“When someone dies, you just want to make sense of it. But you can’t.”
Rejoice, for Mad Men is back after its year-long ‘mid-season break’! Then weep, for this is the beginning of the last seven episodes we’ll get to spend with existentially-troubled cad Don Draper and his dysfunctional colleagues at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
After that lengthy break, the show returned with a slam-bang action-packed spectacular… No, of course it didn’t, this is Mad Men. Even by this show’s standards, though, this was a low-key opener; no sensational musical numbers, no Roger Sterling-led high comedy. Just the show’s standard opaque, subtext-laden ambiguity on its usual themes – fear of change, age and obsolescence, and of course mortality. Always mortality. As if to hammer the point home, the ep was bookended by the all too appropriate Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”
Despite the unexpected death of SC&P mainstay Bert Cooper, the last ep before the break ended on an unexpected note of cheeriness, with the departed ad mogul surreally dazzling us all in a classic song and dance number. That optimism, fostered by the July 1969 Moon landings, was obviously short-lived. Right from the cleverly misleading opening scene (is Don playing with a new mistress? Or is it something to do with work?), Jon Hamm had ample opportunity to display Don’s trademark furrowed brow and frequent expression of utter dismay, all through the usual haze of cigarette smoke.
As is customary, showrunner and creator Matthew Weiner was on scripting duties for the big return, and gave us an ep which focused specifically on just about four of the characters, keeping the rest of the ensemble to the background. Subplots about Don, Peggy and Joan were no great surprise; after all, these are some of the show’s biggest characters. Rather more unexpected was Ken Cosgrove getting something serious to do, having been utilised as blackly comic relief more often than not of late.
Likeably played by Aaron Staton, Ken has always seemed a bit too… well, nice to prosper in the shark tank that is SC&P. He gave up his treasured vocation of writing science fiction and even sacrificed an eye in service to the agency, with nary a complaint. So it seemed entirely in keeping with his submissive, milquetoast history for him to take news of his sacking by “black Irish thug” Fergus from new partners McCann Erickson almost without protest. Even though it meant handing over all his accounts to longtime rival Pete Campbell, who was slimily smug at his apparent triumph.
But after all this time, it seemed Ken had teeth after all, cheerily breezing into Roger and Pete’s meeting with the news that, in the wake of his father-in-law’s retirement, he had taken on the post of Head of Advertising at cherished client Dow Chemical. “You’re firing us?” asked a dismayed Pete. “Worse than that,” Ken responded with relish, “I’m going to be your client. And I warn you, I’m very hard to please.”
It was a cracking scene, well-played by all. Pete and Roger didn’t have a great deal to do this week, but the look on their faces when Ken delivered his killer blow was priceless. It looks like his character may get a new lease of life, and could make Pete Campbell’s life very uncomfortable. Even more than it usually is!
Ken it was too who portentously summed up one of the ep’s major preoccupations, discussing his firing as a “sign” that could put him back on “the road not taken”. The mistakes these people have made in their lives have always had a touch of this, the sense that it could so easily have turned out better for them. For the ever-unsatisfied Don, this point was hammered home by his dream of season 1’s romantic interest Rachel Katz – Maggie Siff’s only line of dialogue being, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.”
After what seemed like at least three attempts before the break, it seemed that Don and Megan’s marriage really is over (though I’m reserving judgement while Jessica Pare’s name is still in the opening credits). Don being Don, he’s returned to what he knows best – seducing a seemingly endless stream of women half his age. But in keeping with his increasing status as outmoded dinosaur, what might have seemed caddishly cool back in 1960 now smacked considerably of pathetic desperation. Particularly now he’s in his mid-40s with two divorces and three children behind him.
And being Don, the empty sex wasn’t filling the void for him at all, hence his increasingly desperate attempts to make a real connection; first with seemingly familiar waitress Diana, then with the afore-dreamed Rachel. It was a blackly amusing blow to his ego when he discovered that his quick knee-trembler in a Manhattan alleyway with Diana had been interpreted by her as a reluctant act of prostitution engendered by a misunderstanding over Roger’s $100 tip.
But that was nothing compared to the blow he suffered on discovering that Rachel, with whom he may have been wanting to rekindle… whatever they had, was unexpectedly deceased. That theme of mortality was again on the table, as the shocked Don explained to ditzy Meredith that Rachel was “younger than me”. This gave Jon Hamm plenty of chance to deploy the Draper ‘shocked dismay’ look, which equates to him furrowing his brow even more than usual while looking as though somebody has kicked him in the balls. As well they might have, that being quite possibly the centre of his being.
After seven seasons of virtually destroying people’s lives in his quest for that elusive fulfilment, Don Draper has pretty much exhausted my well of sympathy. It’s a credit to the writing and Jon Hamm’s performance that the character continues to intrigue and even unwillingly tug on the heartstrings. Every so often, he’ll regain your sympathy by doing something almost noble that might make up for whatever his most recent transgressions are. This time it was his foregoing Ted’s invite to a Vogue fashion party in favour of visiting Rachel’s relatives as they sat Shiva at her apartment. But really, how much of that compassion was actually self-pity? It was hard to suppress a knowing nod when Rachel’s sister, hearing his name, muttered darkly, “I know who you are”.
Peggy and Joan, by contrast, still have all my sympathy as women struggling in an era that is about to get even more sexist before it starts getting any better. This being yet again the problem they were confronted with, their plotlines were perhaps a tad predictable, though no less entertaining for that. Having both endured the most cringeworthy, innuendo-laden meeting possible with three leches from McCann while maintaining ever more forced smiles, they found themselves at loggerheads in the lift.
Their furious argument was freighted with the irony that each is envious of the other for the reasons that cause them problems in the first place; and the wince-making exchange made that unspoken motive perfectly clear to each. Peggy resents Joan’s glamour, all the while unaware of the horrific compromise she made to get her partnership; while single mother Joan resents Peggy’s drive and independence, all unaware of her longing for a relationship and a child to replace the one she had to give up. It was one of those scenes laden with tragedy as subtext, though it did depend on your knowledge of each character. Mad Men’s like that; you have to pay attention.
Like Don with his anecdotes of his poverty-stricken upbringing, Joan found herself confronted by the past as she embraced her looks as an asset. Shopping for a revealing new dress, she found herself asked, “didn’t you used to work here? You could probably still get a discount”. And it was an all-too-obvious echo of Don’s exchange with Diana when she frostily replied, “you must have me mixed up with somebody else”. One of the key themes of the show has always been who people really are behind the façade, and how they remake themselves; most obviously embodied in the replacement of Dick Whitman with ‘Don Draper’. Now it seems that Joan too is trying to remake her past, though it’s hard to blame her for that. Christina Hendricks continues to be sensational in the part, and I sincerely hope she gets something of equal quality to showcase her acting when the show ends.
Peggy, for her part, displayed one of her not-unprecedented moments of reckless spontaneity following her date with the brother in law of amusingly named copywriter Johnny Mathis. The date was a cutesy, almost rom-com scene of initial awkwardness thawing into chemistry; but it was an indication of quite how restless Peggy must be feeling that, under the influence of Booze, she was happy to suggest they both fly to Paris right that very moment. As so often with possibly misguided spontaneous drunken notions, it didn’t work out – in this case because she couldn’t find her passport – and she thought better of it the next day. However, as someone who increasingly shares her desire to just pack it all in and get away, for me it was a particularly resonant scene.
One of the most entertaining/infuriating things about Mad Men’s returns to the screen is the puzzle of working out exactly what year we’re in now, and how much time has passed since we last saw these people. The show never gives an inch, preferring to let you work it out for yourself; which is fair enough. As Matthew Weiner has remarked, in real life people do not tend to keep telling each other what year it is, or remarking significantly on current events. That kind of dialogue in a period drama always seems ridiculously contrived, since it boils down to characters telling each other things they must logically already know.
This week gave us one notable anchor in history, as Don listlessly watched Tricky Dick Nixon announcing on TV that he was about to withdraw 150,000 US troops from the increasingly futile Vietnam conflict. That broadcast was made on 30 April 1970, making this a mere nine months since the previous ep (since the Moon landing occurred on 21 July 1969).
Given past precedent, it’s unlikely that the remainder of the season will stray too far into the future, so it’s a fair bet that 1970 is when we’ll stay. So what’s to look forward to? Well… actually not much that I can immediately recall. Joan referred at one point to “department stores being blown up by radicals”, likely to be a reference to the previous month’s firebombing of Bloomingdale’s and Alexander’s in NYC by “unknown leftist radicals”.
As the dark tail end of the ‘Summer of Love’ approached, America’s homegrown anarchists, radicals and terrorists became ever more prevalent with the likes of the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. The nervous authorities became ever more trigger-happy, leading to one of the most notorious acts of violence perpetrated by a democratic government against its own people – the unprovoked shooting of student protestors by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, Ohio, on May 4, 1970. I wouldn’t be surprised if that crops up.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Obviously not a great deal changed in fashion trends in the nine month gap between the last ep and this one; though as Ted sagely noted of the Vogue party, “apparently hemlines are going up”. However, the most jaw-dropping change, which made me spit out my tea in unexpected laughter, was that both he and Roger have now acquired what can only be called ‘porn star moustaches’:
Elsewhere, Joan looked as fantastic as ever in prim businesswear:
Before giving it up in despair and shopping for the sexiest dresses she could find:
After all, if you’re going to be defined by what you look like, why not use it to your advantage?
Clothes-wise, the men were mostly looking fairly sober (figuratively speaking), with nary an Eye-Burningly Hideous Checked Sport Coat to be seen. However, Harry Crane, ever the trailblazer (and amusingly referred to as “Mr Potato Head” by a client) has evidently foreseen the early 70s fixation with lapels large enough to hang glide with:
However understated this ep was, it’s great to have them all back, mired as usual in portentous, existential angst. Don is still Don, for better or worse, Joan and Peggy are still true heroines, and Pete Campbell shows no hints of mellowing. Is it me, or is Vincent Kartheiser actually shaving his head to accentuate the ever-vain Pete’s increasingly thinning hair?
The only worry I have is that, with only six more episodes to go, the show might not have time to do justice to all those carefully crafted, well-rounded characters we’ve come to know over the last eight years. We’ve yet to see Betty or Sally; while Roger and Pete had barely more than a cameo this week. What will become of Trudie, Pete’s appearance-conscious estranged wife? Will we never see Megan again?
Still, I trust Matthew Weiner to give us an ending that will satisfy the investment we’ve all put into this most understated of dramas. Though since he used to work on The Sopranos, I sincerely hope he gives us a better ending than that…