9:53 am Mar. 27, 20122
"I know a girl who had your job who ended up with everything."
The marching on of time has been encoded into the DNA of "Mad Men" from the start. In the time between each season, the show slips from one year into the next, which has served as an incredibly effective way to highlight the greater turmoil of the '60s outside of the increasingly sun-dappled offices of Draper, Cooper, Sterling, Pryce. I’ve never felt it as acutely, stomach-churningly so as I did with the fifth season premiere, "A Little Kiss," for two reasons.
The first is that we have now arrived at the point in the show’s evolution where every main character is echoing the life pattern of another one.
There was a lot of screen time devoted to Don turning 40. The surprise party, the whispered guesses throughout the office as to how old he was, the little indications that in the world of the show, 40 equals dinosaur.
We’re not surprised that Don is 40 because to us Don has always felt at least that. From the beginning we’ve had to accept that he came into our lives when he was on the tail end of believing in the value of his own. When Don’s son projects into our consciousness the image of Don at seventy, it’s disturbing both because it comes at us so early on in the episode when we haven’t yet had time to adjust, but also because it feels like it could happen more suddenly than we feared, that old age is on the verge of hitting him at any moment.
Nothing hammered in the fact that Don was aging more, though, than the presence of Roger Sterling’s second wife, Jane, who just a year ago was the young arm candy for which he had forsaken all rational thought. It’s clear that the honeymoon period has faded for Roger and Jane; now they’re just married. Jane seems creaky and conservative in comparison to the lithe sexpot that is Megan, the new Mrs. Draper. Or as Roger puts it, “She doesn’t speak French. She doesn’t like me.” One look at those two and you can see the road that Don’s life is in danger of taking; it feels far more permanent than any new laugh lines around the eyes.
Meanwhile, Pete is commuting in to the city from a house in Greenwich that looks a lot like the former Draper residence.
(One thing I’ve always loved about the show, though, is that no matter how much Pete fancies himself a young Don, it’s actually Peggy who bears the greatest resemblance to her boss. She’s his clear successor creatively; they both put career in front of family; and they definitely both know how to compartmentalize a secret.)
Another baby has entered the world by way of a secret office tryst. The heads of foxy new secretaries have grown onto the bodies of the ones who either died or married off before them, except this time the hair is down, the demeanor relaxed;, they’re making just as many administrative mistakes as ever but they’re not nearly as bothered about it. The mechanics of the office hinge less and less on the approval of the men, even the one man whom the women always craved the attention of, Don.
Which brings us to the second reason that the weight of time felt so especially oppressive this time around. When last season ended with Don becoming engaged to Megan, it was one of the biggest one twists of character I’ve ever seen on television or, for that matter, film. In terms of surprising upsets, it surpassed both Tim becoming a loyalist drone on the second season of the British "Office" and finding out that the Bruce Willis (spoiler alert) that you thought was alive in The Sixth Sense was actually quite dead. Don’s engagement didn’t just advance the plot; it retroactively revised everything we’d seen and thought we’d known about him until then. Because in the same way that every character on the show looked toward Don, messed up though he was, as the anchor in their lives whose approval they craved, so did the audience. When he fell for Megan, a girl he hardly knew and who, as his secretary, represented everything that he had claimed, in very principle, he was against wanting, the bottom fell out from under his character in the most interesting, seasick kind of way. Our protagonist turned out to be less the tortured wreck whose ugliest faults we had even sought to understand, and more something actually banal: a man suffering from a mid-life crisis. He wasn’t just sharing a title with Roger Sterling and Lane Pryce. He turned out to be them.
And so, 18 real months later and seven or so unreal ones, we have the Don Draper who we saw last night. Or rather—intriguingly, surely intentionally—barely saw.
One of the great pleasures of the show for me has been that while the face of "Mad Men" is clearly Don Draper's, so much of the show’s heft has come from the female characters, in a way that I have never before seen done on even the other television dramas of its caliber. "The Sopranos" came closest, with Carmela, and gone-way-before-her-time Livia; but even so, their existence still very much revolved around Tony.
"Mad Men" is different. When I reflect on season 1 of the show, it is delusional, pregnant Peggy my thoughts first go to. I’m interested in Peggy in a way that is separate from Don, except for when her scenes specifically have to do with him, and then those are some of the very best this show has ever offered. The reason those conversations between Peggy and Don were so good in the "Suitcase" episode last season was because they were drawing on four years' worth of complex tension carefully laid out between the two of them. They drew both on the scenes we’d witnessed between them but also on the ones where we saw them each on their own. Hearing them address questions we had all had for years was so satisfying, I swear I felt the country draw in a collective breath.
And, of course, a decade of torch songs could be written about the inner life behind Joan’s sad, coy smile.
The show’s female characters seem now to have arrived at the forefront of the action at the same time as they did in the course of American history. There were so many different types of women interweaving through that office last night that it wouldn’t have been presumptuous of Fellini to have demanded a posthumous consulting credit. Even when they weren’t on screen, they were being talked about. Everyone is interested in hiring a girl, upending a girl, giving their soul over to a girl. And interwoven throughout comes the desperate, muddled searching, the quest to find new categories to place them all in.
“This is his girl,” says the woman on the phone to Lane, who has decided to pour all his delusional dreams of escape into her. “I’m like his wife but I can’t call myself that.”
Over and over again in the offices the shouted line, “Have you seen Clara?” was heard, as the new crop of secretaries hops from foot to foot, from one year to the next, trying to figure out where to land.
“You don’t even know her,” Don tells his colleagues about the wife who will shortly wiggle into nothing but her bra and panties and order him to both not see her and to watch, as he emerges into the shadows of his own show, in pursuit of the little kiss from the title that he seems at the moment willing to do most anything to receive.
It's clear from the bookended opening and closing scenes of this episode, that race is going to play an important part of this season (I agree with Matt Zoller Seitz over at Vulture that that first scene was unfortunate, in the most heavy-handed, off-to-an-awkward-start sort of way.) Those African American secretaries-to-be perched in the lobby will now be the ones jockeying for the respect and attention of other both male and female characters of the show while Peggy and Joan and presumably Betty try and figure out how to coexist with Megan.
What to make of Megan? My feelings toward her fluctuated almost scene by scene last night. I felt an overwhelming urge to reduce her, to write her off, to hate her even but I couldn’t deny the enormity of the power she suddenly wielded over Don and the show itself. For four seasons, Don’s character has been unwavering. Our feelings toward him changed only as we were fed new information about him, not because his character was altered. Even the depressed bachelor Don from last season felt like an extension of the haunted man we, as viewers, have been given access to almost from the beg
inning. But this new man who doesn’t care about work, who seems more worried about what his wife thinks about him than his peers, who's openly vulnerable to her sexual prowess, well, as Peggy put it, I don’t know about that.
Characters don’t sashay onto this show without a two-fold purpose: they need to both serve the plot of the show and represent the unfolding nature of the times in which the show takes place. Megan is the newest incarnation of the modern woman; it's more complicated than her merely serving as a representative of the ever more present sexual revolution. Megan is a step backward and forward at exactly the same time. Perhaps that’s why she was able to pull off that dance. Her caring more about her husband than her career makes her a throwback, while the way she manifests it makes her progressive.
You can see Peggy trying to reconcile all the thoughts flying through her head as Megan frantically, rawly, honestly tells her she isn’t feeling well and needs to go home. The idea of putting your emotions over your work is a foreign one to Peggy, but that’s nothing compared to nakedly showing those emotions, in your office, in daylight. And it’s a credit to the show’s writers that they didn’t have Peggy just lash out against Megan, in the way that Joan lashed out against her in a previous season. Peggy’s idea of progress was a direct affront to Joan’s, while Megan’s occupies a much grayer and in some ways more confusing area that comes closest to representing how many women feel today.
Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She'll be writing about "Mad Men" every week this season.