SONIA BRAND-FISHER: The “Mad Men” that entered our homes on Sunday night was not the “Mad Men” that we have grown accustomed to for the past four seasons. The moods and energies of the worlds between and beyond the glass doors of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have shifted in a way that history has told us was inevitable. We have been waiting for almost two years to see how the ultra-glam, Updikian world of and post-Betty-and-Don will translate into one of the most transitional and tumultuous times in the 20th Century. This episode is bookended by token images of the civil rights movement, subtly but firmly leading us, and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, into the future of “Mad Men.”
Besides skirts getting decidedly shorter, underwear and silhouettes changing, and hair style shapes moving gently away from those of the 1950s, things just feel different. I think the best scene of the whole episode, let alone the most awkward in its forced modernity, was the surprise party. With hints of Don Draper changing throughout the episode (Peggy scornfully saying how happy he is, Don himself saying that he doesn’t “care” about work), this surprise party by Megan went a little too far for Don, and for the audience (on screen and off). Megan drunkenly performs a mini-burlesque number for Don and his guests that garners a range of emotions from the people at the party: A puzzled look from Roger Sterling, a pout from Peggy Olsen, a rush from Harry Crane who suddenly thinks he is Paul Kinsey from Seasons One and Two, and a big ol’ blush from Don. One certainly could not see Betty doing this for Don’s birthday, however that’s not exactly a bad thing. Though everything on the surface looks like it could have popped right out of a party from Fellini, there is extreme tension in the room with all of this newness instigated by Megan. Multiple generations are represented at this shindig by Bert Cooper’s presence beside the young, naive sailor, not to mention all sides of politics represented by Abe and Peggy, Pete and Trudy (her face when she pretended to care about the changing political times: priceless), and Bert and Roger. Everyone is drunk. “Tea” is being smoked on the porch over the open city. The times, they are-a-changin’, but it doesn’t look like everyone is ready, especially Don.
I give Megan credit for holding her own the following morning when Don reprimands her about the party. She brushes away his excuses about his dislike for the spectacle to get to the core of his anxiety: his aging. However, with her new position as part of the creative team, being very married to Don at the office, and her persona of the “sex kitten” young wife of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s star partner, it’s safe to say that the “Maria von Trapp” persona at the end of Season Four has fallen away and was left in Disneyland. A friend of hers remarks on how good of an actress she is at the surprise party… one has to wonder how much of her affection for Don comes from the heart of the woman with the pink bow in her hair in California or from the heart of the woman crooning “Zou Bisou Bisou.”
Big surprise, I am now going to talk about Joan and try not to gush over her too too much, though I make no promises. She was introduced back to us via the behind of her baby boy, a jarring and disturbing sight for someone that we so associate with charisma and constant elegance. It seems unfair that she has spent most of the time we’ve known her dealing with the antics of men who act too much like baby boys, and now this boy is the weight that is holding her back from returning to a job that she loves. When she comes back to the office with the pram, dressed exquisitely in a pink and black ensemble that hasn’t caught up with the shortened hemlines and Peter Pan necklines of the women in the office, she is, like us, outsiders in a space that has been changing without her. When she goes in to talk with Lane, the game of hot potato that goes on with her baby is both comical and terrible. The women from copywriters like Peggy down to secretaries keep getting the child thrust into their arms until they are left alone with the thing in a deserted office or hallway. Pete Campbell feels emasculated when he must push the pram to another part of the office. This innocent baby represents each person’s own personal burden when it is shoved into their possession. Joan’s temporary freedoms from her son erupt in tears and exhaustion. In the very first episode of “Mad Men” in Season One, Joan makes it very clear to Peggy that tears are not for the office, but for home. And here, Joan is sobbing to Lane at the office about fearing that she is no longer needed at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. We see a woman desperately trying to hold on to her identity despite the changes in her life and in her office.
We, as an audience, need to be prepared and open minded towards what will be coming down the bend for our friends on “Mad Men.” I left this episode feeling extremely disoriented by all of the change and all of the newness to the point where it was difficult for me to step back and form an opinion on it. I think the characters themselves are also pretty disoriented. It makes for brilliant entertainment, and I think it was smart of Matthew Weiner to not throw us any enormous plot twists quite yet. We’re still adjusting to being back ourselves.
So I wonder what Betty has been up to…
HOWARD MEGDAL: How wonderful to spend two hours luxuriating in Mad Men world once again-though the commercial breaks every ten minutes felt excessive (Ironic complaint given the show’s subject, I suppose). That alone was enough for me, but a number of plot points were set into motion, with new conflicts and consequences stemming from established characters promising a tremendous fifth season.
I don’t disagree with any of Sonia’s conclusions, but I wanted to focus on a few characters in particular. How I loved Lane in this episode, his efforts to connect as clumsy, unsuccessful but endearing as those of the 1966 New York Mets he apparently roots for. Weiner does a spectacular job of illustrating that the coldest place on earth has to be a marriage to Lane’s wife. It is inconceivable that Lane continues to put up with it much longer, just as we saw him reach his professional breaking point with his British firm. That payoff will once again be spectacular- and perhaps with Joan? Let’s Go Lane!
Bert Cooper felt like a presence to remind us what awaits Roger Sterling, and the notion is as disturbing to those of us who love Roger as it must be to the character himself. Pete ejecting him from that lunch meeting was done in typical ham-handed Campbell fashion, while poor Trudy doesn’t realize the dissatisfaction she praises extends into their home and marriage as well. Pete wants a bigger office, but you get the feeling he’s only as unhappy until Trudy gets back to wearing, say, this.
I would also be remiss not to point out the effective and subtle acting job done by the actress playing Sally Draper. In a cast filled with accomplished adults, Sally is holding her own when she’s on screen. And is anyone better at alternating smarmy with squirmy than the man who plays Harry Crane? Absolutely spectacular comic relief.
Oh, how I wish it were Sunday again. Meantime, have to change my ringtone from Downton Abbey to Mad Men…