The genius of Mad Men is that it follows the tried and true rule of good drama: show, don’t tell. In the utterance of a few lines we learn so much about these characters and the circumstances that brought them to this particular place and time. But also like good drama, we don’t learn too much too soon and we the viewers are usually just ahead of the characters in the story. The result is the tightening and loosening of tension that keeps us on the edge of our seat and makes us actually care about what happens to the characters. The layers simply peel back and expose more of the story.
Opening with a party scene at copywriter Paul Kinsey’s house, we learn that our host fancies himself a bohemian writer; that Pete Campbell inflates his own importance—even to his wife; that office hussy Joan used to date Kinsey and finds his whole Beat schtick tiring; and that great music has always made for a great party. None of this was TOLD to the audience, mind you. We saw it all.
The day after a party is usually a drag, so much more so when you come into the office with news of a plane crash. According to Wikipedia, American Airlines Flight One really did crash in Jamaica Bay on March 1, 1962, killing 95 people on board, including Linda McCartney’s mother, Louise Linder Eastman. Like most people, the employees of Sterling Cooper react with a mixture of shock and macabre, uncomfortable humor. Little do they know that Pete Campbell’s father was also one of the victims.
Poor Pete. He’s the younger son of a wealthy and powerful family who finds his chosen line of work to be lees than worthy of the Campbell name. Now that his old man’s dead, Campbell is set adrift in a slow rolling sea of mixed emotions. He turns to Draper, who is uncharacteristically sympathetic to Pete’s situation, but remains distant and preoccupied with the looming possibility that he’ll have to go against his instincts in the service of the agency.
As partner Roger Sterling said last season, “whenever God closes a door, he opens a dress,” the disaster for American Airlines provides an opportunity for the agency to make a play for a major airline. Problem is, they already have an airline as a client and the conflict that arises is more than one pertaining to business. Draper put his own reputation on the line when pitching to Mohawk Air and the idea of being the bearer of bad news tastes about as good as cheap gin on a hot day. Despite the fact that Draper is living a lie, there’s nobility to his character that is sometimes perplexing and always interesting.
While discussing the family affairs it comes out that Old Man Campbell was actually overextended. When Pete asks his older brother if there’s enough for a funeral, the elder Campbell reminds his brother that any idea of an inheritance is now sunk like that doomed flight.
“We were never getting that,” replies Pete.
“YOU were never getting that,” his brother corrects.
So in addition to following a less than appealing career path, it seems Pete Campbell has always been the forgotten son, the one who never measured up. It’s at this point that the writers of Mad Men finally start to humanize the office cad.
The opening of this season hints at the fact that our hero has made some accommodations to keep his family together. The late nights cavorting at the office, the apartment in the city, the TWO girlfriends on the side are all gone for now. That Don dismisses the lecherous comments of his neighbor, who last year was caught cheating and is this year making up for it with similar accommodations, is a sign that Don may have actually turned a new leaf—or that he’s playing the part so well that even he believes it, if only for the time being.
The second biggest plot development from last season was the revealing of Peggy’s pregnancy 9the first biggest being that Don Draper is not who he claims to be). This year, we learn more about the circumstances surrounding Peggy’s absence from the office in the time between then and just before the start of this season. Peggy visits her mother and sister and gets more than a little heat for not attending church with the family.
“I am capable of making my own decisions,” she tells her sister.
“Really?” Her sister replies. “The state of New York didn’t think so; your doctors didn’t think so…”
Did our girl Peggy have a nervous breakdown in the aftermath of having a child she denied carrying?
People used to have drinks and play cards on weeknights. They knew how to make good drinks and how to down them. Stories come out around the card table and Draper gets a good look at how emasculating and demeaning living with someone who hates you can be. Betty seems to be testing Don and implying that he’s not the father he could be–or maybe even the man he should be. She’s also displaying some serious trust issues, even with her own young son. This issue of trust is not about to go away soon.
The last time we know Peggy saw her child was the day she gave birth and even then she refused to hold the boy. After some less than gentle prodding from her sister, Peggy finally has some small interactions with the child, including being forced to hold him at mass. Her discomfort and possible resentment seethes underneath that dowdy expression, but the power of a parent’s connection to their child may be too much for her to handle, especially when she’s still denying his very existence.
Back at the Drapers, Peggy makes little comments and seems to be baiting Don as they clean up from the card game. We don’t know yet what transpired between the two in the 14 months since last season’s closer, but Draper doesn’t have the gumption to fight with Betty and he tells her so.
“I’ll say whatever you want me to say, but I won’t fight with you.”
It turns out Joan has been stepping around the office with more than Roger Sterling. She and Kinsey have a classic dust-up in the office where she accuses him of being a phoney. She even implies that his relationship with a black checkout girl from his local market is all pretense.
“You…out there in your poor little rich boy apartment in Newark, or wherever, walking around with your pipe and your pipe and your beard, falling in love with that girl just to show how interesting you are.”
Campbell, still reeling from his father’s death, now lurches about looking for a mooring to at least latch onto. Draper dismisses him and sends him right to the side of arch nemesis Duck Phillips, who has the balls to ask Campbell to pitch American Airlines! This is but days after the old man died on an American Airlines flight! Pete at first rebuffs, but later shows exactly where he plans to find that daddy figure when he turns up and actually uses the death of his father to persuade American to go with Sterling Cooper. It plays as not so much a crass career move but more of a desperate attempt to impress his new mentor.
Revenge is sweet and Kinsey gets back at Joan by photocopying her driver’s license and posting it to the community board. Get this: she’s 31, which basically makes her an unmarried old maid in 1962. If looks could kill…
Draper finally breaks the news to Mohawk Airlines and is genuinely stung when the man from Mohawk admits that they signed with Sterling Cooper because of Don’s powers of persuasion. Don just about pukes when the man says, “I almost hate to admit this—you fooled me.” Is Don losing himself in the lies he has to tell? What does that do to a man’s soul? That he has the strength to turn down the advances of a smoking hot waitress at the Japanese bar he sulking in is a testament to his fortitude, but how long can he hold on?
The episodes of this show unfold like the chapters of a great American novel. Draper could be equal parts Atticus Finch and Adam Trask. If it were in fact a book, I’d hardly be able to set it down. I guess it’s good for my family and social life that there’s a week between chapters.