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Friday, 16 of April of 2021

Mad Men – “A Little Kiss”

“Well, well, well. There’s my baby. Move that brat out of the way so I can see her.”

Megan and Don share a smile after she performs "Zou Bisou Bisou"

"You're going to get it later."

Maybe it was the artifact of this show that I created in its absence. Maybe it’s the pacing of my other favorite shows going full seasons in the vacuum of this one. Maybe I should’ve watched the fourth season leading up to the fifth season premiere.

But something felt — off.

Mad Men returned with a two hour premiere and I hoped that by the end of the episode I could say, “Yeah! Mad Men. Is. Back!” About half-way through, though, I wasn’t sure if this was what left me a year and a half ago. I felt slightly lost in time, characters weren’t acting like I expected them to, and the episode overall felt slower than usual. And slower for Mad Men is like going from a passeggiata with your grandparents to being a pallbearer. With a limp. Following other grandparents. Who have rickets.

But it was nice to see the band back together again. Don is still withholding. Roger is still snarky. Pete still has a bitchface. And Lane is still toeing that line between gentleman and pervert. So let’s get into this. Finally: season five is here.

There is nothing on the face of this earth Don wants less than a surprise except to be embarrassed in front of his subordinates. So fitting that his earnest bride wants to do both of those things at her first opportunity by organizing what is ostensibly a work function (because all of his extra-work friends are former paramours), piling everyone into their home, and then springing on Don a sexy song and dance. It’s the modern-day equivalent of someone performing a strip-tease for your dad in front of God and everybody while “Cherry Pie” plays in the background. “Zou Bisou, Bisou” may not be as classless and stripper-appropriate as Warrant has become but it’s just as embarrassing and, for a man who doesn’t like to lose face, just as vexing.

I’m not one to often fight for the male perspective in Mad Men since the men make it so hard to defend them, but Don isn’t without a case here, particularly since he’s been so open with Megan about his past and his character, not to mention Peggy formally warns her. I don’t care what your status with Don is or how long you’ve been working at SCDP; you should know better than to not take Peggy’s advice on Don. She may not know the sordid details of Dick Whitman but she knows the man better than anyone else on the planet. If she says it’s a bad idea, it’s a bad idea.

But Megan is a child and petulance is to be expected. I still insist she’s New Betty, the sweet, pretty girl that Don will eventually corrupt and poison while systematically breaking her in, his demeanor vacillating between withholding and aggressive mounting. The entire A-plot, where Don denies her any gratitude for the party he didn’t want and Megan feels equally underappreciated (by her husband) and cheapened (by the coworkers who think about her naked), comes to a head when Megan throws a tantrum and inexplicably cleans the house half-nude, insisting Don can only watch, like she’s gone from wife to stripper in the most expensively-furnished champagne room. It’s Don’s biggest swing yet from essentially acting as if nothing happened (withholding) to grabbing her arm and wrestling her to the ground (aggressive mounting). They exchange Don’s equivalent of “no, you’re schmoopie” for pillow talk but it’s only a step in the process of being broken in/down by Don’s alpha male.

Speaking of alpha males, no one else on this show is one. Pete screws his face into bitchface a lot in this episode as he learns Roger doesn’t trust him enough to close the deal on his accounts. Sure, Roger dropping in on Pete’s appointments to maintain his relevance is offensive since Pete’s been in charge of these stable accounts for a while and Pete’s right to feel a little slighted, but it takes a lot of cajones to ask for the office of the partner whose name appears before all others on the sign. What’s great about what Pete does is you can see what he’s thinking and why he’d think that’d be a good idea. Packing all the partners onto his sofa to show them what a clown car his office is probably sounded like a great idea at the time and probably would amount to something better for him if he’d aimed just a little lower. But he’s a jackass so he wants to take revenge on Roger for thinking so little of him, all the while forgetting that he’s asking Roger’s best friends to emasculate him right there in the room. You have to love Pete’s moxie.

Then Roger, in his own act of cowardice, figures he’ll make the problem go away by picking on an even lower ranked male and gets Harry to move out of his office with what, at the end of the “negotiation,” amounts to brow-beating. Roger offers him a month’s salary to surrender the office that actually fits his title and Harry just scurries away with nothing else to show for it. Would Harry have done that if Megan hadn’t just been caught him telling others he’d like to have her heels resting on his shoulders? Maybe not. Still unfortunately cowardly on Roger’s (and his) part.

And then there’s Lane. Poor, sweet Lane. Such a sad, unsatisfied man in a relationship with a “frigid” woman. He doesn’t have the stones to either rekindle the magic in his own marriage or find the companionship he wants with another woman (I mean, everyone at the office is doing it Lane — why not you?). So beaten and broken is this man that, when the opportunity he hoped would fall into his lap doesn’t arrive, he keeps the picture of a man’s “girl” in his own wallet so he can, what, imagine doing it with her? She’s a foxy girl but, come on, Lane. Remember your night on the town with Don? What happened to that guy? Actually, I think I see what the problem is. Lane has so much shame in his life to account for no one else in the office having any.

All of this is framed by the race protests and the prank committed by Y&R. As much emasculation occurs for the men in this office, at least they all can laugh about how stupid Y&R is for dropping paper-bag water balloons on protestors. They don’t necessarily disagree with the antic, just that they did it instead. It’s not unethical; it’s just bad PR. When SCDP barbs them a little with the “equal-opportunity” ad, it backfires on them since it’s essentially an invitation for people to come in for a job when they have the least resources to hire anyone else. But that doesn’t mean they won’t entertain the possibility of treating the African-Americans in their lobby like savage hordes that just need to be scared away. Lane does get them to go away using the most diplomatic and nearly offensive tool in his arsenal: bureaucracy. Just give me your resumes and we’ll get back to you. Smooth.

Overall, I guess I just wonder if I need to get back into the groove of this show for me to appreciate it like I always have. It has a tone and a pace that is mostly unmatched on television right now and I miss the subtlety of a program as well-thought-out as this. I did miss this show but it might take a couple episodes for me to recallibrate from Breaking Bad for instance. The episode was good but — I don’t know. Mad Men is back?

Some other things of note:

  • You didn’t think I was going write a whole review about Mad Men without talking more about Peggy, did you? I was a little thrown off at first that Peggy wasn’t on top of Don’s birthday but I also think that’s part of her evolution into becoming more like him. As the episode continues, her identification with and of Draper comes back and she’s still the most consistently likable character on this show. She and the baby (especially in the presence of Pete) were pitch perfect and I love that she’s the catalyst (along with Harry’s comments about how he would’ve grabbed Megan’s “little French behind and pushed her through those cheap four-post walls”) for no one liking Megan at the office. Because she doesn’t. Because Megan’s the new anti-Peggy.
  • Joan’s story is so heartbreaking in this episode. I just wanted to throttle grandma the whole time. The best part about the whole scenario is how well argued it is: you don’t think the SCDP ad would have implications beyond inviting people to the office looking for work but you don’t necessarily consider the hole in Joan’s heart while being away. It fits in perfectly. Also, the kinship between Lane and Joan, after some rocky parts last season, is endearing. Don would’ve been consoling but it might’ve come off as artificial. Roger would only make jokes. It’s important that Lane be the one to make her feel at home. I hope Joan went home and pushed grandma down the stairs.
  • Megan comments on how no one smiles at the office and how everyone hates her. She is the outsider for more reasons than suspected favortism. Everyone there is cynical and jaded and, once Don breaks her, she will be, too. It’s that same darkness that Joan craves again because she’s one of them. Is Megan one of them? Or will she be relegated to the home like Betty?
  • Was Don more upset about being embarrassed in front of his coworkers or that everyone else was audience to Don’s intimate life?
  • Apparently, you can pick up Jessica Paré’s performance of “Zou Bisou, Bisou” on iTunes and vinyl?

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