Saturday, March 31, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "A Little Kiss"

Welcome the inaugural installment of a new feature here at LBM, the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: March 25th, 2012

Jon: Ah, yes... the long-awaited premiere of season 5. Eighteen months have passed since season 4 wrapped up, which you'd think would be plenty of time for things at our favorite Madison Avenue advertising agency to alter radically from where we last left them.

However, much to my surprise, things are basically the same with most of the folk of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as we left them. Business is "stable" at SCDP, aka money isn't a colossal concern but, as Lane reiterates throughout "A Little Kiss," they're not hiring for any new positions at this time. Relationship-wise, Don and Megan are now married and beaming at the outset of the episode, complete with a (I think) pleased Sally fixated on them at every moment; Peggy is still with her activist/journalist boyfriend from last season; Joan's rapey jerk of a hubby has yet to return from Vietnam, but sadly she's still technically with him; poutyface Pete has the audacity to be all pouty with Trudy (who I keep waiting to break scene and laugh with Abed every time she's onscreen), but they too appear stable-ish at the moment; Roger and Jane probably won't last much longer because Roger is Roger, but they're hitched too; Lane has visions of striking up another affair but continues to abide by his wife's nagging; Kenny Cosgrove is still with the grown-up version of the girl who played Alex Mack; Harry remains married and pathetically embarrassing as ever; and, shocker, Stan's still single and rushing off to the bean ballet. Oh, and Bert appears to need nothing more than office space to pace about in his socks. We don't get to see what Betty's been up to this episode, but I'm sure it'll be something to allow us to despise her in new ways.

Meanwhile, most of the differences here at the outset of season 5 are relatively minor but enough to mix up the dynamic at SCDP a bit, namely Joan has given birth to a baby boy and has been on maternity leave for a number of weeks, and Megan has now graduated from her secretary post to a junior copywriter at the firm.

Undoubtedly, this episode belonged to Jessica Pare's Megan Draper, who took an amazing leap from just the intriguing, yet ultimately random girl with the crazy teeth Don decided to propose to rather impulsively at the close of season 4 to a fully rounded character who while revealing her great joys and sorrows allowed us to examine Don's in new ways as well. Which leads me to the crux of the "A Little Kiss" and perhaps some insight to one of the major themes of season 5: is Don Draper a new man?

Following the disastrous meeting with the executives from Heinz where Don failed to save the pitch as we've become accustomed to, a distraught Peggy has this exchange with Stan:
"I don't recognize that man. He's kind. And patient."
"And it galls you."
"No, it concerns me."
Of course, this happy version of Don doesn't last long. But even after his fury over the party subsides, he does seem to possess a sort of peacefulness when he's with Megan that has alluded him for any length of time with Betty and his many conquests we've been privy to. There lies the possibility he's entered a new stage in his life.

So what say you? Am I way off-base with my Don theory? Were you as mesmerized by Megan as I was? Is Pete going bald?

Mark: Jon, I don’t think you’re completely off-base with your Don theory. He certainly seems more at ease with himself this year, and the fact that he is able to be so open with Megan about his past speaks volumes about his emotional development and the overall health of their marriage (at least relative to Don’s marriage to Betty). By the way, how great is this show at trickling out exposition? Megan knowing that Don is actually Dick Whitman is quite a bombshell, but Weiner and the other writers let that information pass breezily in the midst of a conversation. That kind of stuff requires you to do some work as a viewer, but that naturalism makes the Mad Men viewing experience such a treat. Anyway, Don is definitely still closed off in his way, but at least now when he is mortified by his surprise birthday party and the unwanted attention it brings, he is able to stick it out and sulk off to bed at the end of the night. I can see the Don of earlier seasons instead slipping out of the party and disappearing for a week with one of his bohemian conquests, leaving Megan in the lurch.

Don also seems more comfortable and happy around his kids. I’m always thoroughly pleased to see scenes where Sally Draper is at ease, and isn’t being blithely ignored, treated like garbage or forced to endure some other emotional torment from her horrible mother or sometimes-distant father. Sally is intense, and her curiosity about Megan may cross boundaries in an accidentally-creepy kid way in the coming weeks, but Don and Megan’s warmth towards her was nice to see. Happiness is hard to come by in Mad Men, and I will discuss my worries about Don and Megan below, but damn I just hope Sally ends up okay, and maybe Megan could be a good female role model for her. Or maybe not. Oh, Sally, you never had a chance.

Let me tell you why I’m not quite ready to sign off on Mr. and Mrs. Draper, Jon. There are some crazy power games going on between these two. Megan must have known that Don would be uncomfortable with the hilariously square party and her "Zou bisou bisou” routine, but I think she did it to playfully challenge his repression. But after the party, when she and Don had their Dick Whitman discussion, she seemed to be outright using her knowledge as a weapon. Likewise, Don paws at Megan during seemingly every private moment, coolly commanding her to unbutton her shirt for him in one scene, partly out of attraction but maybe also as a way of putting her in her place. They do seem to generally have an open dialogue and emotional honesty with each other that never in a million years existed between Don and Betty, but just as easily they can put up walls or resort to weirdly sexual antagonism like that whole “You can’t have this!” underwear display/wrestling match. Maybe they’re perfect for each other, but there’s a tinge of creepiness for me. Maybe they have so much in common that they are just going to destroy each other.

As a child of acrimoniously divorced parents, this show is not helping me with my fears about marriage. With the utterly miserable and vicious Roger and Jane serving as a possible outcome for Don and Megan’s marriage once the passion cools off, the vibrant and intelligent Joan stuck in her prison cell, and stupid, bored Harry and Lane lusting after various fantasies, it’s getting to be that Pete Campbell is somehow the most well-adjusted of the lot. Whereas Pete once seemed like an alien trying to approximate human behavior (in an intentional and compelling way, that’s not a knock against Vincent Kartheiser’s great performance), he and Trudy seem to be coming into their own as the show’s most successful marital team. Again, relatively-speaking. Who knows when Pete’s complaints about marriage on the train ride to work will start coming from a real place, and won’t just be used to pacify that dipshit he plays cards with.

Pete is very easy to root for in his push against Roger, who for all his supposedly charming and debonair qualities is really just an epic piece of shit. Pete, like Roger, is as blue-blooded as it gets, but he has shown a remarkable ability to engage with the times, and his rise at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and the increasing obsolescence of Roger and Bert (at the company, anyway – Bert is still a bizarrely singular, cockroach-like dude), nicely coincides with the big wave of change that Roger’s old-school-business-dickhead “want ad” is bringing to the company’s door. Mad Men has kind of tip-toed around race so far. I’m looking forward to that being in the forefront this year.

What do you think, Mike? Are Don and Megan a little creepy, or am I an ineffective couples therapist? Am I nuts, or does the whole show really hinge on Sally Draper? What stuck out to you?

Mike: You know what? I think you guys are being a little too sunny, in your not-really-altogether-that-sunny evaluation of this season's iteration of Don Draper. Yeah, he does seem a bit more at ease with his kids, and I'm feeling the heat of Don's lust for his new wife Megan -- but the cracks are showing. Megan's got the entry-level copywriting job that Peggy had to sweat blood for, but she doesn't think her co-workers at SDCP like her (and she doesn't think she likes them, either.) We're not led to believe that she's earned the position through legitimate channels, right? Either way, Don doesn't have much interest in his job anymore except to use it as a platform to make time with his wife. He drops the ball in the meeting with the Heinz people, placating Peggy with words that may be true-ish, but seriously, Don! The look on Peggy's face said it all -- the man has lost his edge. He's come through for her dozens of times before, charming the customer into accepting far weaker copy material. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that this won't end well for Peggy and Don.

Or, Megan and Don. Just watch how easily he falls back into his earlier pattern of stony, ice-cold detachment with Megan as he drunkenly reclines in bed after the disastrous birthday party. His cruelty in that scene, and Megan's burgeoning understanding of exactly the kind of man he can be, were painful to observe. And let's face it, guys: Don gave up a sure thing with Faye, the delightful market researcher who captured all of our hearts last season, for a fling with a sexy young secretary that kind of turned into a permanent gig. If that doesn't come back to bite him then I'd be surprised. (That said, I'm often surprised by "Mad Men.")

So, yes -- from outside appearances, Don may seem to have made some personal progress, but he's just "this" far away from joining the good-ol'-boys' club of the senior SDCP partners. Along that same vein, I found it fascinating how Don and Pete have essentially switched places in their lives. While Don now resides in a hip, fashionable metropolitan apartment and lives the life of a well-to-do city dweller, Pete and Trudy have moved to what appears to be a modest country homestead. (I actually thought, for just a moment at first sight, that Pete's kitchen was Don's old one from his days with Betty and the kids.) The miserable train ride in from the outskirts leaves Pete plenty of time to bitterly lament how he's the only SDCP partner who's still hungry. His frustration is palpable. His pathetic meeting with the other partners about his business needs ended with disinterest and a few grumbled platitudes from the older men.

(But what was it, then, that moved Roger, who still far surpasses Don in his disconnection -- forget about Bert, who's in another league entirely -- to take action and move Pete into Harry's office? I'm not entirely sure.)

Now, young Sally Draper, as Mark alludes to above, is the lynchpin of it all. Well, not really, but I think she is a good thermometer for how the selfishness of both of her parents are going to affect all of the Draper kids -- even little Eugene, who Don admitted in a tragic scene last season was born out of desperation, and thinks that another man is his father. I actually thought that the scene at the beginning with the kids was great, a rare moment of happiness in a show that doesn't often present that kind of thing undiluted by pathos.

And I may be all on my lonesome in "Mad Men" fandom here, but I was a little disappointed that we didn't see much (any) of Betty in this episode. (I understand that January Jones was on a much-needed maternity break at the time.) I'm really hoping to see more of Don and Betty interacting this season, because I for one found their shared scenes in season four to be electric. Ms. Jones gets some bad press as an actress for reasons I won't get into here, and a lot of it deservedly so, but she has been an important part of the series up to this point, and I don't want to see that particular thread dropped.

There's a so much more that I could talk about here: douchey Hollywood Harry, the hilarious way that race politics barges its way into the SDCP reception area, the delightful relationship between Lane and Joan that I must have forgotten about over the long break, Roger throwing money at everything (except for his unacknowledged son) while poor Lane, for his part, seems to be experiencing a bit of a shortfall.

This was a table-setting episode in every sense of the word except, you know, the negative one. I think we needed one, after an almost two-year hiatus, and I absolutely can't wait to see where we go from here. Welcome back, "Mad Men"!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good read.