Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mad Men: A Little Kiss (5.1) / (5.2)

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. A


- 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.


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.

Roger: The torture's over, let the fun begin.

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.

Guest stars Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell); Peyton List (Jane Sterling)
Writer Matthew Weiner Director Jennifer Getzinger


  1. Finally watched the premiere. Wonderful review Max. I especially liked what you said about Lane. As I was watching the episode, I kept wondering why so much attention was paid to the Doloris storyline and how it's going to continue from here on out. Then I read your review and realized Mad Men isn't always about twists and long-term arcs, but small character beats and in this case, Lane just needed to feel something. So that was quite the eye opener thanks to you!

    And I loved your Joan analysis. She's truly my favorite character on the show and I adored her fascinating scene with Lane.
    Looking forward to discussing the season with you!

  2. Thanks, Nadim. I didn't realize you watched this. But you hit the nail on the head with what you wrote about Lane. It's definitely a type of storytelling that you have to wrap your head around, since it's so different from everything else around. While another show could have set up Lane's thing as a major story for the season, what we had there was something truly intimate and (I'm assuming) standalone, not a heavy arc about an affair or whatever. It's small moments like that that totally make the show what it is.

    Thanks again, Nad.