'Why Does it Always Have to Be Like This?': Mad Men Recapped
Last night's season premiere of Mad Men answered at least a few of Movieline's burning questions for the series' third year, and yet it provoked so many more -- not necessarily all optimistic, but none demoralizing enough to dread the long season ahead. Reflect with me after the jump (except you, spoilerphobes, sorry).
I don't know if it was Matthew Weiner or director Phil Abraham's choice to open with the unfortunate close-up of Don Draper's bare right foot, but the bizarre introductory flashback that followed was most certainly all Weiner: A sort of "Don Draper/Dick Whitman, this is your life" moment as performed by the Mad Men Community Players, complete with acutely on-the-nose, Depression-era exposition (a stillborn baby girl in a wash basin), hilarious dialogue ("God is giving you a child!" "Get out of here, you wench!"), and concepts pulled down from Weiner's beloved Ingmar Bergman, whom the showrunner literally namechecked as an influence in the director's commentary for the last year's season finale. From the hallucinatory texture of Wild Strawberries to the lantern-lit hallways of Cries and Whispers, the intro's callbacks seemed more dedicated to its stylistic ancestors than to the distracted ad man heating milk for his pregnant wife in the middle of the night.
Oh, yes -- his pregnant wife. Betty obviously kept her baby and has apparently forgiven Don for his sexual indiscretions with (and subsequent lies about) Bobbie Barrett. She's surprisingly chipper, in fact, for a woman who asks if she'll ever sleep again. Don does his part, improvising what sounds like some copy for a suntan-lotion ad until Betty fades out. And when she's out, she's out -- by the second commercial break, you're wondering if/when last season's Emmy-snubbed leading lady is going to ever reemerge for a scene in a room with an actual light on.
But narratively speaking, anyway, Betty's good for something: She packed Don's valise for his overnight trip to Baltimore, where he and Sal Romano -- he of the underserved gay subplot -- will visit Sterling Cooper's unhappy clients at London Fog, a father-son team put off by Bert Peterson's firing as head of accounts. First, however, Don and Sterling Cooper's new British owners -- led by Lane Pryce (the great Jared Harris, dripping noxious Euro-dignity) -- have to fire Bert, who gets his money's worth on the way out the door with the new recession battle cry, "Fellow comrades in mediocrity, I want you to listen carefully: You can all go straight to hell!" Shattered vases and office demolition ensue.
Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson could have healthier relationships with the Brits as well -- particularly John Hooker, the officious, glorified errand boy who pesters Peggy's girl and upsets the social order of Joan's secretaries. Weiner best frames the culture clash, however, in separate scenes when Pryce offers both Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove the head-of-accounts vacancy. It's a terrific curveball the old Sterling Cooper guard never would have thrown, and Pete and Ken's private knowledge of their new roles -- particularly as they butter each other up in the elevator that evening -- is priceless.
On the plane to Baltimore, meanwhile, a frisky stewardess butters Don up for a liaison on the ground. "I've never seen a stewardess so game," Sal mutters. "Really?" Don replies incredulously. Thus begins the steep slide into Sal's Gay Baltimore Soujourn: hints give way to overtures (the bellhop in the elevator), overtures give way to scenarios right out of a porn movie ("Yes, operator, my air conditioning doesn't work!"). Enter the bellhop, who's as handy with central A/C as he is with your luggage. Before we know it we're no longer wondering if Sal will actually get to act on his sexual impulses this year. Will. He. Ever. This hotel apparently doesn't have closets.
Don isn't letting his tipsy stewardess get away either (as if you actually thought Betty's guilt trip might change him! Sucker!), yet both his and Sal's interludes are brought to a halt by a fire alarm. Poor Sal! Isn't that always the way -- your boss (and his fling) stalks down the fire escape in his robe and underwear to get you, and your bellhop has to get his hands out of your boxers and race back to duty just when things were getting good.
But Don has moved on by the next morning's flight home. Here, somehow, in the skies over the Atlantic, he makes the uncharacteristically progressive move to look past Sal's encounter. It's an interesting referendum on how viewers sympathize with him: You'll stand by a serial cheater, identity thief and industry cutthroat on the condition that he's not a homophobe -- which was (and probably, sadly remains) much more of a default status for American males in 1963 than philanderer. Or especially on the condition that he can keep yet another co-worker's secret as some bargaining chip for later in the year, the way he did with Peggy's baby. Wait and see.
Speaking of which, Pete and Peggy sure got over last year's late-season true confessions pretty fast. They had no scenes together, and Pete's exchanges with his wife Trudy hinged exclusively on his whining disgust over having to share his promotion. "Why does it always have to be like this?" Vincent Kartheiser is digging deep into Pete's well of unlikability early this year; surely he's going to find someone to burn soon. But whom? Peggy, who has evolved into a sassier, brassier version of her mousy Season-Two self? Ken Cosgrove, happier than ever and refusing to engage Pete's bitterness? Don, whose sordid past may wield more interest to the penny-pinching new owners than it did to Bert Cooper? Someone's going down; it's written all over that boyish face.
Or maybe Don will simply sabotage himself as usual, walking into idiot oversights like the stewardess's stick-pin TWA wings in his luggage. Watching his daughter attach it to her pajamas, his haunted look also seems to ask, "Why does it always have to be like this?" And as the show cuts to black, you know the answer as well him, Weiner or anyone else: For better or worse, it's not Mad Men any other way.