Mad Men: A Little Kiss
For anyone who says that America doesn’t have a fine sense of irony — I’m looking at you, England — consider Mad Men.
In an age of video streamery and digital recording magickery, which turn commercial breaks into fast forward moments, we held our collective cultural breath for the show’s return on Sunday.
It seems we’re not interested in seeing Don Draper’s work. Only the tortures he endures to make commercials that we now ignore.
For you time-shifters who still haven’t caught up, I offer you my spoiler – free review, which I tweeted Monday.
For the rest of you, a few thoughts.
You would think Sunday’s episode was only about a song called, ‘Zou Bisou Bisou’, a catchy little French tune that lodged itself into my skull like a worm into Checkov’s ear.
The song was the present Don got from his new wife, who seems bound and determined to single-handedly set the women’s movement back to the 1860’s. This is the present the show gave us, as it sped the single onto iTunes.
But the episode, like the show, was about change. This is no great secret. Matthew Weiner has said as much.
The way the show explores change, though. You either love or hate it.
Because each season is really about the final episode. That’s where the status quo gets tossed out the window and the events of the season make their mark and set the table for what’s to come. Last episodes are when people find out Don Draper is Dick Whitman. Or the principals have a merry time deciding to start their own agency in the dead of night. (Best episode yet, IMO.)
Last season, we ended with Don Draper proposing to his secretary (!), Joan pregnant, and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce trying to figure out how it was going to win some business and keep the lights on.
The song the show COULD have used, but would have been a little on the nose, was Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”. But ever since Watchmen tanked, Hollywood is avoiding setting any moods with that song.
Sunday opened with a bit of a slap upside our collective heads with changes that swirl around the agency and the country. (Maybe the fear after almost two years away is that we forgot about subtlety.)
We open on a bit of Civil Rights picketing on Madison Avenue, which the writers play with as a kind of 1960’s Occupy movement. Three douchebags from Young and Rubicam, another Madison Avenue ad agency, toss water balloons down on the marchers. Probably not the kind of product placement anyone at Y+R would hope for. Especially since, as it turns out, this really happened. (Full disclosure: I work for Ogilvy.)
Other changes abound. The clothes and furniture are a little mod-ier, an explosion of color across this gray, sharp world. Don has a swanky new pad in the city. It looks like a bachelor’s apartment, even though he’s married. (Take that, suburbs!) Generational gaps are obvious, between Don and his younger co-workers. And the talk. It’s not as hushed. The gossip is open, sexual. It all makes sense. We’re in 1966. The revolutions are coming.
Through it all, Don wears a look. He only has three, really. This is meant as no insult to John Hamm’s acting. He makes the show. He IS the show.
There is Angry Don. Smug, smirking Don. And Incredulous Don, the one where he has his mouth lightly open. We see a lot of Incredulous Don. In the office. At home. Around his wife. At his birthday party.
This look does not bode well for Mister Draper, as he gazes upon a world he once intuitively understood, with a look that says, instead, “I have no idea what the fuck is going on right now.”
The 1960s were the time where the advertising industry was not just plugged into the cultural zeitgeist, they were mainlining it. How much rain can the agency’s rainmaker make if he can’t make heads or tails of the times? (Here’s a new Mad Men drinking game: Down seven Scotches and say the previous sentence five times fast while trying to put slides in a projector. Good luck to you.)
There’s a bigger problem.
Don is happy.
He’s a weekend Dad. He didn’t see Betty. (Neither did we, which is fine by me. Maybe January Jones was too busy eating her placenta to show up to film a couple scenes.) He can’t keep his hands off his new wife. He doesn’t appear to be cheating. He’s clearly got bank, even if the agency is barely making payroll.
In fact, most people seem happy. Or happier than they have been. Don is, for intents and purposes, single again. Roger is flush with cash and booze. Joan has a baby and is returning to work. Peggy is a creative decision maker in the agency, even if she can’t sell for a can of beans.
The only exception is Pete, who spends his time seething about the size of his office. Career tip, based on the life of Pete Campbell: if you do your job for recognition, you’ll never get any because you’ll always be doing your work for the wrong reason.
But does being happy make you happy? Or is it the quest for happiness what gets you out of bed?
With this show, it’s probably neither. No one is ever, truly happy.
This is why we keep watching. Welcome to America of the 1960’s. It’s a lot like America of the 2010’s.
Zou bisou bisou, indeed.