Mad Men Recap: Dawn of an Old Age

The Mad Men crew celebrate Don's birthday. Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC
Mad Men
Mad Men
Episode Title
A Little Kiss
Editor’s Rating

"The only thing worse than not getting what you want is somebody else getting it." That Roger Sterling line, tossed off in tonight's two-hour season-five premiere of Mad Men, refers to a specific moment in the show, but it also hints at the episode's themes. The time is 1966, right after Memorial Day weekend, and the elapsed time between this episode and the events of the last one (about seven months) suggests that many of the characters have traversed psychological distances far greater than calendars would indicate. Envy, disappointment, and fear of losing what you've got: These feelings have always powered subplots on Mad Men, but they're front and center in "A Little Kiss," a classically structured, self-contained, long-form piece. If most installments of the show play like short stories, this one is more of a novella — as well it should be, considering the elapsed time between this chapter and the last one. We've got a lot of catching up to do: Series creator Matthew Weiner (who scripted this episode) and director Jennifer Getzinger glide right into it, delivering an episode that would play like a tedious info-dump — practically a second pilot, or stealth reboot — if the information weren't conveyed with such relaxed confidence and wit.

The story resumes with a prelude set at the rival (real) agency Young & Rubicam. Some frat-house-snotty employees dump water bombs on civil-rights protesters and are confronted by their drenched victims, creating a mini-scandal in New York's ad community. ("And they call us savages," one African-American woman says; it's a terrible line that should have been red-penciled because it seems to validate the usually wrongheaded complaint that Mad Men scores hindsight points off the past.) Don and Roger okay a joke ad in the New York Times promising that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is "an equal opportunity employer" whose "windows don't open," which tells you right away that the series, or at least this episode, will start dealing directly with racial inequality and the Civil Rights movement in the sixties, subjects that were dealt with glancingly, at times in a frustratingly underdeveloped way, before. Sure enough, the premiere ends with African-American job applicants packed into the agency's reception area; Lane Pryce accepts secretarial résumés while Dusty Springfield sings "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." The song's lyrics affirm the show's ability to put a song to more than one purpose. Some of the lines resonate with the struggle for equality and the uneasy relationship between blacks and whites, which at this point is about affirming basic rights and dignities rather than pretending that everything is hunky-dory ("You don't have to say you love me / Just be close at hand"). But because in this episode, as in others, race relations are more a hovering presence than a central subject, most of the song feels like a comment on the characters, most of whom are grappling with disappointment, professional and personal jealousy, aging, mortality, and the reality of having to accept conditions they aren't happy with in order to function day-to-day. "Left alone with just a memory / Life seems dead and so unreal / All that's left is loneliness / There's nothing left to feel." Life does, in fact, seem dead and unreal, or a memory, for many of these people. Many of them have either achieved a dream or are on track to achieve it, yet they're still plagued by feelings of disquiet, deprivation, unworthiness, or a vague sense that there's something better out there.

Don is about to turn 40. Well, sort of: The "real" man, Dick Whitman, turned 40 six months earlier, but Don Draper, the identity Dick assumed during the Korean war in order to remake himself, is actually six months younger. Megan throws a surprise birthday party for her husband complete with a live band, and does a song-and-dance number that reduces the men in the room to Jell-O. But Don reacts as if he's been handed a bag of live worms and told that he can't leave the room until he eats them. Megan, who started the episode floating on a cloud of contentment, is pushed into a funk by Don's allergic reaction to the event, by Peggy's drunken passive-aggressive gripe about her being a slacker, and by Harry's post-party sex fantasy about her, which Megan unfortunately overhears in the office break room; by the end of the episode's first half, she's standing out on their penthouse's balcony alone, having a "Who am I?" moment.

By the close of the episode, Megan has broken down in tears and left work early; when Don finds out and follows her home, she removes her robe and begins cleaning the post-party mess in black underwear, giving her husband a tantalizing rear view of the body he can't have because she's decided he doesn't deserve it. They have sex anyway after Don pulls her up off the carpet and then lowers her back onto it. The dialogue and choreography of this tryst certify the sadomasochistic undercurrents that have coursed through all Don's relationships with women. He is attracted to, and apparently is attractive to, women who feel unloved and/or misunderstood, and who have father issues and consequently get off on Don (sometimes) when he's playacting the part of the big bad daddy. Don loves the thrill of the sexual chase, of finding a way to obtain pleasures that are being pointedly denied to him. He's also a self-loathing man who, for biographical reasons he probably barely understands himself, gets off on being hurt (figuratively and in one case literally). All those things are happening in the look-but-don't-touch scene with Don and Megan, only Megan's slaps are visual. She's assaulting his eyes with a body that she refuses to give him, until he takes it.

When Don sees the Sterlings outside his door and realizes what's in store for him, he looks stricken. He has always hated birthdays; I gather from his post-party dialogue with Megan that he hated them even before he even took another man's identity and had to maintain the fiction. Plus, he micromanages every interaction that personally interests him and ignores or resists what doesn't, and he's not in charge of this event. When he tells Megan later, "I don't like being the center of attention," Megan calls him out on what is, at best, a half-truth: Don loves being the center of attention when he's running the room and overseeing every detail, but when others set the terms of engagement, he has to work to seem comfortable. Megan's improvisation traps Don into pretending to enjoy an event that he actually despises. When she fires up the cocktail jazz-pop band she hired for the occasion and performs a slinky little song-and-dance number — covering the 1961 French version of Sophia Loren's "Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo," as performed by ye-ye girl Gillian Hill — he's seated in a chair in the middle of the room. His placement and posture suggest a prisoner who's about to be tortured. Megan's unselfconscious abandon — and Jessica Paré's slinky-innocent performance, which I suspect will be looked back on as the moment that made her a star — also confronts Don, and other characters, with another harsh fact of life: none of them are getting any younger, or hipper. In context of the generational changeover that was fast approaching — in a year, 1967's Summer of Love would be the moment when the Baby Boomers decisively wrested control of pop culture from the World War II generation, and shook up political discourse as well — it's a bombshell moment. Don has never looked as ancient and terrified as he looks when Megan sidles closer to him, putting on a show that's as much a celebration of her own youth and sexiness as a present for her husband. Its subtext — not lost on anybody at the party — is, "Isn't she adorable? Isn't he lucky?"

Well, sure. Don must think so, otherwise he wouldn't have married Megan; along with her easygoing warmth as a potential stepmother, the much-younger woman's smooth beauty and naïveté were catnip to him. The whole package spoke to Don's obsessions with real or concocted beginnings, with perpetually reinventing himself in large and small ways rather than getting bogged down in real world drudgery. That's why Don always enters meetings at the last possible second and leaves as soon as he can; he refuses to be bothered with the boring parts, and because he's carved out a niche as The Idea Guy, he gets away with it. Don always thought younger than anybody else at Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce, even his protégée and soul mate Peggy, even though in calendar years he had plenty of younger colleagues (and a few bona fide rivals). But as Megan coos and wriggles, sliding her hand down the front of her dress in a close-up that emphasizes not just her torso but her engagement ring — Don feels helpless, trapped. When he shaves in the bathroom the next morning, his expression is despairing and a tad baffled. He looks into the mirror and sees an old man staring back at him — a handsome but increasingly craggy stud who can't keep pace with his young wife sexually, much less relate to her perky, at times rather clueless optimism. Where's the guy who dazzled Kodak executives with a Hail Mary pitch for the Carousel slide projector? He's AWOL, like Dick Whitman, though hopefully not for good. Don derives joy from being around Megan, but she also makes him feel the weight of the grave in a way that he did not anticipate when he popped the question during a family trip to Disneyland. I gather that a big part of her appeal is that she lightens his mood because she's always seeking pleasure, but unfortunately, while Don is in the business of selling pleasure, or the desire for pleasure, personally he's not much fun. He's a naturally sour person; even his humor is acidic, judgmental, sometimes bullying. A rainbow married a storm cloud. This can't end well.

The other major characters are experiencing their own periods of dissatisfaction and self-doubt. Pete Campbell always felt underappreciated, but for once he's right. He's stuck in a cramped little office with a concrete strut in front of his door; when he bangs his forehead on said column (in a collision so poorly staged that at first I thought Pete was playing a prank on somebody I couldn't see), he decides he's had enough and calls a meeting with the other partners to demand a better space. I love the camera placement and blocking in this scene: The shots from behind Pete's desk showing the other partners jammed into a narrow little couch make Pete's argument for him. You can't meet with important clients in a place like this; it suggests that the company is a seedy operation that values the wrong things. Pete's solution — that Roger should give up his office because he's not really using it — nearly brings the two men to fisticuffs, and it's finally resolved when Harry, who thinks he's about to get fired for his explicit sex fantasy about Megan, is persuaded to give up his own office. (Roger bribes him, and Harry asks if this is a monthly payment; any scene with these two is comedy gold.) Pete is the only character in this episode who advances toward happiness. His last scene finds him seated in Harry's old office, staring out at the window, at sunlight. (The light in this episode, and presumably for this season, is warm and soft yet merciless. It somehow makes the agency seem more beautiful, a professional dollhouse built of mid-sixties geometric lines and quadrants, even as it illuminates the characters' faces more harshly, emphasizing their paunches and blemishes and excess makeup and the new age lines in their faces. These people aren't quite hip enough to work in this office.)

Joan, once the office's resident mother hen and sex bomb, is chafing at the bit of parenthood, trapped in an apartment with her mother (a very patient woman considering how wrung-out and pissy Joan is) and desperate to get back to the agency. (The hunky, married plumber who's comfortable with babies seems to be on deck as a possible Joan conquest, or diversion.) Spotting and misinterpreting the ad that Don and Roger placed in the New York Times to needle the Y&R water-bombers, Joan shows up at the office, pram in tow, to get her old job back. One of Mad Men's great strengths is its ability to hint at characters' inner states simply by observing them in action, and that strength was nicely showcased here. The baby is handed from character to character like a hot potato; each character's reaction to it is a sidelong comment on past plot twists. Don, always a master at selling people's fantasies back to them, looks past the infant and flatters Joan's voluptuousness, reminding her of the identity she had before she got married and then impregnated. The impregnator, silver fox and Joan ex-boyfriend Roger Sterling, sees her and announces "There's my baby!" but because the "baby" in question is Joan, it's a joke. (Or is it?) Peggy, who had her own secret child with Pete and gave it up for adoption in season one, declines to hold the kid because "my hands are dirty." Later, Peggy hassles Pete to take the baby, and he acts as if she asked him to carry a cobra to a scorpion pit and leap in. It's telling that from the second Joan entered the hallowed corridors of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, she all but abandoned her new infant and instantly reverted to office problem-solver mode. When her baby was finally returned to her, it seemed to take a moment for her to register that she had one. Mad Men star Jon Hamm vaguely hinted in a pre-season panel discussion that Don and Joan might have an affair this year; it's always hard to know if this show's actors are feeding us information or disinformation, but between Don's elated reaction to Joan, Megan's last minute non-invitation to the surprise party, and Joan's comment about how Don must be even more handsome blushing, I tend to think there's something to it.

Roger, who already feels old even though he remarried young like Don, feels even older when he sees Don practically skipping to work alongside Megan. Plus, he's dealing with feelings of professional impotence. He chats up the secretary he shares with Pete to sneak looks at Pete Campbell's calendar so that he can party-crash Pete's client meetings and do the Everybody's Favorite Drinking Buddy routine, which is growing increasingly stale the older and less productive Roger becomes. (Pete's prank on Roger — faking an early morning Staten Island meeting with Coca-Cola to send Roger on a wild goose chase — certifies his increased stature as surely as the new office he wrangled. You don't dare out-prank Roger unless you feel strong.)

Peggy was a minimal presence in this episode, though I'm sure that'll change soon enough. She seemed at ease, but just barely. She's still seeing the Village Voice reporter and seems to have conquered, or at least stifled, any lingering inequality issues in the office (though the boys still act like boys when she's not around). But she, too, seems to be verging on inertia, as if she's less worried about gaining ground than potentially losing it. The kidney bean account is another metaphor for the ills affecting these people: her pitch is boring, obviously a stopgap measure; she oversells the virtues of slow-motion (which was about to become a pervasive cliché in both movies and TV ads) because she doesn't have any actual ideas; a photographic technique that can show a bullet spinning in midair is being used to create a "bean ballet" and make the legumes look, as Peggy unfortunately blurts to the clients, "far more important than they are." The suggested tagline for the rejected campaign is enough to make you want to curl up in a ball and moan softly: "The Art of Supper."

Everybody's running in place and wondering why, and what to do about it. "I'll be here for the rest of my life," Pryce tells Delores on the phone, with startling casualness. "What's wrong with you people?" Megan tearfully asks Peggy, by way of forcing an apology for her snide aside at Don's party. "You're all so cynical. You can't smile. You can only smirk." "Why don't you sing like that?" Roger asks his wife while Megan croons to Don. "Why don't you look like him?" she replies. "I want you to be happy," Roger tells Don, regarding Megan. "Somebody should be." Even Pete is feeling the funk. He takes his responsibilities as both husband and junior partner seriously, and demands respect commensurate with his achievements, but there's an anger simmering beneath his wan smiles when he talks to a stereotypically randy businessman buddy on the train, as if he's aware of having put away childish things by necessity rather than by choice. Change is on the horizon, a great sociohistorical wave that's about to wash away a lot of what the once-dominant older generation insisted was important. It happens every couple of decades and always will happen; it's part of the cycles of individual and national life that Mad Men, a timeless drama posing as a time-specific one, examines so well. "Stable," Pete says, "is that step backward between successful and falling." "I don't want to talk," Don tells Megan after that mortifying "surprise" party. "I just want to go to sleep."