TV Club

Mad Men premiere: The generational divide gets deeper.

Pete Campbell is beginning to show his years.

See all of Slate’s coverage of Mad Men, Season 5 here.

Mad Men (Season 5)
The old men of Mad Men

Photograph by Michael Yarish/AMC.

Monsieur Swans, Mademoiselle Turner:

This is what I love about Mad Men: During the aerial bombardment by Young & Rubicam that opened last night’s episode, I was jarred by a couple of things. First there was a moment of disorientation—I’m watching ad men in an office, but I don’t recognize the ad men, or the office. Has SCDP moved again? Have they brought on new staff? Then that gave way to a more serious concern: Like any veteran water ballooner, I was struck immediately by the curious durability of the paper bags at Y&R. “Where do you find paper bags that can hold up to water?” I wondered aloud.

After a moment’s reflection, I caught myself, remembering that you should never bet against the period accuracy of props in a Matthew Weiner production. In the 1960s, paper bags were simply made of sturdier stuff, I concluded. There was no other plausible explanation.

As it turns out, my faith was not misplaced, because the sequence is based on an actual episode, involving real protesters, genuine scallywags who really were from Y&R, one soaked 9-year-old, and an Executive Floor showdown featuring the line, “And they call us savages.” (An utterance that struck me as a little broad for this show, until I realized that someone actually said it.) The original water balloons? Paper.

Man Men is back, its flourishes and fetishes intact.

With the cataclysmic prospect of 1968 now visible on the horizon, last night’s episode honed in on one of the show’s long-standing preoccupations: the fissures that divide close but distinct generations. What the party signified, for me, was how outmoded many of our characters have suddenly become. The colleagues who seemed so effortlessly cool in the early 1960s are beginning to look hopelessly square. Once upon a time, Don and Roger were a generation apart, because they had served in different wars. Now they’re just a couple of old dudes. “You’re wondering what they’re laughing about,” Roger murmurs, as Don watches his wife banter and smoke with her friends. “It’s not you.” Even Peggy, who was always a bit of an old soul but can’t be that much older than Megan, is momentarily struck dumb by the suggestion that everyone will leave the party and get it on. (An accurate prediction, it’s worth pointing out, at least in the case of the unsuspecting Mrs. Crane. Unless you’re right, Julia, and Harry is only feigning interest in the ladies.)

While the Civil Rights Movement may have intruded on the cloistered world of SCDP more conspicuously in this episode than in any other, you could argue that the Sexual Revolution did as well. It’s funny to think of a compulsively promiscuous hound like Draper as a prude, but Don’s erotic license has always been rather narrow (infidelity, lots of it, and always behind closed doors). When his young wife flaunts her sexuality in front of his colleagues, prompting my favorite exchange of the evening (Roger to Jane: “Why don’t you dance like that?” Jane to Roger: “Why don’t you look like him?”), Don is so embarrassed that he goes to bed solo, in a huff.

I’m not quite ready to retract the dingbat label, but ooh la la, can Megan shimmy. “The camera literally was made to film a couple of things,” Weiner told John, in cagey reply to a rather prescient question, “and dancing is one of them.” After that showstopper last night, he might have added, “QED.” You’re right, Swans, that Megan is going to take this story in interesting directions. She has been so over-the-top accommodating thus farmaking the coupons, throwing the party, dancing her ditty, then, as soon as the last guest has left, announcing, “I should probably clean up”—that she reveals Don as a guy who is incapable of taking yes for an answer. We predicted last week that marital bliss would be short-lived for these two, but I love the idea that this time around, it might be Don who is subjected to some indignity for a change. I don’t know who Mrs. Draper’s decorator is, Julia, but here’s hoping that her plumber is Apollo.

The other fascinating generational twist in last night’s episode was that Pete Campbell has grown up. Did it strike either of you, when he took the commuter line home and walked into his kitchen, that he might as well have gone ahead and bought the Draper house in Ossining? (Confidential to the design department: There was no sign, in the new digs, of the Campbells’ excellent giraffe—or maybe cat?triptych. If you’re looking to unload the original, I want in on the bidding.)

Beleaguered and (Jane Sterling suspects) possibly going bald, Mad Men’s consummate Young Turk is beginning to show his years. Indeed, if last night’s episode is anything to go by, Pete may be struggling to hack the very ad-man lifestyle which, as an accounts guy, he once personified. No smoking in the office?! How the mighty fall. Some of this is simply the toll of Pete’s ambition, of course, and I loved the stunt of wedging all four fellow partners into his office couch. But while there’s no question that Pete is a workhorse, he’s also gratingly entitled. That Equal Opportunity Employer line in Roger’s ad in the Times signaled the advent of affirmative action, and given Pete’s particular combination of hard work and Dyckman breeding, I’m guessing he’ll greet the changes afoot in the workplace with a strident defense of color-blind meritocracy.

There is so much more to discuss—the happenings on the beans account (another great generational-divide moment, when the Heinz guy spitballs, maybe it’s someone with a picket sign saying, “We Want Beans!”); Oldsmobile’s challenge to find a way around Nader; and Lane’s entirely mystifying brush with Mr. Polito. I also have to wonder, Julia, if we’re going to read Harry Crane as Weiner telling us what he really thinks about TV people, what we should make of the show’s only journalist, Peggy’s boyfriend Abe, announcing at the party: “I just want to take my pants off and slide on the carpet.”

But for now, I have an early ferry to catch.