Mad Men: A Little Kiss

"The torture's over, let the fun begin."

Mad Men remains one of those rare series that exists within its own impenetrable bubble of mystery. Despite being off the air for nearly two years, only mere tidbits were revealed prior to its return, meaning half the fun of its season premiere is working out how far the show has jumped forward in time, as well as seeing how the lives of each character have been shaken up during the interim -- Pete's stock has grown, but his respect remains stagnant; Roger's problems have only gotten worse; while I don't think there's any more jarring image than the sight of Joan struggling to push her baby-stroller through the glass doors of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce...

Entering season five, Megan very much remains the cat tossed among the pigeons. She seems to ruffle everyone's feathers here, and it's interesting to see what has become of her marriage to Don. Generally, I'm still unsure of who Megan is, as well as unsure of her motivations -- and I guess that's the point. Her career has been projected into echelons that she'd never have achieved were it not for her marriage, while special mention is made of her past attempts at becoming an actress. That scene right at the end where she parades around the apartment in her underwear and demands that Don can look but not touch was particularly interesting. Here's a woman totally in charge of her sexuality, and aware of exactly what she needs to do to get something.

But it's hard to write her off, or her marriage to Don. You can understand why Peggy and Joan dislike her, since we naturally dislike anybody who bypasses typical routes of work to get into a position of power, be it through marriage or nepotism or whatever. Especially in this era, seeing Megan stride through the office and go from secretary to big cheese in just a couple of months -- it's hard to take. With all this in mind though, you still can't hate her. She's knowing and arguably manipulative, but she's generally pretty sweet and talented. She has gum whenever you need it. She's like Gwyneth Paltrow, somebody who seems sort of pleasant and friendly -- but just so unbelievably good at seemingly everything that you can't help but find her annoying.

The way Don sees her is intriguing, too. It's again sort of easy to capitalize on the intense sexual attraction he has to her, and casually dismiss their marriage as being all surface. But he trusts her enough to tell her about his past, and seems genuinely happy with her. Even Peggy notices that he seems to have lost a lot of his intensity and antagonism. Compared to Betty, Megan is a spitfire of daring and rule-breaking, but Don has always been attracted to these types that break the mold -- think Rachel or Midge. Megan represents change, and Don loves that. He's still troubled by her lack of self-awareness when it comes to who he is as a person (never do something for your partner that he/she clearly hates being a part of), and only seemed embarrassed by her public performance at the party, but there's definitely something there. Isn't that Mad Men, though? The layers and shading given to relationships, just like there are in reality...

Pete is another character who has evolved over time. Having moved to the suburbs with Trudy, he's missing the city and bonds with a train commuter over his sudden lack of enthusiasm about coming home again. His altercations with Roger have continued from last season, and you can completely sympathize with his underdog qualities. Here's a guy who is constantly working and striving, while Roger is somebody who reaps the rewards while doing nothing particularly important. Mad Men has always zeroed in on raw human emotions like this, that we can somehow all relate to. At least Pete got a minor victory in the end, even if it felt more like a gesture to shut him up more than anything else

One of the many reasons I love Joan is that, despite her sexually-charged confidence, she's also achingly vulnerable -- and becoming a mother has impacted that more than ever. Even now, a woman returning to work after a pregnancy is fraught with nerves and tension, especially when your place in the company is particularly important, so I can't imagine how uncomfortable it must have been forty years ago. Not only is she worried that her job is threatened, but there's additionally that worry that her bread and butter has been compromised. Joan, as good as she is at her job, needs her shrewd confidence and sexual allure to remain powerful. But now she has extra baby-weight and young things snapping at her heels. It's no surprise she's on edge and susceptible to breaking down.

Her scene with Lane was particularly moving as a result. Lane himself is a character that I find completely absorbing, but who rarely gets his time in the spotlight. The annoyingly open-ended stories last year with his father and his Playboy Bunny girlfriend, most notable. Here, however, we got more insight into his personal life, and glimpse that things aren't great at home. Financially he's struggling, and you have to wonder if he was initially going to pocket the cash he found. In the end, it was the possibility of some kind of sexual distraction that peeked his interest, calling up the owner of the wallet and reaching his attractive girlfriend instead. These scenes were so powerful, with Lane getting more and more excited by the thought of potentially meeting this woman, followed by that horrible pause over the line as you realize that she's not at all interested in actually pursuing their brief flirtation over the phone into reality. It was a little moment of sexual playfulness, and Lane got a little too wrapped up in it. Aww.

Civil rights, arguably one of those areas that Mad Men awkwardly hasn't explored very much over the years, is very prominent throughout the episode. The newly-vocal black minority start out as mere pawns in a horrible game between SCDP and their advertising rivals Y&R, an advertisement promoting SCDP's racial equality accidentally reading like a want ad, leading to a huge turn-out of black faces desperate for work. It's one of the more upsetting moments of the episode, not only in seeing the black men immediately turned away, but also in seeing how excited and hopeful the women are over the potential of a job that likely doesn't even exist. Elsewhere, Megan's presence has also injected various unconventional characters into Don's lily-white world, like the beatnik band and that flamboyant black friend of her's. It's the show being pushed into new territory, many of our protagonists left uncomfortable by the natural progression of society.

I don't know why I ever get worried about Mad Men, seeing as it's been consistently spectacular since the very first episode -- one of the rarest of shows in that regard. And A Little Kiss was no different, a confident opener that breathlessly threw us back into the lives of these deeply complicated individuals, with every character from Don himself to recurring guests like Jane being given wonderful lines of dialogue and evocative new characterization. Mad Men is breathtaking, and shows no sign of letting up.

Notables

- While I like to generally post reviews the day after the episode has aired, my Mad Men reviews will be a little less regular -- if only because there's far more depth to a show like this than, say, Ringer. Regardless, each review will be posted at some point before the next episode airs.

- Megan, Henry Francis and art director Stan have all been promoted to regular cast member status.

- I loved that the Y&R chumps were like Bizarro World doppelgangers of our SCDP regulars.

- The music while Sally woke up was gorgeous, like something straight out of a surreal 1960's drug haze. She only appeared briefly here, but she was able to say so much with just her eyes and the minor dialogue she had -- she's clearly uncomfortable around her dad's new wife, despite their bonding last season, and the spacious apartment Don now resides in remains an unsure labyrinth of empty corridors and strange doorways. Ah.

- Somebody's surely made a GIF of Lane dancing, right?

- It's de rigeur to slam January Jones, but I'm a total Betty apologist and really missed her this week. But with Jones' real-life pregnancy and Betty's natural seat on the periphery of things anyway, I'm expecting a lot more additional absence this season.

- I adore Pete, in particular the fact that he's just the unluckiest man in the world. As much as he tries, he's always 'that guy' -- the one that has to wheel a dead body out of the office, or gets a newborn baby dumped in his hands, or the one that smacks his face into a stone column.

- I sort of agreed with Heinz. CGI food moving around just isn't attractive, especially when it's generally an unattractive food.

- Everybody's clothes have gotten so loud and colorful, but I need to mention Pete's checkered jacket, Megan's mini-skirt, as well as Jane's psychedelic-leathery-trophy-wife dress.

Quotage

Bobby: How old are you gonna be?
Don: Forty. So when you're forty, how old will I be?
Bobby: You'll be dead.

Sally: You're not gonna come in?
Don: No. But give Morticia and Lurch my love.

Roger: What's Don up to today? I see a lot of napping and pillow-talk.
Caroline: That's your schedule.

Peggy: Men hate surprises. Didn't you have Lucy in Canada?

Harry: A negro homosexual, Canadian sexpot and unaccompanied redhead -- this may be my key demographic.

Pete: I was raised sex, politics and religion aren't party talk.
Trudy: What does that leave?
Peggy: I don't know... alcohol and work?

Roger: Why don't you sing like that?
Jane: Why don't you look like him?

Pete: What kind of impression does this space give you? Do you gaze upon the cement column and think, "yes, I believe success for me and my company dwells here"?

Meredith: I'm very happy being nobody here.
Joan: I knew a girl who had your job who ended up with everything.

Roger: Well, well, well -- there's my baby. And move that brat out of the way so I can see her.

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.

13 comments:

Jess Lynde said...

I'm not as in love with this show as the rest of the world, apparently, but I do find it intriguing. I find that I really dislike most of the characters, but still find watching them fascinating. The only ones I find truly sympathetic and likeable are Peggy and Joan. I thoroughly enjoy watching those two powerhouse ladies striving to make their way in the world.

But I think my favorite part of the show is the ad pitches. I love getting an inside look at the tools the ad industry uses to manipulate. I'm always trying to give my daughters an awareness of the way advertisements try to convince them they need things they really don't, even though they are a bit young for it. So I get really fascinated watching Don pitch Kodak and, this week, Peggy pitching beans. Very cool. Particularly juxtaposed with all the characters' seeming inability to see how this world affects their own unrealistic dreams and subsequent disenchantment with reality.

Josie Kafka said...

Jess, you're not alone. I watch Mad Men, I think about Mad Men, and I still can't figure out if this is a brilliant show or a really good trick.

Having said that, I thought some of the scenes were quite powerful this week--all of which you highlighted, Max. I completely agree with your explanation of Megan's attempt to get Don to "like" her again, and with the murkiness of her motives.

I spent most of episode wondering if she was a Villain With A Secret Plan, before I realized that's not really a character type on this show. She's likely just a person with desires and needs, and (like all the other characters) the force of her wants and needs will affect the other characters in some way.

Very happy you're reviewing this, by the way.

maxpower03 said...

Jess That's interesting about the disliking of characters, since I literally adore everyone on the show. It's always hit that level where characters are often deeply flawed and generally unlikable, but they're so absorbing to watch. The performances, the writing -- it all just comes together and makes these characters leap off the screen.

I can actually take or leave the advertising stuff, too, since it's usually only a bouncing-off point for deeper character work, which is where I feel the real fun lies.

Josie Yeah, it's very Mad Men. Like you said, characters don't really arrive as a certain 'type', and it's hard to describe Megan as a villain, even if she would probably come off that way in the hands of lesser writers. But that's what I love about the show, how it's not about the salacious twists or big plot developments, but in the smaller character beats and how they reverberate through the rest of the cast.

Jess Lynde said...

I wasn't trying to say they are bad characters. As noted, I definitely find them interesting to watch. They are just extremely unlikeable people overall, and I often find it difficult to root for them or fully invest in their journies.

Unlikeability isn't a deal breaker for me. I watch several shows with main characters that are horrible, horrible people that do awful things, but I'm absolutely passionate about them. I think the difference with this show, is that the pacing, the style, and the general unlikeability of nearly everyone holds me at a distance. It is intellectually interesting, but not an emotionally absorbing experience for me most weeks. Not like say, Breaking Bad. Usually once a season they manage to pull out something transcendent that does absorb me from start to finish ('The New Girl' in Season 2, 'The Suitcase' in S4), but most weeks, it is a show that engages me, but doesn't captivate me.

But I'm glad you are covering it here this season! It is definitely a show I enjoy discussing more than watching. (Strange as that sounds.)

celticmarc said...

I haven't seen the show yet, so I will NOT read this page yet LOL (yes I repeat myself tonite)

But to have a french canadian actress from Montreal (Jessica Paré) doing a "local" curse word in the show is PRICELESS" (guess where I'm from ?)

Roman said...

Wow, I had no idea Mad Men was reviewed on here. Does Billie watch it?

Billie Doux said...

Roman asked: Wow, I had no idea Mad Men was reviewed on here. Does Billie watch it? It's a new development, and I'm so pleased Max decided to take it on. And yes, I absolutely do watch Mad Men. I've seen the entire series.

Roman said...

That's awesome Billie. What other non-scifi show do you like? I know you are a fan of Breaking Bad, Dexter, Justified, and Mad Men, but anything else? Shows like Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire?

Billie Doux said...

Hey, Roman: I really had to think about this! There are a few of the better dramas that I loved but will probably never review: The Wire and The West Wing, and right now I'm nearing the end of The Shield. I don't like The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire. I watch some cooking shows: Iron Chef America and Chopped are my favorites. And I like some of the documentaries on the Science channel, mostly the ones about space. My current favorite is Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. Although that might not count... no, real science isn't science fiction, so we're good.

Billie Doux said...

And Leverage, Weeds and Hawaii Five-O. :)

Roman said...

Great list Billie! I recently burned through The Wire and loved it, and watched The Shield throughout it's run and loved it. I don't like Boardwalk either, and I was a big Sopranos fan, but toward the end it got a bit underwhelming like most shows. Two shows I recommend are Sons of Anarchy and Spartacus, but the latter may be a bit too icky for your taste.

Billie Doux said...

Good call, Roman. I did try Spartacus and it was indeed too icky for my taste.

Anonymous said...

Great review and I´m glad that you´re reviewing Mad Men. It´s for sure an intriguing show.

I like how Don morphes into Roger (not having much on his schedule, young wife etc.) and how Pete morphes into Don (I first thought that Petes new home was the old Draper residence).

I was happy that Bert was back. Wondered at the end of last season what will happen to him.

Sally is clearly jealous of Megan. Now she has to fight for daddy´s attention. And we have Bobby number four. Seems like a running gag now.