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Mad Men‘s Return: Surprise!

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Michael Yarish/AMC

NOTE: Because AMC is not sending out advance screeners of Mad Men this season, I won’t be doing postairing reviews of each episode — the show needs time to be reviewed right, and I’m too often on deadline for magazine pieces Monday. I’ll occasionally post about the show — not whole episodes but specific scenes and themes — when I have something to say and time to say it. But I did get the season premiere ahead of time, so I had a chance to write out some of the spoilery thoughts I left out of my earlier preview/review:

The review screeners critics got of Mad Men‘s two-hour premiere came with a long list of “spoilers” Matthew Weiner asked that we avoid: what year the episode was set in, what happened with Don and Megan, what happened with Don and Faye, did Joan have her baby, what’s going on with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s business and “other issues.”

I don’t think all these requests were reasonable. (Don and Faye?) But I more or less avoided them anyway. Although you could argue I blew all of them by simply saying that there were no real plot bombshells in the pilot.

(Read: Mad Men: “All You Get to Do Is Watch”)

Because there weren’t. Because there aren’t in a Mad Men season premiere. A typical amount of time passes in a cable drama. (We left in 1965. We’re back in 1966. Gasp!) The things the finale gave you every reason to believe would happen have happened — just as Peggy really did give away her baby and Don and Betty really did divorce. Mad Men does not throw sudden curveballs at the season return just to shock you — it would be a different, probably worse show if it did — which is why the proscription against spoilers especially amuses me with this show.

So Joan had her baby. And so Don and Megan, having gotten engaged, got married. The latter fact is not especially interesting in that it happened; what makes it interesting, and what makes it worth discussing, is how it’s played out in this first episode.

The engagement, after all, was a big change (if one that was reasonably well telegraphed in Season 4). Making Megan into a suddenly central character was a surprise, and maybe a concern, because we saw her the way Don’s associates did. She wasn’t that well characterized yet. She was a supporting player. We didn’t really know her. Now suddenly she’s essentially the female lead (or at least a female lead)?

I’ll be honest: I’m glad to have Mad Men back, but “A Little Kiss” was not a great episode. Mad Men return episodes generally aren’t: they take their time and do a lot of table setting. There were moments that seemed tonally off; Mad Men is a funny show, for instance, but things like Pete’s Staten Island Ferry prank on Roger and the comic beats between Joan and the new receptionist felt almost sitcom-like. And the civil rights protest that bracketed the episode has a lot of potential as an arc, but it felt stilted for now. The Y&R water bombing was lifted from a 1966 incident, and the dialogue is taken verbatim from a New York Times account (hat tip to Alan Sepinwall, who mentioned that to me). And it felt like it: the story is not really going to work until there’s a new black character(s) who feels like part of Mad Men‘s creative world and voice, not a newspaper clipping.

(READ: Top Ten Things We Miss About the Mad Men Era)

But the episode was interesting, in that it shows us Weiner using Megan’s unfamiliarity as an advantage and as a storytelling device. The very fact that she is an unknown quantity among these very well-known quantities may give us a chance to see everyone we think we know differently — through the eyes of a relative stranger.

First, there’s the idea of Megan as a catalyst, someone shaking up the settled order of this world. There was a lot being set up in “A Little Kiss”: the civil rights issue, the Pete-Roger standoff, SCDP’s scrambling for business.  But so much of this episode was about Megan— even when it was about other people.

There was Sally, stumbling into the master bedroom, getting a glimpse of the small of Megan’s back and thus of her father as a sexual being. Peggy, reacting to the fact that Megan strolled into the kind of copywriting job she’d fought to get by marrying the boss. (“We’re really locked into the five cents off, but good idea!”) Joan, worried for her job, noting that someone once started as a receptionist and ended up getting everything.

There’s also Roger, comparing his souring marriage unfavorably with Don’s new one. Harry, finding in Megan another chance to totally Harry up a situation. (There may even be an echo of sexual jealousy in Lane’s obsession with Dolores and Pete’s remark that Trudy once would not leave the house in her robe: a lot of older and/or married men sizing Megan up as a trophy.) And Don, who — is it the whiskey (or lack thereof) talking, or does he look, briefly … happy? Uncomplicatedly happy?

The fulcrum of all these gazes is the party and the “Zou Bisou Bisou” performance, the greatest set piece of the episode. (It’s a mark of Mad Men, which has always tried to avoid too-obvious pop-culture cues, that it would go with not a British Invasion or American pop tune but a French ye-ye number by Gillian Hills.)

It’s sexy, and it’s awkward, and it’s kind of funny. But it’s also kind of awesome. Literally: the scene manufactures a feeling of awe in the room among all these repressed, ironic, arch characters, seeing this rare bird light in the middle of the room, expressing unashamed affection and energy. (This sense is conveyed even in the design of the apartment — furnished from scratch, entirely new and modern, unhaunted by any past.) Don is mortified, of course, and it doesn’t entirely end well, but for a second it’s as if someone opened a window on the whole show, and not to let out the smell of pot smoke.

But it’s not just about Megan as the object of gazes. She’s also a significant gazer in this episode, and this may be part of her function in this series. She’s not an idiot, and it doesn’t take Harry’s pantomimed hip thrusting to make her see how the rest of the office sees her. But she in turn lets us see the familiar characters anew, through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know them that well and thus can still be surprised by them.

In places, her newness is just practically functional: it gives her an excuse to remind us of the show’s bench of characters by having her plan an invite list and name-drop Freddy Rumsen and Duck Phillips (nice brief pained reaction by Elisabeth Moss on that one). And in the surprise-party fallout, she lets us see how, well, horrible these people we’ve come to follow can be. “What is wrong with you people?” she asks. “You’re all so cynical. You don’t smile, you smirk.” It’s not that they’re bad people, necessarily. But in a way, maybe they’re worse: they refuse to permit themselves happiness; they close themselves off from the idea of uncomplicated joy.

And there is, of course, no more sturdily constructed joy-prevention fortress than Megan’s new husband Don. He’s horrified by the surprise party, or really by its implication — the idea of letting all these people literally into his world. He seems in love with Megan. He seems in lust with her. But he is more comfortable basking in the reflection of her openness and optimism than embracing it himself.

Even when they reconcile at the end, it’s in a peculiar sex game in which Megan gets on her knees, cleans the floor and mocks the 40-year-old man for his decrepitude. (Masochistic? Maybe. But we’ve seen, in his encounter with the hooker, that our Don enjoys him a good slapping.) Postcoitally, Don reassures Megan that it’s not her, it’s them: “You think you’re a splinter. You’re not. The whole foot’s been infected for years.”

You have to suspect that Don is not talking only about other people here. Don likes newness. He likes, as Faye said, the beginnings of things. But does he really like surprises?

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