A triumphant return. I find it wonderfully confounding that for all the speculation in the ten months since "Mad Men's" second season closer about the big changes in store for Don, Betty, Peggy, Pete, Sal, Joan, et al, the major developments in the third season preem,"Out of Town," reinforce that nothing much has changed at all for our core characters.
Don is still a serial philanderer, attracted to ultra sexually aggressive Bobbie Barrett types who work outside the home. Betty is back to the blithe state of denial and I-just-want-everything-to-be-perfect mental state that can only mean she's in for a hard fall when life inevitably turns out to be less than perfect.
Peggy is still living in the deepest, scariest state of denial as she pursues her professional career above all else. Pete, even after learning last season that he has a child by Peggy, is still fueled by his status- consciousness more than anything else -- acknowledging that he's fathered a child out of wedlock or ending his marriage to Trudy (as was indicated in last season's finale) would be too much of a blemish on his social-climbing endeavors.
Sal by the end of this episode is shoved more firmly back in the closet than ever, after the cruel tease of very nearly experiencing sexual ecstasy at the hands of a Baltimore bellboy.
Joan is still the Machiavellian queen bee of Sterling Cooper, even if she's outwardly proclaiming her distance from office politics -- post British invitation -- and her desire to leave it all behind after her planned nuptials.
And in the larger scheme, the picture of mid-1963 America presented in this episode indicates that the Cuban Missile Crisis period -- when we last saw our heroes forced to face the threat of nuclear annihilation -- has not had a lasting impact on the New Frontier/Camelot zeitgeist of the moment.
(Doing the math based on Betty looking to be about seven-eight months pregnant, it would mean that at least six months have passed since the October 1962 period of the sophomore season finale.)
We at home, of course, know that trauma that is lurking around the corner (Dallas, the grassy knoll, a convertible limo -- you get the picture). But for now, life is all about empire-building, the march of capitalism, sex appeal and getting in good with the ladies from the docent program at the Met.
Watching this episode for a third time tonight, it struck me that this show is a ballet. Every line, every bit of backdrop, every arched eyebrow and every puff of a cigarette (I'm always coughing by the end of a "Mad Men" seg) is choreographed to play just so. The words, the imagery, the music and the movements of the actors seem as carefully crafted as the artwork on Bert Cooper's wall. You catch more of nuance and subtext with every repeat viewing. Dare I say that even "Lost" isn't quite this layered with meaning.
We open this season with a jarring scene, like something out of a Lars von Trier movie. Don Draper is in his kitchen, hunched over the stove as he heats some warm milk for Betty. He's in a bathrobe and he's barefoot, just as he came into the world. He looks out into the darkness and without any fuss or camera tricks to indicate he's in a dream state, Don starts watching the circumstances of his birth unfold. It ain't pretty.
The scene fills in the blanks of how he was born to a prostitute and then handed off to the wife of the man who fathered him. And we learn why he was saddled with the unfortunate moniker of "Dick."
"A wish his mother should have lived to see," explains the grim-faced midwife who hands the infant to the woman whose resentment will scar Dick/Don for life. You can forgive Don for letting the milk boil over.
In the following scene, Don tries to console a restless Betty with what sounds like a pitch he would make to a client about an ad campaign ("Imagine yourself on a warm sandy beach..."). Betty lets us know that she's gone right back to la-la land, after standing up for her own self-respect in the second half of last season when she kicked him out for philandering, with her comments about wanting everything to be "perfect" for the baby that she is sure is a girl.
She also lets us know that she's still as cold and clueless as ever when it comes to parenting. She tells Don about Sally taking a hammer to his valise as he prepares to go away on business, without recognizing it as the cry of an insecure kid who's dad moved out for a few months not so long ago. But even more intriguing is the line she uses about Sally taking to Don's tools "like a little lesbian." What books has Betty been reading?!
The ballet really gets going once we return to the Sterling Cooper offices. First, we check in with Peggy. She's frustrated with her flighty and flirtatious secretary, Lola. Peggy gives the camera her tight-lipped fake smile, and with one gesture -- punching her intercom to raise her wayward girl -- fills us in on everything that's being going on, or not, with Peggy in the intervening months.
The scene involving the firing of Burt Peterson (Had we met this character before? I do not remember him but I haven't scoured the ep guides ...) in Bert Cooper's office is painful for any of us who have endured the heartache of mass layoffs. It starts even before at the beginning with Bert and the new Brit overseer Lane Pryce, the chief financial officer, bantering about the Japanese print of the octopuses ravishing a naked woman. Lane seems both disgusted and impressed as he stares at it.
Don walks in and without a pause Bert observes "We were just talking about you."
With precious little exposition, this scene plus the earlier exchange between Layne's British secretary, John Hooker (we learn a little later that he's been dubbed "Moneypenny" by the other girls) and Lola lets us know the lay of the land at Sterling Cooper post-merger. Bert and Roger Sterling still have their name on the door but Layne and "the home office" are in charge.
As is often the case in "Mad Men," there are great studies in contrast in the richness of these characters (a testament to the writing but credit is also due great actors like Jared Harris who plays Lane).
Brits vs. Yanks. The sexually confident Don vs. the sexually conflicted Sal. Pretty blonde stewardess Shelly vs. pretty blonde wife Betty. But nothing in this episode beats the character studies we get in Pete vs. Ken in the competish to be head of accounts.
For a guy so wrapped up in the social register, Pete Campbell is one awkward fella. He completely bungles his first audition as head of accounts, in so many ways. He's so consumed about ensuring that he's actually got the promotion that he blows right past an opportunity to sit and bond with his boss. And he's so worried about his place in the pecking order that he forgets to ask if the gig comes with a raise. In this moment, and in his letdown when he learns that he'll share his coveted title with Ken Cosgrove, we see that Pete is still a child trying to impress his distant snooty mother -- as evidenced by the Pee-wee Herman dance he does when he gets behind closed doors in his office.
Ken, on the other hand, is temperamentally suited to the cultural changes that are about to explode around him. He's so ready to grow a beard, hitchhike cross-country and climb aboard Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus. (Furthur, R.I.P. The world was a better place when Ken Kesey was still with us.)
Ken reacts coolly to the surprise that Lane unleashes on him. Just like our modern Darwinian moment, getting called to a meeting with corporate means there's an equal chance you're getting fired or getting promoted. (Even Don's feeling it. "I don't like how much I'm getting used to this," he laments after the meeting with Burt Peterson.)
Ken asks questions that make him seem instantly more suited to the job than Pete, and he sees right through Lane's plan to get Ken and Pete to destroy each other. Ken won't take the bait even when Pete taunts him. Trudy's forced to scold Pete like a child when she drops in on him in full tizzy mode. "Why can't I get anything good all at once..."I can't live with this," Pete whines. "But you'll try," Trudy instructs.
I found it interesting that Ken got the Warner Bros. account in the scene where Joan reads off the who-gets-what list in the meeting where Pete is sulking like a 5-year-old. In that same scene, we see that Harry Crane is exerting more influence on things in the new world order, if only because "42 cents out of every dollar in this agency is spent in the television department." Harry seems to get on well with Lane.
The Ken and Pete dynamic is great stuff, but the heart of this episode is Don and Sal's Baltimore adventure. Wow. From the moment that stewardess Shelly (a dead-ringer for Betty in all but her Southern twang) flirts mercilessly with Don on the plane, we know these two are in for some hijinks, sexual and otherwise. One of the best comedy moments of the seg is Sal's comment on Don's raging sex appeal. "I've never seen a stewardess that game," he says. "Really?" Don replies, without a hint of smugness.
Don's seduction scene with the tipsy stewardess is heartbreaking in its own way. After giving us a little hope that he might fend her off -- "I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I've already been," he tells her in the restaurant -- we find him still looking for love in all the wrong places. He even advises this devil in a blue dress that her conquests don't have to end after she gets married. I enjoyed the running bit about Don being amused at how seriously Shelly and her cohort take their obligation to their "uniform."
Sal delivers perhaps the single-best line of the episode when he leaves Don and Shelly in the elevator with the parting shot: "Shelly -- it's been swelly." I laughed out loud, which of course set me up for the gut-punch of Sal's aborted encounter the bellboy. The way it was shot, with the focus on Sal's money clip and then the young man's feet coming into the frame -- inventive work on the part of helmer Phil Abraham. And credit to Matt Weiner, who penned this seg -- when the fire alarm goes off in the hotel, my mind instantly went to the cliche of Don's dalliance being revealed. But I should've known better.
What can I say about Bryan Batt? He's amazing. With barely a word, he speaks volumes about Sal's pain and frustration. This opening for Sal kinda hints that his storyline could well steal the season away on the back of Batt's immense talent. He's gotta be good to hold his own against Jon Hamm in these pivotal scenes.
"Our worst fears lie in anticipation," Sal tells the London Fog father-and-son duo the next day, quoting Balzac. Again, only a thesp of Batt's caliber could deliver the line with that's meant to sound impressive for a client meeting but actually describes his state of mind in a way that Don instantly recognizes.
Meanwhile, I never would have guessed that Don Draper was anything but a homophobe. Instead of shunning or degrading Sal, Don addresses the incident in the most non-threatening way he can -- in the context of work. In one brief exchange on the plane, Don telegraphs to Sal that he not only wants him to stay with the company, he wants Sal to protect himself because presumably he likes the guy.
"Limit your exposure" I only got this after the second viewing, but Don's London Fog campaign inspiration is a message to Sal, pure and simple.
Oh boy. There's so much more, but the midnight hour is approaching.
There wasn't much Betty in this episode (nor much Peggy) but January Jones killed in the closing scene in the bedroom after Don returns from Baltimore, as did Hamm and Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sally Draper.
Sally confesses why she took the hammer to Daddy's valise -- still no empathy from mom, of course -- and then inadvertently provides Don with the safety net to explain why Shelly's precious flight attendant wings wound up in his suitcase. (More evidence that Betty has her blinders firmly strapped on.)
Then Sally insists on hearing the story of the day she was born -- bringing us back full circle to where the episode started for Don. Don hesitates, then begins the story of how he got home late on a rainy night -- late because he was no doubt out carousing -- and then he can't go on, choked by the emotion stirred up by his own selfish actions and the pain of the imagined memories of his own humble beginnings.
Betty takes over with surprising tenderness toward Sally, but the camera stays on Don who looks like a man struggling to keep his composure. Cut to credits and a somber bluegrass fiddle that indicates Don's old Kentucky home.
Even on the third viewing, my jaw was hanging low by this point. And then two questions popped into my head. No. 1 -- What tune is that, I wonder? And No. 2 -- How fast can next Sunday get here!