March 25, 2012 11:07pm PT by Tim Goodman
'Mad Men' Spoiled Bastard: Episodes 1 & 2: 'A Little Kiss'
This is a Spoiled Bastard. It contains spoilers. That's the point. If you haven't watched the episode, come back when you have.
This two-hour episode will probably go down in Mad Men history as the “Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo” episode (and we’ll leave it to you to decide if Jessica Pare has the Sophia Loren facial similarities that probably sprung the idea to cover the song into Matthew Weiner’s head). That party scene says more about where Mad Men is now than words ever could.
Yes, the episode opened with one of the rare moments when the series put its “B” storyline – changes in the culture, including racial issues – before the primary storyline (Don’s existential crises and identity issue; plus the storylines of his co-workers), but the “A Little Kiss” episode was all about hammering home the notion of change.
Where change has been far more subtle the previous four seasons – it was this gossamer thing that showed up mostly when people watched television during the episodes – it really announces itself at the beginning of Season 5.
I’ve seen that two hour premiere three times now and what’s most impressive about it is how, on the first watching, none of the multitude of references to change ever came down like a sledgehammer. Even the clothes and the, for lack of a better word, “vibe” of the show, were splendidly subtle in just the kind of way to say, “Hey, something has shifted in the world.” You really can’t say enough about the clothes. In less skilled hands, the wardrobe cues would be ridiculously over done. But there was a suberb light touch everywhere.
Before we get to Don’s surprise party – one of the most intriguingly different and weirdly thrilling scenes in five seasons – what else about change stuck out?
Well, Don, like a neon sign.
From his changed approach to work – he’s got the huge apartment now, he’s apparently met the love of his life in new wife Megan (for the time being, of course), to how he looks standing next to Roger (like they’re both old, a change from previous seasons where it was first Bert, then Roger and then the shiny new model in Don), to some of these markers:
Don’s third kid. Hello, son.
This exchange with his middle son: “So, when you’re 40, how old will I be?” asked Don. “You’ll be dead." (Ouch.)
Bert Cooper, looking mostly befuddled rather than merely esoteric.
“You’re a dirty old man,” said Megan, more than once.
Beyond age, there were the broader cultural reference to women’s roles changing. Joan’s mother, driving her insane, says to her daughter who wants to go back to work, referencing Greg, Joan’s husband: “He’s not going allow you to work.”
Joan: “Allow me?”
Her mother: “Where thou goest, I will go.”
Joan: “And how’d that work out for you?”
Clothes, hairstyles, appliances, music, references to the U2 spy plane, nuclear bombs, Masters & Johnson, etc. There were little touchstones everywhere.
“The miracle of telephonics,” “micro photography,” “the ketchup kids.” See, even more.
Pot smoking. Don smoked some in Season 1, but I can't remember any since. But it wasn't him, it was the prevalence and the attitude about it that suggested change.
It was all new, a collection of references to a new era without anyone really noticing they had changed.
Don is certainly at the center of this. He’s now a man who doesn’t yet know that time has pulled him back a step, that he’s less relevant, less himself. Sure, after the party he’s pretty pissed off at Megan, but he gets over it (without truly acknowledging that she’s so young she makes him look far older than 40, especially in the context of the culture). But before that party, Don was as smitten as we’d ever seen him. For once he seemed less on the prowl for women and very into (hard to say devoted at this point) his own wife. So much so that he could barely care about work. And he says so. Of course, as it pertains to work, Don is also missing the fact that Megan’s workplace baby steps (doing the coupons) are important to her (he drags her home early even though she’s still working).
What this episode established quite strongly is that Pete and Peggy are the new sources of power. They are into their jobs, into securing a future for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with an effort that far outpaces Don, Roger or Bert combined.
What’s lovely in that equation is that Peggy is the new Don. That scene in the office with Megan, chewing gum and talking about how much she’s working (causing her to forget things, like Don’s birthday), was pure self-centered Draper. Not only do Pete and Peggy know all too well that Don is phoning it in, but Peggy is especially upset that Don doesn’t have her back. This is the kind of change she’s not happy with.
All right, then. Let's get to the party. Or: The Party. Hipster band. Gay African-American. Pot smoking. Pete’s jacket. Trudy’s dress. Harry’s lack of a dress shirt/tie. Don and Roger standing together like old statues. How Megan somehow made Jane -- the secretary who married the boss before her – seem dowdy and last year’s model. But of course, nothing beats Megan and her youthful idealism, never sensing that Don doesn’t like surprises, especially a surprise party, and that he would in no way approve of everybody being in his house, much less being sung to by your wife who everybody’s ogling. And really – the singing and dancing from Megan? Eye-popping. Odd. Sexy, embarrassing, inappropriate, over-the-top. Wow. Just, wow. How do you even make sense of how off the mark that was for Don? Lane had the best line when telling Joan about it: “I saw his soul leave his body.”
Beyond how uncomfortably exhilarating the party scene was, it was really a hammer blow to Don’s examined life. He realizes in that moment that he’s old (a feeling he’ll be getting a lot, but probably not getting used to). All of that giddy lust at the office with Megan seems to fly out of the window as Don yet again realizes the thing he wanted didn’t make him happy. “Meghan, I’m 40. It’s too late.”
The pattern continues.
And the party, more than anything else, was a central defining moment of where we're going. Everything about it was different. Newer. We're not in 1960 anymore. And if you think about it, the show we all know and love is about to change as well. It's going to look different, above and beyond the characters changing.
As for everybody else:
Peggy: The new Don, and far more secure in her position, which makes her more loose with her tongue – see Don’s party. And her snark – “Well, I don’t know about that” – when Megan says Joan looked good at 9 months is indicative of Peggy’s new attitude. She’s also disappointed with Don. (On the plus side, her underground journalist boyfriend really seems to love her.)
Pete: Now the hardest worker and this time, with all of his whining, he’s right. He’s really holding the place together. (And him getting Roger in the end was nice.) But there’s trouble at home, similar to Don’s in that Pete doesn’t seem happy or fulfilled. He doesn’t really like the suburbs. Trudy’s going outside in her bathrobe. His train rides are getting weirder by the minute. It should be a great season for Pete (and Peggy and Joan). Oh, and Pete has a weird, unsettling smile.
Kenny Cosgrove: Steady, glass-half-full about work and the future, married and likes “tea.”
Harry: Probably not going to be invited to any more parties by Megan.
Stan: Still there, still the jokester.
Joan: It was nice to see her with the baby, frazzled, feeling like she’s being left behind. And having to endure her nagging mother whose presence references a bygone era. “Yes, Joanie, everyone's staring at you," she says sarcastically. "You know, you’re not exactly at your fighting weight.”
Joan: “Try me.”
Roger: More than anyone, his change is farther toward the unlikeable (though he can still be funny). He’s worried – rightfully – about Pete. He’s telling his trophy wife to “shut up” while also ogling Megan and not-surprisingly saying inappropriate things. He continues to be racist (Don, too...it sets them in an era...). And he seems to be clueless that Joan’s baby boy is his. “Well, well, well, there’s my baby. Move over so I can kiss her.”
Bert: Although he seemed to be more with it at the end of the two-hour episode, sitting alone in the meeting room when no one ever arrived (and then being excluded from the updates) made it seem like there could be an Alzheimer’s-type storyline coming.
Lane: Sigh. Lane is having more of a traditional midlife crises. He knows the business is hurting, but he’s not having much fun in his life (except at Don’s party) and the extended interior storyline about the found wallet and the strange phone overtures to a stranger and another man's wife just magnified Lane’s sense of wanting something other than what he has.
As he says to Joan, relating to her woes with the baby and a husband away: “It’s home but it’s not everything. I do understand.”
As I wrote in my review of these episodes, it’s far too early to tell how the season will unfold. We know that people watching out for their own interests in a more selfish manner than in the past will be a theme nearly as dominant as change.
Just a note to say that since we won't be getting any screeners, these Spoiled Bastard deconstructions probably won't go up until late Monday.