The ’60s went from stately to swinging in the months separating “Mad Men’s” fourth and fifth seasons, and it’s all Don Draper and the even-older guard of Madison Avenue can do to keep up with the culture — not to mention their wives. Indeed, Don married Megan, and as he turned 40 just past Memorial Day 1966, he was treated to a very public show of just how different he is from his earnest and energetic bride. “A Little Kiss” Parts 1 and 2 perfectly encapsulated the era: the divide between generations is near impassable, and no matter one’s age, avoiding the currents of social change are no longer an option. You want to marry your much-younger secretary? Don’t assume she’ll be as easy to command as your first wife. Think placing a juvenile ad in the New York Times, at your competition’s expense, claiming your agency is an equal opportunity employer is funny? Be prepared for a lobby full of black men and women seeking an equal opportunity environment. The joke’s on everyone, because none of what is happening and what is coming is or will be easy. But it’s necessary. Season Five’s premiere set the basis for the drama with class and a heightened sense of humor — the days when the series screamed of self-importance are hopefully gone for good. Showrunner Matthew Weiner deserves his accolades for having improved his drama season upon season, and there’s plenty more to explore. As his creations find themselves entering the later years of the 1960s, none of them are truly happy.
Don certainly isn’t. He’s infatuated — Asking Megan to open her blouse at the office and staring at her cleavage as wide-eyed as an 11-year-old boy? — but he’s burying his problems. His sexed-up Laura Petrie and swanky high-rise apartment won’t complete him or help answer his and everyone else’s nagging question about who he really is. Neither will insisting Megan work alongside him. She is sweet and well-intentioned, and while she isn’t as clever as her creative team counterparts, she is self-aware enough to know she doesn’t fit into their often ruthless world. Peggy, who isn’t buying the new and improved Don, and the rest are humoring her because she’s Mrs. Draper, not because she’s filled with great ideas (“Two for 22 cents!”). But Don wants her at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where he still reigns while doing much less, and that poses problems. Megan didn’t need to interject herself into Peggy’s tiff with Don, even though it didn’t hurt for Peggy to learn the lesson that apologies can be wonderful things. This couple dynamic spells trouble — although if Don beat Harry for his remarks about Megan, Harry would deserve it. Megan at least should refrain from inviting her co-workers to her parties if she intends to bust out her French song and dance moves. The guests may have had a good time, and they certainly didn’t storm out at such open sensuality. But they didn’t avoid gossiping about Megan’s “burlesque,” either. No, sweetie, the party you’re ultimately crashing isn’t as carefree as you’d like.
Just as Don is checking out from work, when he’s even there, Pete is buckling down and keeping the agency together account-wise. His frustration with Roger is understandable, from Sterling’s lack of appointments to his crashing Pete’s meetings. Even his demand for a bigger office seemed reasonable. But this new Pete is commuting to his new suburban life, wife and baby, and he’s tired and unfulfilled. Is he the new Don? At least Trudy speaks his language of success and determination. He’d be a fool to stray (again) from someone who knows him so well: Trudy: “Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition. It’s the coal that fuels the fire, you know that. … Do you really want a dog?” Pete: “Maybe just a beagle to scare off gophers.”
Roger, meanwhile, has long been bored of Jane and spent both episodes green-eyed over Don’s life and new wife. But Jane appears to be holding her own; Roger’s comment to her after Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” performance for Don didn’t go unmatched. Roger: “Why don’t you sing like that?” Jane: “Why don’t you look like him?” He saved his best line for Joan when she stopped by the office with her new son — his new son — exclaiming “There’s my baby!” and pretending the endearment was meant for Joan. He’s keeping the secret, all right, but will it last? And does Joan’s mother also know, or at least guess Joan’s child isn’t also Greg’s? Seeing Joan as a new mother is beautiful, just as it is seeing her demand independence and shrug off her mother’s dictations on what it is to be a dutiful wife. Joanie is headed back to the office, where Lane will be more than grateful to have her.
Dear Lane. If there’s one person in the “Mad Men” world about to crack, it’s Mr. Pryce. His wife, Rebecca, is back in New York, apparently trying to make a go of their marriage. But during their separation in 1965, Lane got a taste for a new life (namely with Playboy Bunny Toni) until he received a strict reprimand from his father. Lane is cowering to others’ demands of him, trying to be the dutiful husband and business partner but not knowing how to genuinely be either, much less himself. His longing for connection, real or imagined, is heartbreaking, just as his flirtation with Dolores was unsettling. He’s desperate, and he’s not near as good at lying to himself and the rest of the world as Don is. Lane soon will have company in a breakdown, however; everyone’s life will be unsettled by the changing times. Even people like Trudy can’t continue to be clueless to the Vietnam War or the civil rights struggles of the day. Soon, the Abes of the world won’t be the only ones forming an opinion. Soon, things for even the most removed and well-off citizens are going to get ugly. Pretending everything is OK just won’t cut it anymore.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in Texas, and this is how she dances at parties.