Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 12–Commissions and Fees


“What is happiness? It’s the moment before you want more happiness.”


This week in Mad Men, nearly everyone was having a bad day – some worse than others. This was signified by a number of exchanges in which world-weary characters actually declared, “I’ve had a bad day.” Well, that’s not unusual for this show, but this instalment seemed to up the ante. After last week’s dramatic power house of an episode, this one felt more low key, the character arcs and plot development ambling along sedately – until a massive shock brought it all to an abrupt halt with the departure of the second major character in as many weeks.

Perhaps it was the winter setting – snowflakes visibly falling outside every window – but from the beginning there seemed a palpable sense of gloom throughout. There was the usual sense of existential angst and inertia at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with the events of recent weeks hanging sullen in the air. Despite securing the prestigious Jaguar account, nobody’s happy – and indeed the subject of happiness (or the lack of it) was a recurring theme in the episode, with many of the characters dwelling on it at various points.

Initially, the most unhappy (as usual) was Don, for a number of reasons. He’s obviously still smarting from last week’s deal with the devil that enabled Joan to gain a partnership by means of actual prostitution. He’s not just angry with the rest of the partners (“Should I just leave the room so you can vote without me?”), but plainly with Joan too for lowering herself to those standards. It probably doesn’t help that at the partners’ meeting Joan proves herself awesomely capable, signifying that this is a position she should have been given a long time ago.

But he’s also unhappy that, for an American ad agency, the account for a notoriously unreliable British luxury car is pretty middling stuff. This becomes clear in a meeting with Roger, as Don declares, “I don’t want Jaguar, I want Chevy!” Perhaps Roger is less ambitious than Don; he’s involved in yet another meaningless affair with a too-young girl, and recognises that it’s not making him happy but thinks it’s the best he can do.

Don, however, is having none of it. He honestly thinks Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce isn’t trying hard enough, and is still smarting from his recent chat with the Ed Baxter, head of Dow Chemicals and father in law to the usually principled Ken Cosgrove. Baxter, played by the marvellously slimy Ray Wise, had told Don that many major companies would never work with him because of the anti-smoking ad he put out to save face over losing the Lucky Strike account.

Don being Don, Dow is thus obviously his ultimate challenge – even Roger refers to it as “the Moby Dick of accounts”. But Don seems to feel that SCDP has been resting on its laurels (despite the Jaguar account) and it’s time to go hunting that white whale. This he does in a meeting heavy with hidden meaning after Roger has placated the surprisingly hard nosed Ken. Ken will put up no resistance – providing he can be “forced” onto the account and Pete Campbell will have no involvement at all. This was a bit of a revelation; we know Pete’s hard to like, but it was a surprise that even the usually mild Ken would be so ruthless towards him.

With that sorted, Don and Roger are free to meet with Baxter and the finance and marketing supremos of Dow. More than anything, this scene set out the themes of the episode. Don thinks that Dow’s current agency are just coasting, and that the company’s complacent for being satisfied with 50% market share. He’s projecting of course – he’s not happy with everything he has, so why should Dow Chemicals be? Addressing the idea of happiness head on, he comments, “what is happiness? It’s the moment before you want more happiness.”

If anything, that’s the philosophy of the show in a nutshell. Don’s reaching, ambitiously, like the very embodiment of the American Dream. And yet, however much he achieves, it’s never enough – the dream is hollow, no matter how nobly we strive. It’s heavily significant that he’s expressing these sentiments to Dow Chemicals, whose involvement in the Vietnam War was so crucial; the script even spelled that out by having him comment on the history of napalm, one of their most famous products. The implication was that Don’s ambition lacked any principle. He’s prepared to be a gentleman about Joan Harris, but he has no compunction over advertising a company that produces such a horrible weapon. I wonder if Don votes Republican?

Don also has to put up with Sally, herself as unhappy as usual in her relationship with her mother. Sally was being as wilful and spoilt as usual, refusing to go on Betty and Henry’s ski trip and preferring to foist herself on her harried father. Betty, typically, is fine with that – anything to get the burdensome Sally out of her hair, and ‘coincidentally’ to make things awkward for Don.

But with Don busily preparing for his meeting with Dow, and Megan off to another audition, Sally has to be left alone in the apartment on Monday morning. It was no surprise that she secretly arranged a trip to the Natural History Museum with sort-of-boyfriend Glen, who absconded from his boarding school just to see her. Their scenes in the museum, nicely played by Kiernan Shipka and Marten Weiner, were interrupted as Sally had the shock of discovering her first period. Mad Men delights in putting all its characters through the wringer, and in Sally’s case the shocks and depression are nearly always to do with her burgeoning sexuality.

Surprisingly, though, when she ran off and deserted Glen, it was Betty she ran to and not Megan. Even more surprisingly, Betty for once acted like a caring mother, soothing Sally’s worries, and holding her on the bed. Perhaps the evidence of Sally’s imminent womanhood has given Betty a sudden facility for empathy, based on her own experiences. But she still can’t resist playing one-upmanship with Megan, smugly pointing out over the phone that it was Betty that Sally ran to, and not her stepmother.

Lane Pryce at least started the episode feeling good – he’s been invited to join the fiscal committee of the prestigious American Association of Advertising Agencies. But this is Mad Men, and no-one’s allowed to stay happy for long. In Lane’s case, his fall from grace came surprisingly early on, as Bert Cooper, having stumbled on the cheque with Don’s forged signature, furiously asks Don why he’s given Lane the Christmas bonus that the partners were supposed to foreswear.

Don, of course, knows that he never signed such a cheque. Even mired in his usual angst, he’s a smart and shrewd man, and works out immediately what’s going on. Cue an agonising scene in his office as he demands the resignation of the weeping Lane, to whom the appearance of respectability is everything. Jared Harris crumbled magnificently as Lane for his last episode, venting all the despair that his character has been prone to for the last couple of years.

Don at least has the sensitivity to keep Lane’s crime confidential, and gives him advice on what to tell his wife. He’s projecting again, seeing echoes of his own history – “I’ve started over a lot. Believe me, this is the hardest part.”  But Lane isn’t Don; his facade is far more fragile. It doesn’t help that when he gets home, he discovers his wife has bought him a very expensive present – with his own chequebook. In a supreme display of irony, It’s a Jaguar XKE. Having spent the afternoon trying to drink away his despair, Lane does the only thing left to him – he goes and pukes in a corner.

It was a blackly humorous  moment, but not the blackest. Lane’s gradual unravelling was interspersed throughout the episode, and it came as no surprise to find him ultimately preparing to commit suicide by gassing himself with the exhaust of that very same Jag. Except, in a moment of unexpected humour that cleverly undermined this poetic gesture, the Jag, typically, wouldn’t start. Even in the circumstances, it was impossible not to laugh as poor old Lane poked about the engine hopelessly, holding one lens of his snapped glasses to his face. Even suicide won’t work out for him.

At least for a while. The final scenes of the episode were truly shocking, as Joan, suspicious of Lane’s locked office door, gets Pete to peer through his adjoining window. After the abortive Jag attempt, Lane had gone to the office and hung himself. Even the usually composed Joan was weeping, while the men looked like they’d been kicked in the balls. Real life, in all its horror, had intruded on the office of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a singularly unusual experience.

Don and Roger, returning from the meeting with Dow, found the office eerily deserted, with only the shocked (surviving) partners left. Typically, it was Don, with his sense of decency, who demanded that Lane be cut down despite Pete’s protestations that it was a crime scene that shouldn’t be interfered with. This was shown in shocking, unpleasant detail; previously the director had shied away from actually showing Lane’s dangling corpse, and I’d expected it to remain unseen.

That just rendered it all the more shocking when we saw Jared Harris hanging, grey-faced, from his office door. Don, Roger and Pete looked genuinely sick as they cut him down; Harris has said that these were genuine reactions, so presumably Jon Hamm, John Slattery and Vincent Kartheiser were seeing this grimly realistic tableau for the first time. For Don in particular, the look of horror was especially redolent. Not only is he presumably feeling guilty at having provoked Lane’s desperate actions, this isn’t the first time he’s felt responsible for a suicide by hanging; way back in the first season, his (ie Dick Whitman’s) half brother died in the same way, after Don’s rejection.

It was a startling and shocking end to an otherwise low key episode, the sudden horror all too real from my own experiences of suicides. Jared Harris has been great as Lane, and the episode rightly gave him plenty of good material in his last performance. In a script so heavily freighted with references to unhappiness, it was fitting that one of its worst possible consequences should provide the climax. Don was perfectly right in the way he dealt with Lane’s crime; but I’m sure that will be cold comfort to him. The episode ended with him at least being able to make one person happy, as he let Glen drive the car back to boarding school. It felt like a small crumb of comfort in a very bleak penultimate episode. But then, this is Mad Men; bleak is what they do.

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 10–Christmas Waltz


“People buy things because it makes them feel happier.”


It’s December 1966 for the guys and girls at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and with Christmas around the corner, what better time for a meditation on all things materialistic and consumerist? For the cash-strapped Lane Pryce and newly single Joan Harris, it’s a meditation about money, but for the not-seen-for-ages Paul Kinsey it’s a literal meditation – he’s joined the Hare Krishnas.

With so many episodes recently having centred around Don and Megan, Peggy and Ginsberg, and Pete and Roger, it was a nice change to have the focus changed to other characters, some of whom have seemed rather neglected of late. Lane and Joan in particular, after having been quite prominent early in the season, have been rather pushed to the background in recent weeks.

Lane, who seems to have brought English reserve to a new level in not acknowledging his depressing life, is finally having the financial meltdown hinted at early in the season. With Europe in 2012 undergoing a similar meltdown, it’s tempting to see Lane’s predicament as a timely comment on current events, though with the caveat that the script must have been written quite some time ago.

Perhaps it’s because he’s a fellow Englishman, but I like Lane, and found his desperate efforts to avoid personal ruin while hiding his money worries even from his own wife simultaneously comic and uncomfortable. We already knew that he’s having problems paying for private school for his son Nigel (a name that telegraphs Englishness for American screenwriters but is far less common here than they think). Now it seems that Her Majesty’s tax office is rather keen to get its hands on the $8000 of back taxes Lane owes. Like, right this minute.

So Lane finally blew his English cool at his wife (“Get back to bed right this minute!”), then proceeded to spend the rest of the episode desperately trying to get the firm in which he’s a partner to pay his tax bill. Plan A was to borrow $50,000 on the firm’s account, then tell the partners that the firm was ‘unexpectedly’ better off than they’d thought to the tune of that amount. Thus, everyone could get an immediate Christmas bonus, Lane’s own being the amount he needed.

That’s some dubious stuff right there, but that plan stalled (like economic growth under David Cameron) when Don, Roger, Pete and Bert weren’t that bothered about getting a bonus so soon. So, it was off to Plan B – forge Don’s signature on a company check. OK, you could see that as an ‘advance’ on Lane’s bonus, but I think it’s basically embezzlement.

And the whole plan was totally torpedoed when Mohawk Airlines temporarily withdraw their business, and all the other partners ‘heroically’ decide to forego their bonuses so the rest of the staff could have some. Lane’s obviously going to be in big trouble quite soon, when he has to explain that he did get a bonus, on a check Don didn’t really sign, from a $50,000 windfall the company didn’t really have. Lane might be in the advantageous position of Chief Finance Officer, but he’s going to be lucky to get away with all that.

Jared Harris was, as ever, excellent as Lane throughout. I particularly enjoyed his sly method of persuading his wife that they didn’t need that Christmas trip to England that he couldn’t afford, and his increasingly badly repressed desperation as his plans went awry and he was reduced to actual thievery from his own company.

Still, with the renewed possibility of business from Jaguar cars, Lane might – just – be able to balance the books before he’s caught. It actually took me a few seconds to figure out what new client Pete was so joyful about, due to the American insistence on pronouncing the name “Jag-wah”, rather than the British “Jag-you-er”. Still, as a classic car enthusiast, their inclusion meant I was blessed with a visit to a New York Jaguar showroom boasting the latest 1966 models.


With Pete having foregone the chance to drive a Mark 2 (just as well considering his inability to drive even an auto transmission American car), it was up to Don and Joan, masquerading as a married couple, to take a test drive. After having spent the last few weeks as an agony aunt for everyone else in the office, it was clearly Joan’s turn to have a horrid time. That’s what happens to any character in this show when the scriptwriter decides to focus on them – it’s never good news.

For Joan, the bad news came in the form of being served divorce papers on behalf of her nasty estranged husband. I thought that was what she wanted anyway, but no, she went ballistic at the (admittedly incompetent) receptionist who allowed her husband’s lawyer into the office, chucking the model Mohawk plane at her. After Lane’s outburst earlier, this was a chance for another normally collected character to explode. Lucky for her, it was Don who was there to pick up the pieces, and off they went to the Jag showroom where the desperately unhappy Joan, quite sensibly, espoused the ‘family car’ Mark 2 in favour of the gorgeous XKE (“also known as the E-Type”, the salesman explained, accurately).

Sadly, we didn’t get to see the XKE cruising the streets of 1966 Manhattan (perhaps its real owner wouldn’t allow that). But it did take Don and Joan to a nearby bar, and one of those trademark Mad Men character revealing discussions. Turns out Joan’s furious at the divorce papers because it’s Greg divorcing her, not the other way round – as though the breakup of the marriage was somehow her fault. This led to an interesting discussion on the merits (or otherwise) of marriage, and Joan’s dating chances as a newly divorced single mother.

Along the way, the theme of materialism, so crucial to the show, was touched on in a big way. Don’s not impressed with the XKE, and Joan thinks it’s because he’s happy (has she been watching the same show I have?). The implication is clear – as Don says, “people buy things because it makes them feel better”. Because in the world as Mad Men sees it, there’s always enough unhappiness to keep consumerism chugging along.

Some people, though, choose to fill the void another way – with religion. A large part of the show was devoted to a slightly less weighty subplot in which Harry Crane had to deal with the return of Paul Kinsey, left behind when the original Sterling Cooper was taken over by McCann Erickson. Kinsey’s been drifting ever downward since, and having hit rock bottom is the perfect target for hip new religion/cult, the Hare Krishnas.

Harry’s usually very much a background character in the show, and it was nice to see him get his own little subplot. The scene of him caught up in a Krishna chantalong was hilarious – and historically interesting, as presumably the ‘Swami’ in charge was the cult’s original founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. But this subplot had its serious side too, once you got over the hilarity of the perma-smiling Kinsey done up in Krishna robes.


Paul’s at rock bottom, and he needs Harry to try and sell a spec script he’s written for Star Trek. Only trouble is, the script, cringingly entitled ‘The Negron Complex’ (“the twist is that the Negrons are white”) is terrible. How can Harry tell his erstwhile friend that his dreams of TV writing are never going to come true? And on top of that, Kinsey’s prospective Krishna girlfriend, the manipulative Lakshmi, then goes and has sex with Harry in his office, to try and ensure that Kinsey’s dream of a return to commercialism will never come true. What’s an embarrassed married ad exec meant to do, refuse?

In the end, Harry came up with the face-saving tactic of telling Paul that “a reader” had loved his script, but they couldn’t take it on. And then giving him $500 to hotfoot it off to LA and live his screenwriting dream. It’s hard to tell whether this was a selfless gesture on Harry’s part to get Paul out of the Krishnas’ (and Lakshmi’s) clutches, or whether it was just a payoff to make sure that the increasingly embarrassing Paul never bothered him again. This being Mad Men, I’d tend toward the latter theory.

So quite a low key episode this week, that nonetheless had things to say, and gave some welcome plot advancement to some characters who’ve been sadly neglected of late. Clearly Joan’s beginning to go through the same kind of existential crisis that Don permanently lives in, and Lane’s more concrete problems seem set to come back and bite him some time soon. With only three more episodes left to savour this season, I’m wondering which of these aspects is going to ramp up in time for the season finale. OK, Mad Men is more restrained than, say, Game of Thrones, but even Mad Men usually ups the dramatic ante for the end of the season. I can’t help wondering whether Lane’s short sighted desperation is about to lead to a crisis for the whole of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Finally, this week’s Hideous Checked Sport Coat count: zero. But Roger more than made up for it with this tasteful shirt:


Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 5 – Signal 30

“Things seem so… random, all of a sudden. And time feels like it’s speeding up.”


Poor old Pete Campbell. It’s easy to dislike the obnoxious little toe rag – and kudos to the likeable Vincent Kartheiser for achieving that – but you can’t help feeling sorry for him. Maybe it’s karma, but nothing, absolutely nothing in his life ever works out the way he wants it to – chiefly, of course, his rather sad desire to be just like Don. Pete was front and centre in this episode – shamefacedly attending a stereotypically gruesome Driver’s Ed film at the opening, perhaps feeling like getting his drivers license would make him feel more of a man; and crying in a lift before crawling into bed with his unsatisfying wife at the end. In between, as usual, Pete’s life was a symphony of chaos as he tried and failed to be more of ‘a man’ than he is.

Not that it was all about Pete, though we’ll come back to his catalogue of disasters in a while. Like last week, the episode kept a focus on just a few of the characters, and what they had in common; their jobs and their seemingly empty marriages.If last week’s theme was The Long Dark Night Of The Soul, this week’s was Great Men (and Pete) And Their Wives. As Rod Serling might have put it, “Picture a series of hollow men… their lives unfulfilled at home, seeking empty solace in their work. Portraits of marriages on their way to Signal 30… in The Twilight Zone.”

The marriages in question were those of Pete, Don, Lane, Ken (nice to see him getting something to do again) and even, tangentially, Roger. Along the way, we learned some surprising things about a few of them, impressive for characters we thought we’d known for nearly five years. Ken, it turns out, has been quietly keeping up with his stories and making a bit of a (false) name for himself as a writer of pulp sci fi (hence the Twilight Zone reference). Now a publisher wants to collect twenty of his stories into an anthology, something he’d rather keep quiet.

Unfortunately for him, his proud but unthinking wife Cynthia had to go and blurt it out in front of Don and Pete at an uncomfortable soiree in Pete’s suburban home. And when Roger hears about it, he’s none too pleased about one of his best men moonlighting. After all, for Roger, the job is enough; but as Don tells Pete later, “Roger’s unhappy. You’re not.”

Still, Ken’s marriage to Cynthia seems pleasant enough compared to the hidden emptiness his coworkers are feeling. We know about Don, of course; yet again here, he seemed like yesterday’s man in his relationship with Megan. She wants to go out and have fun with their (read, “her”) friends; he wants, as he admits in a drunken moment of honesty, to “have babies”, something she’s plainly not ready for.

Lane, on the other hand, was finally letting his rather stereotypical English reserve slip to reveal the bottled up passion underneath. It started as he unwillingly let his wife drag him to a Manhattan ‘English pub’ to watch the 1966 World Cup Final (historical references abounded this week). Presently, we were subjected to the rather astonishing sight of Lane, roaringly drunk, cheering the winning England team and slurring his way through “God Save the Queen”.

Bizarre enough, but more was to come, as we saw Lane attempting to woo (in a business sense) the CEO of Jaguar US, who’d offered to bring his business to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I must confess, as an Englishman used to seeing American TV misconceptions of my culture, I was watching all of these scenes like a hawk, just waiting for the usual slips in dialogue or setting. But no, all was pretty accurate, as you’d expect from a show as meticulous about its detail as Mad Men. The pie and mushy peas in the pub looked real enough, the English accents sounded real, and even Lane’s statement about Jaguar’s imminent merger with the British Motor Corporation was spot on. Well done, Mr Weiner!

Lane’s unexpected snagging of a major advertising account threaded through the episode, entwining the scripts’ examination of our heroes’ professional lives. Roger in particular got a great scene in which we were reminded that he’s far more than a boorish, drunken buffoon; he’s actually a master at his work. The scene in which he educated Lane about his technique of faking drunkenness and using psychological tactics to win over clients showed why he’s a partner in the agency, and revealed him to be far more clever and subtle than we’ve seen of late. Intriguing that this should come up in an episode directed by John Slattery, the man whose portrayal of Roger makes him quite my favourite character.

The other side of the story, our heroes’ marriages, was encapsulated in the centrepiece of the episode, a magnificently strained social evening at Pete and Trudi’s Cos Cob home as he tried vainly to demonstrate to Don and Ken (his former rival) that he was “the man with everything”.The infighting for the position of alpha male began almost immediately, with Pete vainly trying the tactic of showing off his giant radiogram: “It’s like having a miniature orchestra”. Then Don turned up, and it became a contest for who could wear the most eye-burningly hideous checked sport coat (another continuing theme this year):


Plainly, Don won that one.

Amusingly, neither Don nor Megan could remember the name of Ken’s wife (causing a laugh out loud moment as she realised and involuntarily exclaimed “Cynthia!”). But Trudi was at her most charming, despite Pete’s drunkenly obnoxious ‘gracious host’ turn. Conversation at the dinner table took a gruesome turn as Pete took some relish in discussing Texas sniper Charles Whitman’s university tower shootings.

Then Ken unwillingly told a story that seemed (in a way that wasn’t entirely clear) to sum up the episode’s themes with a sci fi story: ‘The Punishment of X-4’, about a powerless robot whose only means of asserting himself was to remove a vital bolt in a bridge, killing everyone on it. The conversation turned wistful as all discussed what they’d wanted to be whn they grew up, a theme of missed opportunity that also suffused the episode. As Don said, “No one grows up wanting to be an advertiser”. It was a theme we’d return to later.

But the musing didn’t last long, as Pete’s first setback of the episode commenced. His surprising success at mending a leaky tap earlier turned inevitably to humiliation as it burst all over the kitchen, leaving (inevitably, again) the ever-manly Don to do the manly thing that Pete just couldn’t. Ken’s obviously not so worried; he just stood and smirked.

But it was the first in a long line of humiliations for Pete this week, as the script seemed determined to compress all his usual bad luck into a much shorter (and blackly funny) timeframe. His American Beauty-style fixation with a high school girl at his Driver’s Ed class seemed to be going so well… But things don’t go well for Pete, and he was left seething as she spurned him for a beefy high school jock with the all-too-accurate nickname ‘handsome’.

Later, as our heroes helped out with Lane’s recalcitrant Jaguar client, they found themselves in a high class brothel (typically, taken there by Roger), and we got an inkling of what’s really seething in Pete’s rancid little core. Humiliated once again by a prostitute’s faint praise of his biceps, he waited wearily while she tried various turn on techniques; the only one to which he eventually responded was, “you’re my king”.

There’s something desperately sad about Pete and his desire to be, basically, Don Draper; which was reiterated as he turned on a reproachful Don in the taxi home reminding Don of his own former infidelities. And unsurprisingly, given his growing guilt, Don was quick to agree, stating that he’d had everything (like Pete) and let it slip through his fingers. Together with his mellowing towards his ex-wife, this made it clear that he’s more than aware where he went wrong.

But fate (and the scriptwriter’s cruel word processor) hadn’t finished with Pete yet. It turned out that the brothel trip had cost them the Jaguar account; the CEO’s wife had found chewing gum “on his pubis”. Even Pete found that pretty funny, but Lane didn’t, leading to a slanging match (“all the hours I’ve spent on you to make you the monster you are”) and the surprising development of Lane challenging Pete to a fistfight.

Lane might be a steely businessman, but we’ve never had the impression that he was in any way physically tough. Clearly neither did Pete, who ended up on the floor with a bloody nose and a face full of bruises. It was an uncomfortable but irresistibly funny scene; I was with Roger when he commented, “I know cooler heads should prevail, but I really want to see this.”

While Lane celebrated his manliness with an embarrassing attempt to kiss Joan (and thank God she’s back at the office), Pete was reduced to sobbing in the lift. “I have nothing,” he wept at an embarrassed-looking Don. The irony being, of course, that it’s only true because he thinks so. He was summed up by Ken, off screen, narrating a story called ‘The Man with the Miniature Orchestra’, and sounding uncannily like Rod Serling.

This was a blackly brilliant episode. Less dark and intense than last week, it managed to interweave theme, character, and plot in some moments of desperate sadness and laugh-out-loud comedy. Particularly, it was nice to have some focus on Jared Harris as the prissy Lane, and Aaron Staton as the impossible to dislike Ken Cosgrove – the very antithesis of Pete Campbell.

If I have any complaints, it’s just that two episodes in a row with such a narrow character focus felt like the wider ensemble of the show was being neglected somewhat. Still, if Matthew Weiner keeps taking this approach, he could end up with, week by week, some acutely observed character pieces about everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. My only request – please, more focus on Roger, and what’s happening with him and Joan.

Mad Men: Season 5, Episodes 1 & 2–A Little Kiss

“Something always happens. Things are different.”

Mad Men (Season 5)


Rejoice, for finally Mad Men is back! After 17 months of alleged behind the scenes wrangling at AMC TV, thankfully everything was settled in terms of writers, producers, cast and budget (that latter at the expense of The Walking Dead, reportedly). The men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce showed up for business on Sunday night in the US, and straight away we were immersed in the show’s trademark subtle vision of the 60s.

So subtle in fact that, as usual, I couldn’t immediately tell what year they’d moved on to this time. Mad Men is like that; it doesn’t do exposition. You have to work at it as a viewer, because none of the answers are spelled out in dialogue. This is never more true than in a season premiere, where the timescale between seasons can range from months to years, with the concomitant change in the characters’ circumstances. Part of the fun is working it out, and the show doesn’t give an inch. After all, why have a line of dialogue when meaning can be conveyed by Don Draper staring moodily into the middle distance through a haze of cigarette smoke?

Anyway, it’s 1966 (I eventually discovered), and I guess it’s about nine months after the end of the previous season. I know this because Joan has actually gone ahead and had the baby fathered by Roger after their illicit post-mugging liaison in an alley. As she was a couple of months pregnant last time, and her baby looks a couple of months old here, I think an intervening time of about 9 months is the right area.

Thankfully Don has moved on from the dark place in which he spent most of last season, when he lived in a tiny apartment and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Initially he seemed quite happy with new French-Canadian wife Megan, who seemed to have an inhuman level of tolerance with his grumpiness. Said grumpiness was brought on by her staging of a surprise birthday party for his fortieth in their swanky new pad, a surprise that was (typically) blown by Roger turning up with a bottle of champagne just as Don and Megan reached their door.

This season premiere was basically two episodes glued together, and the first concerned itself largely with the party. Don doesn’t like birthdays; he never celebrated them when he was Dick Whitman and he doesn’t want to now. Megan can’t grasp that, and Don ends up fidgeting uncomfortably through what looks like rather a good party.

As the centrepiece of the episode, the party was staged very well. All the major characters were there, together with a lot of young people who were presumably friends of Megan’s. Straight away, Don’s obvious discomfort pointed up what his problem was – he’s getting old. Or at least he feels he is, particularly when surrounded by modern, with-it people almost twenty years his junior, like his new wife. I think this is a theme we’re going to be returning to quite a bit this year.

Meanwhile, we got a flavour of the times as people at the party discussed current events, a good way of setting the scene. Vietnam is just getting into full swing, and already Bert Cooper and Peggy’s beatnik boyfriend Abe are discussing it as an unnecessary war run for profit which maims and kills young men (much to the discomfort of the young sailor standing next to them; “I thought there’d be women here,” he muttered).

Vietnam is presumably going to be a recurring theme this year. Joan’s abusive doctor husband is at Fort Dixie, presumably about to be transferred there. As a result, an unusually flustered Joan is being helped by her acid-tongued mother with caring for the baby. Their bitchy bickering is hugely entertaining, and hopefully we’ll see more of her.

Joan is actually stuck there with no certain knowledge she can go back to her job, as the limited women’s rights of the 60s didn’t include maternity leave. Indeed, the challenge for women’s rights was implicit throughout, catching up with the struggle Peggy’s had since the outset of the show. Don still expects his new young wife to be obedient and submissive, which she’s having none of. He’s plainly forgotten that attitude was instrumental in losing him his last wife (well, that and the constant infidelity and lying). And Joan’s mother is startled that Joan might defy her husband and return to work rather than care for her child full time. Peggy might have got in early, but by 1966 Women’s Lib was getting into full swing, and I imagine it’s a theme the show will return to frequently.

I suspect another driving theme of the times is going to be the Civil Rights movement. We were plunged into this straight away, as some foolish young execs from rival ad firm Y & R got into racial trouble by water bombing a protest march from their office window. This led to an amusing sniping war, as Roger took out a gloating ad for SCDP in the paper calling them an “equal opportunity” firm. The joke backfired towards the end of the episode, as it had been misinterpreted as a vacancy ad, and suddenly the all-white Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was besieged with eager black job applicants. “Why is the office full of Negroes?” enquired a flustered Roger.

Indeed, Roger’s racial attitude summed up the time period. When it was suggested they take one of the black girls on as a receptionist, he snapped, “we don’t want one of them out there!” The all-pervading racism of the 60s has been an ongoing subtle theme in the series, and it looks like this year it’s going to be pushed more to the front. It even hangs over little moments; why else would Lane, having discovered a lost wallet in a taxi, not trust the (black) driver to return it to its owner?

The wallet, in fact, led to another amusing subplot that may or may not be continued. Discovering a picture of a beautiful young lady in it, Lane called her to enquire about returning the wallet (which belonged to her boyfriend), and ended up flirting outrageously with her on the phone. It was a funny scene, well-played by Jared Harris. But it might spin out into something more serious. Plainly Lane’s marriage is not going that well; beneath their English reserve, you can tell that neither he nor his wife are happy. He was disappointed when it was the wallet’s owner who turned up at the office to collect it rather than the beautiful Dolores. But since the wallet’s owner had an Italian surname and was almost a stereotypical Mob hood, Lane may be getting himself into trouble if he goes after Dolores.

Elsewhere, the ever-uptight Pete is as unhappy as ever, and the script chose to emphasise that he has dandruff and is starting to go bald. I’m glad the dialogue spelled that one out, as actor Vincent Kartheiser seems to have a perfectly full head of hair. But he was as excellent as ever as the perpetually unsuccessful Pete, whose rivalry with Roger has been stepped up a notch for some more humorous scenes. Roger has taken to sneaking glances at his calendar to steal his leads; so Pete responds by setting up a fake meeting with a big client at 6am, which Roger gullibly goes off to.

Harry Crane is unhappy too, having expressed his lust for Don’s wife while the lady was actually standing right behind him. This led to one of the funniest scenes in the episode, as Harry was carpeted by Roger and immediately assumed he was being fired for the incident. But all Roger wanted to do was convince him to trade offices with Pete, whose tiny cupboard of an office had a big post in the middle of it that Pete managed to walk into hard enough to make his nose bleed. Pete had made a fuss about wanting a better office, but he was still furious; as Roger had correctly worked out, it was Roger’s office he really wanted.

All this, as usual, moved at a pretty leisurely pace. In terms of actual plot, not a great deal happened. But then, in Mad Men, plot has a way of creeping up on you incrementally. At the end of the day, even with a period setting, it’s basically a very classy soap opera, which depends on you being invested with the fates of its characters. This opening instalment set out its stall very well for the coming year in that regard. Interestingly, while watching I tried to imagine what it would be like if this was the first episode I’d seen, with no knowledge of the characters’ tortuous back stories. And I was surprised to decide that it was actually still just as accessible as a jumping in point. Only the business about Don’s former identity, knowledge of which he’s entrusted to his new wife, might have confused fresh viewers.

Again as usual, it looked great; it’s almost worth the frustration of The Walking Dead being stuck on a farm all year to justify the expense in bringing this to the screen. Don and Megan’s new apartment is the height of 60s chic (though its white carpet can’t stand up to an eventful birthday party). The clothes, too, are as well observed as ever. Don, Roger and the old guard remain as impeccably suited as ever, but the younger guys are wearing casual clothes in the office; and Pete turns up at Don’s party sporting a jacket that’s surely a crime against the eyes of humanity.

Pete's Jacket

So, the stage is set. We know where most of the characters are, and where they’re trying to go. No sign of Don’s cold ex-wife Betty yet, but I’m guessing she’ll show up next week. On the evidence of this opener, it was worth the 17 month wait to have the show back. Creator Matthew Weiner’s writing is as sharp, subtle and humorous as ever, and the top notch cast are still superb at the subtle acting style the show demands (though my absolute favourite is John Slattery as Roger, who’s often far from subtle). Over the next few months, I’m fully expecting Mad Men to be as compelling a drama as it always has been.