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Mad Men: Time Isn’t on Their Side

Christpher Stanley and January Jones in Mad Men.

The characters on Mad Men never seemed especially young or hip — even the young, hip ones. It comes with the territory: The show's milieu stresses the newest and latest (with hindsight, of course), but the characters are never really avant-garde; they're always looking to appropriate and tame the truly new and use it to sell things. In season two, when a beatnik in a West Village nightclub asked Don Draper how an adman slept at night and Don snarled, "on a bed made of money," he was all of 35 but sounded like a stereotypical grumpy dad in a suit, lecturing his dungaree-clad slacker son on the reality of life. But Don and his colleagues still had a certain vitality, maybe because most of their ages started with a 3 or a 2. They were at the center of energy in their universe and carried on as if they knew they were. And even ostensible oldsters like Roger Sterling and Duck Phillips carried on as if, mentally at least, they were still young and foolish. But in season five, they all seem slower, more tentative and heavy-spirited, as if they're all secretly terrified that they're about to be herded onto an ice floe and pushed out to sea.

Even the younger major characters, such as Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell, have shifted their missions; instead of fighting to take a piece of turf, they're trying to protect the turf they've already won. And poor Don, who married a much younger woman in part to erase his personal slate and start over yet again, is having to come to terms with the fact that he's the Establishment now — the creative director whom the younger admen (and women) want to be, or at least meet. After this week, that great scene in the premiere with Megan singing and dancing at Don's birthday party feels like a harbinger of an overarching theme: the big changeover. Don has yet to tell us exactly what he was thinking in that scene, but if he ever does, I suspect it'll be something like, "Dear God, what have I gotten myself into? I can't keep up with this woman." He married her in part because he probably thought it would make him feel young forever, but instead it reminded him that he's getting old. Part of this is because of the show's timeline: We're in 1966, a year away from the Summer of Love and its irreversible sense of generational changeover. The sight of Don Draper backstage at a Rolling Stones concert trying to hire the band to appear in a Heinz ad expresses this in a nifty sight gag, though Don at least has a Madison Avenue predator's sense of openness to new things, which means he's not a fossil yet. (It's funny that his backstage mission partner Harry, a bumbling, foot-in-mouth careerist, is the one who gets mistaken for a "young person" by the groupies backstage, presumably because he's biologically younger than Don.) But a lot of it is just the natural order asserting itself.

Roger is feeling increasingly irrelevant and increasingly threatened by Pete, who delivered a gigantic screw-you in that office scene near the end of the episode by poaching credit and control of the newly returned Mohawk Airlines account that Roger's party-hound charisma helped land. ("I'm just pleased that after a long effort I was able to sign 'em," Pete told the assembled troops; what a bastard.) Roger's remembrance of playing with Pete as a boy struck just the right bitter-poignant note. He's had one foot on the ice floe since season one, and he's just now figuring it out. ("Shouldn't we wait for Roger?" Peggy asks Don during the final interview with the new copywriter, Michael Ginsberg. "What for?" Don replies. "He doesn't even come to the meetings that are important.")

Pete always seemed a prematurely old soul, a company man par excellence, but now, thanks to his blatant obsession with money, credit, and a bigger office, the appearance has become reality. Peggy spent four seasons blazing a trail as one of Madison Avenue's first female copywriters, but when she brings in Ginsberg (Ben Feldman, a frequent guest actor on network series and regular on Drop Dead Diva), to work on the Mohawk account, she inadvertently sets herself up to be taken for granted and viewed by everyone as part of the established order. And now she's going to have to fight for attention against another trailblazer, a young man who was hired specifically to make the agency seem younger and hipper for being willing to employ Jews. It's all about appearances at this place, a point Roger makes clear when he casually lumps Ginsberg in with the firm's new African-American secretary Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris). "I wanted to smooth the ground about working with a Jew," Roger says. "Turns out everybody's got one now. Tell you the truth, it makes the agency more modern, between that and it's-always-darkest-before-the-Dawn over there," he says, indicating the new secretary. "Least this one we're hiring on purpose."

Ginsberg's provocative portfolio, prankster idiot-savant stylings, and "I'm not a jerk, I'm just honest!" routine sent a chill down my spine. "I insulted you because I'm honest," he tells Peggy. "I apologized because I'm brave." I'm afraid this guy is incredibly bad news, not just because he's an intellectualized sexist who initially assumed Peggy was a secretary, but because he's being positioned as the next-generation version of Don Draper, a slumming genius who has no interest in workplace protocol and tramples people who care about being considerate. Although he's obviously a socially awkward, lost-in-his-own-head creative type — a timeless archetype — his demeanor seems specifically mid-sixties. It's aligned with the values of what would later be called the rock-and-roll generation. Michael wears jeans and a plaid sports coat to a job interview, blurts out whatever's in his head at any given moment, and seems perturbed that anyone would be offended by his foot-stomping social blundering. Peggy is about Michael's age, dates a Village Voice reporter, and has cool friends (including at least one lesbian), but presents as somebody aligned with the older generation. She can pass for square (or if you prefer, adult). Ginsberg clearly can't and doesn't seem interested in trying. It seems to require a colossal amount of energy just for him to keep his assholishness under wraps during his interview with Don. The older man stares at Michael blankly until he finally recognizes a kindred spirit, grins in spite of himself, and welcomes the kid aboard. The episode's penultimate scene suggests that Michael, too, is in revolt against handed-down values; he still lives with his father, a Jazz Singer "I hef no son!"-type who literally towers over his offspring.

I guess we should talk about fat Betty, eh? I was never a fan of January Jones, a limited actress who ended up being perfectly cast playing a limited (and damaged, and woefully un-self-aware) person, but her character was treated so roughly in this episode that I felt sorry for both the actress and the character. Pretty much every major character on Mad Men has a self-knowledge deficit, but Don's ex-wife is so singularly clueless that I've gone from disliking her to feeling sorry for her (but sorrier for her children). Between the cancer scare, the diet pills talk, and the character's shockingly thickened appearance (maybe an attempt to write Jones's offscreen pregnancy into the visuals, though it looked like they put some extra poundage on her via makeup), the show is walking a thin line between showing us an unlikable woman victimized by a sexist society and dramaturgically beating the crap out of her. The vast and faintly Gothic-looking house she shares with Henry feels like the sort of place where a hateful fairy tale villainess would live; in that scene last week where Don dropped off his kids at night and we saw Betty and Henry's house reflected in his passenger side window, I half expected to see the sky flash with cartoon lightning and swarms of giant bats. No matter how much sympathy Mad Men affects, there's still a disquieting sense that Betty is somehow getting what's coming to her — that when you treat your kids badly, you end up a bloated suburban waste case with throat polyps, scarfing Bugles on a couch in a house that Miss Havisham might find oppressive. If you juxtaposed Don's sins against Betty's, they'd probably come out about even, with the two about evenly matched in the narcissism department, with Betty's casual cruelty toward her children counterbalanced by Don's secret other wife and serial infidelities. Yet the show always seems to cut Don more of a break, either by reveling in the same alpha male misadventures that it condemns or simply by having cast a much more accessible, likable performer in the part. I think we're at least a half-season past the point where the show needs to feel obligated to check in with Betty regularly, or even make her a steady presence apart from her connection to Don and Betty's kids. They could write her out — maybe send her and Henry to California or something — and I doubt that many viewers would complain.

That said, I liked the handling of Betty's material this week. Last week's portrait of Don's sudden onset of Old Manhood was nicely balanced with the fat Betty subplot. I liked that it was just a cancer scare and not cancer; the handling of the initial doctor's visit, the big phone call, and Don and Henry's phone conversation (Don trying to reach out, Henry slapping him down) reminded me of The Sopranos. So did the bit with Betty and her friend Joyce (who is also married to a man named Henry) letting a psychic read Betty's tea leaves and tell her absolutely nothing of value. The tea leaves later showed up in a Sopranos-like dream sequence that was transitioned into so casually that at first I didn't realize it was a dream sequence; I liked the simplicity of it, the family members in their funeral clothes and Betty in a pink housecoat, Sally turning Betty's chair upside-down, and most of all that shot of the teacup with the leaves just barely visible. That last image sums up the kind of drama that was practiced on The Sopranos and that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has carried over to his own series: All of a sudden you're in a dream but don't know it, and when the episode pays off a teacup image, it doesn't actually pay it off because you can barely see into the cup. You're just faintly aware that it's a teacup and that there are leaves in the bottom of it.

One last note: During season four, I was very skeptical about the show's handling of race relations. The attitude seemed to be, "Well, these characters are mostly upper-middle class and white, and the Civil Rights movement was something they read about in the newspaper, watched on TV, and maybe discussed now and then at parties, so it would be dishonest and affected to get into it in a lot of detail, much less add new black characters to provide a window into the issues." That's fine so far as it goes, but I think we're at the point where it's starting to feel like an evasion. The setup for the agency's hiring of its first black employee, Dawn, felt just right; it happened owing to a backfired prank rather than some noble crusade by an SCDP employee, and Roger has subsequently defined it as a concession to hipness, a way of making the agency feel more cutting edge than it really is. But now that they've put a black character in the mix (and given her an intriguing mirrored name: Dawn = Don), I hope they'll actually explore her character, or at least give her something to do besides file papers and answer phones. That they introduced Dawn this week and then gave almost all of the episode's new-character screen time to Michael Ginbserg does not bode well. But we're only three hours into the fifth season, so hopefully I'll be proved wrong.

Photo: null/AMC 2011