So Mad Men is back to kick off the end and things seem a little bit … off. But you know what? At a closer glance, it’s meant to feel that way. Things are a bit disorienting – not just because of the natural element of change, and how much Matthew Weiner rocked the boat with the way he left us off last season, but because all the characters, a little bit older and colder, seem to have some grasp or understanding of their inner tensions and the fragility of their situations. That, to me, was the main focus of this episode to show what’s happened in the apparent 2 months of Don’s indeterminate leave of absence, as seen through four of our central characters. Everyone’s emotions and character seemed a little bit broken, and the crazy thing is everything is off balance in Don’s absence. What was supposed to be a good thing for everyone, especially after the debacles Don brought on last season, may not be so after all.
We start with Peggy receiving a pitch from Freddy Rumsen for a slogan for a new watch product they’ve taken on. The pitch is surprisingly well performed by Freddy – you kind of can’t look away. There’s some sort of … magic charm. Of course, Peggy is thrilled and is ready to present this in their next meeting. However, the balance of the office changed. New chief creative officer Lou Avery even admits to Peggy’s face that he’s not won by her charms, and effectively shoots her down in meetings. The sense of power Peggy had once felt – even for a brief moment, even in that tiny moment where she relished in sitting in Don’s chair in the season finale last year – is withering away. She still has her own office, and everyone else otherwise respects her clout, but she lost a mentor and a creative encourager in Lou Avery. Not to mention, Ted’s bicoastal checking in stirs the pot further – Peggy, in an already awkward and emotional state, gets the last straw when confronted by Ted in an early morning search for coffee. Ted, understanding that he can’t rock the boat, easily takes the hint and retreats from the office to “catch up on work.” (Hell, he won’t even chill with Cutler – he’s so focused on making his NYC trip strictly work-oriented) Peggy, who apparently also has tenants now in her apartment, also can’t seem to escape her inability to affect and have people’s respect, when the child of an aggressive tenant constantly pesters her about the toilet. She calls in her brother-in-law to fix it, whom she finds napping on her couch by the end. She invites him to stay over, and he declines her company. Peggy is essentially alone now, and she knows it. (No, not even Stan’s friendship is enough comfort anymore these days) She falls to the floor in confused and lonely tears. Excellent performance by Elisabeth Olsen in this episode – we watch the tension develop more and more in her expression until she finally cracks and breaks.
If we consider Joan next, we see her in also a state of limbo. We know she’s been looking for more responsibility and is trying to keep her power grab tight. But the odd discovery is that Ken Cosgrove’s taken over Pete’s old office, and the newly added responsibility seems to have changed him. Maybe it’s the eyepatch. But the once sunnier Ken Cosgrove is so on edge, so concerned, so stern and shaky. Talk about a nervous pervis! Seeing that Ken is also under pressure and possibly about to crack, Joan conspires to save a major shoe account, Butler, who is thinking of pulling out their account to handle their advertising internally. Though we see Joan constantly go for the power grab, because of her looks and otherwise managerial position, she seems to be far more undermined than Peggy at times. First, Ken asks her to stand in for him at a dinner with Butler, as a show of resolve that he won’t appear at a dinner where he knows he’s getting bad news. Though obviously offended, Joan holds her resolve. We see her continually do so all episode, even when confronted with hurtful acts by men who judge her purely by looks and immediately do not respect her intelligence. At the restaurant, she meets the rep from Butler, Barnes, who tries to find little side comments to say she’s not important enough to have the discussion with, and he starts bragging about his business school degree and knowledge thereof that she would not understand. Again, trying to get the upper hand, Joan visits a business school professor to find a tactical way to shut down Barnes’ idea, and is confronted there with the professor asking what he can “get” in return for his advice. Again, Joan keeps her cool, but we see the shock of the unexpected, and are reminded of how many times she gets put into this position, and how she has once completed such a huge favor to initially gain her power. She wisely retorts with knowledge of the current business model at SC&P. She makes a final phone call to save the account at Butler, whipping back knowledge unexpected by Barnes, removing an earring to do so, but in Ken’s office. Though she did good work, she is lastly undermined one more time by Ken, tossing her earring into her office and sternly requesting she stay out of his space. She seemed closer to opportunity to specifically manage clients last season, and without Don and more balance in the office, and everyone being on edge, that seems to be slipping away now. Well, at least she’s got her partnership?
For Roger, every time I feel like he makes upward progress, we find him way down a downward spiral somehow. Apparently having regular orgies with multiple partners, he is, in his personal life, a lonely drunken mess. His daughter calls him up to schedule brunch, during which she states she simply “forgives him” – forgives him for being the crazed, miserable Roger Sterling that he is. Of course, Roger tries to play it off coolly that there’s something more specific he’s being forgiven for. But his daughter’s collectedness strikes him, and the idea of being forgiven for just being who he is shakes him. He silently retires home sometime thereafter, still overwhelmed by her words, and instead of rollicking away with his bedfellows, he remains clothed and stares blankly at the ceiling.
And, of course, we have Don. So we’ve figured out as much that he is now bi-coastal, although bi-coastal on his standards means frequent visits back and forth as opposed to, say, prolonged stints at one place then the other for the remainder of a year or whatever. The music cues that surround him are intense – very full of electric guitar energy, distortion, aggression, loudness. There’s a lot going on inside this man, who is in a constant state of “working” – which seems to be this fragile veneer he’s created to keep a distance from people. Megan picks him up in the car – somehow, she’s found some resolve over the back and forth promises of LA and her relationship with Don. She seems to have – at least in appearances to – accepted what it means to be Don’s wife. She gets sloppily drunk at a dinner with an agent or manager working with her in LA, giving Don an easy out for showing any intimacy toward her after the long-awaited arrival back in LA. Don has lunch with Pete Campbell who seems to be faring well from the LA move (after last season, he deserves at least this much), and who wisely notices that Don coordinated his visit to coincide with Ted’s absence. LA apparently looks good on Pete – the only one benefitting from the absence of Don is someone who gets the taste of power in the smaller branch of the office (and is, noticeably, a man). He’s so sunny, but is still respectful of Don and talks shop with him, saying if it were up to him, he’d have reinstated Don already. This conversation happens early in the episode, of course, making you wonder – what the hell sort of “work” is Don doing out here anyway if he’s still persona non grata at SC&P? Don visits the office and the vibe is totally different – sunny, woody, small, chic and elegant like a hotel room (the way SC&P originally started when they branched out). Not mod and dark and almost sterile at times like SC&P. Don tries to buy Megan a better and bigger TV, and she kindly protests – obviously she’s the one who takes control of the LA home since she’s living alone in it primarily. They fall asleep, watching a program speaking of a Utopia – something Don has yet to and has never found. Upon his arrival back in rainy, cold New York, we see him meet with Freddy in his apartment – I guess his “work” is freelancing with Freddy as his mouthpiece for SC&P, as they discuss upcoming clients and taglines. (Clearly, Freddy’s well phrased pitch was really Don’s) Freddy notices that the balcony door is jammed and isn’t closing properly. By the end, we know that Don has yet to find proper closure in his situation. He doesn’t really fit in his LA space, even though he was tempted by a real estate agent fooling around with Pete to seek out a better permanent spot, and he is still kept away from his true NYC home – the office. He takes on this other meaning of bicoastal, in between two different states of being, but neither of which is any more sound or comforting for him. The last shot is a great example of a man still caught in between certainty and uncertainty, peace and chaos, happiness and unhappiness, a dream and a nightmare. He’s gone through hell last season, and hasn’t found his way back. He’s in a private little purgatory in his personal and work life. Who is Don Draper without either? He still hasn’t figured it out.
It was an atypical premiere, but great nonetheless – just as everyone seemed to be on edge about everything in the episode, I felt this as well, watching, wondering what has everyone so tightly wound, what chaos is looming overhead to disturb the balance. But we know whatever that is will be a slow burn. Or maybe accelerated this time around, as change started ramping up socially and politically by the end of the 60s?
To end this review, a couple of additional smaller comments:
-The woman on the plane was a very dreamlike, self-contained departure for Don, something he could entertain and have some control over. He was, for a moment, himself again. I’m glad it was nothing more than comforting conversation, and that the smooth talking and flirting and companionship created the fulfillment of this encounter between the two. But of course, that was just the land of “utopia” Don was watching about. What happens on the plane stays on the plan.
-Not enough Stan, or Ginsberg. Definitely not enough Ginsberg.
-Bob Benson is in Detroit officially! I wonder if we will ever see what that office, if he will ever visit, if he will ever confront Pete and try to disrupt the LA flow?
-I wish we could’ve addressed Sally at the very least in this episode. After ending with Don revealing the deepest part of himself to her, you’d want to know what effect that would have. Clearly, Don spends more time on the East Coast than the West because of the kids. It’d be great to see that in action. But I know that’s to come.
Till next week…