TV Club

Mad Men season 5 recap: The return of Joan.

The glorious return of Joan to SCDP.

Mad Men.
Thank goodness for Joan, with her straight back and her primary colors.

Ron Jaffe/AMC.

Read an interview with Mad Men’s Pete Campbell, Vincent Kartheiser, about this episode here.

Dear John, Julia, André, and Maria,

First off, a hearty welcome to the Jacquemettons! Having a couple of actual story editors from the show in our midst is a rare, if mildly intimidating, opportunity. Given the obsessive morning-after speculation that we often devote to the narrative construction of Mad Men, I have loads of questions I’d like to ask. But mindful of Ken Cosgrove’s formula for how to treat a special guest, I’ll pass you the big steak and confine myself to two:

Can you tell us a bit about how you braid the storylines on Mad Men with historical events? One of the delights of the show is that it feels so grounded in an actual calendrical reality, with the steady progression of real news stories keeping a kind of tempo that underscores, and occasionally interferes with, the narrative. Do you start with the intersecting arcs of your characters and then overlay the period detail? Or do you begin by studying the news of the day and then build your story on that foundation? Or some combination of both? I would have loved to be a fly in the writers room when someone realized that the marksman who killed 16 and wounded 32 at the University of Texas on Aug. 1, 1966 shared a surname with someone we know.

My second question is a bit more existential and relates to John’s terrific post last week in defense of recapping cable dramas. Is it strange to craft a TV show with an avid following like Mad Men’s when you are exposed to, even barraged by, an avalanche of fan-generated commentary and critique the very moment that the show hits the air? These days, a critical consensus on the merits of a given episode can start to come together on Twitter by the time the second ad break ends. Then you have a whole week’s worth of communal tea-leaf-reading of the sort we and our readers indulge in. Do you guys pay attention to all that chatter? Or is it distracting—or, worse, potentially distorting? Do you try to shield yourselves from it?

If this is the age of the Superviewer, how mindful—or oblivious—should TV writers be of the whims, the favorites, and the furies of their audience?

Very eager to hear your reflections, but on to the business at hand:

I might have guessed you’d love this episode, Swansburg, given your soft spot for Ben Hargrove—or Ken Cosgrove, for those who hadn’t known his nom de plume. I confess I was a bit taken aback by Cosgrove’s literary migration from Frostian pastoral into that netherworld between fantasy and science fiction, a genre populated by “robots and plants and things.” Of the story in Galaxy about “the girl who lays eggs,” Peggy can muster only a “Wow.” But if he’s breakfasting with FSG, Cosgrove must be keeping it reasonably high-end. If they do offer to publish the Hargrove compendium, it’ll be interesting to see whether Ken bids adieu to advertising altogether.  Really, why would he, when he can count on the avuncular musings of fellow unappreciated author Roger Sterling?

“My wife likes fur,” Roger says, when Cosgrove tells him that … uh … Cynthia enjoys his writing. “You don’t see me growing a tail.”

For Roger, Ken’s literary career may seem threatening, given the resounding silence that greeted the (self-)publication of Sterling’s Gold. But for Pete, with his zero-sum sense of the universe, it must be unsettling to discover that while he was investing every ounce of his spiritual energies to conquer his colleagues in the ad game, Cosgrove was swapping out dinners for drinks, and conserving his intellect for a higher pursuit.

Poor, sniveling Pete. Having sweated his way to a junior partnership and whined until he got a windowed office, you would think he could just relax and enjoy the fruits of his conniving.  But he’s as clammy as ever over dinner in his suburban home, his upper lip glistening from the sheer exertion of a leisurely meal with colleagues. “Yes to dessert. Still having too much fun for coffee!”

But did either of you wonder at the esteem Pete and Ken show for Don during the dinner? We’ve remarked already that the times have caught up with Don, and he’s not the cool cat of seasons past. So it’s a bit strange, given Pete’s open contempt for S, disregard of C, and fisticuffs with P, to see him so puppy-dog desperate to win the approval of D. I suppose the real sign that Don is changing is not that Pete flatters him, but that Don allows him to do so, sporting his “country” blazer, ringing the doorbell with his finger, not his chin, and bothering to disapprove of Pete’s whorehouse shenanigans.*

I didn’t know they made New York taxis big enough to accommodate all the hypocrisy on display in that short ride to the near corner of 72nd Street. “You of all people,” Pete says, calling Don on his stern looks and nunnish disdain for the evening’s entertainment. And he’s right: Don carrying the torch for marital fidelity is about as credible as his tobacco mea culpa. But before you can feel any sympathy for Campbell, he blurts, “I was doing my job.”  Right, Pete. Keep up the good work.

How lovely to see Joan back in the office, with her straight back and her primary colors. In that moment after Lane kissed her when she walked off screen, I oscillated between an expectation that she would (a) leave the room—justifiably offended that Lane might misconstrue her kindness—or (b) lock the door, and have at him. But instead Joan chose (c), leaving the door ajar but taking no offense, with a composure that seems perfectly in character.

Julia, I’m hoping you can enlighten us about the specific implications of Peggy’s pact with Cosgrove. I also wonder if either of you share my feeling that Megan spends an awful lot of time in Don’s office. If the alternative was a desk in the bullpen, I’d probably do the same. But I see friction with colleagues on the horizon.

You want to take your teeth out, or should I knock them out?


Correction April 16, 2012: This dispatch originally misidentified the part of Don Draper’s face with which he mentioned ringing Pete Campbell’s doorbell. It’s his chin, not his nose. (Return to the corrected sentence.)