Oh. My. God.
(That the new season would enter into 1970!)
There was so much to take in during this mid-season premiere that I kind of got lost in it all. But holy hell was this a real return to form for Mad Men with some surprising changes, startling echoes of the past, surprising departures, questionable updates to the status quo, and we all learned the truth about the meaning of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
But first, let’s break out the booze and have a ball now that the SC&P gang is back. Hit it Peggy!
One of these days I’m going to have to do a list of my favorite musical cues in the show, but the fact that they broke out Peggy Lee’s iconic “Is That All There Is?” for this episode made me cheer! Not only was this a perfect musical wallpaper to the end of the episode, but I have the sneaking feeling that this is going to be the thesis for these final episodes. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s ballad is the perfect paean to thwarted expectations and the general sense of ennui that has gripped America in general and the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners as the 1970s kicked in. Given that Nixon’s speech about Cambodia on April 30, 1970 would be a false sense of the shift in status quo of the Vietnam War, it’s interesting to see that everyone is snapping back into their old habits.
The 70s are here with one big change: Don Draper is not wearing a white shirt! More importantly, he’s acting like the old Don Draper. It was interesting to see that now that he’s back under someone’s thumb (be it McCann Erickson) he’s behaving like he did in Season 1; sleeping during the day, going through a whole mess of ladies in his bed now that Megan is off in the wild, and more. But then he got a wakeup call in the death of Rachel Katz (née Menkin). I will admit that not only did I fall for the fake out of Don’s dream but I gasped out out when the great Maggie Siff sashayed back onto the screen. All of Don’s mistresses (from Midge to Bobbie Barrett to Suzanne Farrell to Fay Miller) all seemed to have independent lives and means of their own (in order: artist, artist manager, teacher, business psychologist) and all were of a certain stripe (smart, independent, took very little of Don’s bullshit), but Rachel was truly the one that got away in Don’s (and the fans’) eyes. In the world of Mad Men, Rachel was probably the only truly moral character ever, and her rejection of Don (“What kind of man are you?”) has haunted him throughout the series. Seeing him trying to ingratiate himself at her shiva was as awkward as you’d expect, especially when her sister Barbara basically shot him down. It’s not hard for Don, and us, to see the life he could have lived had he stayed with her and found a way to make it work. Then again, he ran away from typical domesticity and she went towards it. This is where the waitress Di comes in. Like all of Don’s lady friends that he’s not married to, she’s smart, sensible, and has a decent head on her shoulders. And if it wasn’t for the passing resemblance to Rachel, he probably wouldn’t look twice. But he was in that weird headspace that got him there and he needed to console himself over what could have been.
Speaking of roads not taken and weird ways to console yourself, Ken Cosgrove has been the whipping boy of Sterling Cooper ever since day one. All he wanted to be was a writer but fate had her plans, and in a weird way, his career was like the Vietnam War; painful, confusing, causing of grievous bodily harm and marital disruption, and ultimately made no sense at all. So while I can understand Cynthia’s frustration, and while I know it ultimately is a betrayal of his dreams and beliefs, the fact that his firing from SC&P has been a mixed blessing as with his new position as head of advertising for Dow means that he can now put the screws to the people that have screwed him over.
Unfortunately, at this point in history, women didn’t have as much agency for revenge in corporate America at the time and Joan and Peggy are hitting the glass ceiling in their dealings with the loathsome men at McCann Erickson over the new direction for Topaz Pantyhose. What I thought was sad about that scene, aside from two smart women crashing up against the glass ceiling, was that rather than rallying around each other, they turned their frustrations out onto one another as if it was Season 1 all over again. Peggy and Joan snip at each other’s looks, Joan’s status of being “filthy rich” and more. And both women deal with it in different ways. For Joan, she enjoys the healing power of retail therapy, but still has the feelings of self doubt when the sales girl recognizes her. For Peggy, it means a surprisingly good first date with Mathis’ brother in law that was interrupted by Peggy’s drunken search for her passport. It wasn’t so much that she lost her passport, but she was swept up in the idea of just ditching everything and going to Paris and then realizing that she had just sold herself on another fantasy.
So to answer Miss Lee’s burning question; Yes, this is all there is.
– We really are in the 1970s because Holy Mustaches, people!
– Now that we’re in the 70s, I demand a scene of Roger partying at Studio 54!
– Does anyone else besides me think that it’s a little perverse that they leapt ahead by nine months?! I mean, we have skipped over Woodstock, Altamont, the Manson Murders, and a whole lot more.
– So what happened to SC&P California? I can understand why Ted is back in New York; as part of the McCann Erickson deal, he’s stuck with the company for five years. But why is Pete back? I thought he liked California.
– It’s always a treat to see Larisa Oleynik as Cynthia. If anything it seems that Ken and Cynthia have the healthiest marriage of this entire lot.
– Speaking of treats, it’s always a treat to see Ray Wise. And the Pop Tarts joke was hilarious.
– There were so many weird visual callbacks to earlier episodes; from Don’s Athena coffee cup (the talisman of Bob Benson), to the diner scene with the models (which felt like a low rent version of the dinner between the Drapers and the Sterlings in episode 2 of Season 1), to the red wine spilled on Don’s bedroom carpet (where he “murdered” Andrea in his dream in Season 5) and more.
– Once again, Don sees ghosts as they enter the afterlife (as he did during the passing of Anna Draper and Bert Cooper) but this time in a dream sequence. But even in that brief exchange, we all were reminded of what could have been between Don and Rachel (thanks to Jon Hamm and Maggie Siff’s fantastic chemistry).
– Secretarial drama: While I’m sad to see Clara go, it was great to see Shirley is still there, and now with Ken. Even better I was living for sassy Meredith.
– My compliments to the art direction team for that great last shot which looked like a bastardized Edward Hopper painting.
Photo Credit: AMC Television / Lionsgate Television