy” weekend chopping firewood. Most importantly, he is immune to Peggy’s charms. We know this because he tells pesky Peggy, who is sure she knows better than anyone, “I guess I’m immune to your charms.” Lou’s idea meetings are like root canal surgery, making his doctor-office jokes a little too close to the nerve.
Lou’s “hip” vibe can only be partially credited with the buzz-kill atmosphere permeating the Sterling Cooper & Partners offices. Pete and Ted are in Los Angeles, Bob Benson is in Detroit, and Don is still in Elba, leaving stressed-out, one-eyed Ken Cosgrove responsible for yelling at underlings. Amiable Ken Cosgrove. Published Atlantic Monthly author, Ken Cosgrove (a.k.a. Ben Hargrove, a.k.a. Dave Algonquin). Ken’s in Pete’s old office now, and it’s rubbed off on him. He’s worried about corporate hierarchy and the power of perception, dumping a meeting with the new head of marketing at Butler Shoes on Joan because he’s sure it’s beneath him.
Joan may have a seat at the SCP grown-ups table, but like Peggy, she’s still just a girly. Everywhere she turns, she’s hit over the head with the same chauvinistic attitude. Butler’s head of marketing (Cougar Town‘s Dan Byrd) would rather tuck his kids into bed than spend another moment talking business with a woman, but at least he tells her that Butler is planning to pull the account from SCP and bring all marketing in-house. It’s all about the four Ps, or something. Joan is so accustomed to being either ignored or pawed-at that she misinterprets a college professor’s quid pro quo intentions when he agrees to give her a tutorial in Business Marketing 101 (though maybe he was being intentionally ambiguous with his friendly remarks). Regardless, Joan gets the inside-baseball knowledge she needs to put Butler’s bold plans on hold — for now.
There you are Don! Finally! He and Megan are still together — well, apart together. He’s cashing unwarranted SCP paychecks in New York while she’s in LA, reading for roles in NBC pilots. We catch up with him shaving in an airplane bathroom on his way west, then walking through the airport to Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group singing “I’m a Man.” He’s a man, alright, but L.A. has always had a strange influence on Don, and in January 1969, it’s as disorienting as ever. Dreamy even. Don is dressed for business, standing out like a sore thumb as the man in the grey suit and hat. When he kisses Megan at the curb, she in a wispy baby-blue blouse, his first remark is, “I like the car,” referring to her tiny racing-green convertible. Absence makes the heart grow… something or other.
(For the record, the car’s license plate was JAS 830. Have at it, amateur numerologists.)
Megan rushes Don to meet her flamboyant agent Alan Silver, who gushes over the central-casting couple and reassures Don that his interest in Megan is all business. (“I feel completely at ease,” says Don, with the hint of a smirk.) Alan is in a celebratory mood: Megan has a call-back for an NBC pilot called Bracken’s World, a melodrama about low-level Hollywood players that ran for almost two seasons beginning in 1969. Perfect, since Megan is already practically living the life of a character from Bracken’s World. She doesn’t blanch in the slightest when Alan tells her the promising news means she shouldn’t have her teeth fixed just yet — she’s heard that before, of course — and you get the impression that if Alan told her she had to completely shave her hair for the part, she’d start pulling it out at the table. This is a different Megan Draper than the one we knew in New York.
Back at her proudly-spare mountain cabin, she resists Don’s romantic overtures and is eager to sleep. She begs off his invitation to celebrate again the next night, and ultimately claims to be nervous around him. Is this related to her miscarriage in the fall? Is she afraid of getting pregnant again and how that might disrupt her acting career? Or is Don’s visit more a nuisance than anything else?
In some ways, you can almost sense that Don is losing her to the glamour of Hollywood, that Megan has become enamored with the west-coast Shangra-La. It’s no coincidence that Matthew Weiner, who wrote the season premiere, put Don to sleep his final night in L.A. with Frank Capra’s 1937 movie, Lost Horizon, on the black-and-white. “In these days of wars and rumors of wars, haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” reads the opening-credit scroll. “Of course you have. So has every man since Time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia — sometimes the Fountain of Youth — sometimes merely ‘that little chicken farm.'”
In the film, and the 1933 novel by James Hilton on which it is based, a British diplomat’s plane crashes in the Himalayas, and his group is rescued by a mysterious tribe that resides in an isolated mountain paradise called Shangri-La. Once there, most of the survivors fall under the place’s spell and decide to stay under the protection of its Buddhist-like leader, but the diplomat decides to return home with his thickheaded brother and a beautiful 20-year-old native woman. Once out of the magical oasis, however, the woman ages decades in an instant… withers… and dies.
I don’t think Megan is ever leaving her Shangri-La.
She’ll have company there, because Pete has also found peace in the sun. With a sweater knotted around his shoulders and smile that makes him look mildly medicated, Pete welcomes Don with a hug and talks about the city’s favorable vibrations. He doesn’t even mind that much when Don gives his new real-estate girlfriend — a California Betty Draper Francis, if there ever was one — some serious Draper smolder.
The only person who hasn’t been seduced by L.A. is Ted, who’s quite miserable, according to Pete. He’s back in New York, conveniently, while Don’s out west, and his idea of a fun weekend is catching up on all his work at the New York office, where his equal in misery, Peggy, sneers at him for abandoning her and fleeing to L.A. with his family.
Poor Peggy. The only men in her life are Julio, the neighbor’s boy from upstairs who complains about the toilet, and her handyman brother-in-law, who can’t be persuaded to spend another moment away from his beloved wife.
Roger is also suffering through another period of malaise and disillusionment — even as he embraces the psychedelic drugs and free love of the youthful counterculture. He’s living with a bunch of young hippies who share his bed, but any serenity he was enjoying is interrupted by his daughter, who clearly is in the midst of her own spiritual awakening. Last year, she was withholding her grandson unless Roger backed her husband’s business venture, but now she’s at peace and forgives her father for all his transgressions. Roger suspects another financial ambush or at least a guilt trip, but for now, Margaret is just “sick” with whatever bug bit Pete.
The weekend ends, and Don catches the red-eye home. Seated next to him is not a “man with a hair-piece eating a banana,” but Neve Campbell. She offers him a sleeping pill. He declines. But it’s Draper Time. He flirts pretty hard. She flirts back. They exchange some soul-baring truths: he’s a horrible husband, she just spread her husband’s ashes at Disneyland.
Their scenes together on the plane had a dream-like quality that reminded me of the train sequence in The Manchurian Candidate, where Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra first meet. Her husband died of thirst, but what does that mean? Alcoholism? Or was the thirst she vaguely describes more symbolic, like an unquenchable thirst for the Fountain of Youth. (See Lost Horizon‘s Shangri-La.) “Then a doctor told me he’d be dead in a year,” she says, before cryptically adding. “All of them would be.”
All of whom?
They fall asleep together on the plane, with her head on his shoulder. When they awake, he smells her hair and kisses her head; she absolves him of his rocky marriage and offers to give him a lift, literally and figuratively. For once, he declines, claiming he has to get back to work — which appears to be an obvious lie.
Their chance encounter in the skies might not have led to the mile-high club this week, but no one would be surprised of Campbell’s character pops up again. She never introduces herself to Don in the episode, yet the post-show credits list her as Lee Cabot. A show wouldn’t bother with an official name that’s not mentioned during the show unless she plays some future role. Would they?
Don is back in New York in time to watch Richard Nixon’s presidential inauguration on TV. Freddie Rumsen drops in, and we learn that Freddie didn’t become brilliant overnight. His Accutron pitch was Don’s work; he’s been working as Cyrano de Bergerac, feeding Freddie his best ideas for ad jobs all around town. Nixon drones on in the background:
“We find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but failing into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them. To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. And to find that answer, we need only look within ourselves.”
Weiner recently told The Atlantic how Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities influenced his writing this season, and Nixon’s rhetoric underscores the divergent spiritual well-being of Mad Men‘s characters, as well at the best/worst of times dynamic between New York and Los Angeles. But it’s more than that: Nixon is president. After all the promise and hope that the 1960s symbolized, after all the marches, and all the upheaval, the American people went to the polls in 1968 and elected… Dick Nixon, the Republican candidate from 1960.
The country is right back where it started. American failed to correct itself, and ignored its mistakes. Until now, Don Draper has followed that same self-destructive path. Was declining Lee’s airplane proposal the first baby step in his rehabilitation, in breaking the pattern, in escaping from his personal purgatory? That night, he puts down the bottle instead of opening it, he turns off the TV, and he goes outside in the cold and just sits, as Vanilla Fudge sings, “Set me free why don’t you babe. Get out my life, why don’t you babe,” and, “Why don’t you get out of my life. And let me make a new start?”
A new start. Remember to pay attention: this might the beginning of something.
Just Spitballin’ Here…
Let’s just make a rule that if someone’s daughter calls during an orgy, you don’t hand daddy the phone. Poor, Roger.
Did anyone else see Pete Campbell’s L.A. wardrobe and immediately start singing, “Constance Fry… Constance Fry…”
Who was the late-night guest on The Joey Bishop Show? I couldn’t place her.
Seriously, why can’t L.A. make a decent bagel?
If someone was dying of “thirst” for the Fountain of Youth, there are worst resting places than Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland.
“You’re all a bunch of hacks who are perfectly happy with sh-t. Nobody cares about anything.” That will make a nice epitaph, Peggy.
Do you think Don is “damaged goods” now in the eyes of the WASPS that run SCP? Part of me thinks he’ll never be invited back through the front door.
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama