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ONE MORE KISS BEFORE I GO

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By Matt Domino

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The Montréal Review, April 2012

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Time moves on and the fact that it moves on is the hardest thing for us to come to grips with. We work in an office and people we've known and cared about leave or are fired or die. We live in cities and our friends move away. We make new friends and we get new co-workers to fill the space, yet we still long for things as they were, no matter if they were good or bad, simply because what was is now absent.

TV shows are the same. Mad Men's two-hour premiere, "A Little Kiss," opened after a progression in time. We resume our story in June of 1966 with brief snapshots into the lives of Don, Joan and Pete, as well as the civil rights protestors in New York, giving us all the scope we need. And as Pete rides the MetroNorth from Westchester or Greenwich with an unhappy suburban husband, supplanting the seat that Don once sat in, we fully realize that the Mad Men world has changed more between Season 4 and Season 5 more than between any other two seasons.

"Little Kiss" was a study in parallax. We are seeing the same objects, the same characters we have known, but from different perspectives. We see the Joan we've known, but now she is a mother, so we see her from the angle of a mother. Pete is now the firmly entrenched, savvy business thinker, which he was already becoming, living in the suburban home with the idyllic, wooden kitchen table. And Peggy is the dissatisfied, impatient creative that serves as "the voice" of the firm.

"Dissatisfaction is the symptom of success," Trudy tells Pete in the kitchen of their home. Mad Men, like The Wire, has always been good at using key quotes to perfectly sum up the themes of episodes, seasons and even the series at large. And based on Peggy's disappointment in Don's new, seemingly content demeanor, this Fifth Season will be a prolonged meditation on success, satisfaction and what it takes to stay hungry and relevant as time goes on. Peggy and Pete, each in their own ways, long for a time when their bosses were their bosses, and each one lashes out in their own way. At Don's surprise birthday party, Peggy uses slightly veiled aggression at Don's refusal to support her during her presentation to Heinz. She feels hurt and betrayed that her partner, her spiritual "other," was not willing to recognize the fundamental creative misunderstanding she was facing in that meeting; and so she tried to barb him at his own birthday party after a few drinks. Pete meanwhile acts even more aggressively, albeit through office politics. He points out the obvious: that Roger is losing business relevance by the day and serves only as a figurehead, while Pete is the active account engine that keeps the company moving forward. Both Peggy and Pete are not satisfied with where they stand at the firm and they want some sort of semblance of "the way things were," which is to say, an order that makes sense. What is interesting is that this first episode showed that despite Peggy's seemingly progressive social life, it is Pete who is the most progressive in the office; Pete is the one pushing to create a new world order, a new world order where he sits in Roger's office. And for the first time it seems that his desire is not based out of selfishness, but more out of what makes the most sense.

Order and how things fall into place is another one of the main themes that the first episodes set in motion. When Joan returns to the office, feeling as though she is being replaced at the firm, Lane tells her that he has "been adrift" without her. Joan tells him that ever since she gave birth to her son that she has been out of sorts, that people makes jokes and she doesn't even know what they are talking about. Elsewhere, Roger tells Don at the party, as they are looking at Meghan talking with her friends, "I know what you're thinking. Don't worry, they're not laughing at you." Also at the party, when there seems to be an order as when Peggy, Abe, Pete, Trudy, Ken and his wife are talking and they are a scene of young, professional husbands and wives, there is a misunderstanding as to the appropriateness of smoking pot and about how to feel about the protests going on in the world. A scene of young couples that once made sense, doesn't seem to make sense anymore.

This inevitably brings us to the current state of Don's world and how order appears there. We first see into the life of Don Draper circa June 1966 through Sally Draper as she mistakes Don's bedroom for the bathroom and catches a glimpse of Meghan's, sleeping, naked form. It is a concise scene that let's us know we will be seeing Don from a different angle this season and that we aren't quite sure what door we are walking into, especially when we see him later asking Meghan to show him her breasts in his office. Clearly, Don and Meghan are not living in a perfect world and we, as a viewer, could basically surmise that would be the case at the end of Season Four, however, their two major scene together provided two of the most powerful and murky moments of the episode. The first scene is after the party where Meghan tries to be intimate in a post-party-married-couple way and calls Don "Dick Whitman," which obviously never goes over well with Don no matter how intimate he has been with anyone. Meghan is trying to set her own sort of order on Don's world by throwing the party and by performing and then whispering to him as his wife, but that is not the world that Don wants and this show is about following Don toward a world he wants, which is a world he doesn't even know or fully understand. And in that first scene, Don sends Meghan away to the balcony of their apartment to look over Manhattan, where she looks at the skyline and as a viewer you have the impoetius to place the thought, "None of this matters, none of this life matters if you don't have those dark moments of intimacy with someone else."

Don imposes his order once again towards the end of the episode when he goes back to this apartment to check on Meghan who had left work because she was still so upset with Don. Meghan then proceeds to strip to her underwear and start cleaning the floor in front of Don, telling him that he can't have her. This whole performance brings us back to Don's light S&M with the prostitute in the Season Four premiere. And here again, Don takes control of the situation and grabs Meghan and they have sex on the floor. It is only after they are finished, when we get an intimate glimpse of Don and his idea of order. He tells Meghan that he didn't want anyone in the office in their home and explains that it doesn't matter if they don't like her because each person from Sterling, Draper, Cooper Pryce has had their own problems before she became his wife. "I don't care about work," Don says. "I want you at work because I want you." Don never likes to mix parts of his life together and this is another example. He can compartmentalize, but not everyone else can. We all lead multiple lives and hold multiple identities, but none of us ever do it as well or as literally as Don Draper.

And as the episode ends, we see a shot of Meghan and Don, from behind, leaving the elevator to go to the SCDP offices. This shot might have been the first rear elevator shot in the entire series and it leads us into the scene of all the African-Americans waiting in the lobby to be interviewed possible positions as the agency all due to the fact that Roger put the equal-opportunity employment ad in the New York Times. That strange shot leads us into a scene that casts the agency in a new light, or it at least serves as a final reminder that our Mad Men world is not quite the same world that it once was, despite what faint shadows remain (like Pete and Peggy exchanges glances over Joan's baby).

This first episode was expansive and threw a wide net for the entire season. At times all of it made sense and then all of a sudden the actions and the direction were baffling. The net will be pulled in tighter over the course of the next ten episodes to tighten where exactly our characters are heading, but it seems that, overall, the lack of order is intentional in order to reflect the state of America in 1966; and perhaps by the end of the season, like America in the late-60's we won't know exactly who is in charge or what order matters or what it is exactly we are looking at.

To feel that way after watching two hours of television is refreshing.

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Matt Domino is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is the
Editorial Coordinator at Architectural Digest and maintains a blog
called Puddles of Myself (www.puddlesofmyself.com). He is currently cleaning up the manuscript for a novel tentatively titled, The Last Mound of Dirt.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES:

MAD MEN

AFTER TOMORROWLAND

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By Matt Domino, The Montréal Review, February 2012

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