The Mad Men Project: Week 1

by Colin McGuire. 0 Comments

… And we’re off. The first Sunday containing a brand new “Mad Men” episode since 2010 took place last weekend and because Matthew Weiner loves us — yes, all of us! — we were treated to a retro-tastic double dose of one-hour episodes to get season five off on the right foot. Or, as Megan Draper might say, the right bra/underwear combination.

For those who missed it, Don and Megan did indeed get married (and we should all thank Mr. Weiner for sparing us of the irrelevant wedding ceremony details right … about … now). Joan had her baby (see previous parenthetic statement while exchanging the words “wedding ceremony” with the word “birth”). Lane’s wife is back (and after sitting through the first season of “In Treatment” since the last time this show was on the air, let me be the first to say how excited I was to realize that Amy is also Lane’s wife). Peggy is still caught up with that annoying writer who loves his leather jacket. Pete got fat. He also bought a house. Betty is still nowhere to be found (thus forcing us to make a quick decision aimed at shifting Ms. Ciaramella to Megan, as you will see below). And Roger is still the most lovable meanie in the universe. 

Overall, it was a good effort (though was anyone else as put off as I was by the fact that Weiner didn’t even try to get the music scenes to appear authentic in any way, shape or form? I mean, come on, man. You go to great lengths to make sure cigarettes look like they were made in 1962, but you can’t teach a stand-in how to strum a bass guitar?). If nothing else, it set the stage for an intriguing season and also almost immediately turned the audience against Megan, painting her in a color that is somehow even more detestable than Betty ever was (boy, oh boy, that final sequence with her on the living room floor was so cringe-worthy and awkward that it literally left the final seconds of the episode nearly impossible to watch). 

But enough about me. Let’s see what our board of experts had to say …

Adam Campbell (Blog— Roger Sterling

“As a wise man once said to me, the only thing worse than not getting what you want is someone else getting it.” — Roger Sterling

We could all agree that with the possible exception of Betty Francis/Draper, it is Roger Sterling who holds the title of The Most Easy-To-Despise Character On “Mad Men.” Like Betty, he’s an adult-child that’s been irreparably damaged by an upbringing insulated by wealth and privilege. But unlike Betty, Rodger’s narcissistic behavior echoes and embodies the ugliest societal and cultural ills of the era that “Mad Men” is so adept at capturing (or sensationalizing, depending on who you read). Rampant chauvinism, bigotry and adultery have been part of Rodger’s MO in every season. Combine these broader cultural character flaws with a petulant rich boy sense of entitlement (see above quote) with a total lack of empathy that even brushes with death cannot mitigate, and there’s very little hope for him.

Despite Roger’s seemingly intractable character flaws, there was a bit of thought (and perhaps hope) that Matthew Weiner and associates might have sketched out some sort of redemptive arc for him this season. Roger is so easy to hate now that it’s making him one-dimensional — a charge not often leveled at the show or its characters. However, if the two-hour season premier is any indication, the author of “Sterling’s Gold” will continue to be King Midas in reverse and earn weekly heaps of scorn from the viewing public.

Roger’s coarse boorishness was in full bloom Sunday night, providing for choice moments of drama and plenty of comedy (he might be insufferable, but it’s hard to dispute his humor). Whether he was ruining Don’s surprise party (thanks to a debate over etiquette, no less), openly coveting the new Mrs. Draper during her chanteuse rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” to the chagrin of Jane (“Why don’t you sing like that?”), or eyeing up he and Joan’s newborn son like Narcissus looking in the mirror, it was classic Roger.

One standout scene occurs when Roger mocks Megan’s Francophone song and dance routine in front of a not-so-amused Don (Don: “We don’t make fun of each other’s wives in this office”). Roger backpedals and offers Don some backhanded compliments of Megan while contrasting his own wife’s stupidity and neediness to lighten the tension. It’s trademark Sterling cruelty, but moreover it illustrates Roger’s continuing resentment of Don’s allure (just like Roger’s toast at the party). Even in the young-enough-to-be-my-daughter trophy wife game, Don has emerged victorious over Roger. Look for this simmering jealousy to boil over throughout the next 12 weeks.

However, the most significant Roger subplot of the episode is his battle for power and prestige with Pete Campbell. With the loss of the Lucky Strike account last season, Roger lost his only true stake to relevance within the organization — something that Pete was happy to call him out on (and almost get punched for in the process). Now, with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce entertaining very few clients and little more to do than pout over his secretary’s attention to Don’s business, Rodger resorts to poaching Pete’s accounts by lecherously hovering over Clara’s desk to sneak a peak at Pete’s meeting calendar (and despite Pete’s later dismissal, probably Clara’s breasts too). Pete is obviously infuriated when he shows up for the Mohawk Airlines meeting to find Roger in his old-boy boozehound element with the clients.

The power jockeying continues as Pete petitions the senior partners for Roger’s larger and more prominent office space to entertain potential clients. Despite Pete’s attempt to illustrate his portfolio of many accounts to Rodger’s zero as justification for the office space, Rodger simply pulls rank on him and tells Pete that he can do business “in the crapper for all I care.” The writing is on the wall, however, and Rodger sort of capitulates by forcefully bribing Harry Crane to trade offices with Pete. This tense Rodger and Pete interplay yielded plenty of comedic moments as well, especially when Roger took the bait regarding Pete’s supposed 6 a.m. meeting with Coca-Cola on Staten Island.

Above all, the feud with Pete underscores Roger’s growing sense of desperation. His name might be “on the building” as he used to brag, but claiming no major clients with whom to share booze and swap war stories, Roger will forcefully deny his irrelevancy and possibly sink to even lower depths than witnessed Sunday night. Whereas Pete seems concerned (at least on the surface) about the success of something larger than himself, Roger is stuck in shameless self-preservation mode. Will he legitimately reclaim his birthright through some redemptive act, or will Roger Sterling’s “Mad Men” colleagues finally tire of his insufferable business as usual and drive him out of the agency? We know his association with Don and Lane is uneasy, and we know his only true ally, Bert Cooper, is fading into an irrelevancy of his own. Might we see the replacement of the “S” in SCDP with a “C” this season? I cannot wait to find out.

Julie Ciaramella (TwitterBlog) – Megan Draper

The last time we saw Megan, her last name was Calvet, not Draper. Don proposed to her on a trip to California when she accompanied him there to take care of his children. She displayed a natural warmth and affection toward them, a contrast to how their mother, Betty, treats them. It was a moment that shocked viewers. Don and Megan barely knew each other.

In the season premiere, set about nine months after the end of season four, Megan and Don are married, living in a hip Manhattan apartment, and sharing custody of the kids with Betty, who Don refers to as “Morticia” when dropping them off at home. It’s another reminder of how different Megan is from Betty, and it sets up what might be some interesting interactions between Don and his ex-wife when she makes an appearance this season.

While we didn’t see Betty in this episode, we saw the new Mrs. Draper, who has moved up from secretary to copywriter at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Not everyone is happy about this development. Before Peggy even says anything, it’s obvious she thinks Megan walked into her new job instead of working for it. Her irritation is thinly disguised as kindness when Megan starts talking about her coupon idea, and Peggy’s attitude says Megan is not at the same level as everyone else.

After Megan tells Peggy about the surprise party for Don’s birthday, it’s clear that the event is going to backfire on Megan even before Don runs into the Sterlings outside his front door. As Peggy says to Megan, Don doesn’t like surprises. Peggy might know Don better than his wife.

At the party, Megan performs a sensual rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” for Don, which is the moment in the episode everyone is still talking about. He’s clearly not enjoying himself; he’s embarrassed and trying to hide it. “Zou Bisou Bisou” becomes something of a joke in the office, and some of the men start to discuss their fantasies about Megan with each other. In a scene a few days after the party, Megan overhears Harry Crane speaking in explicit detail about her. It’s violating, and it leads to an outburst in the direction of Peggy, who made a rude remark to Megan at the party. Megan asks, “What’s wrong with you people?” and it wasn’t the first time in the episode that viewers saw just how different Megan is from everyone else on this show. She’s a newcomer, and she’s smart but not yet fully tuned in to how these people operate (but she’s getting there). She doesn’t understand why they smirk instead of smile. She’s still understanding the dynamics of the place, even asking Peggy for permission to leave.

Megan is, as Joan says, the girl who got everything — and the girl who may be starting to see that getting everything isn’t always as great as it seems. The first hour of the premiere ends with her standing on a balcony, reflecting on the city below, thinking about the night’s events.

It wasn’t an episode full of revelations, but the biggest one slipped under the radar — a little bit of dialogue in that post-party scene where Don just wants to sleep. This is the kind of show where the biggest moments are often the quietest ones. We learn that Don has told Megan about Dick Whitman — a secret he kept from Betty for years — as he reminds her that his actual birthday was six months before. This moment signaled that Don’s new marriage may be built on a greater trust than his first one.

The episode wraps up with an uncomfortable scene of Megan in her underwear, cleaning the apartment after the party, telling Don, “You can’t have this!” It’s a weird scene, but it’s a moment that gives Megan power. She holds the upper hand. It’s going to be interesting to see her evolve.

Mark Zeltner (TwitterBlog and Blog) – Don Draper

Don Draper, that enigmatic symbol of early ’60s cool, begins the fifth season of “Mad Men” ensconced in a world in which he has suddenly (and much to his surprise) become old and anachronistic. Only eight or nine months have passed since the last episode (although in a disconcerting development, Don’s daughter Sally has grown about six inches and developed a low throaty voice) and Don and Megan are living in a sprawling suburban love nest. Megan’s innocent influence has apparently had an influence on Don as he seems happier and generally not as darkly cynical as the Don of yore. This is a personality development that both puzzles and annoys his protégé Peggy. She needs that dark cynical Don.

It is established early in the episode that Megan and Don are actually working together although she is no longer his secretary but working in the creative department. Don eventually states he hired Megan not because he “cares about the job,” but because he cares about seeing her. To emphasize this point, he begs to see her breasts in the office and then mauls her behind closed doors. To Don, this is apparently a healthy working relationship. Of course Peggy and the other women in the office resent Megan’s presence, suggesting they suspect her creative “talent” might not be writing advertising copy (she can’t even keep the special offers straight on the coupons).

The dissonant nature of Megan and Don’s relationship is most clearly established during the surprise birthday sequence. The look on Don’s face as he approaches his front door and sees Roger and his wife squabbling says everything about his opinion of a surprise birthday party. In their brief time together, Megan has not discerned that if you really want to upset a control freak like Don, you give him a surprise party. To add more salt to the wound she proceeds to get drunk and perform a sultry version of “Zou Bisou Bisou” in Don’s honor. For a guy that didn’t like his former wife Betty wearing a bathing suit, this is the ultimate form of torture.

But the most important development of the episode is that Don realizes that he is simply getting old. It is not just that this is his 40th (actually 40th and six months for Dick Whitman) birthday. Don sees Megan cavorting with her young, apparently gay and — even more shocking — Negro friends and you can see the puzzlement cross his face. When did everyone else get so young and so … strange? Don is realizing the existential truth that people don’t necessarily feel like they are getting older but the people and the world around them certainly seems to be getting younger. For the first time in his life he is realizing that he is slightly out of step with what is young and sexy and cool.

Later in the episode this point is emphasized in a bizarre way when Megan decides to clean their apartment in her underwear while telling the “old man” that he can look at her but he can’t touch her. Of course they eventually end up rolling around on the party debris, completely destroying their beautiful white carpet.

At the end of the episode Don is shocked to find a roomful of “Negros” apparently waiting to apply for a job at the agency. As it turns out, when he wasn’t looking, the civil rights movement caught fire and increasingly the booze-soaked, cigarette-stained world of white privilege he has thrived in is seemingly going to be pushed to the margins in episodes to come.

Courtney Pomeroy (TwitterTwitterBlogBlog) — Joan Halloway

Whenever I talk to someone who has never seen an episode of “Mad Men,” they know exactly two characters by name and reputation. Don Draper, obviously.  And Joan.

Oh, Joan. She sashayed into the pop culture conversation when the show premiered in July 2007, and she hasn’t left since. (And, for the record, we’d hate to see her go but we’d love to watch her leave. Zing!) That hair. Those curves. That attitude! And thank the heavens, after a year-and-a-half hiatus, Joan is back.

On Sunday, viewers found her doing perhaps the most unglamorous task we’ve ever witnessed her in the midst of. Spreading diaper rash cream on her newborn baby’s wrinkly bottom. Her hair was down, her pajamas were on and yet she still had that Joan-ness about her, snapping at her mother about putting the freshly folded towels away incorrectly as if she were scolding a new secretary about misplacing typewriter ribbon. Or, you know, whatever kind of office supplies they had in the ’60s.

Over the course of the episode, we learned that motherhood hasn’t changed Joan too much. She’s tired and perhaps more hormonal than usual, but she wants nothing more than to get back to Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Back to what she knows. Back to what she’s good at. Perhaps it’s a sign that she really doesn’t understand her new role as a mother, or that she doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that the baby is presumably not her husband’s. But we’ll get more into that later, when we get an episode or two that features her more prominently. For now, let’s stick with what we know.

Joan is going back to work. She’s not going to let her mom or her husband convince her otherwise. She made that abundantly clear, so that should be interesting. You know, since her baby daddy (Roger) works there and since rumors have been flying that she and Don will finally get sexually involved this season. Given Roger’s ongoing dissatisfaction with his second wife, and the fact that Don is starting to realize his new bride is nowhere near as cynical and jaded as he likes his women, they may both be looking for mistresses this season.

It’s painfully obvious that Joan is the perfect woman for both Don and Roger. Having been in the overwhelmingly male workforce for quite a few years, she understands “the biz.” She doesn’t take crap from people. She’s developed a sharp wit and a dark sense of humor. Sometimes she seems like more woman than even they could handle. The way they both enthusiastically greeted her when she visited the office, barely noticing the infant she brought with her, was very foreshadowing, in my opinion. So was the fact that Roger appreciated her absence from Don’s birthday party, saying that he would have needed earplugs for the ride home had she been in attendance. It should be noted, too, that Megan Draper invited Joan to the shin-dig last-minute, knowing that she would have had to make arrangements for her baby’s care in advance. Both of the men’s wives are jealous of Joan, it would seem.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s episode didn’t give us a lot of insight into Joan’s next move. We know she wants to get back to the office, but what then? Will she be faithful to her husband, even though he’s still serving in the military? Or will she seek the sexual attention she may feel like she hasn’t been getting throughout her pregnancy? If so, who from? And getting away from her sexuality for a second, how will she deal with the firm’s new identity as an “equal opportunity employer?” Joan has shown a tendency toward racism in the past. How would she deal with a black secretary, for example? I, for one, can’t wait to find out.

Tyler Hannah – Pete Campbell

Where are we? What year is it? And, really, what happened to Sal? These are the questions. However, Matthew Weiner (in his infinite brilliance?) had no answers in the season 5 opener “A Little Kiss.” The picketing and fight for civil rights is emblematic of the power struggle beginning to emerge in what we can presume is 1966. At first blush, it appears that this new season will reveal more power struggles between, and among, the characters.

Lane is fighting his dwindling bank account. Don wrestled (literally) Mrs. Draper over the fact that he turned 40 while viewing her youthful and provocative tête-à-tête performance in front of Don’s loathsome coworkers. Joan clashed with her live-in, domineering mother. And, finally, the newborn baby persevered through an unnecessary diaper rash and explosive bout of flatulence in Lane’s arms.

Baby-like himself, the odious Pete Campbell could not have whined himself into a bigger office. True to his form, Pete’s sense of self entitlement was at its height in this episode. Constantly yearning to have the upper hand, Pete and Roger sparred endlessly. Roger’s solution to a problem is to throw money at it. Pete, however, turns to conniving, petty stunts. Like two roosters, Pete calls a meeting in his bunker of an office, in which Roger is ordered not to smoke and during which Pete endlessly pleads for a bigger office so that he can “appear” to be more powerful within the firm.

Pete’s power and status is illusory. He moved to the suburbs and bought “1 acre” of land with Trudy and his newborn in order to fit the role of the family man, while defeating Harry Crane out of Crane’s windowed office in order to fit the role of Head of Accounts. To win a battle, a strategy must succeed. The season opener laid no groundwork for a successful strategy; thus, the fights will roll on. Perhaps in Pete’s illusion of status and appearance, we will find Sal operating an antique shop or art gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut, or, if the show lasts as long, we will find Sal amidst the sexual revolution in 1969’s Woodstock. At least for the time being, there have been only a few questions answered.

Cristina Moreno (TwitterTumblrWebsite) – Peggy Olson

The crux of this episode is focused on the idea of change. We haven’t seen the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for well over a year and in that time there have been many significant developments — marriages, babies, new staff and various reconciliations. For Peggy, it seems like things are running the way they always have. She’s working a lot; forgoing any fun weekend plans for more time at the office. Her big pitch this week was to the Heinz Company and whether it’s nerves and a desire to be as prepared as possible or the feeling that she still needs to prove herself as valuable and efficient as the men in her department, she chooses work over play.

When her hard sell of a soft idea fails to get the green light from Heinz, she seeks Don’s help, thinking that he will be able to rope them in with his classic Draper charm. Instead, he lets the Heinz associates go and assures them that he and the team will work hard to come up with another idea. Peggy later complains to Stan that Don is different, proclaiiming, “Clients are right all of a sudden? I don’t recognize that man. He’s kind and patient.” She finds it all disconcerting. Why has Don changed and where is this change coming from?

All signs point to the new Mrs. Draper, now a copywriter for SCDP. Megan reports directly to Peggy, who is in a precarious situation. If you’re in charge of the boss’s wife, do you actually have any control? Their relationship seems genuinely amicable, though, and she gladly helps Megan review her list of invites to Don’s surprise birthday party, though not before lightly warning Megan that it may not be what he wants, which raises the following question: Which one of them really knows what Don wants?

At the surprise party, Peggy (who is still dating Abe, the radical journalist) has an awkward exchange with Don and Megan, remarking that she can’t stay long because she has to work some more on the Heinz pitch. Megan is annoyed and Peggy is bewildered, but realizes she may have been inappropriate. It’s forgotten in a moment, when Megan takes the stage for Don’s birthday performance. While Mrs. Draper is getting her swinging ’60s songstress on, Peggy looks on with a mix of shock, awe, and maybe even a little heat.

The next week, after an interesting set of scenes with Joan’s baby (where we get a somewhat hilarious idea of what Pete and Peggy would have been like raising their child together), Megan confronts Peggy about her comments at the party. Peggy apologizes but also argues that she worked hard on the pitch, so she’s allowed to be annoyed. In the end, Peggy realizes that this has more to do with Don and when Megan asks to go home, Peggy lets her leave. Again the power dynamic comes up. Does she empathize with Megan’s frustrations or is she letting her go because she doesn’t want to get into trouble with Don?

While Peggy does not seem to have had many life-altering changes in her personal life, much of her stress seems to come from the shifts in Don’s. Her relationship with Megan is a complicated one, partially because they are both women in a male-dominated environment. There’s a sense that Peggy seems torn between encouraging Megan, while also being honest and doling out the necessary criticism that will not only result in Megan becoming a better writer, but also producing copy that will ultimately sell to clients. Then there’s the Don issue, which muddles things on many levels. Her control and power with regard to Megan is unbalanced because of each of their ties to Don. Peggy and Don have a deep connection of admiration and respect, one that a silly comment at a party could never damage, but she’s not his wife. Will there be competition? Is she worried that Megan could one day take her place in the company? So many questions and we’ve only just begun.

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