Barker Chappell Daglas Mad Men Roundtable: “A Little Kiss”
The world doesn’t really need three more 4,000 word opuses on Mad Men each week, so Andy Daglas, Les Chappell and I decide to combine our powers for the sake of good (and brevity). After each new episode of Mad Men’s fifth season, the three of us plan to exchange a bunch of emails about the new developments at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and anything else MM-related that happens to be on our minds. Welcome to the Barker Chappell Daglas roundtable discussion. We hope to have each piece out by Tuesday, but who knows what will happen as we move forward. If you have ideas or feedback for us, please share it in the comments section or to any of the three of us on Twitter. Pour yourself a nice scotch, put on your favorite rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” and avoid that weird pillar in your office’s corner.
Cory: Les, Andy, welcome back to the 1960s, where tensions are boiling, and the French Canadian temptresses are even boiling-ier. We are here, of course, to discuss the long-awaited return of everyone’s favorite series with a bunch of racists and drunks, Mad Men. It has been more than 17 months since we last checked in with Don Draper, but somewhat surprisingly, it’s been less than a year in story time (we’re now at the beginning of June, 1966). Because of season four’s big quasi-cliffhanger in Don and Megan’s proposal (and Matthew Weiner’s ever-charming desire to keep a lid on, well, everything), there was a larger air of mystery hanging over the story. And yet, “A Little Kiss” shows a world that hasn’t changed as much as perhaps we might have guessed. Don and Megan did, in fact, get married and she’s now working under Peggy at the office. Joan had her baby and is struggling with what that means for her career. Pete has basically gotten everything that he wanted — major acknowledgement at work and a nice stable home life — but still pines for more, because that’s all he really knows how to do. Betty and Henry have moved in to their massive, towering house. And basically everything else is the same: Peggy’s still with Abe and still feeling unappreciated by her good work. Roger’s still mostly worthless and growing ever-aware of it. And Bert has somehow stumbled back into the office, but is even less relevant than before.
One of the things I love about Mad Men is that it strays away from introducing big, sweeping changes. Period pieces often fall victim to sudden shifts and generalizations as a way to provide “historical accuracy,” but this series is dedicated to depicting the minutia of life in such a way that we in the audience experience the cumulative effect of change without really having it forced down our throats. “A Little Kiss” hammers this home quite nicely by first showing us that very little has changed, but also by hinting out how important changes are brewing. On a macro level, the premiere is framed with a heavy dose of racial tension that critics have taken the series to task for avoiding for so long. And on a micro level, the two-hour episode’s set-piece, Don’s 40th birthday party thrown by Megan, features one beat after another reflecting the shifting footing for all the characters. Don obviously hates his birthday for reasons we can get into, but I couldn’t help but notice how out of place he looked at his own party, surrounded by Megan’s friends. The more the story progresses, the more Don and Roger become splitting images of each other: two powerful men, confused by different sexualities, annoyed by women with a certain kind of unabashed confidence.
I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, so I’ll leave it there for now. Where you guys “surprised” at anything that happened here, or anything that has apparently happened during the break?
Les: Once I got over the initial surprise at adjusting to how little time had comparatively taken place between seasons (thanks to Weiner’s paranoia on spoilers I was expecting more) I can’t really say that I was seriously surprised by anything that had happened in the premiere, chiefly because the show got into its groove with remarkable aplomb. One of the many reasons why I love Mad Men to the degree I do is that it has a better grasp on its characters and their complications than any other show on television, and I thought that everyone’s reactions were proportionate to how much time has passed since we saw them. Megan’s idea to throw a birthday party for Don was completely in keeping with her established desire to insert into Don’s professional and personal lives, and Don’s reaction to it – a priceless “No” once he realized what was coming – was perfectly in line with the self-reticence he’s presented in four seasons. The leaner times for the firm have pushed Pete and Roger to circle each other with more active animosity than either has exhibited before, with Roger actively working to insert himself into Pete’s clientele and Pete in turn finding ways to sabotage Roger or directly challenging him in front of the partners. And Joan’s commitment to her idealized image of a personal life has always been at odds with how much she loves her job – going back to season two when she was reading scripts – and being alone with a baby and her cougar of a mother are clearly wearing that comparison to the bone.
If I was surprised by anything in the episode, it would be Don and Megan and how much of the show’s action now spins on the axis of that relationship. For someone we only met halfway through last season, she’s now incredibly centric to the vibe of the office, to the point that it’s almost distracting when the two enter as “Mr. and Mrs. Draper” and Ken and Stan freely joke about what could be keeping them from being late. Certainly enough time has passed in the show’s universe for her to have worked her way in, but seeing her making a joke about Dick Whitman’s birthday is startling, given how long Don worked to keep that from Betty and how hard it was for him to give that piece of information to Faye. I think it’ll be very interesting to see how she meshes with the more established cast as the season goes on – I feel like Peggy likes her despite core reservations on how the relationship has thrown Don off his game, Roger sees her chiefly as a method to both needle Don and bond with him after a fashion, and the jury’s still out from the rest of the office. (Except for the now epic putz Harry, who can’t keep his mouth shut on her French dance and then confusedly trades his office for political reasons he barely understands but interprets as penance).
Andy, anything in particular that stood out to you, or that took you aback when you saw it?
Andy: Do you mean besides Campbell’s blazer? Yes folks, the message that time marches on is hammered home most powerfully at Megan’s surprise soiree, with its relatively youthful guest list and their retina-searing attire. Granted, it’s only a pale shadow of the aesthetic ignominy to come in the 1970s, but it’s also a far cry from the understated elegance of the gray-flannel-suit era which dominated only five or six years (and three or four seasons) earlier. Pete’s jacket alone wins fast-track membership in the Dickie Bennett’s Hair All-Stars.
Despite Pete’s refusing to discuss it at parties, more significant change is pushing in all around our SCDPers, although for now their focus is less on the tumult of the Civil Rights movement and more on the ordinary and eternal pressures of generational displacement. Megan’s party for Don – and much of their relationship throughout these first two hours – is as much an act of power as beneficence. Peggy’s shouldering even more of the creative load (if no more of the credit) at SCDP, where these days Don turns up just long enough to receive a birthday plant and ogle some birthday cleavage. Roger’s slide into irrelevance keeps gathering steam, to productive Pete’s endless and only partially assuaged vexation.
The youngsters* are ascendant, while their predecessors refuse to either evolve or clear the stage. The line that set off bells in my head was Don telling Megan: “More people think the way I do than the way you do.” If he was ever right about that, is he still? And is it possible for anyone, let alone people at the top of the food chain, to ever believe the converse?
The friction created by this ongoing transition – both interpersonal and sociological – is resonant and timeless. We all live through a period when the shifting tectonic plates of two generations finally collide. We’re in such a period right now, if you ask me, with the Boomers on the opposite side of the equation. That gives this season of Mad Men the potential to be particularly fascinating. The times, they are…um…wait, I had something for this.
*Peggy, Pete, et al. are a shade too old to qualify as Baby Boomers, technically, but in their views on topics like race and Vietnam they’re clearly representing that cohort against the Sterlings and Coopers of the world.
Cory, Les, how do you expect the events to come – both large scale and small – will inform life in and around SCDP? Will this season carry us all the way from the summer of ’66 to the Summer of Love? And is anyone in this universe even capable of contemplating such a concept?
Les: I’ll quickly agree with you on Pete’s blazer – it’s like he shot a thrift store couch with his rifle and proudly took it to a tailor. (On a related note I was very pleased to see he still has the rifle and his secretary carries it to his new office. I love the fact Weiner remembers those little bits of continuity.)
Definitely the theme of change is one that’s clearly running through this premiere, and the season as a whole according to interviews with both Weiner and John Slattery. We’ve seen signs of society moving forward as the show’s gone on – Don’s California sojourn in season two, Peggy’s warehouse beatnik gathering in season four – but this might be the first time where the Sixties feel like they’ve started to swing. Don’s whole apartment is decorated in a more “mod” style, his wife is singing him a French pop song and his co-workers are openly smoking marijuana on the balcony, every one of which would be alien to the cast of season one. It still feels like the show we’ve tuned into for years, but it seems to now be using a different palette to paint its message of personal conflict.
Can Don roll with the way society is evolving? Normally I’d say no – the man is so married to the concepts of nostalgia and idealization that the idea he’d embrace all this change at once is ridiculous. But as you pointed out Andy, we’re seeing a different Don Draper here, one who doesn’t seem as married to the job as he once was and who would rather be happy than focused. That’s certainly an attitude that’s going to bite him if he keeps it up – Peggy’s already lost patience with it – but I think it does put him in a less rigid position than he was in before.
As to the season itself, I think that last image of African-American applicants for SCDP jobs could turn out to be one of the driving plot points of the season, should they find themselves actually hiring one of them. The issue’s been forced into their faces after being previously limited to a bright idea by Pete or Paul trying to make himself seem more cultured, and I can entirely see the comparatively more open-minded Lane hiring one if they could scrape the funds together. There’s a lot of potential there and I hope they go down that road: it would give us internal strife as Peggy, Joan and the rest deal with a daily reminder of the struggle, and potential grief for the agency if they have a client who’s more dead-set in their prejudices. (Seriously, have they ever had a client who was actually a good guy?) At the very least, it’ll hopefully give Bert Cooper* a hilarious chance to say something politically incorrect.
*I’m incredibly happy to see Robert Morse hasn’t departed the series as it looked like he would when Cooper resigned. He just adds such a wonderful doddering flavor to the show.
What do you think Cory – are we headed for a “guess who’s coming to dinner” moment, or did you pick up on something else?
Cory: I’m very curious to see how this season plays out, especially on that macro level that we’ve been discussing. Generally speaking, Weiner has strayed away from directly engaging with the big cultural or social movements/events of the series’ timeline, as to avoid turning out like Forrest Gump. Instead, the series use those big moments to frame individual episodes or power individual responses (the JFK assassination immediately comes to mind, as does the fight from “The Suitcase”). And I’ve read defenses of Men that suggest that that the series’ inability to engage with the civil rights era is actually more historically accurate, considering it’s likely hard to imagine a bunch of rich white dudes from a different generation giving a shit about the inequalities in race or gender.
And yet here we are, with a season premiere that hints that the men (and women) of SCDP cannot avoid the swirling changes of the real world. As you guys noted, the social movements were less influential in the first half of the 1960s, but by this point IRL time, it was hard for anyone to avoid them. Therefore, it makes a whole lot of sense that this season would directly tackle the civil rights era, the drugs, the anti-war rhetoric and everything else that comes with late 1960s culture. I say I’m curious about this because if Mad Men takes this path, it almost has to introduce a major African-American character. Telling the story of the civil rights era through the eyes of a bunch of middle-aged white dudes probably isn’t the best approach. However, I’m a little weary of what a larger story like the civil rights movement has on the characters we know and love (warts and all). Not that I think it’s okay for Don or Roger to have their hands in the sand, nor do I think the series should avoid the events of the time. But, using this premiere to reinforce how, sort of, apathetic Don is about, well, most things, doesn’t necessarily line-up with him suddenly and miraculously opening his eyes to the oppression of African-Americans in episode nine. So if the series does go do that road on the macro level, it’ll need to still stay focused on Don.
I’d like to shift gears a bit to focus more on the characters, most specifically Don and Megan. We’ve all, in one way or another, addressed how this Don is not the Don we remember from the series’ early years. He doesn’t care about work and he’s basically not invested in the creative process at all, and yet, he does seem supremely invested in his relationship with Megan, and the one with his kids. In the early seasons, we constantly saw Don strive to be the great dad, but mostly fail because of he was too busy working, drinking or screwing. Now, he feels…settled. He’s happy making lots of money, but he’s happier to make his kids breakfast and have sex with his hot wife (who he apparently trusts enough to drop the Dick Whitman bomb, which, holy hell, I cannot believe THAT happened). Is it possible that Don now has the happy life he always hoped he could have with Betty, but never could because the fear of being “found out” pushed him away? Or is this just a honeymoon period for he and Megan? We’ve been given the impression that Don’s marriage to Betty started out pretty great as well (and it’s not like having sex with her didn’t constitute “having sex with his hot wife”), so perhaps this is just calm before the storm. Can Don Draper just be? Can he be happy?
Moreover, I really loved this episode because it gave us so much time with Megan. The events of the season four finale were difficult to swallow for some folks because we knew so little about Megan, and because she seemed like a pretty image on a bit of a power trip, and not much else (especially in comparison to the very complex, intelligent and mature Faye). But “A Little Kiss” works hard to show us who Megan really is. Yes, she can be childish, especially in her inability to understand the fundamental lack of value in surprise birthdays parties. And yeah, she’s a bit emotional, which stands out amid the cynical and glib world of SCDP. And definitely, she has a surprising amount of sway over Don — which might play a large role in this “new” Don — and knows exactly how to cash in on that sway. But, the episode still allows us to sympathize with Megan, I think. She is, after all, a pretty young thing that basically gets treated like one at work (nice work, Harry); when her peers aren’t talking about wanting to sex her up, they’re talking about how she’s sexing the boss. Plus, I think Megan actually cares about Don. She is engaging in some weird power plays, but her hurt feelings after the birthday party fiasco made it clear that the whole thing can from a place of love and affection. Moving forward, I’m excited to see how Don deals with being “settled” and how Megan either keeps him there, or eventually buckles to the pressures.
How do you guys feel about the new Draper clan?
Andy: Can Don Draper be happy? I tend to doubt it. If you’ll allow me to dabble in some wild psychological speculation, I think that right now Don is the moon – any light you see coming off him is just reflected from another source.
Megan makes for an interesting addition to this assemblage of tortured souls. Like you said Cory, she seems to wear her emotions on her sleeve, which is all the more striking when those emotions include things like “joy” and “contentment” – typically as little-seen around the SDCP offices as faces that aren’t lily-white. She even calls Peggy out on it, exasperated by the fact that nobody in her new universe ever smiles. Not to veer things back to the socio-political, but it brings to my mind the way the characters channel the state of the contemporary American psyche. In the early 60s, we met people whose veneer of simple contentment repressed secrets and angst. Here, entering the late sixties, we’re meeting someone whose exuberance might spark disorder, but also the possibility of liberation.
Of course, that isn’t a prospect that necessarily bodes well for the future of Mr. and Mrs. Draper. But it does introduce a great deal of potential for the character apart from being the secretary who bagged the boss. I quite liked Megan in this episode, and it’s interesting to think of her becoming a friend and counterpoint to Peggy, or a whole new kind of female role model for Sally. Either of those roads would likely create tension with Don, who may not be the most solid father figure (either real or surrogate), but who does like to keep control over those closest to him.
Megan made clear in “A Little Kiss” that Don’s control is going to have to be earned, though, and even then it won’t be complete. And while Don will never win any awards for enlightened thinking, he can be awfully adaptable when he needs to be (we’ve seen how his views of racial equality, or women like Peggy, or even Sal initially upon learning he’s gay, can be tempered by pragmatism). The question is, will Don consider this new lifestyle – and all the open-air marijuana and hip modern decor that go along with it – worth adapting to?
Cory: Don’s ability — or inability — to fit into the changing world has been one of the driving questions of the series. As you suggested Andy, he can be flexible, especially in the times that we’ve seen him California when he just let it all hang out. Despite my insistence that this version of Don is becoming more and more like Roger (i.e. a dinosaur), I do think that this version of Don, the one that’s let go of many of the hang-ups that drove him early on in the series, is more likely to continue going with the flow, even if he’s skeptical about it at first. There’s no question that Don is confused by the changing world around him and I don’t picture him as one who could carry any social issue-related torch. But Don is often…curious. And when we combine that curiosity with his obvious attraction to Megan, I think that yeah, Don could learn to love the youth-oriented lifestyle that will dominate the near future. Ultimately, I think it all boils down to his relationship with Megan. If that stays strong, and she continues to drag him along into a new generation, who knows what could happen.
Les: I’d agree with both of you that Don certainly has the capacity to adapt to these changing social norms, and the curiosity to engage with them more than a Roger Sterling would. But to embrace them fully? I find myself remembering the earliest interactions with Midge and the bohemian lifestyle in season one, where he shot down their arguments with opinions like “People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone.” He’s certainly willing to sample this culture and take bits and pieces when it suits him, but in the end he always goes back to the safety of being the man in the grey flannel suit.
When it comes to Don, I’ve always drawn a parallel to The Great Gatsby, in that Dick Whitman invented exactly the sort of Donald Draper that a young man of his broken upbringing would invent, and to that conception he is faithful to the end. Roger and Bert are married to the norms because it’s what they grew up in, Don’s married to the norms because it was his way out of a broken life. Certainly Megan is in a better position to bring him into this world – and he may personally be in a position to accept more of the changing culture than before – but this is still a man who ran the campaign for Nixon and bet on Sonny Liston because he was committed to the traditional way of doing things. I think if change comes his way, he’ll still fight it the same way he fights any threat to his security, and Megan may well be caught in the crossfire.
Cory: Great point. But with Mad Men, there is always more to talk about than just Don. “A Little Kiss” gave us tons of quality Pete Campbell time, which is always cause for celebration as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always adored Pete’s stuffy and huffy journey to the top, but I’ve noticed that people have come around on him once he stopped being the primary antagonist for Don. So I’m curious how fans react to this season, because it sure feels like we’re in for a slew of great Pete vs. Roger stories, and if this episode is any indication, those stories are going to be amazing. For me, the best part about Pete’s whining and kvetching in this episode is that it’s all valid. He’s no longer trying to overcompensate for success that isn’t there, or weasel his way into something he didn’t earn. At this point, Pete is keeping the whole firm afloat and his territorial feelings over his clients or his desire to have a bigger office are thus entirely justified. On Roger’s side, I think it’s easy to view his anti-Pete actions as playful scheming, but that last scene with him getting ready at 5 a.m. to “meet Coke” was very telling: He’s terrified of being irrelevant. He sees how the firm treats Bert, he knows the path he’s on and amid all the flirting and epic dancing, and he’s scared.
Finally, I have to mention the absence of everybody’s favorite mother, Betty Francis. I hate stroking Weiner’s ego in the fear that it is much like Jeff Winger’s, ever-expanding and ready to pop, but keeping Betty out of this episode was a great decision. Not only does it allow us to focus on Megan without Betty’s shadow being explicitly in the picture, but it also, somehow, makes us miss her. We get that great shot of the Francis mansion in all its towering and depressing glory, and Don cracks a great joke, and that all feeds the fire in most of the audience while still making us wonder what the hell Betty has actually been up to. I don’t hate Betty like a lot of people do, but I sure love disliking her, and imagining her toiling away in that massive house, staring blankly at a wall is pretty awesome. But I want to see that staring! We kind of want to see her miserable, right?
How did you guys feel about these stories, or other characters’ stories?
Les: We’ll have to see how much of Betty we wind up seeing this season – in addition to the fact that she’s been moving further and further out of the show’s orbit since she and Don divorce, there’s also the real-world fact that January Jones was pregnant at the time the fifth season was shooting and Weiner’s already on record saying he couldn’t use her as much as he wanted to. And truthfully, I won’t miss her if she’s absent for a good chunk of the season. As you said Andy, Megan’s got a lot of potential for disorder and liberation, and truthfully that’s more interesting to watch in the big picture. Plus, not to bring it back to Don too much but I do think in the long run it’s healthier for him to be away from someone who was always in his mind the Stepford wife piece of the image he’d constructed for himself. But I imagine we’ll have plenty to say on Ms. Jones and her divisive nature once she actually gets some screen time.
The Roger/Pete conflict has certainly stirred up the most excitement amongst my friends and my Twitter feed of anything from the premiere. I think of the established conflicts on the show, this is the one that has the most fire: both men are terrifically insecure and territorial, neither one is possessed of great patience with those they consider their lessers, and as Cory mentioned both are entirely aware of just how much power they do or don’t possess in SCDP. Cory, I’m completely in agreement in having always liked Pete, and he’s really come into his own over the last season and a half – I’m actually rooting for him over Roger if it comes to blows, a possibility I’m not ruling out. (Perhaps a cage match in the conference room, winner take all? You know Stan and Harry would be taking bets from the secretarial pool, and I could complete see a finishing move where one man’s head is slammed into the support beam.) As of now, it seems like the agency’s on somewhat stable ground, but I could completely see this feud being as much a threat to them as a mishandling of their new “equal opportunity employer” label.
Speaking of agency stability, we should talk a bit about Joan. Cory, you asked at the start if anything shocked us, and Joan as a mother is probably one of the most jarring things I’ve ever seen on the show. Leaving aside Christina Hendricks wearing all that padding to simulate post-baby fat, she’s seemingly lost all the control she presents to the world, and seeing Joan look so beaten made me very sad. She’s exhausted, snippy, lonely, and – like so many people in that office – unwilling to let go of just how real the work makes them feel. Andy, how’d you feel about this new overly emotional version of our favorite buxom redhead?
Andy: Joan’s relationship with her mother – a tree who’s clearly in close proximity to its apple – was one of the most entertaining parts of the episode to me. But the arc of Joan as a (essentially single) parent could go in a few directions. As you mentioned, Les, balancing a child and a career is no easy feat, especially for someone who’s drawn too much self-worth from the latter to let it go without a fight. Even with Lane’s reassurances that SDCP will always need Joan, the world of 2012 is far from kind to working mothers – how much less so the world of 1966?
As for the showdown of account men, should one develop, I’d side with Pete over Roger as well…but with reservations. You’re right, Cory, that the haughty little twerp has grown a lot over the series, but in many ways his development remains profoundly arrested. I’ll save my thoughts on that character for a future installment, depending on how things progress. I’m sure the next 11 weeks will leave us with no shortage of substance to sink our teeth into. I’m looking forward to it.
Les: I am as well Andy – it’s only the start of the season and we’ve already found at least six or seven arcs that could form potentially brilliant conflicts as they go on. But I want to close my own thoughts by saying that of the many things I loved about the return of Mad Men, the one that cheered me up the most is how brutally funny the show still is. There wasn’t anything outlandish to the extent of Ida Blankenship’s tragic fall or the runaway lawn mower, but I thought the second half in particular was riddled with laugh-out-loud moments. Highlights: Roger trying to get through to Harry about what was happening with his office, the sight gag of all four partners sandwiched on Pete’s couch, the game of “follow the bouncing baby” as Joan’s son was shuttled between SCDP employees, and of course a very Sterling-esque moment to close: “Is it just me, or is the lobby full of Negroes?”
This show can be very dark and painful at times, but it can also be very light when it wants to be, and that’s just one of its many geniuses. I’m so happy it’s back and incredibly eager to keep digging into this season with you two.
Cory: Mad Men’s ability to be funny is severely underrated, and something that is apparently becoming more apparent as the series ages (season four had the most overt comedy, I think). That tends to happen once the writers and the audience grows more familiar with the character, wherein we find just about everything Roger says or Pete does funny because we know them so well. I assume that the season will eventually get darker, but I hope it continues to be consistently hilarious as well. Until next week!