Gone after an absence of more then a year, AMC’s landmark series Mad Men (2007- ) has already defined its newest season with memorable moments. The two-hour premiere explores its core characters at great length and, of course, answers the usual between-seasons question: “How much time has passed since the previous episode?”
Much of the story is framed around Don’s fortieth birthday party, which is supposed to be a pleasant surprise for him but, before Roger spoils it, turns into a series of understated awkward moments. The fight that arises between Don and Megan afterwards highlights the major differences resulting from their age gap. Don doesn’t like attention – much less being the center of attention – and Megan simply can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want an elaborate celebration.
Before I get too ahead of myself, I have to mention the scene everyone has been talking about since the first episode of the new season aired: Megan’s saucy rendition of Sophia Loren’s “Zou Bisou.” Before this scene, many of the characters discus going to the party, but afterwards, they are only talking about Megan. Roger and Harry both provide joking imitations and vulgar comments, while Lane explains to Joan that Megan’s performance simply had to be seen. The expression on Don’s face during the song is enigmatic; he’s visibly upset since he walked into the party, yet he can’t seem not to smile. The attention lavished on both of them after the party is clearly not something that Don relishes, but for Megan, a character who started out as a mere background player only to be thrust into such an important role, there couldn’t have been a better defining moment.
Nonetheless, their new marriage has already started to change Don and, as Peggy remarks, his old ways of commanding a room and his clients may be ending. The key moment of this change occurs during a meeting with Heinz when after their representative shoots down Peggy’s pitch, Don simply rolls over and offers them something better next time. Peggy is upset that Don doesn’t fight for her idea and as of the the third hour of the show, there still hasn’t been a good idea. Don meets again with the Heinz people. This meeting results in yet another failed attempt – an ineffective attempt to get the Rolling Stones to sing a jingle. On an interesting historical note, the Rice Krispies jingle that Don mentions is actually real.
The scene that follows, with Don and Harry backstage trying to get an endorsement from the Stones, turns into another great moment, which highlights Don’s generational differences. Not only do they fail to even meet the band but instead unknowingly get an agreement from their opening act. Don’s conversation with a teenage fan, then, turns into a demographic profiling of sorts. Whether or not he tries to actually gauge her for business or just makes strange small talk is hard to say. He ends his conversation with her by saying, “We’re worried about you” – which refers to why his generation can’t seem to enjoy themselves as much as the younger one. Don’s reactions to the revolutionary changes of the 1960s have mostly been to stay where he’s always been. It’s hard to imagine where he will ultimately end up, when the show reaches the height of the hippie era.
The most shocking change of the season so far is Betty’s sudden weight gain. Jokes have been developing at the speed of the Internet, complete with a Twitter account for Fat Betty Francis. Clearly her weight has been a concern for a while; she’s uncomfortable around her husband Henry, making him turn away when she gets out of the bathtub. She also has a child’s grasp of why she suddenly gained weight and what the solution might be. Maybe she can just take pills for a little while and then be back to normal.
After a doctor’s visit and a brief scare that thyroid cancer might be the issue, Betty calls Don in a moment of desperation. In this moment, Henry isn’t home, and she needs someone after hearing the news. It’s very much reminiscent of her confessing her loneliness to Glenn back in Season 1. She can’t find comfort at home, so she turns to whomever she can. The underlying anxiety issues that cause her overeating are surely not anything that she will come to terms with anytime soon.
Other storylines to follow on the side add up to create a rich portrait of the advertising business in 1967. The firm has hired their first African-American secretary, Dawn, who I hope will prove to be the show’s most significant African-American character so far. After beginning the season with the image of a civil rights pickett line, it would be refreshing to see these issues not just relegated to the background.
A new copywriter, Mike Ginsberg, has also joined the team and should give Peggy someone interesting to banter with, along with Stan. Their interactions in his interview alone seem to offer a promising dynamic. Pete has come into conflict with Roger more and more since responsibilities seem to have shifted in the company. By his own admission, Roger struggles to remain relevant in the agency and hasn’t done much since failing to act on losing the Lucky Strike account last season. As Pete says, his new accounts really do seem to be driving the company forward. Like many other of the show’s characters, Pete’s home life seems to leave him unfulfilled; he’s striving to make his company truly great in the face of potential stagnation.
All we’ve seen of Joan so far takes place at home because her return to work after having a baby is still a while away. Her husband’s eventual return from the army, coupled with her interactions with Roger, should prove to be an interesting moment. Another great moment is his exclamation of “There’s my baby,” as Joan walks into the office with their secret child. Once everyone at the office takes turns holding the baby, Peggy is left holding him all alone – which is, again, very reminiscent of her storyline from earlier seasons.
Mad Men continues to excel at little moments such as these; they stand on their own, and yet there is much underlying subtext for longtime fans to read into and anticipate.