With Seth admirably establishing the larger context, I will proceed immediately to the hair. It’s a topic of little interest in my daily life (barring the $20 I give a guy named Damian once a month), so I hope the many barbers in Slate’s audience will add color in the comments. For this episode was a steady tonsorial tease. You could hear the scissors snipping, snipping, ever louder.
It built slowly. It’s not as if this is Friends and the title of the show was “The Premiere with the Hair.” Consider the open: After a few seconds of CPR, we cut to Megan’s bald and glistening navel, and we see the couple on vacation in Hawaii (as noted, Don [VO] recites Dante). CPR, a navel, and Dante is a lot of portent, even on the Mad Men portentousness scale, which starts above The Wire and stops right before Battlestar Galactica (remember that ding-ding Cylon warning-song?).
Then, later, at dinner, a woman in an old-fashioned (even for 1968) beehive praises Megan’s soap-opera acting. Megan is on a soap opera! Bully for her. And Megan and Don are classic, beautiful, sculpted. Here in paradise they look like the future, and this woman with her decrepit hairdo worships—literally worships—at the altar of Megan and To Have and to Hold (the soap).* Only when we are back in the bitter cold of New York do we see that despite their beauty, their ruddy success, Don and Megan lack contemporary hair.
The office—the office is bustling with bristles (and with client work—business is good). I found myself having to pause the episode and take in the faces. So many unusual mustaches or full beards. And there, suddenly, were Pete’s sideburns. It’s like he went to bed Charles Grodin and woke up Burt Reynolds. His side profile has become monumental, like that of a Civil War general after a tight shave. But Pete has little to do in the premiere, hopefully because they’re saving him up for lupus.
Peggy’s hair is OK, just OK, but she has spectacular hats. And knee socks, or somewhere-below-the-knee socks. She’s sending a lot of signals. Her career and freedom have brought her power. She is both feared and appreciated. (PSA: There is going to be some “lean in” discussion involving Peggy this week on the Internet. Brace yourself.) But given how often her head is covered, it is clear that Peggy is caught somewhere between two axes: the hide your true self/expose your true self axis (hat) and the old and powerful/young and free axis (haircut). Watch carefully here. (Also a nice bit of teasing when she nearly pulls the phone off the side table by its cord. Near mishaps with phone cords is the Mad Men equivalent of fan service.)
Peggy and Pete aside, no hair narrative was more profound than Betty’s. She seems to be on better terms with her mild plumpness. The show’s costumers keep dressing her in nightgowns that look like ironing-board covers but, thank God, along with her self-confidence she’s regained some of her evilness—never more than when she jokingly offers to assist her husband, Henry, in raping a 15-year-old sleeping over, then kisses him sweetly on the cheek. That scene brought out that sensation of fascination and disgust that this show, above all others, can produce. Later, when Betty visits an East Village squat in search of the same girl she offered in joke-sacrifice, I root for her as she explains to dangerous, dirty, and extremely hirsute youths how to make a goulash. Her blondness is shocking here. Finally one of the youths, the youth who said “grok,” snatches her purse and, eyeing her driver’s license, summarizes Betty thus: “Eyes blue, hair … bottled.”
Damning! But Betty is unbowed. She appears suddenly at home, in the kitchen, with a new cut—and a dye job. She’s gone dark. Her son hates the change and storms off. “Elizabeth Taylor,” says Henry, trying to please, “what have you done with my wife?” She has passed through an icy hell (Dante again, per Seth’s email) of shaggy misfits and emerged transformed.
Roger Sterling (sideburns, but no big deal) is in therapy, and his mother dies, and while there was much fine acting from John Slattery, some bits were off. First, he throws a tantrum at his mother’s funeral? Really? I mean, what? It was just an odd bit of business. Oh, sure, his mother loved him and so on. But come now. And then, later, when he is delivered of the shoeshine kit of a dead shoeshine man, oh woe, and is finally … able … to … grieve, it was forced, annoying in the regular flow of this show. To see Roger sob in his office should have been a pleasure reserved for later in the season, when we’re all tired and need it. The only thing that would redeem the narrative hokery is if we find out that the shoeshine kit was sent as a cruel joke by another SCDP employee, perhaps Ken (who has become nasty and territorial about his corporate turf).
There’s much to Don’s story, of course, and his fawning over a doctor while he schtups the doctor’s wife tells us that there could be some classic Don flailing this year, which is of course why we tune in. But the star of the premiere, the real focus for me, was the hair. Take away all the dialogue, sets, props, voices, and bodies. Leave only the beards, mustaches, and trims, moving through space and time. I posit that it would still be compelling viewing. Perhaps even more compelling. Such is the power of this show in our culture at this time. Mark me, peers, these are not mere beards.
Hanna, what did you think?
Don’t get me started on the sweaters,
Correction, April 12, 2013: This article misstated the name of the fictional soap opera Megan appears in. Though set in Berkshire Falls, the soap is called To Have and to Hold, not Berkshire Falls. (Return to the corrected sentence.)