Mad Men got off to a very slow start on Sunday night, as though daring you to become absorbed in it again, but as the two hours proceeded, the show launched at least four rather magnificent set-piece scenes that remind you not just how good the series can be, but also how different it is from anything else TV has seen. The themes of the evening could not have been more simple and direct: Everyone is insecure; everyone wants to find his or her place in the world. Have I written enough now to pause for a new paragraph and insert the obligatory SPOILER ALERT: DON’T READ FURTHER UNLESS YOU’VE WATCHED THE SEASON PREMIERE OF MAD MEN? Ah, good…
Don is indeed hitched to Megan, whose lovely naked back is now burned into the retinas of little Sally when she tried to enter a door she thought was the bathroom in Don and Megan’s new digs. How those children of divorce suffer, stumbling upon sights they can have trouble comprehending. It’s Don’s time with the kids, and they’re still fond of cheerful Megan, they’re still plopped into cars without seat belts. Don dropped them off at their mother’s house, instructing the tykes to “give Morticia and Lurch my love.” This was triple-effective: A sarcasm that invoked The Addams Family and let us know Don still dislikes Betty, and — no Betty was seen: January Jones’ glower was saved for a rainy day.
Don Draper’s birthday is June 1st; he turned 40. The “real” Don turned 40 some months before, as he reminds Megan in part to explain why he doesn’t want any fuss over his milestone birthday this year. Megan knows Don’s secret, but she’s also eager to play the role of Draper wife so loyally that she planned a surprise party for him. (This is also a measure of their age difference: Megan herself wants to party; she truly can’t imagine why Don wouldn’t want a frolic with noisemakers. The party proved to be a little masterpiece of awkwardness and misjudgment. Roger spoiled the surprise; the guest list included people Don didn’t want into his abode (i.e., pretty much the entire guest list). And Megan performed a sexy-time dance that had jaws dropping like anvils in a Tex Avery cartoon. Everyone was turned on except Don, who got turned on only later, when Megan, stripped to her undies, was down on all fours, sulkily cleaning up the joint, and her mixture of unself-conscious sensuality and anger riled up our boy in every way — he was hungry for her. Megan’s anger, her objectification of her sexuality (“You don’t like presents. You don’t like nice things… You don’t want people thinking you’re getting this. You don’t get to have this!”) — well, knowing Don as we do, it was no wonder his switch was finally flipped as electrically as it was for the other men earlier, watching Megan dance at the party. But sex is fleeting; work is forever: As Don knew it would, the party became instantly legendary, and a new weak chink in Don’s office armor — you can bet he’s going to nurture Megan’s misreading of how the party would be received for a long time. He must already be thinking, Betty could be lousy and stupid, but she wouldn’t have pulled a stunt like that.
Another excellent sequence was the “bean ballet”: Peggy’s pitch to Heinz designed to animate baked beans and have them cascade attractively across a TV screen. The client literally wasn’t buying it, going all literal-minded on her: “Where’s the bite-and-smile?” he droned. He just wants what he’s always gotten: A scene with some happy SOBs chomping into a plate o’ beans and grinning at their good luck at having cans of these slimy things in the cupboard. Peggy’s pitching was impeccable as always, which means she was three steps ahead of the client in creativity and had over-thought it. To top it off, Don came in and instead of helping her clinch the deal by doing his Don-as-oracular-shaman act, he just told the guy he was right and they’d work on in. Angry, hurt, betrayed, and baffled, Peggy complained bitterly about Don to doofus Stan, “Clients are right all of a sudden? I don’t recognize that man. He’s kind and patient. It concerns me.” Elisabeth Moss was breathtakingly good.
The saga of Joan was another bravura set-piece. She was introduced this season via a close-up of her baby’s bum, as she slathered it with zinc to prevent diaper rash. Yes, it’s come to this — Joan, her husband absent, living with her meddling mom (who’s moved in to “help”), bored silly with this kid already. Well, she’s ambivalent about the tyke, especially when she gets put in a plot device straight out of a 1960s sitcom — she misunderstood a prank ad SCDP printed to irk rival Young and Rubicam, thinking it was a want ad for her job. This led to a visit to the office, a series of scenes shot with bustling energy, emphasizing Christina Hendricks’ curves as a metaphor for the vitality the office has been missing. When Joan was assured by Lane that the ad was fake, that her temporary replacements are “imbeciles,” Joan burst into tears — the tears of a housebound new-mom, tired and convinced that the world beyond the baby’s room has forgotten her.
Lane, since I’ve brought him up, was the focus of an elegant subplot that emphasized what a pathetic soul he is. Having found a wallet during a taxi ride, and in it, a picture of a girl who seems to hold out endless possibilities, Lane contrived to meet her, only to be met instead by the wallet’s coarse owner. His oafish condescension toward Lane — a nice twist for this character, who can usually use his British accent to get over on most confrontations with rube Americans — brought home to Lane how lonely and foolish he is just now.
A final set-piece was Pete’s furious attempt to get a bigger office, another plot that could have been humorous but instead, with the help a superb performance by Vincent Kartheiser, became near-heroic. We’d seen early on that Pete doesn’t like commuting back and forth to the suburbs and Trudy; he’d rather be in Manhattan. Similarly, he’s frustrated at work — he’d rather be one of the firm’s power-players and has proven his worth by currently pulling in a lot more business than Roger. Yet just as he is thwarted by his wife having chosen their home-life, he’s thwarted at work by his partners’ unwillingness to reward his desires. He got a bigger office, ultimately, but being handed Harry’s wasn’t much of a victory. Pete is still not sure where he fits in, in this hierarchy.
The season premiere was framed by faces rarely seen on Mad Men: black ones. The moments were relatively brief. In the beginning, we saw how male Madison Avenue whites reacted to civil rights demonstrations: With the mixture of bafflement and anger, the feeling of being threatened. At the start of the show, we thought the pale pranksters who’d dropped water balloons on blacks below them on the street would be shamed when the victims came up to the office to confront them, but these whites are too foolish, too ignorant of the import of what’s going on, to feel anything close to shame.
Similarly, at the end, a group of black applicants for the SCDP fake ad appeared in the lobby proffering their resumes. None of our Mad men knew what to do about this, other than understanding that they could no longer just tell the black people suddenly in their midst to go away, as their fathers could have just a decade or so before. A lesser show than Mad Men would have come down heavily on this, using these scenes as teaching moments, for the characters and for us.
But this is one great example why Matthew Weiner should not be so obsessed with “spoilers”: I or anyone could describe those two scenes I just mentioned to you, but you wouldn’t understand how subtle they were, how their small amount of screen time artfully corresponded to the small amount of psychic space the civil rights movement takes up in the heads of our “heroes.” It wouldn’t have mattered if you knew last week that Mad Men was going to, as hacks say about such things, “tackle the civil rights issue.” It’s all in the execution, in the witnessing of it yourself, as you watch the show. Nothing this good can be “spoiled”; it can only be savored.
What did you think of the Mad Men season premiere?