I was very excited to watch the Mad Men premiere in a public viewing tonight. To feel the excitement in the room was electric and incredible. The episode did not disappoint – we’re dropped right back into the thick of it, during the holiday season of 1967, with a jam-packed passage of time and notable changes for some of our major characters. Even though this is an ensemble show, I’m glad the premiere focused primarily on only a handful of its many characters, and also hinted at new characters and potential situations. Let’s examine.
I’ll admit I’ve kind of been in a Roger Sterling love-fest for a while. He’s always been entertaining, but the adoration hit hard last season, seeing him in his joyous splendor. So it was striking to see him in actually quite a dark situation. Despite my earlier pondering of him continuing forth toward the light, instead he heads straight into a darkness. Even though he puts up a front in his therapy sessions, he’s holding something in. He plays into the artifice of the well-adjusted, laissez-faire man up until the very end. When his secretary (God bless her – she’s an amazing and unexpected comic relief) enters his office crying over his mother, we’re treated to his suspect unaffected behavior. I mean, really, this episode plays a lot into the feminine influence and the fate of the woman, and this was an incredible exploration of this topic. Whereas Don, as I’ll later discuss, delves into the fulfillment of another woman sexually, the comfort of the mother is explored with Roger. All the women in his life are highlighted in some way – there’s that excellent framed shot of Joan as she gets her profile photograph taken as a new partner, then there’s his one on one with Jane, Mona, and his daughter – all three women integral to his life, whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not. It’s actually wonderfully ironic that Roger tells Don during his botched pitch, “We were able to sell death with Lucky Strike for 25 years. You want to know how? We ignored it.” Roger finally comes into the realization, once again, that death is something he cannot ignore, even when it comes to the mother he hasn’t spent much time acknowledging. We see everyone trying to get him to acknowledge it – from Jane trying to give back the ring that once belonged to her, to Mona trying to comfort him, and the unfortunate golddigging of his daughter (ick!) – and it only hits him in a moment of privacy that he lost his mother. He bluntly and coldly discusses it in therapy, that his mother gave him the last relevant experience of his life, and he constantly pushes the idea that he doesn’t feel anything, but that is his denial. His denial can no longer protect him, it seems, and we’re seeing the first signs with a notable death within the first episode. We’ll get back to the death motif in a little bit.
While I was hoping to see more Betty-Sally healing, I was struck to find Betty in a totally different space this episode. Last season we saw Betty in a little more of a passive, hopeless situation. Here, there’s some bite left in her, and she’s investing interest in Sally’s friend Sandy. It’s almost as if she sees in Sandy the same potential and hope she once had when she pursued modelling. They share a cigarette and a midnight snack as Betty tries to sympathize with this young girl who is reeling from the loss of her mother – a connection they both share. Betty is impressed in Sandy’s skills as a violinist and is disappointed to her Sandy admit she got rejected. Now here, the difference between the two generations becomes apparent, and could even be eerily similar to the outlook of the old and young generation of today. Whereas Betty still looks at her situation as one where Sandy can try again, Sandy instead opts to accept defeat and seek an easy escape elsewhere. Betty chases Sandy down to St Mark’s Place, hoping to take her in and I guess save her from herself. Why? Perhaps it’s the connection she sees in Sandy. After a long attempt of teaching these homeless kids to cook goulash and prompting an answer for why Sandy’s violin is left behind, she finally leaves. She, too, accepts the fate Sandy has chosen, and returns home a brunette. I find it striking how Betty makes these connections with peers of Sally – she did once with Glen (ugh, that was massively creepy) and now with Sandy. Perhaps this is part of why Betty and Sally’s relationship is a little strained since Betty doesn’t invest nearly the same amount of time in Sally?There’s still this level of growing and developing Betty is doing, and this turn to the dark side is the first step, it seems.
Peggy has taken an interesting turn as a woman in power. I read an amazing interview of Elisabeth Moss in NY Mag about how she views Peggy’s turn in season 6 – trying to figure out how to be the good boss, but is still depending on Don’s influence. We see a contrast between how Peggy handles a pitch in trouble versus how Don handles it, and she handles it with the finesse Don once had, gently pushing that her idea is still good but still succumbing to the client to seek a new answer. She stays late, using a Don Draper method, and gets the spark of inspiration of the right idea – kind of House-esque when her eye twinkles with the new tagline for the headphones because she gets this coincidental inspiration. Ted, her new boss, is telling her she’s on the right track and she should recognize it more, since Peggy forced her underlings to stay at work with her on New Year’s Eve (a Don Draper move!). Is there a possible flirtation here? Stan heard it on the phone. Hopefully Peggy has learned enough now to stand on her own two feet and not lose her power by succumbing to her new boss.
Then of course there’s Don. He is definitely lost in his own head these days, from reading The Inferno (heavy-handed symbolism here) to staying stoically silent during what should have been a fun, romantic work vacation with Megan. If anyone can make Hawaii look like a miserable place, it’s Don Draper in this episode. Megan has risen as a soap opera star, and is relishing in her projected independence by surviving as a working actor and living in the luxury of being Don Draper’s wife. She pushes Don to let loose and have fun, oblivious it seems to his quietude. He smokes up with her, but even then remains a little tight-lipped. He loosens up when he is recognized as a veteran for his gold lighter, and is asked to give away an enlisted man’s bride at their wedding before he gets dumped off into Vietnam. Don tries to skirt away from it but eventually succumbs, and in turn becomes haunted by the soldier about to leave his wife at war. Reminders of Anna Draper and his former life run high here, as the gold lighter of the soldier falls back into his hands and just won’t go away (Dawn even brings it back saying that the cleaning lady didn’t want to be accused of throwing it away) There’s more and more the loss of control over his own life and own self, even in little moments like returning to his office that was rearranged without his consent just for a photo shoot. It’s tragically funny how the photographer tells him to be himself in the office photo shoot, and Don struggles to do just that. He blunders at work when he’s told his idea for the “jumping off point” as a slogan for the Hawaiian resort he stayed at is too morbid, as though he’s failing to recognize the tie in the imagery Stan produced looks like a noose and is, indeed, morbid. Pete Campbell actually jumps in to save face and buy them time to re-think the idea. It is interesting to see how each of the people in the room deal with death – with Stan laughing at their hinting of suicide, Don holding onto his pitch, like the idea of just going away somewhere is a wonderful escape (entrapment in his own life!) Then of course the last major loss of control is when he attends Roger’s mother’s funeral and pukes as an old friend pumps up how wonderful a woman she is.
On the other side of the coin for Don is this new introduction of his home life – Don’s friends with neighbors now, apparently. He strikes a common chord with Dr. Arnie, who revives a man with a heart attack – an event that cripples Don from reacting in a more productive way (he just stands there until he’s told several times to do something to help) In their elevator and storage closet talks, the good doctor draws the connection between them, as seeing life and death in their own ways in their day to day, with the doctor no longer being too bothered by those issues. He poignantly points out that people will “do anything to alleviate their anxiety” – cut to Don bedding the doctor’s wife after the doctor breaks up their New Year’s party for a house call! Indeed, there is now an unfulfillment with Megan that Megan appears not to see, and Don reveals a bit of his own inner conflict and the space he’s stuck in inside his head. When his mistress (who actually lent him Inferno) asks what he wants for the New Year, he says he wants to “stop doing this.” Very morbid thoughts for Don, who has definitely gone through the ringer within the course of a year. It seems he’s very much in recognition of his own inner demons, but is in denial (which is a major theme of the episode) – his veneer to hide his denial cracks open, and we can only guess how much more he can hide it in the coming season.
Finally, some loose ends:
-Loving the new looks of SCDP creatives – everyone is veering towards longer locks and beards. It’s aged them in this way that maybe is telling of the potential future of SCDP – that they’re no longer truly connected to the youth culture and that they’ll be the old dogs in the new modern game of advertising?
-Amazing to see Harry and Pete needing to take care of Don in his drunken state – like there’s a shred of respect these two have earned. They’ve also been welcome comic relief, like when Pete chides Harry for commenting on how attractive someone was at Roger’s mother’s funeral, and Pete’s ridiculous posing for the photo shoot.
-Bob, a new character in the SCDP universe, has the eagerness and striking handsomeness of a young Don trying to make it in the industry. I definitely saw the flashbacks of eager Don trying to sneak his way in with the creatives when he used to check Roger Sterling’s coat back in the day. Ken tells Bob off from hanging out in the upstairs area. What will Bob bring to SCDP? Clearly a replacement person for Lane, but obviously with the hunger to be more integrated and be more creative.
-Bobby Draper actually speaks!! I’ve never seen so much Bobby in a single episode. What does this mean? Can we finally start to see Don interplay with his son? This would leave for so much development – how would Don show Bobby how to be a man? In his current state, can he effectively teach Bobby how to be a decent man of the world?