‘Mad Men’ Recap: A Little History and a Whole Lot of Progress

Mad Men Season Premiere Pete and TrudyIt’s almost like Mad Men never left. The Season Five premiere of AMC’s renowned 60s drama signaled one thing: this series isn’t capable of going downhill.

We’re thrown about a year into the future judging by the birth of Joan’s baby, and we find the explosion of the results of the Civil Rights Movement, a married Don Draper, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on the rise at the hands of Pete Campbell, Roger fighting the decline of business as he knew it, Lane failing to fight his own baser instincts, and absolutely zero Betty.

And while the term “Mad Men Movie” was thrown out as a joke when the network announced the premiere would run two hours, the episode actually feels cinematic. Production value aside, the structure of the episode with the bookends of crowds of African-American protesters, Pete on his commute to and from Greenwich, Conn., plus Megan’s big musical number at the center give the episode an even greater heartiness than we’ve come to expect from Mad Men. In essence, it was the perfect way for the series to apologize for its long absence.

“We were just laughing at Y&R.” -Mohawk Exec

“Couldn’t have happened to a better bunch of bigots.” -Pete

The episode opens with no familiar characters – a bold move for a series coming off a 17-month hiatus, and an even stronger mark of its staying power. Instead of Don or Roger or Peggy, we meet a few creative peons at SCDP’s rival ad agency, Y&R. Outside, African-Americans are protesting the lack of equal opportunity employment and the Y&R lackies begin dropping water bombs on the protesters in complete disregard for their humanity or their rights.

This puts SCDP on top immediately for being the ad agency who’s not proliferating racial stereotypes and disrespecting African-Americans. First, the company took a stand on cigarettes, and now, they’re headed for promoting racial equality. SCDP is moving into the future, and we’re about to see who’ll be able to hang on for that ride. Roger thinks they should rub it in Y&R’s face and run an “Equal Opportunity Employment” ad even though they can’t hire anyone, completely missing the point of the EEO movement and looking at it opportunistically instead. Lane advises against it because the company isn’t quite in the black, but Roger’s not known to follow anyone else’s direction.

“So when you’re 40, how old will I be?” -Don

“You’ll be dead.” -Bobby

King among ad men, Don, is finally turning the big 4-0 and while he seems determined to bury that fact, Megan is ready to celebrate it. However, her involvement in his age milestone is half the problem. In the office, she worries that the others think they fool around at work and at first, he’s fine with it. But when Megan throws him a surprise party with the help of her progressive, young, hip friends, her youthful vivacity generates a schism between them.

At the party, Megan is palling around with her young friends, artistic types and even one African-American, gay young man who draws commentary from the peanut gallery. The party is no simple soiree; it serves as a glance at the split happening in 1966 society. Burt Cooper is arguing about war and the cost of bombs with Peggy’s journalist boyfriend Abe, and Abe clashes again with Trudy Campbell when he brings up the terrible state of the country due to race riots and she laments the police’s lack of control rather than the inequality generating the violence. Roger comments that Don will never understand what Megan and her young friends are gabbing about, but that he can be sure it’s not him.

And when Megan finally stands up a delivers Don’s birthday present, an overtly sexual performance of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” Don feels the full weight of the young versus old age gap and becomes irritated. The party practically throws him into the Roger category, making him another old world ad exec who married his secretary. And though they’re more than that, it seems the pressure of his 40th birthday and the public nature of Megan’s sexual dance is too heavy for him to see that.

“Where am I supposed to conduct business?” -Pete

“In the crapper for all I care.” -Roger

We first find Pete on the train talking to one of his commuting buddies and lamenting the changes his move and the new baby have brought into his life. He never sees Trudy and she’s always in her robe instead of dressed to the nines like she did when they lived a fashionable Manhattan life. Now she’d like nothing better than stay solidly in the quiet suburbs, but Pete’s not so sure.

Meanwhile, at work, Pete’s the one bringing in the bulk of SCDP’s new clients and he’s not getting much respect for it – especially from Roger. In fact, Roger’s been hovering at his secretary’s desk and usurping his meetings with prospective clients, hanging onto the old world practices of smoky, boozy lunches and potentially losing business for SCDP, but more importantly, stealing Pete’s hard work. It’s an interesting dynamic because Roger can’t seem to get his own meetings, but he’s accomplishing little by stealing Pete’s since his skills are in the old style. But Pete doesn’t let this lie.

First, he tries a power play. He calls a partner meeting in his dank little office. He’s got Peggy and Ken Cosgrove reporting to him, he’s bringing in more new clients than anyone, and he has to entertain them in the conference room or his tiny office? Nope. He demands that Roger switch offices with him. Roger, of course, will hear nothing of the sort but knows that on some level Pete is right. His solution? Pay Harry Crane $1100 of his own cash to switch with Pete. And while Pete’s happy to have a better office, he didn’t get his real goal: power over Roger. But he has a second plan: he has Clara put a phony 6 a.m. appointment with Coca-Cola on his books to teach Roger a lesson – and Roger bites.

The world really has changed. We never thought we’d see the day Pete Campbell would get Roger Sterling running around in desperation, but it’s a new world and the Petes of the world are the ones who understand it. The Roger Sterlings are the ones facing an uphill battle. And we see just how comfortable Pete is when he tells his train buddies that he’s springing for a pricey in-ground pool before he even gets his Christmas bonus.

“Joan, he’s not going to allow you to work.” -Gail

Allow me?” -Joan

Joan gave birth, but her husband is still overseas, so her mother is in the city to help with the baby. And in yet another instance of old world versus new world, Joan and her mother are at odds. While she’s exhausted taking care of the baby, Joan is going crazy not being at work. Her mother seems to think the job is all about money and since Mr. Harris is actually a Dr. Harris, there’s no need for Joan to work – except for the fact that Joan loves her job.

Her mother sees the ad SCDP ran about Equal Opportunity and assumes it means Joan is being replaced, a fear that Joan doesn’t share until she visits the office and meets the new girl they hired to help the other secretaries cover her job. After Megan holds the baby and puts pressure on Don for their own bundle of joy, Roger awkwardly holds the baby with a cigarette in his mouth, and Peggy refuses any interaction with the tiny human until she’s forced to take care of it and then awkwardly pawn it off on Pete (tiny glimpse of what could have been), Joan pays Lane a visit.

He asks for her help with the books, and she thinks she’s being eliminated, but of course, he says the office can’t run without her. Her hormones, lack of sleep and love of her job overwhelm her and she weeps when she realizes how much she’s needed at the company. And at the end of the episode, we see Joan and her mother working together to get the baby to sleep – perhaps a signal that her mother supports her return to work. Perhaps some old world stalwarts can become converts with the right push.

“I’d feel better if I saw to its return.” -Lane

Lane’s story is a bit of an odd element. It does attach via the racism angle because it starts when he finds a discarded wallet with $100 cash in his cab and refuses to allow the cabbie to see to its return, distrusting that the wallet would be returned with the cash. Lane’s also potentially dealing with money troubles, disallowing his wife to pay his son’s tuition bill or write any checks without his permission first. To top it off, despite Mrs. Pryce’s presence in the city, he can’t manage to keep his interest pointing in her direction.

It could be the stimulus of Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” performance that riles him up, but when the wallet-loser’s girlfriend calls and Lane sees her picture in the billfold, he throws all caution to the wind, engaging in suggestive conversation and allowing himself to get excited about the woman coming to his office to retrieve the wallet. To his dismay, the wallet owner actually shows up and Lane keeps the photo of Dolores and stores it in his own billfold. His wife may be in New York, but he’s tasted freedom and it’s clear he’s not ready to be tethered again.

“Clients are right all the sudden? I don’t recognize that man. He’s kind and patient.” -Peggy

After bombing her first pitch to Heintz Baked Beans, Peggy is miffed. Her best idea goes completely to waste and Don doesn’t do his usual “we’re the experts” spiel to save it. Peggy’s angry, but Don sides with the clients, noting that after the year SCDP has had, they’re simply “making us work for it.”

The anger overtakes Peggy and she has an outburst at his party, complaining about having to work on Heintz over the weekend. The comment is smoothed over by a kiss from Abe, but comes back to bite her when Megan confronts her. Megan says she did just as much work over the weekend before breaking down into tears over Don’s disappointment with the party. Peggy, not realizing greater forces are at work here and that the issue is the overall office perception of Megan (thanks in great part to Harry Crane’s crass comments) and the pressure from Don, apologizes to Don for her comments suggesting that they were the reason he didn’t enjoy his party.

Megan goes home early and Peggy suggests that Don leave her alone, but Don retorts that Peggy knows nothing about Megan. What he really means is that she knows nothing about Don and Megan: they aren’t Roger and his wife or some other typical boss married to his secretary. When he meets Megan at home that becomes clear. After her anger turns into a sexual game, Don admits that everything – getting Megan hired at SCDP, letting her buy impractical white carpet – is because he loves her, wants her around, and wants to see her happy. We even learn that he shares the secret of his identity with her – something Betty only ever knew about because she snooped in his study. Megan and Don show up hand in hand the next day as a united front and while we can’t be sure it will last, it’s clear that Don Draper is legitimately in love and that, for the time being, he’s managing to put outside pressures aside.

“We can’t put one of them out front.” -Roger

The EEO ad drums up quite a crowd in the SCDP offices, with 20 or so African-American applicants arriving to seek out these supposed equal jobs. The problem is that while SCDP is stable, they have no funds for new hires. But, Y&R is there to force their hand: the rival agency sends a tribal statue with an offensive, racist joke resume attached as the group is waiting in the lobby. They saw the joke gift and if SCDP doesn’t hire at least one African-American employee, they could be facing picketing just like their bigot rivals.

In response, Lane elects to hire a secretary from the pool. SCDP is getting even more progressive, whether they can afford it or not. The change in the makeup of the office is sure to bring all the latent race issues that past seasons have simply touched upon into the front and center of the office dynamics, which is risky territory. However, if Mad Men is anything, it’s a show that thrives on risky business.

How did you like the racially-charged season premiere? Do you think Roger will ever find a way to keep up with Pete? How long do you think Don’s happiness will last? Where’s Betty and what do you think she’s up to? Let us know in the comments or get at me on Twitter.@KelseaStahler