26
Mar
2012
Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 1
A Little Kiss
Jordan
It's been a while since Mad Men last graced my television screen. It's been a while since I was last immersed in the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Price. It's been a while since these characters have been a part of my life. Yet from the opening moments of "A Little Kiss," I was reminded of just what I've been missing, and just how much I need this show in my life. From the slow, quiet push in on Pete Campbell during his train ride to the bravado that the largely irrelevant Roger exhibited upon his entrance into the office, this episode wasted no time plugging us back into the world of SCDP, and I loved it for that, as well as for a litany of other fine accomplishments.

Mad Men stands, at this point, among the greatest dramas in television history. Perhaps the greatest lingering question is where it lies on that list, a matter that will remain debatable until the final episode of the show. Yet from its inception, this show has been set apart by the way it deals with the slow accumulation of time. At its core, this is a show about how people deal with change, and with the ways their lives fail to meet their expectations. On the one hand, this is a show set in the 1960s, which relishes in the sweeping social change of the era. On the other, however, it is a deeply personal look at how a decade's (eventually) worth of change effects a core set of people.

In maybe the two-hour episode's greatest scene, Joan Harris returns to SCDP with her new baby, and immediately allows us to see everyone as they currently stand. For Joan, its a chance to see just how out of the loop she's become; for Peggy and Pete, its a brief look at a life both chose not to lead; for Don and Megan, its a glimpse at a life neither particularly wants to lead (though, clearly, one is more tempted than the other).

The thought that hit me in the days leading up to the premiere was, "Where will we find ourselves?" This could be read as an existential question, but I'm a busy man these days, and actually, the most searching question I was asking about the incipient season was, quite literally, when we would be. From the look of things, we are in June, 1966, a time when Don Draper (if not Dick Whitman) turns 40, when Joan Harris prepares to be the sole caretaker for a baby that belongs to a man she can't confide in, and where the Civil Rights movement is starting to have effects on the not so subtly bigoted firms of midtown Manhattan. Things have changed for our characters. Peggy seems to be nearing the level at which we initially met Don (though, admittedly, with fewer monologues about what we really want, and thus, less persuasive power), Joan is a new mother itching to get back to work, Lane is dealing with the stress of having his wife on the same side of the Atlantic (and seemingly searching, futilely, for a better offer), Pete seems to be deteriorating personally and (less obviously, so far) professionally, and Roger seems to have started to realize, bitterly, just how useless he has become. And amidst all this, Don Draper turns 40, celebrating a birthday six months gone as he clings to an identity that has never felt comfortable to him.

When we last left these characters, in the season four finale "Tomorrowland," I had my doubts about Megan as the new Mrs. Draper, yet if "A Little Kiss" manages one feat, it is making Don's new wife interesting in her own right. She is a woman who thought she was getting one thing, and still tries to have it. What Megan hoped for was a kind, loving, exciting man who could take her into worlds yet unseen. What she received instead was a man she calls old, but one who is, without a doubt, cold, withholding, and unreceptive, even when she throws him a surprise party she is sure he'll enjoy. Megan Draper has elevated herself with her marriage, but what she has found on this higher plane is likely a very far cry from what she was aiming for.

Look, if you need further proof, at the sequence that marks the high point of the first hour, in which Megan pulls Don into a surprise party he neither wanted nor enjoyed (Roger and Jane ruining the surprise was actually fairly reminiscent of my mother's surprise 40th birthday party). All of this conjures up the question that ultimately haunts these two hours: who is in charge of the new Draper household, and what does that power dynamic imply about what's to come?

When Megan sings for Don, its as creepy as it is sexy, a moment that leaves you wondering whether the new Mrs. Draper is more beholden to her husband or more able to handle a room full of "important" people. After the party, she tries to climb in bed with him, but he only wants to sleep. And in the second hour, we see her retake control by choosing to clean the house in her underwear. Its a gimmick that works on Don in the instant, and leaves him spouting words of devotion, yet ultimately, it may leave Megan with less power than she thinks. To her, it seems, their marriage is a struggle for Don's devotion; for him, she seems to be more a mother for his kids he happens to find appealing. And yet, Megan knows Don's greatest secret. She can identify him as Dick Whitman. This either indicates a development in our hero's character, a chance to improve himself by living a more honest, dedicated life, or just another power play in a marriage that is quickly becoming more a game than a partnership.

It's clear that Megan's place in this world is rather tenuous, a fact she well knows. She has a new job at SCDP, apparently working in creative under Peggy, yet her ideas aren't worth much yet, and the stature she holds mostly comes from the water-cooler talk her performance at Don's birthday generates. At the end of last season, I admittedly feared for what this marriage would look like, seeing Don as lowering himself to marry a character who was pretty shallow in the interest of his kids. If "A Little Kiss" needed to do one thing, it was convince me of Megan's viability as a regular. And considering what went on over these two hours, I no longer have any doubt about what her role will be in the series going forward; beyond that, I'm actually interested to see what comes next.

The episode's opening--in which rival firm Y&R rightfully disgraces itself by water-bombing the African American protestors outside its doors--prefaces all of this in the oblique way few other shows even try. If this season is to be about power dynamics, it will likely be about the ways in which those who think they hold the power stumble and prove themselves wrong while those who are seemingly powerless manage to gain the upper hand, even when they have to fight tooth and nail to get there. If the opening scene didn't hint at this strongly enough, look to the ad SDCP places in the paper, and realize that the only people who get the snipe at the company's rivals are sitting in SDCP's offices. Joan thinks it is an indication she's being fired, while the African American community thinks this indicates SDCP is willing to hire them (sadly, it isn't, at least not yet).

If you view Mad Men as a criticism on The American Dream (which I think is at least one of the show's major themes), then it must strike you as only fitting that the racial strife that plagued the 1960s is finally bleeding in to the series proper. The American Dream that existed in 1960 was proved hypocritical and limiting by 1966, and the men at the top as this season opens are admitting, more freely than they have in years past, that the view is less perfect than they'd hoped, while those who have been excluded, be it by race or gender, strive only for a chance to be taken on equal terms with those who cling desperately to the illusion of superiority. "A Little Kiss" manages, quite deftly I think, to indicate how things are changing, even while most of the main characters worry about, or ignore the changes they see before them. Whether the struggles are racial or sexual, the point is the same: things are changing in the world of SCDP, and none of our heroes are willing to admit that the world they live in is very different from the one they came up in, that things are changing forever, whether or not they are willing to acknowledge the way the world has moved on while they sit idly by waiting for the bliss they feel entitled to.

Mad Men is benefitted by its era and its pace, even as many of the show's detractors point to those factors as negatives. Time moves on, even if change comes slowly, and each little change can mean so much more than it first appears to indicate. Whether you choose to cling to the Civil Rights movement encroaching on the series, Roger's increasing realization that he is irrelevant, Burt's stubborn refusal to admit times have change, or Don's stoic use of a shaving brush granted to him by children from a marriage he has left behind, it's clear that the past is behind us, though we can never leave it behind, and the future holds much promise, even if all it can offer is uncertainty. When Don admits, angrily and tragically, "Fine. I'm 40. It's too late," there's an air of truth to it. But ultimately, we all know that, even if Don feels he is past his prime, the world will keep moving, inexorably forward, and Dick Whitman will have to face the changes that are to come. It's been a while since I've been able to watch a new episode of Mad Men. I've gotten fairly used to living my life without it. Yet change can be a good thing, as much as it can be a double-edged sword. And with "A Little Kiss," this show reminds us why it is one of the greatest things television has to offer.

Grade: A-

Notes:

-"And they call us savages."

-"There was a time when she wouldn't leave the house in a robe."

-"Why don't you buy yourself a fancy hat, or a mask or something?"

-"Joan's not here, and you just took $50 from me. Let your conscience be your guide."

-"Men hate surprises. Didn't you have Lucy in Canada?"

-"Where are you going?" "I have tickets to the bean ballet, and the curtain is about to go up."

-"Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition."

-"The Domino Theory is not a joke!"

-"I was raised sex, politics, and religion aren't party talk." "Well then what does that leave?" "Alcohol and work."

-"Sometimes life makes decisions for you."

-"You sound like Cary Grant." "I told you. Midtown."

-"You're a real gentleman."

-"Where's Harry?" "Who cares?"

-"I thought you wanted it." "I just wanted you to have what you wanted."

Tags: Mad Men
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