My expectations were low. Mad Men creator Matt Wiener has always let his characters find their own way, which often leads them in a direction that the audience knows is wrong. It’s part of the show’s genius, but it also frustrates a viewer who wants the best for these beloved-but-flawed characters.
Incredibly, last night’s long-pined-for fifth season premier had it both ways: The familiar characters remained blind to their own failings, and yet it was so exhilirating to behold that no loyal member of the audience has any right to complain.
We got what we love most: political context (via the civil rights movement), shockingly casual acts of sexism and racism that remind us how insane our parents and grandparents were, a pitch scene, a party scene, office politics, and harbingers of the disasters to come. It was so replete with audience bait, I almost wonder whether it was Matt Wiener’s subtle way of apologizing for the show’s 18-month contract-wrangling hiatus.
It’s Don Draper’s 40th birthday — or at least the one that belongs to the dead soldier by that name whose identity Don has purloined — and we find him … Jesus … he’s happy? Yes, he has a delightful visit with his kids and he’s strolling into the office arm-and-arm with the impossibly charming secretary-turned-wife, Megan.
Here is a serial philanderizing, chain-smoking, barely functioning alcholic who runs a failing ad agency, and despite it all, he looks like the luckiest guy on earth.
The other male characters are devouring themselves with envy, but we male viewers know that Don takes all that he has for granted and will soon destroy it. So when we hear that Megan is planning a surprise party, our reaction is the same as Peggy’s: Do you know Don?
Poor Megan! She used to know him, but she’s noticed how he’s changed during the honeymoon period of their marriage, and she naively assumes that she’s effected a permanent change in the handsome cynic.
What can be said about the performance of that French song “Zou Bisou Bisou”? It was both erotic and embarrassing, which is a strange cocktail. But it was a perfect illustration of how fortunate Don is on one hand and how incompatible the two characters are on the other hand.
Don doesn’t do PDA. He doesn’t let the work people come to his place. And he doesn’t let them know how sexy his wife is, because that leads to all those cringe-inducing moments that filled the rest of the episode: Roger’s impression, Harry’s masturbatory monologue, etc.
We want Megan’s faith in Don to be rewarded, but we know that it will be punished. Naive women appear often in the Draper galaxy. Very few are allowed to orbit. Not coincidentally, those women are experts in maneuvering around their second-class social status to still get what they want, most of the time.
I speak of Peggy and Joan, of course. Peggy has professional ambition, and she’s not going to be held back by the sexist doubts of her bosses. Joan is objectified by every man she encounters (save Lane), and yet they’re too stupid to know that she’s tricked them into doing exactly what she wanted.
And yet the brilliance of Mad Men is that no character exists for a “purpose.” Neither of these heroines is flawless, and neither gets what she’s entitled to. In this episode, Joan’s contemptuous of her mother, who is very sweet … until she isn’t. Peggy is too shrewd, using subterfuge when it’s not necessary and going too far in her lust for approval. She seriously thought that Don could convince the client that beans doing ballet was an inspired ad choice? He’ll stick up for her when she has a great idea, but that wasn’t it.
That Mad Men can handle the sexism of the ’60s so deftly gives reason to hope it can have the same touch with racism. The water bomb scene in the opening moments was a devastating time warp. And notice how a bookend was placed in the closing scene, where the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce waiting room was crowded with black job applicants.
It’s all due to the inclusion in a SCDP job ad of the line “equal opportunity employer.” In 2012 we don’t even notice the phrase, it’s become such a given. But at the time, the notion of advertising one’s willingness to hire other races was so radical that you get a response like the one we saw.
And note how stunned the SCDP partners were: The reason that businesses in mid-town didn’t use that phrase is because they didn’t want their waiting room to be full of black applicants.
Which leads to the kind of cliffhanger that Mad Men does best: Would our characters welcome African American job-seekers? Or would they throw them out? Again, the audience had its way.
But it won’t be this easy next time. Get ready for the shit to hit the fan. Next week, Betty’s back. The meeting between her and Megan is going to be spectacular.