The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

Mad Men: “A Little Kiss”

Posted by therebelprince on March 28, 2012

Rich Sommer as Harry Crane

Well, folks, it’s been a while, but Mad Men is at last back on the air. Let’s take a look at the two-hour season premiere, A Little Kiss.

“Men hate surprises. Didn’t you have ‘Lucy’ in Canada?” – Peggy

After a rather fragmented fourth season, A Little Kiss is one of the most comprehensive (and cohesive) instalments in ages. Events centre around Don’s fortieth birthday, which Megan – against the advice of everyone – decides merits a surprise party. If there was any doubt that the 1950s have been long left behind, the party is a delightfully ’60s affair, with just about every character in attendance. Lane’s wife Rebecca (the delightful Embeth Davidtz) is back in action, as is Ken’s now wife Cynthia, and everyone’s favourite Alison Brie: Alison Brie. Most interestingly, Bert Cooper – who so famously took his shoes and left – is back, without comment, so I guess he was just overreacting.

It’s probably easiest just to look through each character’s story, one by one:

Don does not enjoy Megan’s party antics. Now, I’ve always been one to keep my birthday secret, but I’ve acknowledged it’s somewhat irrational. For Don, though, it’s also a memory of who he’s not: this isn’t even his birthday, it’s that of the man whose life he stole. (We learn, incidentally, that Don forbade Betty to celebrate his birthday.) Megan (who’s in the credits now) has been promoted – surprise, surprise – and she’s working in creative under Peggy. She’s got concerns that the staff of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce don’t like her – regarding her as a nepotist and a woman outside her station – but… you know what? Megan’s kind of awesome. She and Peggy clearly have an easy relationship, and her party for Don is lavish, exciting, and – thanks to Jessica Paré’s sensual performance of Zou Bisou Bisou – sensual.

Things are not entirely healthy in the nouveau Draper household. Sally seemed to have a bit of an attitude toward Megan in the opening sequence, and Don and Megan’s sexual relationship seems to involve a lot of hatred and abuse. (Although I think Don enjoys being able to be truthful with his lover, since we never saw him this aroused by Betty.) Things end with a lovely – if worryingly ambiguous – conversation, in which the newlyweds realise they’ve been at odds with one another. Will Megan stay at work? Is that really what she wants? (She’s certainly trying her hardest). The underlying question may just be: what will make Don keep her around for longer? The series has always done a good job at drawing Don’s love interests as equally fleshed-out characters (something at which oh, so many shows fail abysmally). While I doubt very much that Don and Megan will still be together at the end of Mad Men, it’s refreshing that – in the best dramatic tradition – they’re both characters with ambitions, ideals, and neuroses, and we get to see them now at odds with each other, even as they desperately strive for something similar.

Elsewhere, Joan (or Mrs. Harris, as she’s now called – which can still sound erotic when spoken by Roger) is on maternity leave. Greg’s still in ‘Nam (and my spidey sense that he’s gonna die is still tingling) so Joan’s mother (Christine Estabrook, who looks like she belongs in the ’60s) is helping out. I adored Christina Hendricks this week, in what was one of her most dynamic performances on the series. Her indignation when she mistakenly believes SCDP are making her redundant was powerful, and her return to the office was wonderful. Even aside from everyone avoiding baby care (and a subtly lovely moment when Roger holds his son), Hendricks was in fine form. While I was uncertain about the deliberately fragmented nature of season four, the relationships that developed as sub-sub-plots there are in full display this week. Lane and Joan would be the greatest example, as he welcomes her back to the office, and updates her with all the gossip. Hendricks and Jared Pryce have such a natural, platonic rapport; it was a joy to watch.

Peggy is in her element more than ever. After six years in the business, she’s running creative with an iron grasp – and an adversarial relationship with Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson, also now in the opening credits). Elisabeth Moss (who reminds me of a young Gillian Anderson; think second season of X-Files) has great fun playing a more relaxed side of Peggy, who lounges around in her office while offering advice to those around her. She’s still continuing her relationship with the new world order – she’s friends (or maybe more) with a witty young underground reporter, who comes as her date to Don’s party – but she isn’t willing to compromise her own ambition either. Peggy could just be the poster child for what Mad Men wants its characters to achieve.

Less positive is Pete. I continue to believe that season three was Pete’s make-or-break moment. For a while there, he and Trudy had the possibility of becoming the enlightened new generation. Instead, he’s followed in the footsteps of the slimy ad-men he’s always admired, leaving Trudy to become a largely unwanted ball-and-chain. He’s becoming more and more insufferable but the upside of this is: fun and games with Roger Sterling! Pete demands a larger office (specificially: Roger’s) since he’s the one bringing in a majority of the accounts. He ends up getting a quiet “screw you”, receiving only Harry’s office (well, it has windows), but it’s clear that Pete is more and more disenchanted with this ‘being an adult’ business: his wife smells of baby sick, and his colleagues don’t really respect him. This isn’t what the movies promised!

Lastly, there’s Lane, who seems to be happy with his wife now, but is still looking for something more – or at least a passing thrill. In an intriguingly racist moment (given he was dating an African-American lass in season four), Lane finds a wallet in a cab but decides against trusting the cabbie. His brief fantasy about the owner’s ‘girl’ was quickly deflated, but Lane seems no happier than anyone else does in their married life.

What will season five bring for Mad Men? The season premiere gave little away, other than that the characters will remain unhappy (except, perhaps, Peggy), and that the real world can no longer be ignored. Equal rights protests for African-Americans are gathering steam, and a joking want ad placed on SCDP’s behalf brings a stream of eager would-be secretaries. They’re black, so none of the partners are overly enthusiastic about the prospect, but it looks like things are going to start changing around here.

Other thoughts:

  • No Betty this week (January Jones was busy giving birth at some point during the season, I believe), but she wasn’t missed amidst the hubbub of other storylines.
  • I loved Peggy’s pitch for Heinz regarding the ‘bean ballet’. I have no idea if that’s a reference to something in particular (obviously, that kind of advertising would be very popular in years to come).
  • Why one of Megan’s band members is a flamboyant African-American, I’ve no idea, but props to him for being so out and proud in 1966.
  • Pete has a momentary freak-out when he comes into work and sees Peggy holding a baby. Yep, that ugly reality is still out there.
  • Now that all the good secretaries have been promoted, SCDP is running a bit of a lunatic convention in the lower decks. Daffy receptionist Meredith (Stephanie Drake), wise-cracking Caroline (Beth Hall) – who is being shared by Don and Roger, and Pete’s rather flirtatious young thing Clara (Alexandra Ella)… not exactly a convention of rocket scientists.
  • I really liked the last Bobby Draper, but I’m amused that – for real-world reasons or in-jokes, I don’t know – we’ve got yet another one.
  • Harry continues to exist without a single person liking him. Megan confides in Jessica that Don doesn’t like the guy; Megan herself is now not his greatest fan; and Roger has absolutely no interest in hearing about his sex life.
  • A wonderfully subtle moment when the taxi driver just accepts Lane’s lack of trust with a look of weary resignation.
  • A great choice of closing song, in Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”. Aside from the thematic connotations, it seemed appropriate to open a season about race with a performance by the “White Queen of Soul”.
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