Mad Men season premiere recap: The New Normal

The young and not-so-young chase significance, relevancy, and renewed prosperity amid changing, uneasy times in 'A Little Kiss'
Ep. 01 | Aired Mar 25, 2012

"Tell me the truth: Am I really going bald?" Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) gives Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Ken (Aaron Staton) the business in advance of their pitch for beans "A Little Kiss." 

Michael Yarish/AMC

Sally Draper’s spring awakening set the tone for Mad Men’s lovely, languid, deceptively light season premiere. We met her anew as an alarm clock radio roused her from slumber. The tune: “Ebb Tide” by organ maestro Ken Griffin from his album Drifting & Dreaming – a charming sonic kiss for a sleeping beauty. (Thank you SoundHound app for the research assist.) As we watched the blossoming adolescent groggily float through the halls of her father’s new apartment, I half expected an animated menagerie of enchanted birds and bees and assorted forest creatures to materialize and attend to her. Looking for the bathroom, she instead knocked on the locked door of the master bedroom. Don Draper, sans shirt, grumpily greeted her. Sally snuck a peek inside and saw her father’s young bride rolled up in the white sheets, naked backside exposed. Sally twitched from the adult vibrations charging the air. It was hard to know if Sally’s glance caught or escaped Don's attention. “You want breakfast?’ he yawned. Now, as always, the matter of Don Draper’s self-awareness is up for debate.

“A Little Kiss” was full of insensitivity and obliviousness to profound changes either subtly blooming or loudly demanding to be noticed. The year: 1966. Our drop point: The week surrounding Memorial Day, a holiday that was originally intended to honor the Union soldiers who fought and died during The Civil War. With a heavy hand, Mad Men’s opening sequence reminded us that 100 years after the end of slavery, the cause of civil rights still had miles to go. High in the ivory tower of Young & Rubicam, New York, a preppy crew of copywriters bitched about the noisy protest in the streets below. “O-E-O! O-E-O! We got the poverty!/Where is the dough?” went the angry chant of African American men and women marching with pickets. (OEO: Office of Economic Opportunity, started in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his Great Society program.) The white young Republicans dressed in blue and red striped dress shirts were unsympathetic. Taped to their windows were scrawled responses. “Goldwater ’68” and “If you want $ get a job!” and “You Voted For Lindsay [sic] See Him!” With an impish gleam, one of these American Idiots said: “Must be hot out there.” He grabbed a pitcher of ice tea and poured it out the window. “You hit one!” crowed a colleague. (Shudder.) Soon they were turning lunch sacks into water bombs. Talk about your trickle down economics. Scampering out of their cold hole to get more water from the men’s room, the fratty rats stumbled and bumbled into the lobby and came face to face with the objectified Others they were dumping on, just as the receptionist was indignantly insisting that her small quadrant of corporate America couldn’t possibly be responsible for such bad, demeaning behavior. “This is the executive floor! That’s ridiculous!” she thundered. Busted. The upper class with their dripping sacks and the lower class with their sagging signs shared uncomfortable silence, a sad-eyed black boy all wet between them. The battle between yesterday and tomorrow, between change and status quo, had gone next level, and so had Mad Men's engagement with mid-sixties American history.

+++

May 31, 1966. Roughly seven months since Don Draper went to “Tomorrowland” and jumped at the future he saw in the eyes of his young, great-with-kids, aspiring-writer secretary, Megan. Slightly longer since the tender union of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was imperiled by its own version of Southern secession: The abrupt departure of Lucky Strike, which accounted for nearly half of the upstart firm’s billings. SCDP looked as roasted as toasted Virginia tobacco. We returned to those cool, spare, spacey-mod offices on the day after Memorial Day and found a cracked mirror reflection of our own post-calamity times: A leaner, slightly meaner operation, still rattled by recent hardships but no longer reeling from them. Everyone (save for a privileged, oddly happy one) was overworked and exhausted, all were yearning to get “back to normal.” Time to get back to the way things used to be. Time to resume the narrative of a scrappy start-up’s rise from underdog to top dog. Business had stabilized. Some new clients – Chevalier Cologne; Butler Shoes -- had finally signed on the dotted line. Some promising new leads had come across the transom, including Heinz Baked Beans. Some old clients, like Mohawk Airlines, were open to coming back. “You know how this works from here on out,” Ken Cosgrove explained with rose-colored optimism. “We start with a bunch of piddily s—t. Your Topaz. Your White Night cologne. We add your mid-sized stuff. Maybe your Mohawk. We still got Vicks. That’s big! Next, we worm our way into a few niche companies, something sexy in a good neighborhood. A pharmaceutical. Maybe if God is gracious, a car. And then? We go public, open an office in Buenos Aires and Elvis plays at Tammy’s sweet 16.”

Quipped Pete Campbell: “Kenny Cosgrove writes another Great American novel.” Time will tell if the agency will follow his script -- or if the story about a new kind of normal is about to take hold.

NEXT: Roger the rogue, going rogue.

Latest Videos in TV

Advertisement