Ahhhh, it’s good to have Mad Men back. I just don’t love Game of Thrones like some others do, and there’s no other drama on television right now that I look forward to as much each week as I do Mad Men.
I’ve been anxiously awaiting the return of the show, and while last night’s episode was strange, it didn’t disappoint me.
Today, a coworker who is still finishing up season five said to me “I heard it was pretty depressing.” “Yeah,” I responded. “It had some pretty strong themes of death, but I don’t find that depressing.” While the subtext and death imagery was too heavy-handed at times, I liked the dark tone to this episode a lot.
I’ll be the first to admit, the episode was quite confusing. And despite being two hours long, it didn’t answer many questions. What year was it? Who was that girl living with Betty? It felt like Matthew Weiner wanted us to be confused, and, OK. I’m fine with that. Mad Men has always been a show that begins with questions. Some get answered, some turn out to be not as important as they’d seemed.
Dying, Part I – Don and Megan
The episode began with Don and Megan in Hawaii, for work and pleasure. It seems that Megan has a role on a soap opera big enough to give her some fame – she signs autographs and strangers call her “Corinne”. Back in New York, the ad creative Don comes up with for the resort smacks entirely of death. In trying to explain it, Don just makes it sound more like death.
The time period, I’ve read, is the end of 1967. It felt like more than eight or so months had passed since we’d last seen the characters, and not just because of their physical appearances – though let’s take a moment to applaud the amazing facial hair that was going on in this episode.
The themes of death were all over this episode for Don – from the more interesting, like how he just couldn’t get rid of the army lighter, to the too obtuse, like Megan brushing her hand over his eyes. Then there was the doorman, who’d actually died, as Don drunkenly, obnoxiously pointed out to him.
Don’s neighbor, and presumably friend, Dr. Rosen had saved the guy with CPR. We see Don and Dr. Rosen pal around – Don gives him a free camera, and they spend New Year’s Eve together along with one other couple from the building. But at the end of the episode, we find out that Don is sleeping with the doctor’s wife. (Lindsey from Freaks and Geeks! Or Sam from ER. Linda Cardellini.) He wants to change, but he hasn’t.
Dying, Part II – Roger
Death wasn’t just an abstract theme in this episode, it was all around. Roger’s mother died, forcing him to confront his fears about everything he’d lost so far and everything he still had to lose. At the funeral, he was surrounded by women he’d disappointed – Mona, Jane, his daughter. Don put in an appearance and threw up – drunk, yes, but he was also distraught over the lighter and hearing about how much Roger’s mother had adored her son couldn’t have helped. It was a fiasco, and in the end Roger’s daughter hit him up for money and left a heartwarming heirloom behind. (Though it did kind of look like a creepy jar of pee. But it was baptismal water.)
The only thing I didn’t so much care for was Roger basically spelling out the point of the episode before it had even happened, in a discussion with his therapist.
Dyeing – Betty and Sally
We saw quite a bit of Betty in this episode, and I think it was some of January Jones’ best work on the show. So, the big question is, who was that Sandy kid? It definitely felt like we were supposed to know who she was, but there were to my knowledge no previous mentions of her. She was an orphan, and I had assumed she was in some way related to either Betty or Henry. But perhaps she was just a friend of Sally’s.
Sandy, a talented violinist, ran off to the city to live among the Bohemians, or to scrounge up enough cash to make her way out to California. Betty went looking for the girl, and couldn’t have seemed more out of place than among a bunch of hippies. She used to be a model in the city, living with loads of girls in a tiny apartment and barely making ends meet. But now she’s a very suburban housewife. Betty still seems generally disappointed with her lot in life, but more content than she once was. I don’t know that Betty is “so profoundly sad” anymore.
* The fat suit January Jones is in this season doesn’t make her as heavy as she once was, though she’s still not the slim twenty-something she once was and did mention being on a diet.
Betty dyeing her hair brown after interacting with the hippies did feel profound, like she was somehow attempting to change or accepting a change in her identity. The banter about rape that Betty engaged in with Henry suggested that Betty isn’t trying to be the perfect housewife she once was. She has a harder, more sarcastic edge now.
Coming Alive – Peggy
Meanwhile, the Peggy we saw in this episode was the most confident iteration of the character we’ve seen, and seemingly the happiest character on the show right now. I adored all of Peggy’s scenes. She has learned so many of her habits from Don (i.e., telling her employees “If you can’t tell the difference between which part’s the idea and which part’s the execution of the idea, I have no use for you,” and not realizing they think they can’t leave) but she’s also better at having successful relationships than Don is. Abe seems happy with their relationship, even though his partner is part of the corporate machine, and Peggy’s phone call with her former colleague and now buddy Stan was the most delightful part of the episode.
Elisabeth Moss’s performance as Peggy, and the writing for that character has been impeccable over the years. She has believably evolved from the meek secretary who fell for Pete Campbell into the advertising powerhouse we saw. She has surpassed Don in skill, deftly dealing with a work crisis without even blinking an eye. (I also loved her conversation with the minister about how a woman named Olson could be Catholic, and who might win the Superbowl.)
For a two hour episode, the plot didn’t move along very much, but that’s always been Mad Men‘s deal. In particular, season premieres have always set up where the characters are for the audience, and what to expect from the season. I like what has been set up for the main characters this season. (Even though we didn’t see much of Joan.) Even little things, like Pete’s outward disdain for Don, greatly intrigued me. Sally is now a full-fledged teenager, who calls her mother Betty, has a sarcastic sense of humor and calmly closes the door in her mother’s face when she’s gabbing on the phone. (I mean, at least she didn’t run away to be a squatter.)
So little, yet so much happens in these episodes. I feel like I’m missing a million things that I meant to discuss, so feel free to mention anything in the comments. What significance do you think Betty dyeing her hair had? Were the themes of death too strong? Did you also burst out laughing when Roger sobbed about the shoeshine man?