Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "A Little Kiss" (season 5, episodes 1 & 2)

Mad Men - "A Little Kiss" (season 5, episodes 1 & 2)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on March 25, 2012/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Jennifer Getzinger): Although the episode is bookmarked by racial tension and peppered with references to the Vietnam War, most of the onscreen turmoil is personal and professional rather than political. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce obviously survived its near-breakdown a year earlier but if the workplace relationships were already fraught, they're now openly hostile. "You think you're a splinter?" Don asks Megan when she wonders if her co-workers dislike her. "You're not. The whole foot's been infected for years." Peggy is fed up with Don's high expectations for her, but also by a lack of diligence in his own work. When her artsy Heinz bean promo falls flat with client Raymond Geiger (John Sloman), Don rolls over instead of pushing back like he used to. Roger, bored in his marriage and ineffective at work, continues to nip at the much more productive Pete's heels until Pete makes a power move, demanding the luxurious office that the senior partner himself has little use for. (Roger averts this degrading demotion by bribing Harry - himself afraid he'll be fired after Megan discovers him making lewd comments - into sacrificing his own windowed room.) The openhearted Megan is crushed both by the office's catty games and Don's unbudging grouchiness when she offers him an anxiety-inducing surprise party for his (fake) fortieth birthday. And Lane, settled into New York life with his once estranged wife, is tempted by a teasing black-and-white Polaroid from a stranger's wallet found in a cab. The subject of the photo, Delores (visually represented by Maranda Barskey, voiced by Sarah Beth Shapiro), answers the phone when he reports the missing item; if a man's voice can betray giddy blushing, Lane's certainly does. Unfortunately, the wallet's actual owner - the surprisingly schlubby Alex Polito (Brian Scolaro) - turns up to collect and Lane's only memento of the near-encounter is the picture itself, now embedded with his own cash in his own back pocket (his offer to drop the wallet off with Delores was hesitantly declined).

These restless longings and claustrophobic frustrations are exhibited most acutely at Don's birthday bash. Everyone seems mismatched, not just between different couples but within the couples themselves; partners are either distanced by age or - in some of the husbands' cases - resentful that they aren't. An off-duty sailor, who only tagged along to get laid, is buffeted by the antiwar critiques of young cynics and the jingoistic exploitation of an old hawk; suburban housewives attempt to relate to underground journalists as they fret about riots (for different reasons); and even when co-workers with increasingly little in common turn to shop talk the banter sours. Megan's enchanting rendition of "Zou Bisou Bisou" - a bit of effervescent French New Wave dropped into the middle of a sweaty mid-sixties American office satire - is the only glue holding the night together, yet this moment more than any other leads to the young wife's disillusionment. Meanwhile, one invited guest absent from both party and office is discontent for another reason. Joan, squeezed by both generations in an apartment with her mother Gail (Christine Estabrook) and infant son, begins to worry that the office is looking to replace her. She and a dozen or so African-American job applicants have misinterpreted a mock advertisement in which SCDP proclaimed "We are an Equal Opportunity Employer" (meant to lampoon admen at a rival agency who got into trouble for dropping water on civil rights protestors below). All of the insiders in "A Little Kiss" are kicking against the narrow walls as well as one another - while the outsiders just want in.

My Response:
Perfectly paralleling the season three finale as a postscript to that episode's prologue, this two-parter (aired together and edited seamlessly on the DVD) helps bookend season four's wild ride by envisioning the workplace as a hotbed of rivalry and resentment rather than the team of merry colleagues who founded it two and half years earlier. The extended length is helpful in lending this premiere more significance than either half would hold on its own: the accumulation of detail and escalation of mild discomfort - only dissipated when Don and Megan finally find themselves in each other's arms on their stained white shag rug - needs time to add up. Lacking any particularly momentous event, "A Little Kiss" carries itself with novelistic patience rather than the dash of a short story (the latter is perhaps more often the case for Mad Men episodes, especially those with a potent conceptual hook). As for Don's (other) family, we just check in at the outset and only Sally is allowed to register a guiding perspective - her younger brothers are practically reduced to silhouettes. And we don't see Betty at all. I wonder what her part in this season will be although I'll admit I've been spoiled a bit...which I'll discuss when we get there. The last season struggled to find a place for Betty, initially one of Mad Men's primary characters. Her marriage to the show's star over, the writers mostly landed on her role as parent (to the show's only significant baby boomer) as a way to keep her going. Over and over, "A Little Kiss" reminds us that the office is a necessary condition not just for the characters onscreen but for the creators offscreen - a magnet that Mad Men can't resist even when it wants to. Travel too far from its core, and you lose the plot, literally; for example, has any recurring character ever suffered as much from marrying into the central ensemble as the second Mrs. Sterling?

I suspect the series' back half needs to place the established if ever-evolving dynamics of this workplace into tension with the much more rapidly evolving world outside. After all, it's the adman's job to keep up with change even as he (and, if still only occasionally, she) attempts to engineer those very changes. Given both the speed and nature of social transformation in the late sixties, a profession which prided itself on staying ahead of the curve would find itself challenged in a fashion it hadn't been before. With its opening and closing hints, "A Little Kiss" points in this direction while mostly focusing on pinning down the characters themselves, making sure we know where they're at (or more often, where they aren't and wish they were), the better to challenge them going forward. I have to admit I'm a little disappointed that we've landed in May '66 instead of six months later; this leaves little room for the cultural revolution of 1967 to fully flower. By '68 the initial hippie spirit was already giving way to a more fiery, disorienting ethos. It would be a pity for Mad Men to miss the height of that particular moment: the onset of the Summer of Love, when the counterculture appeared bewilderingly unfamiliar to straight society but still cute and trendy - at least the version of San Fran schmaltz marketed by firms like SCDP. For now those major changes are a year away; like Joan's baby carriage in the office - a reminder to Roger, Peggy, and Pete of past transgressions (and a hint of things to come for Megan?) - they offer a threat as well as a promise.

Next: "Tea Leaves"Previous: (season 4 finale) "Tomorrowland"

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