It’s been almost a year and a half since the last episode of AMC’s critically beloved drama Mad Men aired its last episode. Amid whispers of the show’s cancellation and creator Matthew Weiner’s firing, AMC and Weiner conducted backroom talks that eventually (rumor has it) led to slashing the budget of The Walking Dead instead.
Where we left off, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) had ended his marriage with frigid, hateable ex-beauty queen Betty (January Jones); she then married boring, stable old Henry Francis creating what’s sure to be a horribly unsatisfying relationship for both of them. After turning down strident, smart New Yorker Faye Miller (Cara Buono, who was pitch perfect in the role), Don proposed to his secretary Megan (Jessica Pare), a naive, pretty young thing with big dreams and an easygoing sensibility. Don (or Dick Whitman, as those who know him best – and hate him most, it seems – call him) has been struggling with an identity crisis the last few seasons.
It’s been a year and a half in the show’s world as well, putting us squarely in 1966. The civil rights movement is getting off the ground, and the good old boys in the Young and Rubicam offices decide to toss makeshift water balloons at the protesters outside their window. Not a smart move, guys. So begins a feud with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with SCDP placing an ad in the Times stating they’re an Equal Opportunity Employer. This, of course, backfires in their faces when a whole crowd of African Americans shows up with resumes, prompting Roger Sterling (the wonderful John Slattery) to mutter, “We can’t have one of them in the lobby!” The times, they are a’changin.
And with changes come power struggles. Everyone in this episode is fighting for footing in the midst of a sea change.
Megan, who knows absolutely nothing about her new husband – except his real name, which is a shocker – connives with Peggy to plan Don a surprise birthday party. “Everyone’s going to leave this party and have sex,” Megan tells Peggy. Seeing as how Don isn’t really Don, birthdays for him are somewhat of a touchy subject – not to mention surprises. Oh, and what a surprise! Megan pauses the party and the band to serenade Don, not with one of the sweet, sexy songs of the era but with “Zou Bisou Bisou,” which according to Slate was a kind of teeny-bopper uber-sexy tune by a relative unknown. Megan’s heel-kicking, capering, and skirt-tugging is enough to make everyone in the room pretty hot, and more than enough to embarrass Don.
The party, the centerpiece of the two-hour premiere, is full of such brutally awkward moments you might sweat a little bit. Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), who gets knocked down a peg early in the episode when Heinz turns down her pitch for a “bean ballet,” painfully complains to Don that she has to go work on, you know, work instead of being at his silly surprise party. Peggy brought her activist boyfriend Abe (Charlie Hofheimer), who fits in with Madison Avenue types like a Duster in a garage full of Ferraris. Abe argues Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) about the Vietnam war while a sailor stands by, listening to how he’s going to come home in a box. “I just thought there’d be girls here,” the poor kid says.
While we were away, Mrs. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) gave birth to Roger’s baby. Since her rapist husband is overseas, Joan’s nagging mother is staying over. Character actress Christine Estabrook, with her proper enunciation and dark expressions, is the perfect choice for Joan’s mother. Joan wants nothing more than to go back to work for SCDP, but her mother notes that husband Greg would never allow her to go back to work. “Allow me?” Joan asks, a hint of defiant rage in her voice. It’s pretty clear: nobody, but nobody allows Joan Harris to do something she wants. For all her bitchery, all the ways in which Joan used to wield her femininity, the lady is as independent as they come.
When she brings her baby to the office to talk to Lane about getting her job back, she literally struggles to get the carriage through the door – well-done metaphors abound in this episode. She hands the baby first to Roger (staring fondly at his face as the old lech asks, “How does anyone even see this brat with you standing next to him?”), then to Peggy. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) walks into the room and the two of them stare awkwardly at the kid instead of each other – a few seasons back, Peggy had Pete’s baby and gave it up for adoption. By the end of the episode, Joan and her mother are riding the elevator up and down, up and down, because it’s the only way to get the baby to go to sleep. Joan’s predicament is once again put to film in a literal way. That elevator sure can be a bitch, particularly if you have a kid and don’t want to be a housewife.
Pete bought a house with an acre of land. He’s getting on the train in the morning with spit-up on his suit and going to work in an office with a massive support beam blocking the doorway. He’s in the midst of a power struggle over Mohawk airlines with Roger, who continues to steal accounts from Pete. Roger bribes Harry to switch offices with Pete, and by the end of the episode Pete’s riding the late train back and playing cards with the regulars and bitching about his wife on the commute.
Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), whose nagging wife (Embeth Davidtz) opens the mail to find threatening letters about her sons’ tuitions, finds some gent’s wallet in a cab. Lane, showing his elitism and/or racism, keeps the wallet instead of giving it back to the cabbie. When he calls the phone number, a woman with a sexy voice answers. A picture of “Dolores, Hugs & Kisses All Day!” becomes an object of fantasy while Lane struggles with his fading marriage and crumbling finances. Remember the beautiful black Playboy bunny and the crack over the head Lane’s father gave him? The poor man is quietly, gently struggling for his own kind of power.
Don, on the other hand, is acting oddly. Peggy notes suspiciously that he is suddenly “kind and patient.” “And it galls you,” says Stan. “No,” Peggy replies. “It concerns me.” It concerns us as well. He’s a different person in this episode, telling Peggy when Heinz nixes her proposal, “We’ll get ‘em next time.” Could it be Megan who’s molded this whole new Don? He calls her into his office just to grope her, and commands her to open her blouse. She obliges, but only so far. The two indulge in the boss-secretary sub/dom game in secret; this isn’t a surprise, since we once saw Don asking a hooker to hit him over and over again. The man craves punishment and a woman who’s willing to stand up to him.
We get a glimpse into their personal life at the end of the episode. Megan, the victim of Harry Crane’s truly disgusting harassment (“What I’d do to her,” he says, “Those heels over my shoulders!”), attacks all of SCDP for its toxic, repressive culture, then goes home by herself in a manipulative power play against Don. Peggy tells Don she thinks Megan wants to be alone, to which Don replies nastily, “You don’t know her at all.” When Don shows up at home as planned, Megan strips to her bra and underwear, oddly lacy, sexy black things, to clean up the apartment after the party. “I don’t want you. You’re old!” she yells as she kneels on the floor, performing a sexy, sad semblance of household duties. She reciprocates immediately when he takes her on the dirty carpet; this kind of play is not unheard of in the new and improved Draper household. Contrast frigid ice queen Betty with sexy, naughty Megan and it’s really no wonder Don’s so cheery these days.
All these meaningful looks! So many bleak undertones! So much painful awkwardness and mind-boggling sexism and racism! Mad Men is back in fine form. It feels like coming home again to revisit these characters, whose lives have changed just enough to be interesting but not enough to be strange.
How did you feel about this season’s premiere? What are you excited for in 1966?