Everything and the Kitchen Sink: Mad Men Recapped
After an ambitious season opener promised a slick, season-long tapestry of exciting new story threads, Mad Men made a bit of a mess last night squeezing a few more plots and subplots into episode two. On one hand, yes, everyone knew Peggy Olson would not spend the rest of the season at the bottom of Movieline's Mad Men power rankings. On the other hand, wait and see if the phrase "Betty's dad" doesn't catch on a popular new euphemism for "fast forward, please." And as for everything we found in between?
Enh. Soap-opera city. The longest scene in the entire episode may have been its first, introduced by a squawking Ann-Margret singing "Bye-Bye Birdie" as a model for what Pepsi wants for Patio (yes, Patio), its new, low-calorie soft drink for women. New co-head-of-accounts Ken Cosgrove passes the job on to Sal and Peggy, the latter of whom expresses thinly veiled revulsion over targeting women with a star who she says "looks 25 and acts 14. [...] Clients don't always know what's best." Cosgrove bristles: "When we land them you can tell them that." Burn!
That reignites the series' running theme of Peggy resisting male hegemony both inside and outside Sterling Cooper, which will get one of its bigger showcases to date in this episode. But first we need some throwaway drama at the Draper residence just to get Don and Betty in the mix -- something about Tarrytown, shopping, money... had it come up again, perhaps I'd have registered it. Much more preoccupying is the health of Betty's father Gene, a dementia-addled stroke victim who infamously felt her up last year after mistaking her for his second wife. Now that the wife has made a dash for it and Gene's left to go it alone, Betty and her weasely brother William face a small list of options for his future. They're not good: Nursing home, hiring a nurse, or moving in with the Drapers are the early front-runners.
Combined with Betty's pregnancy, the Drapers' apprehensions upset their casual dinner in the city with Don's new British boss Lane Pryce. Pryce's own wife drowns her discontent in vintage wine, blurting out bons mots of homesickness like, "What we lost in London, we gained in insects." It's not the first or last time in the episode that New York City will emerge as a forlorn guest star, getting more assiduously whipped about by the men leading the campaign to replace Penn Station with the new Madison Square Garden. Confirmed beatnik Paul Kinsey rails against it to their faces, placing Pryce and Pete Campbell in damage-control mode while searching for a "Cyrano de Bergerac to make New York City fall in love with them." Naturally Don complies and succeeds, primarily by comparing "hopeful" California to "decaying" New York, and suggesting the Garden as "the beginning of a new city on the hill." Score.
Roger Sterling, meanwhile, has some issues that Don can't help with. His daughter's impending wedding is one of them: His secretary-turned-new-wife Jane isn't invited, it turns out, and he can't control the vitriol with which his ex, Mona, is pulling their daughter's strings. But at least he's fine with the date and the invitations, which get a loving close-up in case the casual mention of Nov. 23 didn't hit you in the first place: Nov. 23, 1963. So! For those of you who actually believe Matthew Weiner when he says he's sworn off addressing the Kennedy assassination this season, you get a whole wedding devoted to it. And 10 bucks says he likens it to The Godfather in the DVD commentary. The guy can't help himself.
Keep in mind, this is all unfolding rat-a-tat-tat, with Peggy really getting the boldest, loudest arc after her gentle slapdown in the intro. We're quickly led to discover that she will teach The Man, yet her strategy for doing so evolves rapidly from the passive social also-ran of Season Two. Now she must think like a man (or at least a straight man), from gauging her own sex appeal in a startling, solitary Ann-Margret riff to actually chasing younger prey at a bar in Brooklyn. Yet while Peggy can chomp on a burger, pound beer and get the college senior back on his Hide-a-Bed for a tryst (she'll ditch him a few hours later, natch), she can't crack Don's veneer on the Patio account. "Men want her, women want to be her," he says after watching the shrill Bye-Bye Birdie clip. When Peggy dares to disagree, Don replies with the thorny rejoinder/challenge: "You're not an artist. You solve problems."
Thematically micro-managed as they were, I'd have traded the whole Betty's-dad subplot for another round of scenes with Peggy. Grave as it is, it's the one second-season subplot that entirely lacks conviction when revived here: William and his family arrive with Gene for a week at the Drapers. There, philosophies will be shared, solutions determined, and sacrifices made, for what they're worth; while Gene grumbles nonsense about the sandwich he got for his estranged ex-wife, all you really want to do is get back to the office to see how poorly the Brits are managing Sterling Cooper this week. (Pretty poorly, actually: Pryce wants Don to drop the Garden account, lest it dirty their dainty hands. Don: "Why did you buy us in the first place?" Pryce: "I don't know.")
But get used to it: Gene is here to stay after Don's ultimatum to William, and by his first night in residence he's already pouring the entirety of the Drapers' liquor down the drain of the kitchen sink. Don remains calm as usual, though his eyes scream: "Not the bourbon!!" In any case Don will find some comfort in leering at the school teacher at that weekend's May Day celebration. As his fingers stroke the grass where she frolics barefoot in slow motion, it's impossible to tell if Don's having a professional epiphany or simply daydreaming about her dancing around his own maypole. To be continued? Why not? The more plot lines the merrier; Dallas by way of Madison Avenue always felt like Weiner's endgame to me anyway.