We are at the midpoint of the Mad Men season now, six or seven episodes in – depending on your point of view. For me, the two-hour “A Little Kiss” aired as one episode, so it is one episode, production numbers be damned. I reviewed the first three episodes in The Good, The Mad, The Ugly Betty, all of which set Pete Campbell up to be the season’s primary antagonist again. It also set Don up as a surprisingly devoted husband, Roger as a depressed has-been, Peggy as increasingly independent and delightfully confident, and that the era they were living in was about to give way to a new one. But we’ll get back to all that later.
Pete got his ass kicked.
Signal 30 is Pete’s episode, and for the most part he is as triumphant and crowing as he has been throughout the season. He fixes his sink with great satisfaction. His wife Trudy even manages the impossible feat of getting Don Draper to come to their house for dinner – though of course Megan has to drag him kicking and screaming. Pete and a high school student flirt as he studies for his driver’s license. But this is where Icarus flies too close to the sun and Pete is set up for a huge fall. The sink blows up only for Don to fix it with ease in front of the whole dinner party. Ken Cosgrove – in the first character development I remember for him since Season 3 – becomes the focus of the dinner conversation as his wife (what was her name again?) brings up his writing. Pete’s underage love interest falls easily for a hunkier young guy.
Pete, never being one to handle adversity well, resorts to childishness almost instantly. As part of an ill-conceived night at a brothel to woo the Jaguar account that Lane Pryce had brought in, Pete shacks up with a prostitute. After a couple of tries, she guesses his not-so-secret need to be someone’s master. It might have played better if she had assumed it from the start, but it was a cute scene regardless. Pete then calls Don out on the taxi ride home, accusing him of hypocrisy over some judgmental glances. Ah yes, this is the Pete we love to hate.
And the real bad news: the Jaguar client went home with gum in his pubic hair and his furious wife won’t have him doing business with a company that took him to a whorehouse. A seriously-pissed Lane confronts Don, Roger, and Pete…who responds by calling Lane a homosexual. Lane challenges Pete to a fistfight on the spot, and the proper Englishman knocks the crap out of the younger man. It almost verges on the ridiculous, but it is so satisfying to see Pete humiliated so thoroughly that I was able to look past it.
The subplot – which is pretty important but easily forgotten – features the return of Joan’s husband. The very short return, because it turns out he volunteered to go back to Vietnam without so much as consulting his buxom wife and mother of his child. This is the last straw for Joan, and she does what she probably should have done well before she said “I do,” and kicks his sorry ass to the curb.
Pete meets Don in the elevator later and for some bizarre reason thinks Don will take pity on him as he whines that he “has nothing.” It’s true, the two men have come to having a reasonable facsimile of respect for each other over the years, but Don having a soft spot for the guy who tried to blackmail him once upon a time seems beyond logic.
If there’s a real complaint about any of this is that it comes way too early in the season for me. Generally the first half of a Mad Men season is a slow burn, setting the table for major changes late. Things happen, but they aren’t game-changing, they are game-shaping. Pete’s literal and metaphorical beat-down pretty much ensures that his rise to Alpha Male of the Office is over and his credibility as antagonist shot. Whatever development he’s had over the last couple of seasons – into a fairly decent human being, mind you – is gone down the sink with it. And Joan’s big moment is practically lost amidst the fireworks, overshadowing a huge turning point in her story arc.
Far Away Places shifts the focus back to Peggy, Roger, and Don in a decidedly non-linear way. The structure of this episode was clearly influenced by the Roger segment in which he and wife Jane trip on LSD, and doesn’t entirely work. Peggy fights with her boyfriend, blows a presentation to Heinz, gives a handjob to a stranger in a movie theater, then learns that her co-worker was born in a concentration camp and goes back to her boyfriend for comfort. The focus then switches to Roger and Jane the day before as they go to an LSD party. After a few funny moments, the two have the revelation that they aren’t happy together and decide that they should part ways. The morning after, Roger seems far more happy about it than Jane does. Then, running at the same time of Peggy’s story, Don and Megan set out on an impromptu trip to a Howard Johnson only for things to explode in a huge fight that sees Don driving away from an irate Megan. Don cools down and goes back for her…but she’s gone. Over the next several hours, the usually-unflappable Don goes into a full-scale panic. Eventually he arrives back at their apartment to find her safe and sound, and they end up on the floor (a mirror for their fight in the first episode), seriously concerned over this battle of wills. Don seems more devoted to Megan than ever at the end.
At the Codfish Ball goes back to more-traditional storytelling and is better for it. Roger’s ex-wife Mona (and John Slattery’s real-life current wife) appears for the first time since Season 3, which was a nice surprise, but doesn’t really pay off in the episode. The story instead revolves almost entirely around Don’s upcoming award from the American Cancer Society. Megan’s parents come in to see it, and after Sally essentially knocks-out her step-grandmother, she’s free to come to the ceremony, too. Megan shines as she comes up with a brilliant idea for the Heinz account, then quickly improvises as she learns they are about to fire SCDP over dinner, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But she seems oddly melancholy over her triumph. And things really fall apart at the ceremony as Roger flirts with – and then gets a blowjob from – Megan’s mother as Sally watches in horror. Don learns that while all the wealthy “potential” clients in the room may respect his balls for writing that “No More Tobacco” letter, none of them will trust him with their business. And Megan gets a lecture from her father that more than hints that she wanted more from life than to be an ad-man’s second banana. The whole group winds up back at their table looking deliciously miserably and guilty, and Sally sums things up later in a phone call to Glenn: “The city is dirty.”
Halfway in, I’d be hard-pressed to call this the greatest season of Mad Men. It has certainly had its moments, but even Season 4’s early season run-up had more drama – believable drama – than this one has seen. There has been a great deal more experimentation story and tone-wise, but that hasn’t always helped…and seriously hurt Far Away Places. And while the principals are certainly getting plenty of screen-time, a lot of folks are getting pushed to the margins. Lane, Joan, Ken, and Harry seem superfluous aside from a scant few memorable scenes. And after her fat-suit debut, Betty has barely even been mentioned…largely due to the fact January Jones gave birth sometime during the Season 5 shoot. And while Peggy gets plenty of screentime and Elisabeth Moss is playing her absolutely brilliantly…her story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Of course, there plenty of time for that to change, and there are plenty of things on the table as Season 5 rolls on.
Are there any other Mad Men fans out there, and if so, what do you think of Season 5?