Back in the ’80s, most of the clients I worked for were business-to-business marketers who advertised in trade magazines. I had a fact I’d insert into all my new business presentations that I’d gleaned from some book or magazine article I’d read; or maybe it was something I’d heard my boss claim in a meeting once. “Lay off your advertising for three months, and your awareness effectively goes back to zero,” I told these prospective clients. It was a scare tactic of sorts–a way to justify the at-least-every-other-month media schedules we recommended. It certainly wasn’t literally true.
But: the principle holds some value. If you’re out of the public eye for any length of time, people start to forget you.
Mad Men was gone for 17 months. People certainly didn’t forget about the show; the contract dispute that prompted the delay kept it in the news, and Mad Men style had already wormed its way into the zeitgeist. Suddenly, mid-century modern design was all the rage, bars and cocktails were going retro, and Banana Republic was making it cool todress like Don and Betty Draper. The story may have stalled, but the show was everywhere.
Still, we forget. Turns out you can dress up like Pete Campbell without remembering what a prick he is.
So welcome to Season Five and “A Little Kiss”: the two-hour premiere episode that reintroduces us to the louts, blackguards, shysters, and other damaged souls who work for (or just hang around with) Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, TV’s most popular fictional ad agency since McMahon and Tate. The gang’s all here–most of them, anyway. And, although a little time has passed–it’s the summer of 1966–everyone seems just about as fucked up as they were when we left them.
The show opens not at SCDP, but at Young & Rubicam, where a bunch of junior creative types are launching paper sacks filled with water out the window at Negroes protesting for equal rights in the street below. It sets the stage for the episode’s central themes: 1) the times are changing, and 2) we’re all going to die.
Let’s tackle the second first. Growing up and growing old are on the minds of several of our pals, not least of whom is Don Draper, who’s turning forty–which throws him a whole decade down the looming chasm of the Generation Gap. Don’s sex kitten of a new wife, Megan, is determined to keep him feeling young: she throws him a surprise party (featuring Negroes and homosexuals smoking tea!) and performs a slinky rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” that makes every man in the room want to rush home and jump his wife’s bones. Don’s ready for the sack, too: he collapses on the bed, chastising Megan for throwing the party and deflecting her advances. We learn that Dick Whitman turned forty half a year ago, but Don’s not Dick Whitman anymore. He’s delayed his birthday as long as he can, and now he’s feeling his age.
Babies–we have babies. Joanie has a baby boy–Roger’s baby boy–and is worried about whether SCDP still has a job for her. Pete and Trudy have a new baby, too, and Pete’s settled into his commuter rut. He’s feeling his mortality–and it manifests as a desire for recognition and power in the office. He confronts the partners and demands a better office; Roger, who’s trying to hold onto his playboy image, strong-arms Harry into trading offices with Pete in one of the episode’s most amusing scenes. Roger’s not going to give an inch–Pete actually wanted Roger’s office–but he understands that Pete’s account savvy makes him a threat.
Lane Pryce is feeling his age, too. He’s trapped in loveless marriage–so much so that he fantasizes about a girl whose picture he finds in a wallet left in a cab. We also get a glimpse of distrust between the races when Lane decides he’ll take care of getting the wallet back to its owner rather than leave it in the hands of the black cab driver; after all, you can’t trust a Negro with nearly a hundred dollars.
The boys at the agency play their own childish joke when they run a newspaper ad declaring SCDP an Equal Opportunity Employer. This has two downstream consequences: it scares Joanie into showing up at the office with her baby, terrified that she’s lost her job; and it prompts a couple of dozen black men and women to show up in SCDP’s lobby, resumes in hand. “Is it just me, or is the lobby full of Negroes?” asks Roger, who still has the show’s best lines. The joke has backfired; in the end, the men of SCDP have to act like grownups–maybe even hire a Negro secretary–to avoid a lawsuit.
Perhaps the most surprisingly mature plot twist: Don seems happy. Yes, he’s feeling old as he watches his kids grow up and scrutinizes the lines on the face he sees in the mirror. But he’s terribly attracted to Megan, and instead of bullying Heinz into buying a campaign they didn’t like, Don appeases them. Peggy accuses Don of being “kind and patient.” It scares her, and it would scare us if we believed it could last. (It cannot.)
In the end, “A Little Kiss” will not go down in Mad Men history as a great episode. It felt bloated in a way Mad Men never does, every bit of an extra hour long. But let’s give Matthew Weiner and company a pass on this one. It may be the episode we needed to reorient us to the characters after such a long absence–a little kiss of a bunch of story threads to help us remember. In any case, I’m not giving up on this old thing yet. Back in the day (2010), Mad Men was a really good show.