See all of Slate’s coverage of Mad Men, Season 5 here.
Well, that was fun! You’re right, John, that the Mad Men season premiere wasn’t a thrilling, plot-driven potboiler. But it was a joyful revue featuring the gang at its finest, with each character making us laugh by being so delightfully him- or herself. I loved Roger’s simpering rendition of “Frere Jacques.” The absurd boa Harry Crane sported while shouting “oui, oui” as Megan danced. Pete tripping face-first into that cement support beam. Joan asserting (of the plumber, Apollo), “This apartment has never had trouble getting his attention.” It was a veritable bean ballet.
I was so delighted to see everybody that I had to sympathize with Joan when she confessed to Lane, “I keep thinking about what’s going on here and I missed it too much. It’s too embarrassing!” The premiere finds Joan handling the male apparatus with less than her usual aplomb—applying soothing salve to the irritated butt of her baby while snapping at her mom. She’s “cooped up,” frazzled, and at her wit’s end—missing her job at SCDP and unsure whether it will be waiting for her when she gets back. We’ve rarely seen Joan exuding anything but knowing competence, so it’s startling to see how motherhood undoes her. And the way she brightened at Lane’s reassurance that her replacements “couldn’t operate a parking meter—they’re imbeciles!” broke my heart.
Of course, Joan wouldn’t have been so worried if it weren’t for Roger’s prank. After rival firm Young & Rubicam is humiliated when its ad men lob water bombs onto black protesters on the street below, Sterling places an ad in the New York Times declaring SCDP an equal-opportunity employer. “Our windows don’t open,” the copy reads. “We are committed to proving that Madison Avenue isn’t all wet.” Amazingly, Roger is sophisticated enough to see that Y&R’s behavior is a disgrace—he’s aware of the civil rights movement, and a well-bred boy like him understands good manners, at least—but it never dawns on him that the protests are about actual people looking for actual jobs. When the SCDP lobby fills with earnest black applicants—and Y&R sends over a tribal statue with a resume pinned to it—the firm is forced to take the job-seekers seriously. It’s perfect: What drives the firm to integrate is not a noble new enlightenment in its thinking, but the oldest motive of all, the desire not to look like an ass at the club. It’ll be fascinating to see how the new hire fares.
Would it be rude to note here that I totally called it when it comes to where we find Megan? Married to Don; working as a creative, not a secretary; and ruffling Peggy’s feathers. I enjoyed the subtlety of Megan and Peggy’s rapport. Peggy seems to respect Megan’s work and give her good feedback, but she’s powerless to say no when Don asks if Megan can knock off early, and she can’t be thrilled that Don now reviews bean mockups with just Megan, not “the rest of the team.” Still, they have some camaraderie: She gives Megan good advice about the guest list for Don’s party, and is amused by her promise that “everyone is going to go home from this, and they’re going to have sex.” And she savors the tidbit of gossip Megan shares, that Don can’t stand Harry Crane. (Has there ever been a show that better understands the pleasures of office scuttlebutt? Consider Joan’s glee as Lane recounts Megan’s “burlesque.”)
Speaking of Harry Crane, what has gotten into him? The formerly buttoned-up character has become a louche lout, wearing marabou, cracking mean jokes about his wife, pantomiming sex with the boss’s wife, wheedling money out of Roger in exchange for giving up his office. Two theories on his devolution: First, he’s Matthew Weiner’s fuck-you to Hollywood. Harry was never such a buffoon until he started heading up the TV department and hobnobbing with agents and studio execs. Perhaps he’s Weiner’s way of critiquing the crass mores and customs of La La Land. Or—theory two—maybe Harry is a closeted gay man. Why else would he say so aggressively that Megan’s suave bandleader is “queer.” That he wants to grab Megan by “her French behind and push her through those cheap, post-war walls.” That when he got home from the party he was so aroused his wife Jennifer “didn’t know what was coming.” All that exhibitionist sexuality protests a bit too much, no? And why didn’t Jennifer come to the party, anyway? Are we certain they’re still hitched?
John, I’m afraid I can’t defend Lane’s wallet fol-de-rol. Will he ever tire of sweet, young American girls who aren’t his wife? I suppose Lane is yet another instance of a seemingly respectable man—Cary Grant accent and all—disguising his inner perv, but I’m never quite sure what Lane Pryce is doing on the show, as much as I respect Jared Harris’ acting. Is he supposed to represent the allure America holds for outsiders? Whatever it is, I suspect the Dolores subplot has less to do with Lane’s kinks than with Dolores’ wiseguy boyfriend. I bet we’ll be seeing Mr. Polito again this season. And if Weiner & co. are laying the groundwork for mob hijinks a few episodes down the road (and if those mob hijinks might bring Dr. Faye Miller back into the picture) I’m content to spend a bit more time with Polito and his girl.
I’ll leave it to Patrick to address John’s point about showhorses and workhorses, but I will say one thing: For a showhorse, Roger is demonstrating considerable hustle. The sight of him dressing up at 5 a.m. to steal Pete’s fake Coca-Cola lead in Staten Island bespeaks a real panic about the authority he’s lost at the firm.
I’m also curious to hear what you both made of Apollo the plumber—was it just me, or is it possible he and Joan have a past? There was some bite in the way Joan declared, “It is one thing to have him work here, it is another to give him cake and my baby.”
And how about Don’s new “cheap, post-war” digs? That’s classic New York white brick we see in the terrace scene—a mid-century style of building that’s now derided by some as an eyesore while marked by others for preservation efforts—and though Harry doesn’t care for it, Mrs. Pryce does.
Don’t forget to get the name of Megan’s real estate agent. And her decorator.