After an interminable wait, Mad Men is back. And, despite the rather frothy media campaign leading up to the premiere, our favorite clothing poem is darker than ever. (Yes, I did just call Mad Men a “clothing poem”, for the excellent reason that this show is, at least partially, a long, epic poem about clothes.) Darling whore-son Don Draper can’t stop thinking about his whore-soness, partially because that warm-hearted, salt-of-the-earth Betty Draper is about nine months along. We open with an odd series of imagined flashbacks. Don is scalding milk for a restless Betty in the middle of the night. As he stands alone in the dark kitchen, he sees the circumstances of his birth play out, projected onto the empty rooms around him. It’s a surreal effect, and one that didn’t work for some viewers and critics – supposedly it was too maudlin, too heavy-handed. I liked it, I think because it reminded me of the kind of jitters you get when you’re up in the middle of the night – you think about your future, and your past, and you project terrible things upon them, and generally feel sort of doomed and creeped out: Look how old I am already, I can’t believe this is how I’ve ended up, and it’s just a smooth sail toward death from here on out.
As noted by basically everybody, this season of Mad Men is all about change – our characters are aging, the culture is evolving, and everybody is going to need new tools in order to survive. So, I think it’s appropriate that Don is freaking out and having self-induced flashbacks and trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. ALSO: Don has no idea of who he is. For someone as skilled at manipulation as he is, he’s tremendously unselfaware. It’s about time he started mooning around and actually thinking about who he really is. I saw these scenes as Don telling the story of himself to himself. Think of how Don does his pitches – he finds an angle and then he tells you the story of what the product is, how it’s meaningful. I think that for once Don is applying his imagination to himself, trying to piece together who he really is so that he can figure out where he’s going. I saw the goofy, somewhat heavy-handed and theatrical tone of these scenes as symptomatic of that – we’re not seeing Mad Men’s vision of the origins of Dick Whitman, we’re seeing Don Draper’s. And Don Draper is a trafficker in clichés – he takes banal and overused images and invests them with new energy and wit via his deep passion for transformation, for transcendence. Don Draper is in love with transcendence, which is another way of saying that he is in love with change. So he is trying to change himself by trying to visualize his origins differently. I feel like these 3 am visions were merely part of a series, visions he’s been trying on for months, ever since Betty let him come back home. I think he is trying to really become a father, to really be a part of his family, and for him this means figuring out who his family really was. You could accuse me of reading too much into this, but – as proved by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s interviews – there’s no such thing as reading too much into Mad Men. The smallest details are carefully thought through, which means that they bear contemplation.
It’s a struggle for Don to really become part of his family again – to give up his glamorous secret life. What he’s left with is a bitter, rather shallow wife; two children he hardly knows; and a home he’s heretofore barely lived in. We’ve rarely seen Don performing mundane tasks, as we do in these opening shots – his home has rather been a staging area for him, a place for him to play to role of Don Draper for business associates and neighbors. It’s melancholy to see Don Draper, Man of Intrigue, rumpled and puttering around the kitchen. It’s a harbinger of old age; of mundanity; of the quiet desperation of our own lives.
Most viewers want Mad Men (and indeed, most television) to operate as an escape from their own prosaic lives. The ad campaigns leading up to the premiere promised this – watch Mad Men, they implied, and you too will be, for a brief shining moment, handsome, debonair, immaculate, and fabulous. Many viewers were disappointed with this premiere – they wanted zazz, they wanted pop. What they got was a middle-aged man mulling over his past; another one in the throes of sexual frustration. Yes, Don had his sexual adventure, but it was curiously empty, despite the pneumaticness of the stewardess in question. They complained that Don is getting maudlin, Don’s sexual adventures are getting boring, we wanted more Joan, why is she married, why didn’t Sal get to do it.
I contend that we didn’t get the Mad Men we wanted, but we did get the Mad Men we needed. In the end, this is not really a show about how glamorous the past was. Yes, they have their fun showing everybody smoking and drinking and so on, but we also have to pay for it – we see Roger suffer his heart attack; we see Joan get raped; we see the squalid, mother-occupied walk-up of the beautiful bra model that Pete fucks. Nobody gets away with anything, least of all Don Draper. We’ve started with a dodgy vision of the past because none of these characters can really visualize the future. They’re unreliable narrators – Don most of all.
The moments between Don and Sal were lovely. Don needs a male friend – he doesn’t really have any, especially since Roger’s botched seduction of Betty – and it will be interesting to see if their relationship develops. For that matter, Sal is rather friendless as well. I could tell, somehow, by the look in the bellhop’s eyes when they entered the elevator, that he was into Sal. Kudos to that young man. He seemed ready to grapple with the future with both hands, and his strength was enough for the both of them. I think they did make hay while the sun shone, as evidenced by Sal’s late entry to the meeting the next morning. Sal could never visualize what life will be like for gay men twenty years from now – never mind today. But Don’s advice, as expressed through his London Fog campaign, may prove to serve Sal well. In a weird way, Don might be Sal’s ideal mentor in gaining a valid sex-life.
Joan’s spirit seems broken, as evidenced by her acquiescing to Moneypenny’s request for his own office. I took this as a sign that marriage is very much not agreeing with her. The old Joan would never had taken guff from somebody who, after all, is just another secretary. But the old Joan was not a sustainable Joan – she needs to become somebody new, especially since her youth is fleeing her. Much as we may yearn for Joan to be a vixen, for Don to be a Don Juan, for Sal to come out of the closet, for Pete to get over himself, and for Roger not to keel over again and die, that’s just not the way it works. Few of us can transcend our circumstances, our fatal flaws. The ad campaign for this season of Mad Men should have been Mad Men: You Just Can’t Win or Mad Men: A Show About Mortality and Limitations. Perhaps then viewers could have gotten over their initial disappointment and enjoyed what was there – the wonderful tenseness between Joan and Peggy on their commute; Betty’s snippish edicts; “budding lesbian” Sally’s refreshing honesty (despite that parentage!); that London fog metaphor (it was never really fog!); et al.
See you next week for Mad Men Season 3 Episode II: Existential Bugaloo.
*The most elegant example of this being, of course, the planning of Roger’s daughter’s wedding for the day after Kennedy gets assassinated.