'Mad Men' season premiere recap, discussion

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APRIL 13, 2015

Note: this review contains spoilers.

“Mad Men” is back and greeting a new decade head-on. The year is 1970, the men are mustachioed, and at SC&P, it’s business as usual — which means a return to casual sex, casual sexism and the neverending exploits of Don Draper.

The first of the series’s final seven episodes picks up 10 months after SC&P was taken on as a subsidiary of advertising firm McCann Erickson. With Jim Cutler and Lou Avery out of the way, the storylines in this episode show us how life after acquisition is treating SC&P’s remaining partners, creative personnel and account executives.

First, there are the partners — Don, Roger, Joan, Ted and Pete — all of whom find themselves a few million dollars richer after the buyout. The group — with, curiously, the exception of Pete — seems invigorated not as much by the cash flow as by the status increase. After a night out, Roger flaunts two dates on his arm at a diner with Don and leaves a $100 tip on the table (that’s $600 today). Joan indulges in a midday spending spree at department store Bonwit Teller and takes great pleasure in denying that she ever worked there when the saleswoman asks if she would still like to use her discount. Even Ted’s tail is out from between his legs — he’s attending Vogue model parties in the village and inviting Don along. Don, newly divorced from Megan, has reverted to hijinks so predictable that they are almost charming. But for Don Draper, wining, dining and bedding beautiful women is never just fun and games. Every behavior has a self-destructive underbelly — you’re just waiting for him to reach it.

Nevertheless, Don appears revived in this episode. He seems thinner, tanner and sober-er than the man we saw struggling to stay afloat professionally and personally during the first half of the season — he even uses a voicemail service to keep track of his many conquests. The new-old Don Draper doesn’t mind when his one-night stand spills red wine on the white carpet and discovers one of Megan’s earrings under the bed. He simply throws a blanket over the stain and gets horizontal without a second thought — which, if you think about it, is a pretty apt metaphor for most of Don’s coping mechanisms.

Not nearly as sexually prolific, but certainly more romantically accomplished than we’ve seen her of late, is Peggy, who goes on a startlingly successful date with a lawyer named Stevie, Johnny Mathis’ brother-in-law. It’s a small triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. After watching Peggy’s Valentine’s Day-induced tears in the second episode, you can’t help but feel victorious on her behalf.

Far less triumphant, but perhaps one of the episode’s strongest arcs, is the workplace sexism that Peggy and Joan contend with. The pair meet with representatives from McCann about the Topaz Pantyhose account, but the dialogue has more to do with Joan’s body and sexual availability than the pantyhose market. The meeting scene is revolting but straightforward — it’s the scene that follows, in which Peggy and Joan find themselves alone in an elevator, debriefing the meeting’s sour turn, that underscores the subtle ways in which misogyny can be reinforced. Here, the women enact it against one another: Peggy implies that Joan shouldn’t be bothered by sexist remarks, given her appearance, while Joan takes the opportunity to hint that Peggy is not as desirable as she is. The two women have both confronted sexism while advancing their careers in a male-dominated industry, yet Joan and Peggy are not the natural allies we would like or expect them to be. This is a frustrating relationship to watch, but it’s the sort of deft storytelling we expect of “Mad Men.”

Showrunner Matthew Weiner’s expert touch is also present when it comes to matters of theme. The idea of dreams and premonitions figures heavily throughout the episode. The opening scene is shot like a dream or a flashback, but we learn that the interaction between Don and a mink-clad model isn’t a fantasy — just a highly charged model casting session. Early on in the episode, Don dreams of his season-one flame Rachel Katz (nee) Menken, only to learn that she died the week prior. At the diner with Roger, Don is convinced he knows the waitress — who is, of course, brunette like Rachel and all of Don’s most significant mistresses — and returns two more times to see her. Ken’s wife urges him to quit working at the agency to take up writing, and he is fired the next day, though he returns with a delightfully vengeful twist soon thereafter. Pete, in talking to Ken, remarks that his time in California feels like a dream. The episode even begins and ends with the same song, as if looped. A warbling Peggy Lee sings and, it seems, asks us: “Is that all there is?”

With six episodes left, the remaining hours of “Mad Men” are truly all there is — and we can only hope that those ending hours do justice to a television series as treasured as a dream come true

Contact Sarah E. Adler at [email protected]

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APRIL 13, 2015

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