Mad Men: Week 1 in Review

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: What an odd taste that first episode left in our mouths. In typical Matthew Weiner fashion, the premiere episode of this penultimate season of “Mad Men” teased us with fragmented tidbits of the lives of our heroes. The confusion that left us in a wide-eyed scowl derived from many sources, some of which were the constant references to mortality, death, suicide (Don still feeling guilty after the death of Lane Pryce?), loss, hunger, and change. A bit forced, yes, but these themes gave us goosebumps as we crept into a new season that has already given us so much to process.

So far this season, my curiosity lies with Roger, Don, and Peggy as they all seem to be taking on roles that make them more vulnerable. Roger is seeing a shrink and is constantly thinking about death: “Life, like this analysis, must end. And someone is left with the bill.” Roger struggles with mortality as his mother, and his shoeshine, both pass away, and as his family grows up and moves on before his eyes. He is left in the various gilded, sterling rooms of his life, where the sheets are tousled and his one liners bounce off empty walls and echo to himself. Mona is gone, Jane (thank God) is gone, but, as Mona says, they will always love him. But what is that to a man who feels emptiness and loss, or doesn’t feel and is only “numb”? Are we supposed to assume from his tearful moments that he was closer with his shoeshine than he was with his own mother? Or is everything coming to a head for Roger at this very unsettling “jumping off” point, like it is for Don?

Though I have my problems with Megan Calvet Draper (I hope she drops the pothead act, it is so boring), she was essential in taking Don outside of his comfort zone in acknowledging modernity, matrimony, and its respective overlaps. But noticing Don silent for the first ten minutes of the episode and Megan, very much telling her own story about her new fame and success as an actress, seems to foreshadow a potential unrest in their groovy marriage. To see Don in bed with another woman at the end of this episode made my stomach curl. It came out of nowhere, and asked us to contemplate the possibility of Thoroughly Modern Megan failing to turn Don into anyone but another version of himself. How often has he been unfaithful to Megan? What pushed him over the edge? Is Megan’s success intimidating Don (need we be reminded of Megan’s first day since quitting SCDP in Season 5, cooking for Don as he came home and she declares “You’re everything I hoped you’d be,” to which Don scans her as potential housewife, smiles, and replies “You too”)? What can we extract from these cryptic messages? And why is death so prominently on Don’s mind right now?

Peggy, however, seems to be soaring. It almost feels like the writers took Don’s usual script and gave it to Peggy. Her snapping at employees and negotiating her way in and out of possible crises with her copy shows a potential to be the next Don Draper in a very serious way. Her affect has changed insomuch as there is not the same questioning of her own curiosity, but rather a certain confidence in it (which we saw beginning to be fully realized in Season 5). We see this executed through her wardrobe and hair, which is more coifed and sophisticated in the office and decidedly playful in her downtime (those knee sox and pom pom beret were some funky touches). Peggy appears to be at the top of her game in a career she thrives in where those whom she answers to appreciate her work as independently hers. It is inspiring and exhilarating to watch.

But Matthew Weiner is leaving us with so many unanswered questions for next week, but with our usual feeling of disorientation that we have come to expect from these first marathon episodes. Stories must run parallel before they can overlap, but when there is so much abstraction in each of the stories, it is hard to know what is going on. Yes, this is intentional, and yes we are supposed to be feeling what these characters are feeling. And yes, all will become clear, for better or for worse.

NAVA BRAHE: I must disclaim this, my first Mad Men review, by saying that I did a marathon catch-up on the series by watching all five seasons in the span of about three weeks. That’s a lot of Don Draper to contend with in a relatively short period of time, but it was worth it. Sonia once told me that she thought the series was the best on television, and I have to agree. I also have to acknowledge that Matthew Weiner borrowed heavily from David Chase’s Sopranos playbook, and I will explain how.

Season Five of The Sopranos foreshadowed the end of the series with many dark story lines, as did the first episode of the next-to-last season of Mad Men. In fact, most of the scenes took place in darkened spaces, particularly the Francis homestead, Don and Megan’s bedroom and Peggy Olson’s office. The only light seemed to come from the SCDP offices, even though Roger had to learn of his mother’s and shoeshine’s death in his blindingly white space. By the way, Joan’s absence was like a pink elephant in the room during those sequences.

The beginning of the episode was rather irksome, with Don not uttering a word until he is approached by the solider in the bar. He also seemed rather put off by the hotel guest who recognized Megan from her soap opera; his jealousy was written all over his face. In fact, the entire Hawaii segment did not seem to mesh well with the rest of the episode.

Overall, the two hour premiere did a great job laying the foundation for the rest of the season. I believe we will have many Betty/Sally conflicts to look forward to (with a still grumpy, still “reducing” Betty), along with a great deal of Megan/Don drama; I predict she will find out he is cheating on her; and the usual office shenanigans. I do hope there are more humorous moments, a la Don showing up drunk and puking at Roger’s mother’s memorial. We will be in some desperate need of levity if Mr. Weiner will indeed take Mad Men in the same direction David Chase took The Sopranos.

Lastly, I have to admit I find Don Draper’s selfish, philandering Lothario persona extremely boring. Maybe that can be attributed to my recent episode overload, but all the same, he deserves to get into some situation or other that he cannot charm his way out of. With the series ending, I believe that is surely on the horizon.

HOWARD MEGDAL: I am largely in sync with both of you; my primary irritation in the first episode stems from missing a trio of great characters, perhaps my favorites on the show: Joan, along with Mr. and Mrs. Pete Campbell.

But the brilliance of this show is that it has created characters requiring subtle storytelling to appropriately move them forward; taking Don or Peggy or Roger into the future, let alone all three, is a heavy lift.

Perhaps the best part of this episode is the way it has laid the marker for what is going to be an seizmic reaction, the moment Megan realizes her life with Don has more in common with his life with Betty than I hoped it would. It was plausible to make the argument that Don’s infidelity within his marriage to Betty was as much a function of her own highly limited emotional maturity as it was Don’s constant desire to find an exit. The marriage to Megan itself was another exit, from a meaningful relationship as well. And so my cockeyed optimism seems misplaced; Megan’s desire to fulfill both herself and Don is a non-starter for the marriage. Would a traditional relationship have sufficed? Doubtful, too. Makes for great conflict, but makes Don a harder client to defend in marriage court.

Betty’s confrontation with the counterculture was fascinating, as January Jones properly conveyed her twin desires to fit in everywhere, even an abandoned house off of St. Mark’s Place, and her concurrent desire to judge and hold herself above. Like anything else Betty does, from her reducing to her marriages, she abandons the violin belonging to Sally’s friend quite quickly. Let’s just hope she does the same with her rape talk-that certainly reminded us how far she’s come, in her ability to attract men, from her early-season ability to wow rooms when she’d enter.

That Peggy underling re-creating the unfortunate Tonight Show monologue might have been the highlight of the show, along with Roger’s daughter responding to Roger’s attempt at closeness with pitching him an investment opportunity. Let’s pray the balance between this Mad Men-type humor and the overwhelming examination of death finds a more even balance. Not that it wasn’t artfully done; but who wants to start the week that way all spring?

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