A little bit funny
AMC’s much anticipated Mad Men premiere came and went this past Sunday night and boy did it leave me feeling. . . funny. This show that once revelled in style, laid on the cool and laid it on thick, has definitely gone through some changes. Following Don Draper’s lead, where the feel was once confident, sexy, defiant, and unapologetically mysterious, it has now become heavily marked by paranoia, aggression, alienation, and tangible nervousness. It’s not that these latter qualities haven’t always been there, I’d argue they have, it’s just that in this most recent season opener anxiety engenders the characters’ world much more completely. Fear is encroaching, and that beautiful coolness of old is hardly believable or available for our retro TV friends. While I watched the premiere, it was joking and bad jokes that both caught my attention and best help me explain the feelings of discomfort creator Matt Weiner seems to be exploring this season.
First of all, the show is framed with some pretty heady political issues made light of by The (proverbial) Man in each instance. The first image we see is that of a group of black men and women protesting for equal rights outside of Y&R, a rival ad company. Upstairs in the building, a couple of idiot ad men ridicule the protesters claiming they should shut up and get jobs instead of walking around in circles. Noting the literal meteorological heat — if not the metaphorical kind — our privileged white man-children then pummel the crowd below with makeshift ice-water balloons. The joke only becomes unfunny to these fellows when the crowd comes upstairs and a woman (quite maternally) admonishes them for having hit not only fellow people, but a child, as well.
Seeing this as a viewer feels strange and uncomfortable for many reasons.
1. This is an ugly part of our country’s history and we’re seeing it played out again from the perspective of the privileged majority.
2. Mad Men rarely takes up racial issues, often choosing to only glance at or gesture toward their existence. If you’re a fan of Mad Men, this scene further reminds you that hey, maybe such plot points should have been part of the storylines all along.
3. Though it’s good that we’re finally offered a more direct racial encounter on the show, it is still on the fringes of the real (read: white) story.
4. And if actual race relations and characters of color are going to miraculously become much more prevalent to the storylines, is the show going to do it clunkily/offensively or well? Eep!
I don’t know about you, but I’m nervous about how this will be handled. I already felt more than a little distressed by the good vs. evil melodrama in this episode. When the woman scolds the ad men she proudly, boldly huffs, “and they call us savages.” I just hope that Weiner’s response this season is not a “noble savage” resolution to a white guilt problem.
Another political joke gone wrong? To really stick it to the bigoted guys from Y&R and create a lot of buzz about the “good guys” at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the company publishes an ad (that they can’t really afford) claiming they’re hiring a secretary, and unlike some other places, they’re an equal opportunity employer. Take that Y&R! And there was much laughing and drinking of cocktails. . . that is until, as Roger so eloquently puts it, “the lobby is full of negroes.” The team’s expensive little joke gets a little more expensive as now there’s pressure to not just talk the talk of their joke’s setup, but actually hire a person of color on staff. This could be the transitional moment for both the office and the show, but it may be a token one and lodged in a joke at that. Again, I felt a little funny about this. Funny weird, not funny ha-ha.
But, the societal upheaval bits were mostly bookends; per usual, the camera was more firmly focused on the typical cast of characters and their dramas and growing pains. Don Draper is turning the big 4-0 (alter ego Dick Whitman has been forty for half the year) and though he tries to play it off, this turn of events seems to shake him. Don has settled down a little, is enjoying the comforts of wife (the second) and home and family. He makes breakfast, he appears to follow up on his fatherly promises. Ah, seems pretty nice and domestic for old Don! Driving the kids back to their mother’s ghastly large estate he even jokes to “say hi to Morticia and Lurch.” Funnier than this though was when he asks his sweet kiddies, “How old will I be when you’re forty?” His son quickly answers, “You’ll be dead.” If you’ve been thinking, “This is Don’s world and we’re just living in it,” well, his son’s laconic statement about the fleeting nature of life and the revolutionary power of time might just change your mind.
Megan, Don’s upgraded secretary, is young and lithe and lovely and only further makes a farce of the possible downfall of Draper. Her role in the episode is mostly to be peachy and youthful, impetuous and girlish. Throwing together a surprise party for Don at the last minute completely throws the office for a loop. The late invitation, while just a fun whim to Megan, reads to the advertisers (you know, those makers and sellers of hidden meaning) as a harbinger of doom. “Why was I invited so late?” “ Have I done something to be downgraded?” “ Am I getting fired?” “ Am I not fun at parties?” Nobody knows where they fit in, if their office is good enough, if they’re even happy. At the party itself, Megan is having a gay old time laughing the night away with a homosexual black man (oh, little miss counterculture!) while Roger gently has to assure Don that they aren’t laughing at him.
Okay, here’s the bit you’ve probably heard a lot about. Megan performs a ridiculous french pop song and dance for Don at the party. I guess it’s the French-Canadian version of the Marilyn “Happy Birthday.” It was so cheesily bad that I kind of loved it, but again — awkward! It was too sexy and intimate for a group of coworkers, who are basically strangers. The twee-ness of the performance prickled against its audience and the dissonance was palpable. And the even weirder thing that follows is Don’s reaction to the ordeal.
Anyone could see this was a stupid idea, this dumb surprise — Peggy claims the scenario has Lucy Ricardo written all over it — so, I wasn’t shocked that Draper was pissed and the Mrs. was pouty. What was bizarre was the cleaning scene that takes place post-party. Stripped down to her perfectly matching and tres sexy skivvies, Megan throws herself into tidying the living room…you know, like you do. She starts yelling at Don to stop looking at her that he can’t have it, the looking, or her, the person, which apparently melts Don’s anger and turns him on to no end. UGH. Cue an aggressive physical struggle that boils over into passion and ends with a discussion about the once beautiful white carpet the party (and this disgusting rape fantasy) has sullied. The white carpet is so lovely, so chic, it’s what everyone wants or thinks they want, but it’s completely impractical. It can’t withstand life without being changed or destroyed. Megan is disappointed and upset that a new one will be necessary. Don, from the marketing perspective, has always been aware that you need multiple white carpets to sell the illusion of the perfect one. There’s a lot going on here.
Though I was pretty disgusted by the bizarre sexual display, I think (I hope) it was there to make us feel gross. We can read this moment as a nasty reminder of how desperate Don is behind his mask of dapper masculinity. Truthfully, he doesn’t really know what he wants or needs — he makes his decisions based on what people tell him he should desire or what he shouldn’t dare to take. His persona is attractive, but empty and reliant upon women and others lower than him in the hierarchy. He has all the set pieces of a good life, but there is no concrete experience of happiness he can cling to — he’s still going to die some day. It’s only in the practice of forcibly taking, or owning, or exerting power that he appears passionate. In a culture of comparison, he and the other characters are better at figuring out if they look happy than they are at comprehending/experiencing satisfaction.
Everyone, I mean everyone is makes fun of Don, but Roger assures him it’s only because he’s happy.
Is Mad Men trying to figure out what its idea of happiness really is? Don does have the immaculate white carpet, a wife willing to sully it with a party, a nameless (black? brown?) girl to come in and clean it, and the money to replace it if he pleases. I imagine this season will further suss out what it means to be happy for each of our regular characters and maybe a few new ones. At this point the only difference seems to be having the power to be in on, or at least aware of, the jokes instead of being completely alienated by them.
Ana Holguin writes PopHeart for The Idler.