After the longest wait imaginable, the fantastically fucked up tribe of fabulousity that is Sterling Cooper & Partners (along with various hangers-on and their entourages) is back!
And my god was it a depressing return it was!
(Side Note: While I apologize for not getting this out on Monday, real life managed to get in the way, and frankly I needed the time to process this episode, even though it was fun watching it at the premiere party on Sunday. Onwards…)
Most season premieres are usually loaded with tons of information to process, and Mad Men has had the benefit over the past two seasons to combine the first two episodes into one long premiere episode. However, that is not an option for this abbreviated season, and show creator Matthew Weiner and company packed a lot of new status quo into the hour. While the episode focused on four main characters (Don, Peggy, Roger, and Joan), there was a lot on sidelines that catches the eye that I”ll talk about at the end. But while this was packed to the teeth with developments, there was a sense of unease; a feeling of the parents regaining control (not for nothing is the episode set in January 1969 – two months after the end of last season and in the immediate days before the inauguration of Richard Nixon as president).
One example of the unease of the parents gaining control was the first shot featuring none other than Freddy Rumsen pitching a concept to Peggy. But rather than our Miss Olson being head of creative as was teased at the end of last season (in that glorious shot that echoed not only Don’s many times in that chair, but the actual logo for the show), we have Lou Avery as the Creative Director. Lou, whose cornball ideas and boring repartee hiding a hide-bound controlling boob at its core, doing everything in his power to torpedo any and all of Peggy’s ideas. He is boring, does boring work, has taken all the life out of her team, and (most importantly) completely ignores her. The effect is that Peggy is restless once again. At least when she was with Don (who is still in exile) and Ted (who treated her poorly but still respected her talent), she had creative partners that pushed her and everyone else to care about the work, and as we all know if things aren’t going right at work for Peggy, she crumbles. Don is gone. Ted is ignoring her Don is gone, Ted is gone and ignoring her (when he’s not on bagel runs for California), Abe is gone. All she has is her tenants in her Upper West Side brownstone that are demanding things of her. Upon realizing her emptiness, she breaks down.
Thankfully breaking down has never been the style of Joan Harris, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her own set of trials and tribulations to deal with. Now an account woman (thanks to Avon), she’s been dispatched by the new, frazzled head of accounts in New York, Ken Cosgrove to deal with a young marketing director who has no time for the company and a woman accounts executive. Of course when he tries to pull the account from SC&P, he gets the can Joan’s special recipe of whoop-ass. On the one hand it’s thrilling to see Joan easily step into accounts and knock it out, but on the other it’s hard realizing that she has to fight the glass ceiling because everyone sees that she’s attractive and not smart. Actually watching both Peggy and Joan, the golden child and the queen bee of yore fight against the idiots around them makes me feel that Jim Cutler’s influence is a little too apparent in that the agency is becoming more and more conservative and not as edgy as when Don, Roger, and Pete were more active, but the agency has been scattered to the winds, with Bert Cooper, Jim Cutler, (presumably) Roger, Joan, Ken, Peggy, Stan, Ginsberg, and Dawn in New York, Bob Benson handling the Chevy account directly in Detroit, and Pete and Ted Chaough in Los Angeles.
Speaking of Roger, he is in the most gloriously hedonistic free fall ever (his first scene, emerging from an orgy, was hilarious) still managing to do drugs and party with the young dirty hippies! Mr. Sterling, I raise my martini to you! That said though, how hilarious was that brunch between him and his pain in the neck daughter. Margaret has always been holier than thou in her attitude towards her father, and he’s always regarded her as a money-hungry brat, but their little “I forgive you” brunch was charming and cute and loaded with the attitude of two frenemies who can barely stand each other. If anything, Roger and Margaret fall into another pet theme of the show; the prickly relationship between fathers and father figures and their daughters (see Don and his relationships with both Sally and Peggy).
Speaking of Don, who didn’t cheer when they saw him shave and freshen up in the plane arriving in Los Angeles to “I’m A Man”? Who didn’t swoon over Megan’s blue dress and covetous convertible? Who didn’t gasp at the way her house in the canyons reminds of the views from the New York house? Los Angeles in particular, and California in general, has always had an odd effect on Don. He’s always a touch out of place and it is a hazy idyll for him (not for nothing did he and Megan fall asleep to Lost Horizons). But even though this place is a Shangri-La for Megan (who has bought in to the whole California lifestyle) and most shocking of all Pete Campbell (who has finally lightened up to the point where he is the only partner who actively communicates with Don). But even within this sun-drenched paradise there’s still that tension between Don and Megan (her hesitancy to sleep with him – is she turned off by him, scarred from her miscarriage, or trying not to get pregnant for her career’s sake?). The marriage is hanging on by a thread in Los Angeles, the career in New York is nonexistent (in a brilliant reveal, Don’s been feeding his good pitches to Freddy to have him take them to other companies), and even the arrival of an attractive stranger for some trans-continental in-flight pillow talk can’t make it any better. And just like Peggy’s solo collapse in her apartment at the end of this episode, Don sitting outside in the cold on his balcony as he contemplates his sad fate as Vanilla Fudge’s version of “You Keep Me Hanging On” blares on. Will things get better for him? Who knows, but we have thirteen more episodes to go…
A Few Random Notes:
* Man, does Matthew Weiner love his dualism and he uses it all the time in this show; from repeating shots with different characters to in this episode the use of dpllegangers in place of other people (Don using Freddie to pitch to other agencies, Ken using Joan to take that meeting, etc.).
* As if all the theories about Megan being a riff on Sharon Tate were bad enough last season, this season finds her in Benedict Canyon. If this split ends on August 6, 1969 or thereabouts, I’m going to scream.
* It’s weird seeing Dawn with anyone other than Don, but Shirley, Peggy’s new secretary is fabulously stylish for the period.
* Speaking of weird, it just seems wrong that Clara is now Ken Cosgrove’s secretary, doesn’t it.
* Speaking of Ken, that poor man! He becomes head of accounts in New York and he’s falling to pieces. And he still has that eye patch from last season. Ouch.
* I can’t tell but Margaret might be in a cult herself. It’s too early for any of the consciousness raising like est, as that would take hold in a few years, but something is very off with her.
* When Don is on the people carrier in the airport, it made me immediately think of the opening to Jackie Brown. It’s the same corridor just the other side.
* Is it wrong that I want Megan’s convertible?
* Speaking of her agent (Jewish? Gay? Both??), I had to laugh at his comment about her evoking strong feelings (a nice little nod and wink to the fandom’s divisiveness over Megan). And how on the nose that Megan has a callback for Bracken’s World, since she’s living it right now.
* And now the big shock of the episode; it wasn’t until watching it a second time that the passenger that Don chats up is none other than Neve Campbell, who is virtually unrecognizable as Lee Cabot. And since Weiner went to the trouble of giving her a full name, expect to see her again. Especially after such a good performance in this episode, full of portent about her husband dying of thirst (read: alcoholism). The fact that Don didn’t try anything shows some growth, right?
* Finally of all the Mad Men parodies out there, this one not only takes the cake, this is the one I want to see an actual series of!
Finally a few off-topic bits that I had to comment on…
1) I am so excited about the news that Stephen Colbert will be taking over David Letterman’s late-night talk show when Letterman steps down in 2015. Even better were all of the congratulations that other late night hosts gave him on air (you have to watch them all – they’re brilliant). The only thing that is sad is that Craig Ferguson might be losing The Late Late Show because of it (it’s currently produced by Worldwide Pants, Letterman’s production company). That said, there have also been talks that Chelsea Handler might be moving Chelsea Lately to CBS which would make their late night line up very intriguing.
2) While I’m no fan of Game Of Thrones, I had to howl over this tweet from series creator George R.R. Martin after Sunday’s shocking episode (and surprise death!):
Photo Credits: Jordan Althaus & Michael Yarish / AMC