SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, put on your raincoat and watch last night’s season 3 premiere of Mad Men.
I’ll be honest with you: I saw the first three episodes of this season of Mad Men, and the premiere, “Out of Town,” was easily my least favorite of the three. (Note: my new TiVo is not set up yet, so I couldn’t watch live; I’ll have to assume the early review copy I got matched what went out on air.)
Don witnessing his primal scene while heating milk in the kitchen was striking, but it, like much of the episode’s Don-centric aspects, elegantly repeated things we knew about him. He sleeps with other women; he’s a foundling child; his identity is malleable; he’s lost, rudderless, caught between honor and restlessness. Check, check, check and check. It’s true what Don tells his stewardess: that he keeps going a lot of places only to end up somewhere he’s already been. Including, but not limited to, another woman’s pants.
I’m not complaining, because I’m still happy to have Mad Men back. (And I found myself liking this episode better the second and third time I watched it. Also, there was a second and third time, so that says something.) When it’s on, there’s no show on TV that’s better just to listen to, as when Don lulls Betty to sleep with the same vivid word-spinning he uses to pitch products, and get strange women in the sack. “As you slide your hands through that cold patch of sand underneath the shadow of your deck chair–” “You’re good at this,” Betty tells him, and we know by now what she knows about what he’s good at.
But I am saying that, if you found this episode a little lacking, be patient; and if you loved this episode, it gets even better.
What this was was an effective scene-setting episode. We got our new corporate heavies, the Brits. (And I’m already loving the slow-burn conflict between Joan and Moneypenny: “In Great Britain–” “A truck is a lorry, and an elevator is a lift.”) We got the competition between Pete and Ken as Lane Pryce sets them up in the same job. We got the resolution of Betty’s pregnancy dilemma (she kept the baby and is heavily with child). And we got the year–it’s spring 1963, which is earlier than I might have suspected but no different than the amount of time that generally passes between seasons of cable dramas.
I did especially love Sal and Don’s road-trip storyline. Excellent episode for Bryan Batt, and not just in how he plays Sal’s trembling acceptance of his (to all appearances) first hook-up with another man. (What a ripoff, by the way, that Don should sleep around so often with impunity, while Salvatore gets caught by a freak of chance his first time out.) There’s also his easy adaption to Don’s G-man ruse at dinner with the sexy stews and the pilot; his shaken hesitation while waiting to see how Don responds to learning that he’s gay; his facial reaction–relieved, but maybe saddened?–to Don’s “Limit your exposure”–and the easy way he slips back into his hetero persona back at the office. Don, he reminds us, is not the only one who knows from adopting identities–far from it.
That’s why it’s so appropriate that Don should be the one to learn his secret. And it’s noteworthy how Don responds. “Limit your exposure.” Don, as someone who has had secrets all his life, understands Sal. But up to a point. He’s not going to be 21st-century PC about it, address the situation directly, or tell Sal that his private life is none of Don’s business. As with his advice to Peggy about her baby (when he advised her to give it up, move on and not throw her career away), he looks at this in entirely practical terms. You need to be careful with this. You need to make sure you take no risks.
His advice, though, comes in the form of an ad tagline. As ever, Don is most insightful, and most honest, when he’s pitching. In which case, which should mark his other words vis a vis London Fog. “There will be fat years and there will be lean years. But it is going to rain.”
Now for the hail of much-missed Mad Men bullets:
* A few of the reviews I’ve read cited that Don Draper line over dinner–about him going a lot of places only to end up someplace he’s already been–as if it were a profound self-insight into his nature. I didn’t take it that way: to me it was (intentionally, I thought) a bit of a cornball, even sententious, world-weary pickup line. Either that, or it was a rare misstep for Mad Men’s dialogue, which rarely slips into that kind of easy melodrama. How did you take it?
* Among all the complications that the Pete-vs.-Ken bake-off sets up, my favorite part was seeing the contrast between how the two took the news: Pete nervous, grateful, and piling faux pas on ingratiating faux pas; Ken, happy but not surprised (nor feigning surprise), relaxed to the point of cockiness lighting up a cig and mentioning he grabbed a sandwich before the meeting. “Look at you,” Pete blurts, disgusted. “Never break a sweat.” It’s going to be something to see who wins and how.
* Though the episode couldn’t be expected to deal with every loose plot thread, it was nice how neatly it dealt with Joan’s relationship status–i.e., the sly glimpse of her ring finger.
* Ditto not a lot of Peggy in this episode (I won’t reference the others I’ve seen), but by the number of O’s on the roster of accounts, we learn she’s been doing well.
* There is indeed something Bondian, and perfectly 1963, about having British villains. And I feel sad for Bert Cooper, the consummate, Ayn Randian American, under “British rule”: “I don’t care what they say. London Fog is a great name.”
* While it’s true that, as I said, this is not exactly the first episode to look at Don’s philandering, its roots or its effects, I do have to admit it was damn chilling to see Betty pin the wings of Don’s TWA conquest on Sally.
* While in L.A. a couple weeks ago, I saw Alison Brie (Trudy) on the set of her other show, NBC’s Community, and mentioned I’d seen the episode. Her excited reaction: “Did you see my hat?” So let me mention for the record: that was, indeed, one hell of a hat.