BY EMILY VIVIANI
Episode 501/502 – “A Little Kiss – In the pilot episode of “Mad Men,” Don Draper told the world that advertising is based on one thing: happiness. In the opener to Season 5, which aired on AMC Sunday night, Don is caught drinking his own Kool-Aid.
Up until this point in the series, the creative genius that is Don has always derived worth from his ability to manipulate the consumer, with his glossy good looks and wounded orphan soul. In Season 5, the mystery man we know and love is on a honeymoon.
In the first half of the premiere, we’re brought up to speed on Don’s new life. Roughly eight months have passed in the “Mad Men” world (since Season 4 closed 17 months ago). In pure Roger Sterling fashion, Don is now married to his former secretary, 25-year-old smoky-eyed French(-Canadian) sex kitten, Megan. He swapped his poorly lit, introspective cave in Greenwich Village for a glass-walled, white-carpeted shag pad on what appears to be Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We also learn that Megan is now a junior copywriter at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where her job is mainly to open her blouse for Don and write coupons for beans.
At work, Peggy is the only character wary of Don’s laissez-faire attitude and goofy smile. In a scene where she pitches a daring, artful bean ballet (“The Art of Supper”) to Heinz, she is stunned when Don fails to affirm the genius of the pitch when the client expresses doubt. Without fight or fanfare, Don recoils the idea and assures the client that the creative team will get it right next time. “I don’t recognize that man,” Peggy said.
At this point in the episode, Don’s character teeters between nauseating and boring, so thank god Megan, with all her “I Dream of Jeannie” naïveté, decides to steal his Rolodex and plan a 40th birthday surprise party. The party, which Peggy gently advises against, serves as the centerpiece for the episode, and thankfully for us showcases just how twisted the happy couple’s blissful existence is bound to become.
As Jon Hamm said in a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Season 5 in several ways feels like Season 1, with all its aesthetic splendor and ominous stability. But if Season 1 was about the past, with Don’s unforgettable deconstruction of nostalgia for Kodak in the season closer (“The Wheel”), it feels very much like Season 5 will focus on the future. Toward the conclusion of Season 4, there was a subtle shift toward new and different, a push back to Don’s expertise, old and romantic. Perhaps we see this most clearly in the finale when Don pushes nostalgia on a skeptic American Cancer Society. Bobby put it bluntly in his argument for visiting Tomorrowland. “I don’t want to ride an elephant,” he tells his father. “I want to fly a jet!”
Don, who has always understood the art of selling the American dream, is unsure of how to handle new and different, but recognizes it in young Megan. She is foreign, tolerant, kind and confident in her vulnerability. She doesn’t smirk – she smiles. This is all new and different, and Don, like a client in his boardroom, falls under the spell of her “glittering allure.” At Don’s surprise party in Sunday’s premiere, we get to see just how new and different Megan is, with her African-American, homosexual, tea-leaf smoking friends and a sexy-time dance to a coquettish French pop song, a birthday gift for Don. This is all a bit much for him. Lane later noted that it looked as if Don’s soul had left his body.
The line brought me back to a conversation Don had with Peggy at the close of Season 3. “There are people out there who buy things,” he said. “People like you and me. And something happened, something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do.” Don most likely recognized sitting center stage, watching Megan dance for him, how far he was from Dick Whitman’s polite modesty and Betty’s green bean casserole. As he said last season: “We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”
While Don maintains face at the party, he quietly scolds Megan afterward for throwing away money on embarrassing him. She is crushed, I think. One of the most compelling aspects of the dynamic between Don and Megan is that it’s unclear at this point how much she understands the role she is playing for him, and how much she is in fact playing. We learn in party conversation that Megan herself is a wonderful actress and always got the best tips as a waitress by pouring on her accent. How much of their marriage is an extension of that?
Later in the episode, she brilliantly realigns the equilibrium of their relationship – Don consumer, Megan product – by stripping down and crawling around the apartment, “cleaning up.” She tells Don he can only watch, cause he doesn’t get to have this – meaning her – since he doesn’t like presents, he doesn’t like nice things, and he’s old. In the end, surprise, surprise, he gets to have that.
Running alongside the Don and Megan “Loveboat,” there are several other plot lines introduced to the mix, all of which travel along the “out with the old, in with the new” current that the season seems to be cruising along. Joan, who recently gave birth to Roger’s baby, is anxious to get back to the office. Roger is struggling to make his job look easy, in an environment where actual work and ugly secretaries are replacing whiskey and charm. Pete moved to the suburbs and finally wore an outfit that clashed with Trudy’s (the plaid sport coat-Pucci dress disaster at Megan’s party), no doubt a preppy foreboding of trouble in paradise. At the office, Pete is also eager to gain credit for the accounts he has been steadily bringing in and is frustrated when Roger undermines his attempt to commandeer a larger office (and all that implies) by paying off a suddenly-skinny Harry Crane. (“Why do you carry so much cash?!”)
Overall, the season 5 premiere was freshly packaged, brightly colored and perfectly mod. There were some sort of hilarious, haphazard scenes: Pete’s nosebleed, Don’s gift from his new secretary (a plant) and Harry in that jacket. But Matthew Weiner weighted the episode at beginning and end with poignant vignettes of the civil rights movement, and how SCDP involved itself quite unintentionally by poking fun at Young & Rubicam with a phony want ad in the New York Times. It’s true that things still appear to be all zoobie zoobie zoo at SCDP, but it’s 1966, times are changing, and Roger said it best: “The only thing worse than not getting what you want, is someone else getting it.”