First, a caveat: I’ve never tried my hand at recapping a show as smart and complex as Mad Men, and I’ve certainly never before tried to recap anything that was two hours long, so I hope you’ll bear with me for the next 3500 or so words, most of which I wrote in the middle of the night and during my third viewing of last night’s episode. On a side note, why couldn’t I write this much, this quickly in college? I would have had so much more time for beer pong.
Anyway, the episode. After waiting nearly a year and a half for Mad Men to return, it did so with a sprawling, two-hour episode that set the tone for the season to come – Roger is sick of Jane and everyone else is sick of Roger, Joan had her baby, Don and Megan got married, Megan’s now a copywriter. I haven’t quite figured out what year in which this season is taking place yet (1967?), but let’s get to it, shall we?
Matthew Weiner, that magnificent bastard who both writes my favorite show on television and whose overwhelming narcissism kept it off the air for 17 months, started off season five by scaring the ever-loving shit out of me. I’m sure that was his intent, and I’m also sure that I’m the only idiot who fell for it, but when we landed squarely in the offices of Y&R with a bunch of anonymous ad execs, dropping makeshift water balloons on the civil rights protestors below, I was sure that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had collapsed and we were going to have to get to know and occasionally love a whole new set of awful people, this time with extra racism.
As it turns out, that wasn’t the case, but Weiner didn’t let us know that quite yet. First we had to make a stop at Don and Megan’s resplendent new apartment, which was decorated immaculately in late-60s modernism and had plenty of room for Sally and New Bobby, who were visiting in advance of Don’s 40th birthday. We learned a few things: Don and Megan are married, Don’s still not all that sure about how to parent his kids and the kids, particularly Sally, still don’t seem to know quite what to make of their dad and Megan. It’s good to know that no one’s gotten any more functional since we last saw them.
Speaking of dysfunction: PETE! If you remember, Trudy popped out a kid at the end of last season, and somehow, the poor thing’s inherited ambition hasn’t suffocated it (her?) yet. Because Trudy gets what Trudy wants, our first Pete sighting was on a train in to work from Greenwich, where he now lives. When a Train Buddy sat down and asked him about his kid, Pete merely complained that Trudy doesn’t get fully put together to leave the house anymore because he has no real thoughts about his child. Pete also refuses to learn to drive, as though it’s his one final protest against becoming a suburban dad. In a way, Pete’s character is so cluelessly and consistently cold that I can’t help but like him. Not to mention that over the course of several seasons, he’s become great at his job.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Joan, who has had her baby (we know it’s a boy because we saw his balls, up close and personal) and has taken maternity leave from the office to welcome the baby home. Because Gregg’s still in Vietnam (and not dead, which was my personal bet), Joan’s maybe-alcoholic mom has come to town to help with the baby. After taking the kid of a walk, she returned to lecture Joan about what will happen when Gregg returns from the war, which I don’t personally think will happen. Either way, Joan made her feelings about her husband “allowing” her to work well known; no one puts Joanie in a corner.
After we had done the necessary out-of-the-office catching up, we went straight back to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where business seemed to be steadily growing in spite of Roger Sterling. Instead of signing new accounts, Roger shuffles around the office, paying his secretary to pay attention to him and flirting with Pete’s so that he can horn in on his meetings. Roger has no skills other than being a silver fox and inheriting things, and sadly, the former doesn’t bring in new clients and he’s fresh out of the latter.
Because some things never change, Don and Megan arrived to work late, but they did confirm that Megan’s marriage has indeed afforded her a promotion from secretary to copywriter. She’s under Peggy’s purview now, and although Peggy seems to like her as a person (as evidenced by their gleeful gossiping while planning the guest list for Don’s surprise party), she seems uneasy with directing her as an employee. Considering that Megan’s her boss’ wife, I guess it’s an understandable unease. Still, Megan’s not an idiot and seems to want to do well, so I suppose it could be worse. Jane Sterling, she’s not.
If you remember back to the end of season four, the beans and sauces division of Heinz had agreed to come in to hear pitches if SCDP was still around in six to eight months, and as it turns out, Heinz made good on that promise. Peggy was in charge of pitching what was very seriously called a Bean Ballet commercial, which she seemed to genuinely think was a great idea.
Even if you did not see last night’s episode of Mad Men, I’m sure you can read the words “Bean Ballet” and know that whatever followed was an unmitigated catastrophe masquerading as a prospective TV commercial. To the Heinz execs’ credit, they also seemed to understand what Peggy didn’t – dancing beans probably don’t sell any beans. Instead, they just make people cock their heads at the television like confused Golden Retrievers.
Not even a Don appearance halfway through the meeting could save the pitch, a fact which Peggy seemed to resent. As smart as she is, Peggy’s used to Don swanning in and saving the day because he can’t bear to fail, and by extension, he can’t bear for his people to fail. Now that Megan’s in the picture, Don’s not as prickly or as ruthless, which means that he’s not as inclined to shove an idea down a client’s throat. Megan’s upsetting the Don-Peggy ecosystem, and Peggy is not pleased about it.
That’s not the only place that the office is off-kilter, though. After walking in on Roger trying to usurp his meeting with Mohawk Airlines and then getting drunk after sending him home, Pete then ran face-first into the always-hilarious column that blocks the entrance to his office. After losing some of his already alcohol-thinned blood and listening to Ken Cosgrove’s endless cheerfulness, Pete decided that a power play was needed. More on that later.
First, before any Peteschemes could come to fruition, we had to have some scheming from Megan, the show’s resident French-Canadian sociopath. In what seemed to be more of an attempt to reposition herself at work than do something nice for Don (no one who’s ever met Don Draper would mistake him for the kind of person who would enjoy surprise parties), Megan’s birthday party for Don was a surprise. Well, it was almost a surprise – when the pair came home, they found Jane and Roger outside the door of their apartment, bickering over whether or not they should knock or just go inside.
Roger tried to play it off by saying that he was just, you know, in the neighborhood with a bottle of booze and decided to stop by, and if there ever were a person who just walks around constantly carrying a bottle of alcohol, it’s probably Roger. Still, Don knew what was up and, at the very least, he had an opportunity to get over he surface-level irritation and put on his best happy face for the people inside.
Oh, and the people inside. Never has there been a party as awkward as Don’s 40th birthday party. Not even Carrie’s prom. Not only did Peggy bring her corporation-hating boyfriend who made awkward jokes about his ass and the carpet, but she DANCED. Does Peggy Olson of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, strike you as an accomplished and graceful dancer? No, she doesn’t. Because she isn’t.
A few more drinks deep, Peggy then got mouthy with Don and Megan about the Bean Ballet. Thankfully, Peggy didn’t actually perform any portion of the Bean Ballet, but it seemed like that eventuality was only moments away. Improbably, something even more vicariously embarrassing happened.
It was present time for the birthday boy, but instead of a pair of Hermes cufflinks, Megan did perhaps the most horrifying thing that you can even imagine – she got up and did a song with the house band. She did it in French! Well, it was mostly comprised of “zoobee zoobee zoo,” words that I believe are as much gibberish in French as they are in English, despite the fact that I don’t speak a lick of French. (Ok, I know that the name of the song is actually “Zou Bisou Bisou,” but I swear that’s not what she was saying. Maybe it’s her eight extra teeth that screw up her pronunciation.)
Actually, saying that Megan merely ‘sang’ the song doesn’t even begin to explain what happened. Megan, in a black, bell-sleeved mini dress, got up on stage and coquetted her way around like the 25-year-old wannabe-actress she is instead of the suburban executive’s wife that Betty was, and although Mrs. Francis didn’t appear in this episode, you could almost feel her rolling her eyes.
When the song was over, Don did a good job of looking happy despite the fact that he was as embarrassed as we all were, perhaps even more – as Peggy said later, you could practically watch Don’s soul leave his body. Roger then got up to make a toast to birthday boy Don and throw some shade at his own not-as-fun-as-he-wanted second wife in the process. While she was standing right there next to him, no less. “The only thing worse than not getting what you want…is someone else getting it.” Yeouch. That’s shady even for Roger.
Of course, what we all knew was confirmed once the party was over and the guests had left. Don had hated the entire evening and he was perhaps starting to hate what he had gotten himself into with Wife 2.0, and he made that very clear to Megan and went to bed by himself. Megan went to drink on their terrace, and despite my vociferous urgings for her to jump and save us all the trouble, she stayed firmly on solid ground. For a moment there, I thought she might really do it, and then my hopes were dashed. When Don woke up the next morning without her next to him in bed, I thought for sure that she was being cleaned up off the sidewalk at that very moment.
Except Megan wasn’t. She had simply gone in to work early to start Phase 2 of the Megan scheming. Before we can get into that, though, we have to visit a few of the show’s other characters, including the episode’s other schemer (and member of the Mad Men Scheming Hall of Fame), Pete. He called a partner’s meeting on his laughably tiny couch in his cramped, dark, awkwardly support-beamed office and made a power play for Roger’s cushy corner space. In response, Roger offered to fist fight for his office and then stomped out (there was a lot of stomping in this episode), but it was clear that the rest of the partners realized that Pete’s the most important account man at SCDP, even if he’s not a senior partner. We’ll call it a tentative win for Pete, which would later turn into a moderate win.
Important for Pete’s eventual victory was the bumbling horndoggery of Harry, who Megan caught talking about her birthday dance in the break room with Stan. Usually I think the whole, “Uh oh, the person who I’m talking about is standing right behind me” TV trope is cliched and boring, but Harry talks more shit than perhaps anyone on the face of the planet, and if anyone were to be caught in the act, it would be him. Because of a miscommunication with Roger (and an $1100 bribe)(Yes, Roger Sterling carries around $1100 in 1960s money, you know, just in case. Like a boss.), Harry ended up guiltily giving up his sunny, spacious office to Pete as a result.
Around that same time, Lane was making a strange phone call to the owner of a wallet that he had found in a cab that morning. I can’t exactly pin down Lane, who appears to have left his Black Bunny girlfriend in order to grudgingly reunite with his strident harpy of a wife. I’m not entirely sure why he insisted on taking the wallet instead of turning it over to the cabby in the first place, and I’m extra unsure of why he ended up having near-phone sex with the woman who answered the wallet-owner’s phone.
Who was that woman, anyway? She said he was the man’s “girl,” but not his secretary or wife. So she was…a hooker? A hooker with tenure? Can hookers get tenured? I have no idea, but Lane seemed to find her irresistible, so much so that he more or less offered to come over and give her a good rogering right there, sight unseen. Maybe he’s utterly intoxicated by the mere idea of sex with anyone other than his frigid wife that even the sound of a throaty female voice sends him over the edge? Who knows, but the endgame is that it’s the dude who picks up the wallet instead of the girl on the phone who said she would come, probably because she’s tenured hooker and is chained up in his sex dungeon somewhere, only allowed to answer phone calls. Probably.
Back to the real characters: JOANIE! Joan’s mom sucks, you guys. She’s like that mom who’s not really abusive or awful, so you can’t REALLY complain about her, but she’s old-fashioned and totally undermines your confidence just for funsies. She saw the joke want ad that SCDP had put in the paper advertising itself as an “equal-opportunity employer” in order to poke fun at Y&R’s racist water balloons, but Joan’s mom used it to convince her that the firm was trying to replace her while she was out on leave.
Naturally, what followed was Joan’s grand, unannounced return to the office. She came in with her baby and her giant stroller, and for anyone who’s inclined to complain about stroller traffic in their neighborhood, just imagine if all the moms had giant 1960s prams that look like miniature hearses. Suddenly a Bugaboo seems totally reasonable by comparison, even with those giant off-road wheels. (No, never mind, the giant off-road wheels will always be annoying.)
While Joan and Lane talked finance and then had a bit of an adorably emotional moment in Lane’s office, which included Lane doing an awkward dance of which I shall provide a GIF for your viewing enjoyment, Joan’s baby, name unknown, bounced around outside. Roger nearly ashed a cigarette on it, Peggy tried to avoid the handoff but still ended up with it, Pete was forced to push it around in the pram for a little while despite the fact that he wasn’t wearing a skirt. By the time Joan was done, the front door receptionist who hadn’t known who Joan was when she came in was holding it, like they were playing hot potato and she had won. Or lost? I don’t know the rules of hot potato.
Meanwhile, Peggy felt so bad about upsetting Megan and inspiring the well-coordinated fit that resulted in her stomping off home that she went and apologized to Don. Naturally, Don went stomping home after her and found Megan at home, cleaning up the apartment in lacy black underthings. She commanded him to sit and watch her but not touch, which was not at all what actually happened.
At first I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but then it became clear that the two of them have some weird you-can’t-have-me-you-old-man sex game thing going on, which I suppose is not that surprising when you consider that Don is a guy who used to (maybe still does?) pay a prostitute to slap him. Remember at the beginning of the episode, when he asked her to open her blouse in his office? She called him a dirty old man then, too.
After the deed was done, Megan had the only believable sex hair that I’ve ever seen on television. I can’t entirely decide if Megan’s a sociopath or if she’s just a nice girl caught up with Don’s psychological issues, but based on the expertly crafted fit she threw to get Peggy to send her home, I’m guessing it’s the former. Her nearly-naked cleaning spree was too wild-eyed and perfect for her to still be clinging to the shreds of sanity that attracted Don last season, not to mention Zoobee Zoobee Zoo.
The episode could have easily ended there, but a few more loose ends needed to be tied up, starting with Pete and Roger. Pete was furious that Roger had kicked Harry out instead of offering up the office he felt he deserved, but that didn’t mean that Pete didn’t accept the upgrade. He did so with one more barb, though – he had his secretary pencil in a huge (fake) meeting on Staten Island for 6 a.m. the next day and instructed her to let Roger look at the calendar all he wanted. Sure enough, Roger took the bait like a dog when you pretend to throw a tennis ball but really hide it behind your back. He might be quick with the one-liners, but he’s not necessarily quick any other way. Roger is, however, clearly sick of his second wife.
And then, of course, there was the matter of the fake ad that SCDP had placed in the paper, trumpeting themselves as an equal-opportunity employer. Because this is the 1960s and rich, middle-aged white men aren’t particularly concerned with anyone but themselves (not that that’s changed so much in 50 years), what the partners saw as a “harmless” joke actually turned into a front office full of young black men and women, waiting patiently to apply for jobs.
After a bit of hemming and hawing (and an embarrassing, racist, perfectly timed delivery to the front office from Y&R), Lane went out into the lobby and did the only halfway decent thing to do – he pretended like SCDP was actually looking to hire secretaries and he collected the women’s resumes. My guess is that Lane, who we know is at least a bit forward-thinking on race, actually intends to hire someone. Mad Men has been criticized in the past for not paying due attention to the era’s enormous race issues, but based on how commentary on civil rights bookended this very high-profile episode, it seems as though one of the defining issues of the 60s isn’t on the back burner any longer.
Some miscellaneous thoughts:
-Pete’s continued redemption as a businessman is one of my favorite long-run story arcs of the series. He may be an overly ambitious, bird-chested, uptight snob (not to mention a maid-rapist), but Pete has a fantastic sense for business and more and more, his presence seems to be what ensures the future prosperity of SCDP.
-Joan’s husband has to die in Vietnam. I don’t really see any endgame for him other than that, and Joan as a single mother would be fascinating. Plus, the real story of Joan is how things don’t work out exactly how she planned, ever, and Gregg’s death would fit into what we know about her character perfectly.
-Who gets divorced first, Roger and Jane or Don and Megan? How long before Don cheats? My guesses are Roger and Jane and three episodes, respectively.
-Is it just me, or is this show drawing some major parallels between having an infant and marrying someone who’s barely an adult?
All GIFs are shamelessly stolen from Gifulmination, my personal favorite source for hilarious dancing pictures.