“Mad Men” got down to business pretty quickly with its season premiere Sunday — showing us that Betty’s still pregnant, things are unsettled at Sterling Cooper, and most of all, Don Draper is still Don Draper.
And I don’t just mean because Don, whose out-of-town trip with Salvatore gave the episode its title, slept with a stewardess while he was in Baltimore. But in his interactions with the other partners at SC — including Jared Harris as Lane Pryce, the firm’s financial officer from across the pond — his flashback scenes at the beginning and his treatment of Salvatore at the end of the trip, Jon Hamm got to play with a lot of what makes Don such a complicated and fascinating character.
It’s a great start to the season, and one that — though it jumps ahead in time — leaves you with far less of a sense of dislocation than the second-season premiere did. It looks to be about six months after the end of season two, which would put us in the spring of 1963. Betty’s very pregnant, and the money men from British ad agency PP&L have tightened the belt, which we see in the ugly departure of (previously unseen) head of accounts Burt Peterson.
It feels like the culture clash in the SC offices, and how it might reflect the changes we know are looming in the outside world, will be a big and rich area for the show this year. Sterling Cooper has a number of big accounts, and Don, Salvatore and others there are obviously pretty good at their jobs, but the agency is destined to end up on the wrong side of the advertising revolution that was already starting to happen by mid-1963. “You’re the dying empire,” Peterson rages at Pryce as he’s being canned, and he could just as well be talking about Sterling Cooper as the Brits.
The other big development in the episode is what happened to Salvatore in Baltimore. Sal is pretty deep in the closet (this is a married man, after all), so it’s not out of the realm of possibility to presume that he’s never even been with a man — and to get “caught” as he did had to be one of his worst fears realized (notice how flustered he was at the start of the London Fog meeting).
But Don, to his credit, really doesn’t give a damn what Sal does behind closed doors — and as a man who knows from living a secret, is uniquely positioned to understand what Sal is going through. “Limit your exposure,” Don tells him by way of supplying a tag line for the London Fog campaign — in other words, do what you have to do to get along. Not exactly the most progressive message, but given the time, it’s practically a model of tolerance.
Other notes from “Out of Town”:
– When Don tells the stewardess it’s his birthday, he’s not lying, really. It is Dick Whitman’s birthday, and he starts the episode replaying the circumstances of his birth (as it was no doubt repeated to him by his deeply damaged parents).
– Other than seeing that Betty is still pregnant — if it’s been six months, she’s maybe a month or two away from giving birth — we don’t get much of the Draper family life tonight. Sally’s anxiety over Don leaving, to the point that she breaks the clasp on his suitcase, is a little heartbreaking. She also provides a nice bookend to the episode, asking about the day she was born and giving Don a chance to reflect on how different it was for her.
– Speaking of the culture clash, it seems the order to pit Pete and Ken in a head-of-accounts deathmatch came not from Pryce but from his superiors in London. The way the two men reacted to it pretty well sums up their characters — Pete the entitled, petulant child and Ken the even-keeled, take-it-as-it-comes adult.
– That was Ryan Cartwright (Vincent-Nigel Murray on “Bones”) as Pryce’s secretary, John Hooker. The way Joan smacked him down while appearing to be the model of decorum — first in their conversation about Burt Peterson’s departure and then in suggesting he take Burt’s office — was absolutely brilliant.
– A few favorite lines: Betty on Sally’s destruction of the suitcase: “She’s taken to your tools like a little lesbian.” The midwife to Mrs. Whitman: “His name’s Dick — after a wish his mother should have lived to see.” Joan to Hooker, who’s telling her about the differences between Britain and America: “A truck is a lorry, and an elevator is a lift. I get it.” Don to the flight crew at dinner: “I don’t usually tell people I’m an accountant.”
Thoughts on the “Mad Men” season premiere? What did you think of the time jump, and what do you think it means for the rest of the season?
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