Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Television - Mad Men 'A Little Kiss' analysis / review


The relief of Community fans when that programme's well-publicised hiatus came to end has nothing on my elation when the first notes of 'A Beautiful Mine' began playing over Mad Men's iconic title sequence. Eighteen months and we're finally back in Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce's illustrious company. There were plenty of reports while the show was off-air about Matthew Weiner's difficult tactics during negotiations with AMC: whether true or not, if you're capable of producing a work as perfectly balanced, sensual, challenging and funny - yes, this is starting to sound like a lazy dating column - as Mad Men, diva moments can be forgiven as far as I'm concerned. I love Community, Breaking Bad and so on, but Mad Men, as a whole, is a creative achievement far beyond anything else produced in my life time.

So what do we get from 'A Little Kiss', the painfully awaited two-hour premiere of the show's fifth season? The simple answer is that, no matter how agonising the blackout, Mad Men returned as though it had never been away, re-establishing the constantly-shifting food chain of '60s Madison Avenue with typically effortless brilliance and style, with a side-order of Jessica Paré's rendition of 'Zou Bisou Bisou' (originally sung by Gillian Hills, and later Sophia Loren in The Millionairess) to sweeten the dish.
 
Being a season premiere, 'A Little Kiss' primarily concerned itself with Mad Men's most important recurrent theme: that times change, and people caught in the middle rarely embrace it. One of Mad Men's seemingly endless merits is using each episode to examine a single theme, whilst remaining an important part of a bigger, season-long picture. Virtually every scene across this episode's two hours focused on the increasingly predatory relationship between the older generation and the younger as the end of the era owned by white men in suits edges closer, to be replaced by civil equality, beatnik culture and radical feminism.

Pete's ongoing feud with Roger represented the most overt battle of the generations. With the Lucky Strike account gone, Roger's entire raison-d'être at SCDP has been cut away, his importance to the company directed by his name being above the door and an ability to shove his nose into the diaries of more productive people. Pete, finally having had enough of his ridiculously undersized office (with its obstructive concrete pillar, twice used for comedic effect) considering the amount of business he's bringing to the struggling agency, calls a meeting of the partners - forcing them to all sit on a tiny sofa in an amusing visual gag doubling up as showing Pete's prowess at asserting his point - and demands Roger reliquish his enormous, sunlit office.

Roger, naturally, isn't having any of this, but knowing Pete's importance to the company, pays off Harry to swap offices with Campbell, thus getting his rival the bigger office he requested, but not the symbolic office he wanted. Roger's money is keeping him in the game for now, but he's too blind to see that Harry, as head of television, is soon going to be become as important, if not moreso, as Pete, and no more satisfied with being cooped up in an office with a support beam instead of a window. Pete's request for more space may have been satisfied on a technical level, but it's a minor victory when the cards are firmly stacked against Roger in the long run.

At the end of the episode, Pete gets a measure of revenge on Roger - who has been peeking into the Campbell work diary and forcing himself into meetings with clients - by sending him on a wild goose chase to Staten Island at 6am. It's a very Don Draper thing to do - remember Don forcing Roger to climb those stairs after a huge lunch back in the first season, asserting the strength of his relative youth against Roger's meaningless boasts? - and the shot of Pete in his chair, staring out of his new window with his back turned, demonstrates how he is slowly taking over the powers of the man he has long idolised. He needs to learn patience, that the world will not be his at once, but he's getting closer to the top with every passing year. The first season of Mad Men frequently represented Don's commute on the train home from work, sitting as one in a forest of hats. Now it's Pete Campbell on that train and the hats are noticeably fewer, limited to only a handful of old men struggling down the aisle.

Don, meanwhile, is caught in generational confusion of his own. His new wife, Megan, wants to throw him a birthday party, which everyone but her can see is a bad idea. He's not a man who enjoys being the centre of attention, preferring to hold power from the sidelines, so a surprise party is his idea of a worst nightmare. Megan, though, is young and keen to show off her husband to all her friends, leading to Don looking profoundly uncomfortable - while every other man in the room looked far too comfortable, especially the ever-buffoonish Harry - while Megan performed her gorgeous routine to 'Zou Bisou Bisou' with him on a small stool in the middle of the room. Jessica Paré can satisfy herself in the knowledge that she is likely to prove one of the few women able to earn more .gifs in an episode where she co-starred with Alison Brie (yay, Trudy!).

Several reviewers have pegged Megan as manipulative, engaged in a power struggle for control of her marriage, but while she's a girl who knows what she wants and how she can get it - her angrily cleaning the flat in lingerie was an inspired play to Don's desire to get what he cannot have (in the same way Pete clawed Mohawk Airways to SCDP, note) - she wants her marriage to work and to be a good wife to Don, but is clever enough to recognise that, in Doctor Faye's words, he's a man who only likes the beginning of things.

Unlike the neglectful Betty, Megan is aware that needs to stay slightly untameable, to keep her husband on edge while not challenging him on the things that matter (his identity as Dick Whitman, which he has tellingly revealed to her already). Like Peggy - a disappointingly minor presence in this episode, with only a slightly boring bean campaign to offer - and Pete, she's fighting to assert her identity in an environment where a weaker individual would be consumed. As part of a new, outgoing and sexy generation, she's going to get what she wants, and luckily for Don, one of the things she wants is him: she may even be the person to guide him through the difficult passage from the suit-and-tie era to the hippie age.

In Joan's story, three generations were at odds with one another: with Doctor Rapist (as he shall forever be known) still in Vietnam, the mater Holloway was called in to help with looking after the baby. The relationship between grandmother, mother and son isn't exactly harmonious, and it's obvious how mother Gail gave Joan the mental resilience to become an instrumental part of the male-dominated advertising ecosystem at SCDP.

Joan, stuck at home all day, realises how much she misses her job - calling back to that wonderful conversation in 'Tomorrowland' where Peggy called her out for claiming she didn't need work to be satisfied. When Roger and Don place a foolish riposte in the paper to a rival agency under the cosh from the civil rights movement, she fears her job is being farmed out and heads back to the office, pram and everything, to reassert her dominance. Pryce (who didn't approve the ad and got his own inter-generational subplot through the wallet story in the second hour) admits how badly she has been missed and comforts her when she finally breaks down from the stress. Given his own forward thinking (relative - let's not forget the poor cab driver), the two of them would make an interesting pair. Just sayin'.

Roger and Don's short-sightedness with the newspaper placement doesn't just extend to troubling Joan, however. The civil rights protestors picketing the Y & R offices (an event from real-life, apparently) see the statement of SCDP as an 'equal opportunity employer' as an offer of work to the black community, an opportunity many of them could never previously have imagined. Despite the company's ongoing financial difficulties, SCDP is forced to accept CVs for the sake of saving face, even though Roger and co. would rather keep the office as whitewashed as ever. He treats civil rights as a joke, as expected from a man famous for his blackface routine, and it backfires on him - as everything did in this episode, with even his young wife getting in an excellent barb at his expense during the Draper party - in a costly fashion. It's an argument which will define decades to come, even if he can't see it. As Mad Men has pointed out all along, it's the men in the highest towers who have the furthest to fall.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis, how wonderful to have Mad Men back! Zou Bisou Bisou was so sexy...!