TV Talk: MAD MEN 5.1 - “A Little Kiss”

Go back to the 60s with Don Draper and friends. The series returns, and it's as great as ever.

There was something a little off about the opening scene of Mad Men’s fifth season debut. It felt kind of on the nose, like Matthew Weiner was directly addressing those who had complained about the show’s period-correct whiteness. There was also something small screen about the protest march that opened the episode - maybe the marching circle was too tight, or the street set looked too much like a set, but whatever it was it looked really television.

But as the episode went on I began to realize that I need to trust Weiner and company, and that the opening scene probably indicates a larger thematic concern for season five. Not the Civil Rights movement, exactly, but the way that the late 60s broke through the polite, well-groomed facade of high society and laid things out on the table in a very forthright way.

That happened again and again in last night’s episode, from Megan’s song and dance, which made public Don Draper’s personal life, to Pete Campbell’s search for recognition. It was there in the party talk about Vietnam, which was funny but also served to show the way that the the larger issues bubbled up in any situation. And even sheltered, homebody Trudy knows enough to realize that the police - ie, the very face of authority - is part of the problem.

The world isn’t changing around Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it has changed. And this episode makes it seem like perhaps only Pete is ready for that. What a distance this character has come; he’s still filled with snottiness and still makes constant bitchfaces, but Pete has a certain modern sensibility. He’s disgusted by the constant drinking, he doesn’t want people smoking in his office, and perhaps more tellingly he refers to the Y&R pranksters from the opening scene as bigots.

That really hit me, because a meeting with Roger Sterling’s war buddies - guys who probably have the same world view as avowedly anti-Japanese Roger does - isn’t a place where you should play bleeding heart. I doubt the guys from Mohawk Air have a soft spot for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Pete just really seems to believe the guys were bigots.

What’s most interesting about Pete’s evolution, though, is that he’s good at what he does. He’s the best account exec. He has the best clients. He brings in the next level of client. And he’s the only guy in the office who isn’t happy with treading water. SCDP began as a revolutionary gesture, but seems to have settled into a bunch of guys happy to maintain their glory days status quo. Pete isn’t happy with that.

Don is happy. Very happy, indeed. In a way that seems to be undercutting his effectiveness at work. What’s interesting is that Megan appears to truly understand him - she knows all about Dick Whitman, and she knows all about Don’s hidden sexual submissiveness. He’s completely open to her, and even after they fight she knows how to bring him back around in a way Betty never could have.

How important is the fight they had? On one hand it seems that Meg doesn’t completely know Don if she thought he’d like a surprise party (it’s funny how Peggy immediately knew it was a bad idea), but on the other hand the impetuous youthfulness that led her to throwing that party is probably part of what Don likes about her. He’s an old man in a young man’s era, and she can help him feel younger - or at least be in touch with something younger. I wonder how important her presence in the creative bullpen will be this season, as the culture continues to dramatically shift around everyone.

That shifting is at least partially reflected in the sense of dissatisfaction present in most of the characters. Lane, who seems to be hiding the company’s true financial situation, fixates on a picture he finds in a wallet. Joan, stuck at home with her baby, desperately wants to get back into the office. Pete wants the bigger office. Roger is feeling cut out, and is trying to steal Pete’s meetings. Peggy has hit the glass ceiling, and she sees Megan coming up fast after her. And hovering over all of it are the protesters, who end up in the lobby of SCDP, looking for jobs.

After I got into the stride of the two hour episode I was back in love with the show. These are incredible characters, so amazingly drawn and specific. The writing remains as crisp as ever, and the episode was littered with great one-liners and zingers. As always the one-liners fill in the space for the repressed things that go unsaid, the air the characters sometimes leave between themselves.

This episode had a ton of energy, and at times almost felt like a stage production, with people bustling in and out of the scene. There was constant movement, a sense of urgency. Gone are the static rows of typists from the first season, and now people are constantly walking through the frame. The tempo of life has increased since the beginning of the 60s.

I’m really intrigued to see where the episode’s finale leaves us in the coming weeks. Joan can’t be fired - Lane has already admitted that the whole operation is falling to pieces without her - but there’s no room for another salary. Yet SCDP has to be seen as being active and with the times. A black face has to show up in the office.

Imagine what they’ll have to deal with from Roger Sterling alone. Sterling’s as funny as ever, but he’s taken a real turn for the sour - the scene with Joan’s baby was almost ugly - and I think this is the year where he transitions from lovable to being uglier.

I’m excited about this season. The show feels like it’s at its peak. The characters are the best on television, as is the writing. The acting continues to be superb - Christina Hendricks was amazing this episode - and the production design is astonishing. The move into grooviness is a joy. It’s been a long year and a half, but the wait for new Mad Men was completely worth it.