Mad Men season premiere recap: The New Normal
The young and not-so-young chase significance, relevancy, and renewed prosperity amid changing, uneasy times in 'A Little Kiss'
Sally Draper’s spring awakening set the tone for Mad Men’s lovely, languid, deceptively light season premiere. We met her anew as an alarm clock radio roused her from slumber. The tune: “Ebb Tide” by organ maestro Ken Griffin from his album Drifting & Dreaming – a charming sonic kiss for a sleeping beauty. (Thank you SoundHound app for the research assist.) As we watched the blossoming adolescent groggily float through the halls of her father’s new apartment, I half expected an animated menagerie of enchanted birds and bees and assorted forest creatures to materialize and attend to her. Looking for the bathroom, she instead knocked on the locked door of the master bedroom. Don Draper, sans shirt, grumpily greeted her. Sally snuck a peek inside and saw her father’s young bride rolled up in the white sheets, naked backside exposed. Sally twitched from the adult vibrations charging the air. It was hard to know if Sally’s glance caught or escaped Don’s attention. “You want breakfast?’ he yawned. Now, as always, the matter of Don Draper’s self-awareness is up for debate.
“A Little Kiss” was full of insensitivity and obliviousness to profound changes either subtly blooming or loudly demanding to be noticed. The year: 1966. Our drop point: The week surrounding Memorial Day, a holiday that was originally intended to honor the Union soldiers who fought and died during The Civil War. With a heavy hand, Mad Men’s opening sequence reminded us that 100 years after the end of slavery, the cause of civil rights still had miles to go. High in the ivory tower of Young & Rubicam, New York, a preppy crew of copywriters bitched about the noisy protest in the streets below. “O-E-O! O-E-O! We got the poverty!/Where is the dough?” went the angry chant of African American men and women marching with pickets. (OEO: Office of Economic Opportunity, started in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his Great Society program.) The white young Republicans dressed in blue and red striped dress shirts were unsympathetic. Taped to their windows were scrawled responses. “Goldwater ’68” and “If you want $ get a job!” and “You Voted For Lindsay [sic] See Him!” With an impish gleam, one of these American Idiots said: “Must be hot out there.” He grabbed a pitcher of ice tea and poured it out the window. “You hit one!” crowed a colleague. (Shudder.) Soon they were turning lunch sacks into water bombs. Talk about your trickle down economics. Scampering out of their cold hole to get more water from the men’s room, the fratty rats stumbled and bumbled into the lobby and came face to face with the objectified Others they were dumping on, just as the receptionist was indignantly insisting that her small quadrant of corporate America couldn’t possibly be responsible for such bad, demeaning behavior. “This is the executive floor! That’s ridiculous!” she thundered. Busted. The upper class with their dripping sacks and the lower class with their sagging signs shared uncomfortable silence, a sad-eyed black boy all wet between them. The battle between yesterday and tomorrow, between change and status quo, had gone next level, and so had Mad Men’s engagement with mid-sixties American history.
May 31, 1966. Roughly seven months since Don Draper went to “Tomorrowland” and jumped at the future he saw in the eyes of his young, great-with-kids, aspiring-writer secretary, Megan. Slightly longer since the tender union of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was imperiled by its own version of Southern secession: The abrupt departure of Lucky Strike, which accounted for nearly half of the upstart firm’s billings. SCDP looked as roasted as toasted Virginia tobacco. We returned to those cool, spare, spacey-mod offices on the day after Memorial Day and found a cracked mirror reflection of our own post-calamity times: A leaner, slightly meaner operation, still rattled by recent hardships but no longer reeling from them. Everyone (save for a privileged, oddly happy one) was overworked and exhausted, all were yearning to get “back to normal.” Time to get back to the way things used to be. Time to resume the narrative of a scrappy start-up’s rise from underdog to top dog. Business had stabilized. Some new clients – Chevalier Cologne; Butler Shoes — had finally signed on the dotted line. Some promising new leads had come across the transom, including Heinz Baked Beans. Some old clients, like Mohawk Airlines, were open to coming back. “You know how this works from here on out,” Ken Cosgrove explained with rose-colored optimism. “We start with a bunch of piddily s—t. Your Topaz. Your White Night cologne. We add your mid-sized stuff. Maybe your Mohawk. We still got Vicks. That’s big! Next, we worm our way into a few niche companies, something sexy in a good neighborhood. A pharmaceutical. Maybe if God is gracious, a car. And then? We go public, open an office in Buenos Aires and Elvis plays at Tammy’s sweet 16.”
Quipped Pete Campbell: “Kenny Cosgrove writes another Great American novel.” Time will tell if the agency will follow his script — or if the story about a new kind of normal is about to take hold.
NEXT: Roger the rogue, going rogue.
It seemed to me that the struggle to survive – concurrent with Don’s unsettling change in behavior in the wake of his sudden marriage to Megan (more on this in a minute) – had come at a cost: A marked erosion in the band-of-brothers (and a few sisters) esprit de corps that marked the agency’s founding. Case-in-point: Roger Sterling. The silver fox had been Lucky Strike’s longtime caretaker, and for years, he had rested profitably on that one laurel. Now, Roger’s status – his relevancy — was in flux, and he felt it acutely, driving him to poignantly pathetic selfishness. During the wilderness months, the partners had learned to make do with fewer secretaries. Caroline, shared by Don and Roger, managed her double duty workload by covering the phone that rang the most. Consequently, she remained permanently parked outside Don Draper’s office, as the Clio-winning creative superstar’s phone was always ringing… even if the glory boy wasn’t doing much these days to truly earn it. Roger’s phone? Church quiet. Distinguished visitors? None. So it was funny-sad watching him force 50 bucks on Caroline to induce her/guilt her into sitting outside his office for awhile in order to conjure the illusion of significance. Caroline took his money – and stayed put. So much for her conscience.
Another secretary became another flashpoint for Roger’s middle-aged madness: Clara, a Betty Rubble-lookalike with a plunging neckline. The incorrigible cheat made a point of starting his day by loitering around her desk so he could ogle… the calendar that she kept for Pete, so he could poach the younger exec’s leads for himself. Working a rowing analogy, Pete fumed over Roger’s sabotage: “The boat moves because everyone moves in the same direction. I’m not supposed to be worried about Roger. I’m supposed to be worried about other agencies.” Ken encouraged Pete to get over it. Besides, Roger had skills Pete lacked – like the fact that he was a fun-time guy that people actually liked. A win was a win, no matter who earned it or how, especially right now. Right? Pete got some petty payback by putting a bogus meeting on his calendar, sending Roger on an early morning schlep to Staten Island for a phony date with Coca-Cola. It was all rather sad-funny until Roger made it pure sad-sad by taking out his internal turmoil on Jane. “Shut up” he said rudely when she asked why he was leaving so early for Staten Island. How will Roger’s anxious, coarser-than-usual drive play out over the season? It’s tempting to fear the worst. But what if Roger’s miserable drive improves the agency’s fortunes?
Of course, scoring new business opportunities is one thing. Securing accounts with quality creative is another. Can Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce meet the challenge of producing ideas that can resonate in a culture in transition? The matter of Peggy Olsen’s flat-footed bean ballet begged the question. Heinz was in the market for a campaign that could change the image of its baked beans line, maybe even make it appealing to those cool-cat college hipsters with their protesty can’t-we-all-just-get-along be-ins. (Hmmm. “Beans.” “Be-ins.” We human beings do look “better in a group,” don’t we?) Baked beans: Slimy slop, defined by oldy-moldy associations – The Depression, war, bomb shelters – now wanting a shock of the new makeover. A uniquely American institution, now needing reconstruction. Just like those Ugly Americans over at Y&R… or haunting the secretarial pool just down the hall.
Peggy thought she had the solution. Full of artsy spunk (we remember that she had contributed significantly to Don’s award-winning Glo-Coat commercial), Peggy pitched – hold your chortle — a cinematic waltz of individual baked beans, pirouetting and somersaulting in slow motion, coming together with a splash of sauce. Her spot sounded like “The Blue Danube” spaceship sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – but with the magical fruit that makes you toot. Perhaps she had Douglas Trumbull in mind to execute the cutting edge “microphotography.” Her proposed tagline: “The Art of Supper.” Yes, it sounded pretentious, but Peggy believed it would play funny: “It’ll show you have a sense of humor, because really they’re beans portrayed as far more important than what they are.”
NEXT: Nice try, Peggy: The famous campaign that really changed the face of Heinz.
Heinz was impressed – but unconvinced. They were looking for change — but change they could believe in. “Look, it’s very artistic and yes, very bold,” said Mr. Heinz Guy. “But this wasn’t what I had in mind when I was talking about a new generation of consumers. … That waltz alone reminds me of old people. It’s got no message.” History tells us that one year later, Heinz would find what it was looking for from a tipsy Mad Man across the pond: According to industry legend, Maurice Drake, employed by (get this) Young & Rubicam, was at a London pub with a couple pints in him when he came up with one of the most celebrated and whimsical taglines in advertising history: “Beanz Meanz Heinz.”
When Don entered the conference room toward the end of Peggy’s presentation, I wanted him to save the day with one of his patented epiphanies and trademark reveries. He didn’t. After the bean-counters scooted away, I expected Don to tear Peggy a new one for fumbling the pitch. Peggy was, too. Yet like a benevolent football coach, Don gave her a proverbial pat on the fanny and told her to do better next time. Don had become a different person since his marriage to Megan – in some ways, a better person, kinder and patient — and it was totally freaking everyone out. “I don’t recognize that man,” Peggy fretted. “It concerns me.”
Born again Don Draper: An authentic conversion? Don Draper’s tamed demons: Bad for business? We were left to mull these questions, even worry about them. Lord, how we’ve wanted this man to find some happiness and wholeness. Now that he’s got it, we don’t trust it – and we may not really want him to have it. Healthy souls just aren’t all that interesting, you know? (Memo to Roger: Keep bringing the a–hole!) Fittingly, the premiere found Don celebrating a pivotal birthday — the big 4-0 (cue: Peggy’s hilarious curled-lip reaction) – even though it wasn’t his real birthday. The country boy born Dick Whitman had secretly, unceremoniously reached that milestone six months earlier. It was noteworthy to me that Megan knew this — that Don had told her all about his past. Seen from this point of view, Don’s newfound lightness belongs to a man less burdened by secrets, less fractured by compartmentalization. Free at last, free at last. Right?
It was heartening to see him and hear him enjoy being a father to his three kids. Making them bacon and pancakes. Letting Bobby bust on him for always promising to go to The Statue of Liberty, but never following through. (Did he make good this year? We weren’t told.) Gratefully accepting Sally’s birthday present of a shaving brush – an old school gift for a no longer young man. Making sure that Bobby took Eugene by the hand when he dropped them off at the spooky suburban mansion where the kids lived with Betty and Henry Francis. “Give Morticia and Lurch my love,” Don quipped as he kissed the kids goodbye. The line was as nasty as it was funny, and it made me wonder about the true, current temperature of the Don & Betty cold war. Sally made sure to firm up plans for their next weekend together. She seemed to enjoy this side of the family divide. She seemed truly happy for her dad. Seemed. Returning to work the next day with Megan on his arm, Don was asked about his holiday weekend. “It was nice. We had the kids,” Don declared, as if the ‘kids’ part made all the difference. Don Draper, more complete than he’s ever been. Victory.
NEXT: “Zoobee Zoobee Zoo” means “This was a really bad idea.”
If only his new wife felt that same sense of fullness. We met a Megan who was eager to distinguish herself at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as a hard worker with good ideas. She was no longer a secretary. Don had put her on the Peggy-blazed copywriter career path three months earlier. First stop: Writing coupons for the Heinz team. Still: She was Don’s wife. Respect was elusive. Especially when she had Don trying to feel her up every time he got her alone in his office. I squirmed for her when she resisted him and he jokingly (?) threatened to send her home. “I have that power,” he reminded her. When she managed to squirt free so she could actually, like, work, Don demanded that she open her blouse to him as a parting gift. His subsequent slack-jawed leer was creepy-hilarious. Dirty old man indeed. Later, when Don was ready to leave for the day, he fetched Megan from the creative bullpen, oblivious to the cues she was giving him. She was working. She wanted to keep working. “You need her?” Don asked Peggy. Peggy said they could make do without her. I think Megan – wanting to felt needed both at work and with Don — wished she had said otherwise.
In light of Megan’s plight, I wondered what exactly she was really trying to accomplish with the surprise birthday party she decided to throw for Don. It was a bad idea, and Peggy – knowing Don better than anyone – tried to discourage Megan from the ambition. Men don’t like surprises. Especially control freaks like Don. (That “Lucy” reference – My Favorite Husband or I Love Lucy?) But this was New and Improved (?) Don, the affable alien entity that was confusing the hell out of everyone by marrying the help and obliterating the wall between personal and professional. (Even Roger had the good sense to make Jane stay at home after putting a ring on her.) Besides: 40. He deserved to be feted a big birthday bash with his closest friends in the world: The people he worked with. Hoo-boy. “You’ve never seen me throw a party,” Megan enthused to Peggy. “Everyone is going to go home from this and have sex!”
If only. For a few, Saturday night was a chore. Especially for Peggy, who had been ordered by Don to work through the weekend re-doing the Heinz pitch. (Party foul on the bitter, slightly sloshed Miss Olsen for bluntly reminding the hostess and guest of honor of the inconvenience. Don’s stunned-aghast expression was priceless.) But the party was far from boring. Not with Bert and Peggy’s boyfriend, underground newspaper journo Abe Drexler, debating the legitimacy of “Domino Theory” and the Vietnam War horror show, much to the dismay of Stan’s cousin, a Navy sailor on shore leave. (“I thought there were going to be girls here,” he quipped sadly.) Not with Megan’s groovy-mod friends smoking “tea” and making youth culture spectacle for the Madison Avenue squares. And then came the featured entertainment. Channeling her inner Dusty Springfield, Megan sang a slinky cover of “Zou Bisou Bisou” – originally a hit for French popstress Gillian Hills in 1960, and sung in English by Sophia Loren in the 1960 film The Millionairess. (FUN FACT! At this mid-sixties moment, Loren had a new movie in theaters, the spy thriller Arabesque co-starring Gregory Peck. The tagline: “Ultra Mod! Ultra Mad! Ultra Mystery!”) Beholding Megan in boozy-woozy bloom, the invited guests toggled between amusement, polite support, furrowed eyebrow bafflement and wide-eyed shock. Don squirmed and smiled through Megan’s silly-sexy serenade, and we squirmed and smiled right along with him. Still, everyone cheered at the end, and Roger saluted both of them with a toast that sounded flattering, but winked with a bitter subtext that earned him a pained wince from Jane: ”The only thing worse than getting what you want is someone else getting it.”
Were you expecting Don to blow up at Megan once the party broke up? Peggy certainly wound us up for it. We watched Don – drunk and tired and relieved it was all over – shuffle into the bedroom and collapse. He wanted to fade away into sleep. Megan wanted to keep the party going, if you know what I mean. (I mean she wanted to get laid.) She also wanted affirmation. What she got was a cold, quiet reprimand. Don told her not waste money on things like that again. When Megan replied that it was her money she wasted, Don responded: “Well, could you please not use it to embarrass me again?” This, from the man who so callously embarrasses her every day at work with his own boundary-blurring outré affections. Megan tried to dodge his barbs by suggesting his real problem was that he was feeling his age. 40. So over the hill! (And back then, it was.) Personally, I think Don doesn’t like birthdays because it reminds him of the childhood he ran away from and the lie of his adult life. Regardless, Don insincerely conceded her point, just to get her to buzz off. “I’m going to sleep,” he said. “You can do what you want.” Other people went home and had sex – Harry sure did, though let’s not let him talk about it — but not the Drapers. Megan used her downtime to look out on the city, ponder her situation, and perhaps consider the prospect that she had not yet found her true love or her true place in the world. In that moment, I saw a season that held the possibility of an intriguing role reversal: Don the cuckold.
If Megan’s true ambition was to get her colleagues to like her a little more, to see her not as a trophy wife but as a sophisticated modern woman… oh, well. The next business day, the hardened, calloused souls at SCDP couldn’t wait to feast on a breakfast buffet of shadenfreude produced by her folly. Pete wanted to strategically position himself so he could watch “Masters and Johnson” slink into work shame-faced. “Bonjour!” teased Roger before ripping into a sarcastic rendition of “Frere Jacques.” Don scowled and reminded him of the rules: We don’t make fun of our wives. Roger clarified: He was making fun of him and his nutty newfound happiness – but he apologized nonetheless. Their ex-secretary wives were “great girls… until they want something.” Roger let that hang in the air; Don walked away from it. Foreshadowing?
All Megan wanted in the remainder of this episode was to avoid any further discussion of the party. Again: Oh, well. She entered the kitchenette just as Harry was describing to Stan all the things he’d zooby zooby zoo to Megan if she was his girl. (Poor Jennifer.) Megan harbored the most bitterness for her role model: Peggy. It burned Megan that Peggy had complained about working through the weekend. (So had she.) It burned her even more that Peggy couldn’t even apologize properly when called on it. “What is wrong with you people?! You’re all so cynical. You don’t smile. You smirk.” Peggy ate her humble pie by degrees. First, she asked if Don was mad at her. Megan bristled at the disrespect. “I don’t care!” Then, finally, Peggy sincerely apologized to her. But Megan had shut down. She didn’t feel well, she said. “Am I allowed to go home?”
Don raced back to the apartment himself after Peggy bravely entered his office to apologize and explain what had happened. He found Megan preparing to clean the mess made by the piggish prigs she was quickly growing to loathe. Had she been anticipating Don’s arrival? I think yes. She threw off her housecoat. Don saw she was wearing only sexy underwear. “Don’t look at me,” she snapped. “Stop looking at me,” she protested again. “You don’t deserve it,” she hissed as she got on her hands and knees to comb the carpet of crud. “Besides,” she taunted, fanny jiggling from her cleaning, “you’re too old. You probably couldn’t do it, anyway. I don’t need an old person.” That one got Don’s engine going. He grabbed her by the arm. She presented defiance. “You don’t get to have this,” she said. “All you get to do is watch.” No: Don gets what Don wants. He wanted her – and he was damn certain she wanted him. A hard kiss, and then they hit the shag.
Afterward, spent and sorry, Don gave this explanation for why Megan’s well-meaning surprise party left him feeling disappointed, not celebrated: “The reason I didn’t want you to have that party is that I didn’t want ‘them’ in our home.” (Mad Men, Season 5: The us vs. “them” year … and there are a lot of ‘thems’ in this particular world right now, both inside and outside the office.) Don viewed his agency – the whole mad culture of Madison Avenue – as “infected.” When Megan shared that she was beginning to reconsider working where he worked (a good idea, I think), Don said: “I don’t really care about work. I want you at work because I want you.” How committed is Don to this principle? How far will we take it? Don Draper: Future counter-culture drop-out? I doubt it. And I so worry that Don – rattled by this challenge to his happiness – is now poised to sabotage his salvation, such as it is.
This recap has largely focused on the storylines that resolved last season’s major cliffhangers. But “A Little Kiss” was filled many other significant subplots, many of them about our need for significance. Pete the agency-sustaining rainmaker made a big show about needing a bigger office to host and entertain potential clients – but that was a lie. What he wanted was a singular space that affirmed his perceived importance. Namely, Pete wanted Roger’s office. Roger wasn’t about to let it go without a fight – and by that, I mean a literal ‘you-wanna-step-outside?” sidewalk showdown. Pete balked. “I thought so,” Roger said, alpha male triumphant. Still, Roger knew Pete needed to be assuaged, and so he pressured Harry into surrendering his office with his favorite weapon: Money. “Who carries a thousand dollars in cash in their pocket?” Harry asked. (Oh, maybe, say, about 1% of the population?) Harry took the bribe – and tried to stick Roger up for more. Pete bristled when heard he was getting Harry’s office; it was Roger he wanted to displace. But as he sat in his larger space, sipping an Old Fashioned, Peter stewed in his swelling sense of relevance, wearing one of those smug smirks Megan talked about.
I was most touched by Joan’s pursuit of significance in “A Little Kiss.” She was eager to end her maternity leave and get back to work for various reasons, like getting away from her visiting mother and her Book of Ruth “where thou goest I will go” moralizing about fidelity and her snarky comments about her curvier-than-usual post-pregnancy body. She also rocked Joan’s world by showing her a notice – written by Don and purchased by Roger — in the advertising section of The New York Times:
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce
An equal opportunity employer. Our windows don’t open. We are committed to proving that Madison Avenue isn’t all wet.
It was a dunderheaded inside joke between rich white guys, suggested by Roger — a rib at the racists at Young & Rubicam. Joan immediately assumed that the boys in the title were looking to replace her. After all: No one had visited, no one had called, no one seemed to really care she wasn’t there. The sequence in which she visited the office with baby in carriage was one the episode’s very best. For a few fleeting moments, selfishness cleared and some humanizing decency broke out like sunshine. I loved how Matthew Weiner milked that infant for every possible ounce of character-oriented subtext. “Where’s my baby!?” Roger bellowed in greeting — to Joan. She had decided to keep bike-gifting “Uncle Roger” ignorant of the truth. When Megan picked up the boy and cooed, Joan couldn’t resist wondering aloud when she and Don were going to start making a family of their own. (Don didn’t look opposed to the idea. Please: No.) Peggy wound up alone with the baby at one point – a poignant beat that turned season 2 painful when Megan suggested that she “leave him on the steps of a church” if she wanted to be rid of the responsibility. The ironies multiplied when Pete showed up. He and Peggy exchanged some furtive, knowing glances – and then she stuck him with the kid and bailed. Nice. A lovely scene between Joan and Lane cleared up the misunderstanding about the ad, affirmed Joan’s significance to the firm, and concluded with a fart. Now that’s some $30 million writing.
As the episode came to a close, we saw Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Pryce (and junior partner Pete) dealing with the unintended consequences of yet another rash act authored by Don Draper: A lobby full of women and men, all African American, responding to the agency’s insincere NYT ad. Pete – who showed signs of being more open minded on matters of race and more wired for social justice than is peers, younger and older (he quickly, easily branded those Y&R water-bombers as “bigots” earlier in the episode) — blasted his betters for their “childish prank.” Lane shot down Don’s idea of hiring someone; the agency couldn’t afford it. Not even as a receptionist? “We can’t have ‘one’ out there!” Roger growled, as if the idea of having anyone that wasn’t a pretty white woman fronting the company violated all common sense. At that moment, a special delivery from Y&R passed through the lobby and into the clutch of partners: An African artifact and a resume. How did you interpret the artifact? Did you see it as an offensive caricature? Or a legit piece of art? Either way, Y&R had raised the stakes. more Said Colonel Sanders Bert: “Did ‘those people’ out there see that artifact come in here?” Yep. Sure did. Lane Pryce went into the lobby, announced they were only hiring secretaries, and began collecting resumes from the ladies who had them. And in this way: Change. Whether we want it — or believe in it — or not.
I’m leaving much on the table, including newly suburbanized Pete’s city-yearning and his struggles with Trudy, as well as that inspired if icky subplot involving Lane and the wallet. Since I’ve already taxed your patience with my installment-plan approach to posting, I will direct you to Ken Tucker’s meaty review of the premiere for further discussion of those points. My Mad Men recapping comes at an even greater cost: There was no bigger fan of Karen Valby’s weekly summations of this show that yours truly. She’s currently at work grappling with the cultural phenomenon that is the Real Housewives franchise. Our gain and our loss. I promise to work hard at honoring the spirit of her irreplaceable voice. Now: Your turn. I know you’ve already started the conversation; look forward to reading your thoughts on the premiere and engaging when possible.