Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Review: MAD MEN, 5.1 & 5.2 - "A Little Kiss"

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

It's been 18-months since Mad Men was last on our screens, following a contract dispute between AMC and creator Matthew Weiner, but the critically-acclaimed show is finally back for an overdue fifth season. Time has likewise moved forward for the advertising execs of Madison Avenue, at half the pace, taking us into the summer of 1966 nine months later...

It's noticeable in this two-part premiere "A Little Kiss" that the 1960s are now in full swing, in contrast to the more sedate early seasons where Mad Men's attitude and aesthetic hadn't quite shaken the post-war '50s. The colours are much brighter, the fashions more appealing, the music undoubtedly sexier, and it feels that the winds of change are about to blow most of the characters over (particularly the older ones).

It's no coincidence that the first episode revolves around the Adonis-like Don Draper (Jon Hamm) hitting his 40th birthday; now officially "middle-aged", grasping for his receding youth by having married his twentysomething secretary Megan (Jessica Paré). In many ways he's simply following best-friend Roger's (John Slattery) lead. Don's kids have also reached an age where they're speculating on their father's age in years to come, which basically means everyone's sense of mortality is being pricked.

So where is everyone at this moment in time? The aforementioned Don's apparently happy with his new wife, who seems to get on with his three children, but there are occasional signs of discontent and weirdness. In one memorable sequence, Don's surprise birthday party is spoiled by Roger (John Slattery)—which is just as well because a man like Don hates surprises. But his fun-loving half-French wife loves them, so ultimately still manages a surprise by publically serenading her husband with a sexy rendition of "Zou Bisou Bisou" (made famous by Sophia Loren). A moment that provokes a tangle of reactions: erotic, playful, fun, embarrassing, inappropriate, surprising, risqué, and bizarre. You're left feeling that half-French Megan is either culturally and generationally out of step with her husband and his friends (she later exclaims "you're all so cynical; you don't smile, you smirk"), or else she has psychological issues (perhaps hinted at by a scene where Megan cleans house in her underwear, driving an initially puzzled Don into a youthful lust after he arrived home from the office?)

Anyway, Don seemed to take his wife's "birthday treat" on the chin, but it was amusing to see the repercussions of Megan's performance in everyone who saw it. Poor Harry (Rich Sommer) completely embarrassed himself at work soon after, caught by Megan fantasising about her to Stan (Jay R. Ferguson); and to me it felt like stiff Lane (Jared Harris) received a sudden desire to escape his drab existence, via a flirtatious morning phone call with a stranger (the wife of a man whose wallet he found in the back of a taxi).

As someone who's already shown form when it comes to chasing younger women (remember the Playboy bunny?), I wonder if he'll join Roger and Don in choosing a wife who'll cause some raised eyebrows. Or maybe we're headed for mass divorces, as the young women realise they don't need to be on the arms of these increasingly outmoded men? As a side discussion, I'm still grappling with why Lane didn't hand the wallet back to the driver. My first reaction was a degree of institutionalised racism, but then I remember that the aforementioned Playboy bunny he was attracted to was black, and I vaguely recall him having clearly non-racist views at the time. So it's probably more likely he just saw the attractive woman's photo inside and an opportunity to charm her into a meeting.

It was also great to see Joan (Christina Hendricks) as a proud mother, as Mad Men neatly avoided having to watch her character go through a nine-month pregnancy. (I doubt Hendricks would fit onto the screen if her breasts enlarged during pregnancy!) Being maternal is something she's struggling to find within herself, though. Her own mother, the acerbic Gail (Christina Estabrook), has arrived to lend a much-needed hand with the daily duties, and she's clearly itching to get back to work. In fact, Joan made a pointed visit to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) to show off her newborn child, while instead trying to ascertain if she's been utterly replaced. In actual fact, Lane in particular was adamant the business has been floundering without her guiding hand and years of administrative experience.

"A Little Kiss" also spent some time on the era's growing issue of racism, opening with an African-American crowd calling for equal opportunities employment. A terrible scene, as it happens, albeit inspired by real life when employees of Y&R dropped water-bombs on the protesters below their window. But given its prominence I suspect it's going to be an important area this season. Indeed, the premiere ends with SCDP having to interview black people for secretarial positions, over a misunderstanding with a fake "help wanted" advert they ran. Could the company actually benefit enormously from accidentally becoming equal ops compliant, blessed with a strong and efficient black workforce?

Overall, "A Little Kiss" was a typical, classy instalment of Mad Men: stately pace, enriching characters, clever plot movements, unexpectedly funny, engrossing tone, and always offering something for you to chew on. I often wonder why I watch this show, because there's no obvious end-game to anything that I'm dying to see, but it's because the characterisation is so deep and the writers never waste a second of screen-time. Everything that happens means something to an episode's theme or the character's lives, and it's great fun trying to put it all together and predict the direction of things. Is Don headed for a second divorce? Will the changing times spell the end for SCDP and/or the over-40s who work there? Will the likes of Peggy and Pete spiritually inherit the imminent '70s?

What did you make of Mad Men's double-episode return?


  • Loved the antagonism between Pete (Vincent Karthesier) and Roger in this episode; first over the fact Roger's found a way to gatecrash Pete's meetings before he even arrives, then over the size of Pete's office. Regarding the latter: why did Pete, a junior partner, have a smaller office than someone like Harry?
  • Interesting to note that Pete's not too happy with his sexy wife Trudy (Alison Brie) playing the stay-at-home mother role. She looked dowdier than we've seen her, and it probably hasn't helped that Pete has Megan's "Zou Bisou Bisou" dance running through his head, making him miss the days when they were the hot young couple with no ties.
  • Incidentally, as a fan of Community, I now see Alison Brie in an entirely different light as an actress. She's a talented woman, because Trudy is completely different to Brie's character Annie on that NBC comedy.
written by Matthew Weiner / directed by Jennifer Getzinger / 27 March 2012 / Sky Atlantic