Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Mad Men" Season Premiere Review - "A Little Kiss" - "What's wrong with you people?"


Mad Men, my second-favorite TV show of all time (The Wire being number one) is finally back after seventeen months off the air, and I’ll be reviewing and analyzing every episode of the fifth season as it airs.  Tonight, we’re taking an in-depth look at the two-hour premiere episode, “A Little Kiss.”  This review contains heavy spoilers, so don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode.

Spoilers for “A Little Kiss” after the jump….

“I don’t recognize that man.  He’s kind and patient.” – Peggy

“Something always happens; things are different.” – Joan

Throughout the two-hour season premiere of Mad Men, characters continually reference how much their circumstances have changed; indeed, it’s easy to see why Matthew Weiner felt he needed two hours to reorient audiences, because even though we’ve jumped less than a year ahead – to Memorial Day 1966 – the status quo is pretty radically different all around.  The same can’t be said of the show itself; if “A Little Kiss” made one thing abundantly clear, it’s that Mad Men is the same wickedly smart, tremendously observed, blisteringly cool masterpiece it’s always been, no matter how many months – seventeen, to be precise – it’s been off the air.  Disoriented as our characters might be, as an audience member, I felt right at home; Mad Men is back, and for two wonderful hours, at least, all is right with the world.

But change has come to the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce; Pete has moved his new family out to the suburbs, Roger and Don are sharing a secretary, Joan has taken an emotionally taxing leave of absence to be with her newborn son, a jealous Roger is trying to undermine Pete at every turn, Lane is restless now that he’s moved his family to America, Bert Cooper seems to be suffering from dementia, business is stable thanks to a healthy influx of new clients, and most substantially, Don and Megan are (mostly) happily married, adding a startling new dynamic to the office.  Don doesn’t care about work nearly as much as his home life anymore, Megan’s quick ascension to copy writer piles more stress on Peggy (and makes her office even more cramped than before), and the newlywed’s electric sexual chemistry is annoying absolutely everyone (except Roger, who finds it all hilarious).  Times have changed, and given what a tremendous job Weiner and company have done getting us heavily invested in these characters over the years, “A Little Kiss” was an endlessly fascinating and engaging experience. 

The biggest surprise, for me at least, is how it took less than an hour for Weiner’s script and Jessica Parè’s performance to flesh out Megan into a three-dimensional, essential part of the ensemble.  By the time Don proposed to her in the fourth season finale, we still knew relatively little about Megan, save that she was very nice, good with kids, and had considerable chemistry with Jon Hamm.  But she was the core figure of much of tonight’s premiere, and by the end of the first hour, when she walks out to her balcony, sad and contemplative, I felt heavily invested in her character.  Megan is an outsider to the world of SCDP; unlike everyone else in the cast, or even the audience, she isn’t familiar with the office’s cruel, fast-paced culture, and seeing the world of Mad Men through her eyes was a revelatory experience.  So much of what I now take for granted about the show felt fresh, exciting, and profoundly sad when viewed through Megan’s mindset. 

Stan, Peggy, and Ken on the new season of "Mad Men"
In fact, it’s Megan who arrives at what may be the thesis for this whole season: “What is wrong with you people? You’re all so cynical!”  It’s never been a secret that the characters on Mad Men are flawed, but Megan’s fresh point-of-view highlighted the dark, self-destructive nature of the cast’s behavior.  After all, this week’s shenanigans – Roger holding a grudge, Pete acting petty, Lane being lonely, Joan suppressing angst, etc. – weren’t exactly bold new territory for the show to cover.  It’s the presence of an outsider like Megan that allows us to see these scenarios in a new light, and for that reason, it looks like season five will explore why these characters act the way they do – why their desire for a better status quo always keeps happiness an arm’s-length away.

Roger and Pete’s story, in particular, was the psychological equivalent of repeatedly running one’s head into a brick wall and expecting pleasure.  Without the Lucky Strike account, Roger’s worth at the office has all but dried up, and given his tendency to act out when feeling low self-esteem – see his behavior throughout the final four episodes of last season for reference – he takes it out on Pete, the kid who’s better at Roger’s job than Roger ever was.  What does Roger hope to gain from spying on Pete’s calendar and interrupting his lunch appointments?  Who knows?  It can’t be good for business – undermining one’s lead account man when the finances are only beginning to stabilize is a bad move – and it doesn’t give Roger any real responsibility. 

It’s completely self-destructive, but Roger does it anyway, because that’s the pattern he’s stuck in, and Pete’s not going to defuse the tension when he too is stuck in a rut.  Pete is a much better man than he was in the Pilot – one of the show’s most sympathetic characters, I think – and certainly a healthier individual than Roger, but his response to Sterling’s antics shows how little his central flaw – petulance – has diluted over the years.  Getting a bigger office probably won’t solve anything; it might help impress clients, but it won’t change Roger’s attitude for a second, and is unlikely to make the other partners look at him any differently.  It’s a band-aid solution, the kind an adolescent would think up, but Pete pursues it with all he’s got, because that’s his pattern.  Indeed, even when Pete and Roger arrive at what looks like an effective compromise – Pete gets a bigger office, but Roger maintains his – their feud doesn’t stop.  Roger continues chasing Pete’s accounts, and Pete takes a new tactic by coming up with fake meetings.  This behavior can’t be beneficial to either of them – in Pete’s case, we see how it sours even his otherwise perfect home life – but they do it anyway because that’s all they know, and no one else is going to point that out to them when they’re all running in circles as well. 

Joan thought that having a baby – Roger’s baby, to be precise – might be the missing ingredient to her life, but right off the bat, we see she’s just as unhappy as ever; if the baby has done anything for her, it’s provided a distraction, and not always a welcome one.  Lane, meanwhile, thought life would be a little more stable if he brought his wife and son to America, but instead, he’s completely restless and more insecure than ever before.  It’s apparent even before he finds the wallet in the taxi, but his fixation on Dolores, the wallet-owner’s ‘girl,’ makes his discontent clear.  Lane, like Megan, was once an outsider to this world, and a well-behaved one at that, but now that he’s been surrounded by Mad Men for so long, Dolores’ sexy picture makes him fantasize about philandering as an escape from his troubles.  If Dolores had actually shown up in reception, I suspect Lane would have gone further than fantasy.  Like Joan, Pete, and Roger, he’s addressing his problem in an incredibly unhealthy way, but when everyone else is doing the same thing, what’s there to stop him? 

And even though Don initially seems to have broken out of his own destructive patterns by marrying Megan – he’s happy, kind, and far less tightly wound than usual – it’s clear by the episode’s end that some scars simply won’t go away.  Megan’s incredibly generous birthday celebration only serves to make him uncomfortable, behavior we’ve seen time and time again in Don’s past.  The spotlight unsettles him, even though, as Megan points out, he’s equally perturbed when he doesn’t have her attention.

That birthday party sequence is the highlight of the premiere, a masterful synthesis of writing, performance, and direction that sums up everything the episode is about.  Only Megan’s unique point-of-view would compel her to do something so completely out of the ordinary for these people, but even a lively surprise party doesn’t kick these characters out of their ruts.  While Megan has fun laughing with friends and putting on a big musical number for Don (one of the most infectiously fun moments in Mad Men history), her co-workers are uniformly obsessed with their own problems.  Peggy is mad about the extra work Don left her to do, Roger and Pete are fuming at each other, Roger and his wife can’t stand being together, Bert argues politics with Peggy’s boyfriend, etc.  It looks like a fun and successful party, but quips and insults are being shot across that room like gunfire, and Don is insensitive enough to make Megan see the truth later that night.

So by the time Megan finally can’t take it anymore and asks “What’s wrong with you people?,” we’re right there with her.  This is an unhealthy group of people, and being in each other’s company only perpetuates their misery.  Why Megan bothers sticking around will certainly be an ongoing story arc, but why we, the audience, refuse to leave is clear: as dysfunctional as this group gets, their interactions will always be fascinating, and moving, and engaging, and funny, and sad, and everything in between; in short, everything we look for in good drama.  And when it comes to drama, nothing comes even close to Mad Men. 

It’s good to have you back. 

SPECIFIC THOUGHTS:

--I think there’s going to be a lot of debate over how sustainable the Don/Megan partnership is, but personally, I actually think they are much healthier characters – at this point, at least – then most of the cast.  Don is happier here than I think we’ve ever seen him, and it’s not just because he loves Megan and she reciprocates, or that when they have the kids over, they can actually be a happy family; as we learn near the end of the first hour, he’s told her about Dick Whitman, and he isn’t living a lie anymore.  That’s a huge step for him, and automatically makes this his most functional romance to date.  He gets to be himself around her, and that’s why he’s so eager to get away from the office throughout the first hour – at work, he’s Don Draper, but with Megan, he’s himself, whatever name you wish to attach.  And Megan is obviously very happy with Don; otherwise, she wouldn’t do any of the things she does in this episode.  Yes, they have a fight, and that fight highlights a fundamental misunderstanding between them, but couples fight.  It happens.  They’re newlyweds, and they’re still getting to know one another.  I would be much more worried if they tried solving their spat with sex alone, but instead, they also talk through their issues, and speak honestly with one another about what they are feeling.  Don could never do that with Betty.  This is different for him; it’s a behavior that exists outside of his pattern, and in this episode at least, that elevates Don above most of his colleagues.  Do I think it’s all sunshine and roses from here on out?  No, of course not, but I’d wait a little while before drawing up those divorce papers.
--The civil rights material that bookends the episode shows that, like its lead character, Mad Men is willing to go in new directions.  Race has never much factored into this series – for understandable reasons, given its setting – but now it’s something SCDP is going to have to face head on, and I’m very interested to see how it plays out.  The opening sequence, in particular, is just brilliant; the symbolism of rich white men on top, African-American protestors on bottom is obvious, but meaningful; having one of those rich white men yell “get a job!” really makes the scene resonate in a modern context.
--Why is Sally so forlorn when she walks around her father’s new apartment?  Is it because she’s happy with Megan and Don, and knows that this is a life she’ll never consistently have with Betty around?  Or is she now hesitant about her father’s new marriage?  We’ll have to wait and see.
--Speaking of Betty, no sight of January Jones in the premiere, and I can’t say I missed her.  Since her name is still in the theme song, I assume she’s coming back, but I feel her role on the show is largely superfluous now.  If Weiner does instead to use Betty as a major player this season, I do hope he comes up with a three-dimensional, redemptive arc for her; Betty-as-antagonist was fine for one season, but if it happens again, we’ll have a problem.
--Don entered preliminary talks with Heinz last season, and it’s nice to see the account return this year, even if it leads to the first disastrous pitch of Peggy’s career (and I don’t care what those men said, the bean-ballet was brilliant – go Peggy!)
--More carryovers from season four: Peggy is still dating the ‘underground newspaper’ guy, a relationship I’d like to see more in-depth in the future.  There’s a lot of potential there with civil rights becoming a theme and Peggy’s pre-existing fascination with counter-culture.
--Best line of the night (referring to Megan’s musical performance): Roger: “Why don’t you sing like that?”  Jane: “Why don’t you look like him?”
--My God was Harry Crane funny tonight.  I’ve always like Rich Sommer’s performance, but Harry’s character felt a bit too flat last season; here, however, he was in top form for two solid hours, his spectacularly awkward bout of sexual-harassment talk – with Megan standing behind him – being a comedic highlight.
--Another good comedy set-piece: Joan’s baby getting passed from character-to-character at the SCDP offices, finally ending up with Peggy – who is terrified – then Pete – who is off in another world – and finally the dim-witted receptionist.
--I really loved the exchange between Lane and Joan near the end of the episode; Jared Harris and Christina Hendricks have surprisingly good chemistry, and the characters understand each other on a fundamental level.  It seems like a relationship that could break these characters out of self-destructive ruts, if only they had the clarity to recognize it.
--Since Lane kept Dolores’ picture, does that make this Chekov’s-sexy-polaroid?  As in, if Lane keeps a picture of another woman in the first episode, it’s going to come back to hurt his marriage by the finale?  We’ll see…

Come back next Sunday night for my review of
Episode 3, “Tea Leaves”

“Mad Men” reviews will go up every Sunday night an hour or two after the episode airs

3 comments:

  1. Hi Jonathan
    I didnt read your article yet, since I'm waiting the italian subtitles to be released today or tomorrow (I hope!) but I'm sure ("a scatola chiusa", as we say in italian) it will be the sort of popular culture cleverness you demonstrated to master so well in the Wreckin Ball review.
    I'll came back here as soon as I'll see the two episodes.

    Luca

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good to see you again Luca! Thanks again for your kind and thoughtful comments - it's good to have you around! Hope those Italian subs drop soon!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was surprised you didn't pick up on the potential significance of Peggy passing Joan's baby to Pete; I thought that could be perhaps foreshadowing of future events surrounding the possible disclosure of Pete and Peggy's shared history. I hope so, I think that'd be an interesting story thread to explore, and after all one day that kid's gonna grow up and wonder who his daddy is!

    ReplyDelete