Monday, March 26, 2012


Mad Men, Season Five, Episode 1/2, "A Little Kiss"

Change was evident everywhere--from the opening moment in which Sally Draper went down the strange hallway, stacked with moving boxes, stopping at her father's bedroom door that she (at least claimed) thought belonged to the bathroom and peeked in to see the new stepmother, naked in bed. We SAW the civil rights protesters, moved up North to the very doorstep of Don Draper's ad agency, rather than just heard them as background 'noise' on the radio or television as in previous seasons. Sixties gender tensions were addressed in new ways. Almost all the main characters possess new domiciles: Pete, Trudy, and baby moved from Manhattan to the suburbs, with the commuter train flashing the countryside out the windows as the visible marker to Pete--and to us--of the difference in his life; Don made the reverse move from suburbs to city as he and Megan now reside in a spacious, modern, enviable Manhattan apartment; Joan, her new baby, and visiting mother are in too-close quarters in a new place that has to win the 'most hideous '60s mismatched colors decor' award with the orangey paint/turquoisy curtains combo, though the wall color brought out the red highlights in her hair so beautifully that when she was in the room, it didn't look so bad. I guess that can somewhat sum up my feelings about this long-awaited season opener: when Joany was in it, it wasn't so bad--it was actually good; other parts felt too disjointed, superficial, and uncomfortable though intriguing.

The episode hit the major 1960s themes of changes in gender and race relationships--changes the well-off and powerful white men of Madison Avenue don't want to face. It also obliquely and briefly touched on class differences, through repeated references to never-shown cleaning women (if one more mention was made of saving people's messes for "the girl," I was ready to throw my wine glass at the screen) and through Lane's interactions with the wallet owner and his "girl," Dolores. Yet, it did all of this by commodifying the women, the protesters, the '60s movements in ways I wasn't ready for, and--idealist that I am--don't like. That commodification didn't happen in the real-world outside Madison Avenue until the 1970s. I guess it makes sense that a show about advertising would represent and tackle commodification sooner, but I'm with Megan here, when she berated Peggy: "What's wrong with you people? You're all so cynical! You don't smile; you smirk."

While the show is taking racial issues on more directly, allowing us to actually see and hear the African-American protesters who had been 'water-bombed' from the window of the young, racist, white men of a rival ad firm, we are offered no means to a connection with these people. They are there and gone. The SCDP reception room full of African-American job applicants at the end of the show revealed something of the numbers of earnest job seekers to combat the taunts of the punks in the first scene ("Get a job!") but they did not realize they were the brunt of a joke and just filed silently and name-lessly out of the office after handing a resume to Lane. I miss Carla, whose presence and experience in the Draper home of past seasons offered a concrete narrative through which to craft meaning out of the snippets of civil rights movement stories. I got to know and care for her. Personal story was missing from this episode--as exemplified by the missing Carla and her peers--the "girls" who clean up after Don and Megan and even Joan. We see the beginning of the ad world's commodification of 60s movements when the baked bean clients reject Peggy's 'bean ballet' campaign with a complaint that beans have represented the Depression and the War; now the clients want them "to be cool." They ask for images of college students sitting-in, cooking baked beans on a hot plate. Or maybe protesters, carrying signs in favor of beans.

This episode's presentations of Joan and of Megan offer two different approaches to the sixties' problem of the public/private, work/home split that more middle-class, white women encountered as they began to hold jobs while mothering children (black women and poorer white women had always done so in much larger numbers). I can certainly relate more to Joan's dilemma. Her argument with her mother, who tells her that Greg's "not going to allow you to work," rang true to me: "Allow me!" "Whither thou goest, I will go," her mother argues, quoting the biblical book of Ruth. "And how did that work out for you?" the ever-practical and strong Joan retorts. The scene between Joan and Lane was sweet. She genuinely values her job and the opportunity to use her strong leadership and organizational skills. She knows she misses it, while she still cares for her baby. Lane seems to get it when he responds to her, "It's home, but it's not everything. I do understand." And, he's the only man who willingly holds the baby for a moment. Roger breezes on past this child he's spawned to plant a kiss on Joan's cheek (It must have made her hold her breath for a few seconds when he strode down the hall, calling out "Where's my baby?"); Pete is left with the buggy for half a minute and sneers, "Do I suddenly appear to be wearing a skirt?" (I don't think I'll have time to get to Pete in more depth, so will just say here that I never thought he could get more petulant and whiny than he was in past seasons. He certainly has a point about how much business he brings in, but sheesh! Though I did enjoy him sending Roger off to Staten Island at 6 a.m.)

Megan, on the other hand...I still don't like her, but I felt both sad and embarrassed when watching her last night. She rejects the cynicism of her co-workers, but I found her blend of naivete and exhibitionism troubling. One could write an extended, academic, Lacanian analysis of this episode and the way it utilizes "the gaze." Don't worry; I'm not going to do that here, but the scenes of her singing and dancing for Don/the guests and repercussions from that performance offered much to reflect on with regard to the commodification of women and objectifying gazes. In the process, she represents a very different take on the public/private, work/home split than that shown through Joan's story. From the beginning, all eyes are on 'Mr. and Mrs. Draper' as they walk into the office, often late. She's stylish, modern, with an Audrey Hepburn look about her. He's sharp, but looks to be from another era, still always in suit and tie, with hair slicked back. Don is aware and protective of others looking at Megan and what that might mean. She seems oblivious to the sexual politics and attitudes that will turn her into an object. They could be seen as the epitome of the modern, liberated couple, marrying the public and private, work and home worlds with their united presence at both office and home. But, that's shown not to work as the episode grinds on. She seeks to merge office and home life by throwing the party--much to Don's chagrin. With her singing and dancing routine, she demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of the sexual politics of her era. Harry Crane is only the most obvious of the men, but I expect he just expressed what was going on in the heads (and you can read that however you want) of the others as well. Harry's a pig, but she's incredibly clueless if she thought her blurring the lines of her private relationship with Don and the public relationships of the SCDP workers wouldn't evoke that sense of sexual entitlement. And let me be clear: I'm not saying in any way shape or form that her treatment by Harry is her fault or she's responsible. Just that a woman needs to be aware of reality to survive in a world like that. Or was she clueless? Did she know what she was doing? She seemed genuinely upset to hear Harry's lecherous fantasy. Yet she subjected herself before Don in such a calculated way: she looked sexy when she first took off her robe to reveal the black, lacy underwear, but then to crawl around on all fours, "cleaning," muttering her sense of distance between her and Don: "You don't like presents; you don't like nice things. You're just old. You probably couldn't do it anyway." "You don't get to have this. You only get to watch..." Look at me; don't look at me; let's be a modern couple; let me represent just subjected sex and housecleaning--provoking him to assert himself and put her back in her place. The scene was--all at the same time--twisted, smartly representative of the royally screwed-up gender relations on the cusp of the Second Wave, and full of lousily-written dialogue that sounds like it came from a bodice-ripper novel. Then, in their post-coital conversation, Megan says, "I love going to work with you because you love work and you love me." Don replies, "I don't care about work. I want you at work because I want you." I'm not quite sure how to unpack that, but it's in sharp contrast to Joan's clarity about work, child, and husband and to Megan's assertions from last season about wanting to do what Don does. Perhaps it's age, experience, and maturity that allows Joan the perspective she has.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm looking forward to Betty being back next week.

Let me know what you think. I know there have to be a lot of different takes on this episode.