“I don’t really care about work. I care about you.”
That, you incredibly patient fans of Mad Men, is not the only lie Don Draper tells over the course of the first two episodes of Season 5, but it is the biggest one. You see, the patron saint of bad ideas has decided to make his hastily married second bride a low-level designer in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce creative department, either because he has an incredible blind spot to the poisonous environment of his workplace or because he’s actively trying to sabotage his latest stab at happiness. Hell, it’s probably both, but that’s why we watch this show. That and the essential snippets of humor that keep the devastating proceedings of each episode from being the world’s biggest downer.
Yes, it has been a year and a half since Mad Men last aired a new episode and now that it’s finally back it spends 93 minutes reminding us that all of its characters are unhappy people with incredibly interesting lives that exist at the mercy of social change they ironically can’t predict. Most of “A Little Kiss” parts one and two focus on the internal struggles of the people we’ve been following faithfully on Mad Men for years now, but something bigger looms around the margins. Throughout the double-stuffed premiere, SCDP plays a joke on a competing ad agency that got into hot water for mistreating a protest by black civil rights activists. Roger takes out an ad in the newspaper that refers to his company as an “equal-opportunity employer” and everybody has a nice laugh over it in their lily-white office on Madison Avenue. By episode’s end, reception is full of black applicants who, understandably, aren’t in on the private joke. The lesson? There are consequences to every action, even when everyone on the playing field is kind of a cad, and the ever-changing world won’t stand for it.
Really, that’s the overarching message of “A Little Kiss”. It’s clear that Matthew Weiner et al were cognizant of the fact that their show has been off the air for what amounts in TV time to an epoch, so a lot of the premiere is dedicated to reintroducing audiences to the characters and circumstances of the series. A little time has passed since the end of Season 4 but the same problems persist. Roger is still a conniving alcoholic who is losing his sales prowess, Pete is still a dangerously ambitious man-child, Peggy is still the most under-appreciated genius to ever become a professional cynic and Don…
…oh, Donald “Dick Whitman” Draper, when are you not a mess? When last we left our anti-hero he had crawled from the depths of addiction to reclaim his perch on the precipice of addiction just long enough to marry a lovely young woman he really didn’t know at all because, yes, she demonstrated the patience of an adult when his children spilled a milkshake in public. Today, he’s doing his best impression of happy while sewing the seeds of his and other people’s discontent. Megan, Don’s bilingual and endlessly sexual trophy wife, throws him a surprise party for his 40th birthday, then proceeds to fill the evening with a nightmare scenario of embarrassing coworkers and inappropriate singing.
Of all the plots introduced or reintroduced in “A Little Kiss”, Don’s shaky but not-all-terrible marriage is the most divisive and yet most compelling. As much as I (and I’m sure plenty of other viewers) root for Joan to find the appreciation she deeply deserves but can never find, and as much as we get a kick out of Lane’s awkwardness and Harry Crane’s infinite supply of douchebaggery, Don is still the main character. The episode does a good job of justifying Don’s new life with Megan and not just making it Roger & Jane Part 2. Megan is trying and she’s no naif, but she’s not prepared for the rotten foundation of the entire advertising industry into which she married. Her emotional wreck of a husband, despite his sales pitch at the end of the episode, cares deeply about work. He just has a hateful, co-dependent relationship with his coworkers and, as the party demonstrates, he has literally no other friends. From a critical perspective as much as a fan perspective, I want to see Season 5 of Mad Men do something new and interesting with Don and Megan. Ripping them apart early would just be wheel-spinning and their pathos-laden relationship makes for good drama.
Also, Don’s new apartment is insanely gorgeous and I’m not keen to see it turn into a ruinous bachelor den any time soon.
So, despite the long hiatus and the budding careers of the show’s ridiculous number of breakout stars, Mad Men has still got it. Rejoice, you cable-watchers and downloaders, the preeminent cable drama is back.