Monday, March 26, 2012

Mad Men Buries The Lede

Mad Men's long awaited season 5 kicked off with a bang and a bit of a whimper. It gave us the great set pieces which we've grown so accustomed to and resolved some lingering plotlines while setting up others for the season, but you could say that nothing really happened over 2 hours. At first glance, and this isn't really a criticism, the premiere was really nothing but a chance to mingle with some of the best-written characters on television. The most talked about moment was the "Zou Bisou Bisou" serenade, and while it was certainly a great scene it distracted from all the plot this episode actually advanced. And I think that was by design: Mad Men buried the lede. (Yes, I do realize the irony in the fact that I put this sentence at the end of my first paragraph. So sue me.)

The only criticism that I've heard consistently levied at Mad Men is that it's a "slow" show, but the end of season 4 was almost soap-operatic in its pace. Don was proposing marriage to a woman he barely knew, while still in his first truly adult relationship. The only problem was that relationship was not with the woman Don proposed to. Roger was sinking and Pete was rising, both of them facing problems at home. Peggy was bitching about the limitations of her gender in the workplace, literally calling bullshit. Joan had decided to keep Roger's baby. Even Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, whose relative stability had long been an anchor for the show, was facing major upheaval and maybe going to go under. The season closed with Don staring contemplatively (some might say Jack Donaghy-esque) up into his office window, surrounded by the trappings of his own professional mastery but still so close to losing it all.

Maybe we expected equal drama and for Matt Weiner to keep upping the stakes, but instead he took his foot off the gas. This wasn't a "slow" episode of Mad Men, but I'll admit that not a lot happened. It was pretty quickly paced and wickedly funny, with no scene approaching the drama of Don revealing his true identity to Betty (to name one of many from previous seasons). Still we learned a lot even without the show hitting us over the head with the information. Lane's wife is back in the states, and still concerned about money and status. Pete and Trudy have relocated to Westchester and remain the show's most alluring couple (and I'm going to be asking for a beagle to scare away gophers for every birthday until I get one). Roger, not prone to Don's literal talent for reinvention, looks more and more a relic of the black-faced past.

It's maybe 8 months since the end of season 4 and just about every major plotline has reached some sort of stasis. Don has married Megan. Joan has had the baby. The company is now at least treading water. All of this happened off-screen, but their reveals still allowed the show to do what it does best.

Joan's walk through the office with baby carriage in tow was like film-editing 101. Characters were shuttled in and out of the scene quickly, with added subtext to each combination of people. Roger greets Joan with a big "that's my baby" and then proceeds to apprise his illegitimate child. Then, the women of the office crowd around Joan, but when all are forced to leave, Peggy is left holding Joan's baby. The scene which had been shot close up and almost claustrophobically cuts back to a wide angle, as Peggy stands mystified and alone in the hallway. When next we see Peggy, who really doesn't want to be holding a baby, she's pushing a carriage and talking to Pete, yet another callback to what could have been. None of these conflicts were acknowledged in dialogue, and to Mad Men's credit it didn't contain any forced scenes about it. It all just happened.

The company's status, too, showcased Mad Men in high gear. Pete, it turns out, has been holding the accounts side of SCDP together almost by himself, and as anyone who has watched the show could probably guess, wants to be recognized for it. Specifically he wants Roger's office, but Roger is not about to give it to him. I've always loved when the show covers office politics, and the story-lines with Harry Crane losing his office (for sexual harassment that would now be completely fire-able) and Pete sending Roger on a wild goose chase to Staten Island were excellent. We also finally saw Peggy get knocked down a bit. She has had very few missteps in her rise through the ranks of SCDP, showing an almost Don-like competence, but in this episode she suffers through an unsuccessful pitch and later gets drunk and bitches to Don and his bride Megan about working hard when Don seems not to care at all. I have a feeling Peggy's glass ceiling issues are going to be prevalent in this season, especially as Don seems less and less concerned with work, and I thought the show set that in motion nicely.

Most important of the story-lines, Don Draper isn't the Don Draper we all knew anymore. The most telegraphed of the resolutions (Peggy says that line about Don almost word-for-word), it was also the most fraught. "Don Draper" is always a construction, and this "Don Draper" is different. He's no longer so manically driven by work. He's told his wife about his identity, which he only divulged to Betty when she confronted him, and Megan even kids him about it. And when Megan storms home upset that Don didn't like her party, he follows her (though maybe he had a premonition of what would happen). The old Don never allows Betty that kind of power, intent on asserting his mastery in everything, and he would have treated her like the child which she is, but this Don has changed, maybe even softened. When he tells Megan post-coitally that he let her get a white rug because he wants her to have everything, shades of old broken promises to so many other women, he seems sincere. This relationship isn't a healthy one, but it's a lot more interesting than I feared it might be.

Of course, being Mad Men, the episode's not about any of those things. (Burying the lede, again. I love it when thoughts I have come full circle.) I got bogged down in all the inter-personal minutiae, but it's 1966 and this season of Mad Men is finally about race. The show has addressed race before, namely with Lane Pryce and the chocolate bunny (I have claimed Lane Pryce and the Chocolate Bunnies as a band name in case anyone's asking), but this race-themed book-ending seemed more deliberate. We saw protesters and all the typical symbols of social unrest, and even SCDP essentially fumbling their way into hiring a black secretary. We saw conversations about Vietnam permeate Megan's surprise party for Don, except with Pete who apparently has left himself no options to talk about at parties since sex, politics, and religion are off the table. Issues of race and social change are coming to Mad Men whether the characters like it or not (Roger most certainly not), and this episode laid down that subtext beautifully, not allowing the social context to overwhelm everything else great about the show.

Nothing really happened, as once again everything is happening around these characters. Mad Men is still good for a few moments every episode which no other show can touch - think Megan's slow walk to the balcony, a scene which almost no other show would dare, or Don applying shaving cream with the brush his children gave him, a wordless and beautiful scene. It's still funnier than most comedies, beautifully shot and acted, and capable of real dramatic ethos. Most importantly, it's back. And I couldn't be happier. (Yes, I buried the lede there, too.)

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