MAD MEN Debriefing: It Never Rains In Southern California

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Mad Men is finally back after another seemingly interminable hiatus, and as you would expect, Sterling Cooper & Partners isn’t lacking on the drama front.

It is now a few months after we last saw Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and the gang boozing and sleeping their way through life. We open with Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) giving a Don-esque pitch to former protégée Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), the brilliance of which we only learn later. “It’s time for a conversation” for the Swiss watch may as well be this episode’s (season’s?) motto. She loves it, and presents it to new creative director Lou Avery (Allan Harvey), who nixes it for the bland “Accutron is accurate.” It’s crap and Peggy knows it, but as an underling yet again there isn’t a damn thing she can do about it.

Speaking of the Prodigal Son, Don made good on his promise last season to Megan (Jessica Paré), of sorts, and they are now a bi-coastal couple. Megan has settled into life in Los Angeles, and Don is flying back and forth to visit — curious for a guy with no job at the moment. In an awkward reunion with his wife, we find out, perhaps not surprisingly, that he hasn’t told her about what happened before the holidays at SC&P. We’re left to assume that this is so that he can continue his gallivanting ways in New York with impunity, but it isn’t as clear cut as that.

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Meanwhile, Roger (John Slattery) continues his downward spiral into hedonism, as we watch him wake up from some sort of drug-fuelled orgy in his hotel suite. (Ah, we get our Naked Roger shot of the season right off the bat!) He’s confronted, somewhat gently, by daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) at lunch the following day, where it is clear that she sees her dad’s life as increasingly pathetic, even though she “forgives” him for his sins against her. (What, not bankrolling her lifestyle?) Roger thinks he has nothing to apologize for, as we watch him return to his suite, and his bed filled with not only his much-younger lover, but her lover as well. Everyone is welcome in this bed, she says, but Roger sure doesn’t look like he agrees. It’s painfully obvious he is out of place among the twenty-something flower children surrounding him.

Joan (Christina Hendricks), as usual, is keeping the office afloat, without ever gaining recognition for it. The Butler footwear account is in shambles, and they’re ready to jump ship, no thanks to pirate-eyed Ken (Aaron Staton) shuffling the meeting, and the file, onto Joan at the last minute. I don’t know when Ken became such a jerk (maybe it was when he was used as target practice), but he’s just the latest man in then office to ignore Joan’s contribution to the firm. As usual, Joan saves the day, with a little honey at first, and a dash of fierceness and manipulation when that doesn’t get the results she needs. She isn’t being respected at work, nor is she with clients, nor with the professor she enlists for a quick marketing cliff notes session, who talks down to her like a child, even though she knows more about this job than he could ever dream about, MBA or not.

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If there were one glaringly obvious theme to the season premiere, it’s that keeping up appearances always take their toll. Peggy tries to push through the most recent career setback with her trademark pluck and optimism, but as Lou tells her, her charms aren’t going to work this time, because he’s immune to them. While Freddy and Don saw her potential, albeit often to their own benefit, and Ted (Kevin Rahm) seized the opportunity to work with her (though admittedly not for completely altruistic reasons), Lou has no affection for Peggy, personally or professionally, and where Don thrived at exceeding his own brilliance when push came to shove, Lou adopts a conveyor-belt philosophy to their work. Peggy is stifled, creatively and professionally, and that’s only exacerbated by her money pit of a house on the Upper West Side she never wanted in the first place, where being the landlady is trying her patience and her nerves. Her worst fears after returning to Sterling Cooper et al. after the merge with CGC are coming true, only now she doesn’t seem to have anyone in her corner with whom she can commiserate.

In the same vein, Roger’s sojourn into free love is taking its toll on him, too: physically, he just isn’t in shape to do this kind of thing on a regular basis, but it’s also alienating him from his family and friends. To the world, he acts like there’s nothing wrong with what he’s doing, but that shot of him in bed, surrounded by naked strangers, shows that he isn’t as happy as he claims. Speaking of acting the part, Megan’s life in Los Angeles is also masking the truth; as much as she is Mrs. Draper, she really is living the single life for all intents and purposes. Don’s visit cramps her style more than anything, and her awkwardness with him at dinner and at home in the Hollywood Hills indicate that she has to know, on some level, that their marriage is over. However, she’s a determined actress, and she’s going to play the role of Wife for as long as she needs to before it inevitably ends. (As an aside: Megan is being set up as a Sharon Tate, right? Those mentions of her living all alone in the Hills weren’t too subtle.)

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Don, of course, is leading yet another double life. If anyone thought revealing his history last season was going to lead to a new-and-improved, enlightened Don Draper, they were sorely mistaken. Lying about something as big as losing your job to your spouse is a major red flag, but let’s be honest, that’s not the biggest secret Don’s ever kept from any of his wives. Moreover, the farce also extends to his potential conquests. When he meets a beguiling stranger on the plane home (and how wonderful was it to see Neve Campbell back on our screens?), we’re immediately left to assume they’re going to join the Mile High Club. Yet, when the moment of truth arrives and she invites him back to her place once they land, he recuses himself. It has nothing to do with wanting to be a better, faithful husband to Megan (“She knows I’m a terrible husband” pretty much proves that), and it’s obvious that as always, Don is intoxicated by this mysterious, sassy brunette, as he is wont, but again he claims he has to go to work. He has no reason to make excuses to this person, who has no idea who he is, but it’s second-nature to him. (Plus, it’s a rare day when Don Draper turns down the chance for a roll in the hay.) There’s something else going on. Does he even know which version is the lie anymore?

In any case, we’re left with Don Draper, utterly alone, his life in shambles. Almost literally: those patio doors that won’t shut in his empty, Megan-less apartment have to be a metaphor for how his world as a whole is beginning to unravel. He’s metaphorically opened that door, with all his antics catching up to him last season, and where he used to be able to compartmentalize Dick Whitman from Don Draper, he quite literally can no longer close those doors. He said on the plane that he felt like he broke the vessel (of his marriage? of his life?), and those doors are just one of many representations of that. He can’t fix them any more than he can fix himself. Which is why we see him wholly giving up, sitting in his bathrobe on his balcony on a freezing January night, completely helpless. (Kinda like the guy falling out the window in the credits?)

I found it interesting that he’s also double-crossing this lie, in a way, by using Freddy as his mouthpiece over on Madison Avenue. Is this supposed to indicate what Don’s true passion is? Don’s best work comes when he has a fire lit under him, and nothing screams heat like being asked not to return to your workplace. Sure, Don bought that new color TV in California just to give him something to do, and more importantly, to bullishly mark his presence in Megan’s bachelorette pad by imposing his tastes with the largest piece of furniture he could find, but he seemed to be studying the programming in more than a casual manner. Is this going to be what saves him, or is he going to take a fall, metaphorically or literally, by season’s end? I’ve always wondered if Don’s genuinely passionate about his work, or if the fact that he just kind of fell into his job by effectively conning Roger that day in the elevator made him desperate to hang onto it at all costs. It’s probably a bit of both, but I like seeing Don fired up like this, and am curious about how this Cyrano de Bergerac story will develop.

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Curiously, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) seems to be the only person happy right now. Who’d a thunk that consummate New Yorker Pete Campbell would end up taking to La-La Land? I’m not sure if it’s just a front, but we’ve seen Pete unhappy before, and it doesn’t look like this. It seems that he is genuinely embracing the opportunities Los Angeles is offering him, and fully tapped into the youth culture that only it can promote. He’s got a new office, a new girlfriend, a new hairline (whoops), and is far away from his perceived belittlers in New York. As vindictive and self-centered as he can be, Pete’s always been sort of a visionary in his work, compared to the stodginess of his older colleagues, and jumping into the Left Coast power center despite their naysaying is a testament to that. He’s sure doing a lot better there than officemate Ted, whose impetuous move to California to save his family hasn’t seemed to do much good, if his running back to New York is any indication.

So, the men here represent three different generations at a crossroads. Roger is the old guard, who is fading into LSD-colored oblivion as a relic of the past, despite his best efforts to keep up with the times. Don is desperately trying to reinvent himself, holding onto that classic sixties swagger, but realizing he needs more if he’s going to survive. Pete has seen the future, or rather, is the future, and adapts to the changes with surprising ease.

The women also emulate this. Joan isn’t that much older than Peggy, but she’s definitely old school. She’s managed to make her place from within the system in which she was raised, and we can see that while she is adept at using those charms to get what she wants and needs, she’s never going to earn the respect she deserves, because she will always be a secretary to her coworkers. She’s arguably the smartest person in that office, and is the heart of SC&P, but she’s always going to be the woman who fills out those skirts to her colleagues. Megan is playing another system, one in which she’s still dependent on other men for her livelihood (her agent, producers, Don), and shaping herself to be whatever she feels they need, from new roles to veneers to arm candy. Meanwhile, Peggy exhibits an attitude we’re more familiar with in a contemporary setting; she’s bucking the system she feels is unjust. She’s mad as hell, and she is close to not taking it anymore. She’s the only one who “gives a shit” about what they’re doing at SC&P creatively, and won’t roll over for Lou Avery’s lame concoctions. Between Peggy’s frustrations and Don’s feverish pitches, I suspect we’re in for yet another break at our favorite advertising agency.

It’s no accident that the gray dreariness of New York’s winter is contrasted with Los Angeles’ sunny perpetual summer. The tide is turning at the close of the sixties, just like it is in Mad Men‘s world. Will spring change Madison Avenue, or are we in for a permanent move west? The show generally adopts the slow burn approach, starting the season off at times almost exasperatingly slowly before hitting its stride and blowing up by the finale, and this season appears no different, if the premiere is any indication. Everyone seems to be at a crossroads, and it’s going to be fun to see where Matt Weiner takes it from here.

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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