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'Mad Men' recap: 'Zou bisou bisou'

Roger Joan Mad Men Baby

I bet I can guess which song you have in your head right now.

By now, seasoned “Mad Men” fans know not to expect too much out of a season premiere of their favorite show — even one that’s over two hours long and arrives after a seemingly interminable 17-month hiatus. Series creator Matthew Weiner tends to ease viewers back into the “Mad Men” world, reintroducing us during a time of relative quiet. And so it is with “A Little Kiss,” a deliberately paced episode distinguished by one excruciatingly awkward scene involving the new Mrs. Draper — and an unexpected amount of levity.

The action resumes in late May 1966, meaning only about eight months have passed since last we saw Don and the gang, but massive changes have already taken place. The episode opens with a scene, lifted from real-life events, of executives at the Young & Rubicam agency dousing a crowd of mostly black protesters with water. A few of the picketers come upstairs to confront the pranksters: “And they call us savages!” It’s not subtle, but then again, neither are the times. The issue of race takes a back seat for much of the rest of the episode, only to return dramatically in the closing moments. These bookend scenes would seem to indicate a new era for “Mad Men,” which in the past dealt with race in a more oblique fashion. Fitting, isn’t it, that the first truly progressive move on this show comes as the result of an elaborate joke?  The question now is, how will the staff of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce handle a black secretary — as opposed to a black elevator operator or janitor? This remains to be seen; I just hope whoever she is gets assigned to Pete, not Roger.

Plenty has changed inside the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce too. After their whirlwind engagement, Don and Megan are now man and wife, and, as Peggy and so many of us feared, Megan has been promoted to a low-level creative position at the agency. Why Weiner continually insists on depriving viewers of a wedding involving key “Mad Men” characters — Joan, Roger, Betty and now Don have all gotten married off-camera — I’ll never understand.

Weiner avoids big moments, but he sure knows how to milk the small ones. The first familiar face we see is that of the no-longer-quite-so-young Sally Draper, who’s now about 12 going on 37. As some trippy psychedelic music plays in the background, Sally wakes up in a bed and wanders groggily down an unfamiliar hallway. (There’s something very “Virgin Suicides” about this sequence, isn’t there?) “Whoa, Betty’s new house is cool,” I think to myself, only to be shocked when a bare-chested Don answers his bedroom door. Surprise! We’re actually at Don’s apartment! There are more surprises to come: Naked Megan! Talking baby Gene! Yet another Bobby! And, OMG, a sunken living room with an L-shaped couch!! Who knew a tween girl waking up in her dad’s apartment could induce such excitement? Excuse me while I go exhale into a brown paper bag for a few minutes.

So much of the drama on “Mad Men” happens out of view and between seasons, and a large part of the show’s particular genius is the way it encourages viewers to believe that its characters really do exist outside of a television show. That’s why something as quotidian as Don’s birthday breakfast with his kids can carry such weight — because clearly much has happened since we last saw them, even if we didn’t get to see it all transpire.

At first, Don and Megan seem nauseatingly happy together, waltzing into work hours late in a fog of post-coital bliss, and leaving well before the day is over. Megan seems to be a calming influence on Don, who cracks corny jokes and responds gracefully when Heinz turns down Peggy’s “bean ballet” pitch. (It’s a stark contrast to last season’s premiere, “Public Relations,” when Don threw a fit after Jantzen rebuffed his racy campaign idea.) As Peggy puts it, “I don’t recognize that man. He’s kind, and patient.”

But there are warning signs almost instantly. In a pitch-perfect scene, Megan turns to Peggy for advice planning Don’s surprise 40th birthday party. Peggy warns her against it, but Megan won’t be swayed. “Everyone’s gonna go home from this and they’re going to have sex,” she says — rather too optimistically, it turns out. The scene is a fascinating exchange of information and a telling glimpse into each woman’s  relationship with Don. “Office spouse” Peggy can identify every person in Don’s Rolodex, but she doesn’t know how old he is, or that he secretly hates Harry Crane. Likewise, Megan has no idea that maybe the last person Don would want at his birthday party would be “Herman Phillips.” It’s a reminder that even new-and-improved Don will never disclose everything to any single person.

Don Draper Surprise Party Mad Men

Almost before it’s started, the party starts to go awry. Roger and Jane show up late (of course they do) and ruin the surprise for Don, whose discomfort is obvious and immediate. It’s too bad Don’s such a party-pooper, because the soiree Megan has pulled together is pretty fantastic. While Don retreats into a smoky corner with Roger, Megan flits about their shag-carpeted apartment talking easily with her young, diverse friends. By the time she takes to the microphone to perform, it’s clear there’s a gap between the two of them — one that’s both emotional and generational.

Then it happens: Megan gives Don his birthday present, her rendition of an obscure French pop song called “Zou Bisou Bisou.” (You can read all about it here and watch the video below.) She gives it her all, and is simultaneously lovely, vulnerable, and extremely sexy, but to paraphrase Lane, it looks as if Don’s soul has left his body. Don might have married his secretary, but he sure isn’t ready to share his private life with his co-workers — even if she makes him look like the luckiest bastard on the planet. Later that night, Don and Megan have a tipsy spat, during which it is revealed she knows the truth about his identity. This would seem to suggest that Don and Megan have a good thing going, but as Faye learned the hard way, knowing about Dick Whitman doesn’t insulate anyone from Don’s cruelty.

Back at the office, a sullen Megan confronts Peggy. “You’re all so cynical. You don’t smile, you smirk,” she says before leaving the office in a state of despair. It's a wonderfully incisive comment that sounds suspiciously like the criticisms often leveled at “Mad Men” and its cast of deeply flawed characters: They're just so... unlikable. Is Megan the character who will finally introduce some kindness, sincerity and genuine goodwill to the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? She could be, but only if she lasts long enough. Then again, judging from that manic cleaning-in-her-skivvies scene, it appears Megan is at least as crazy as the rest of her colleagues.

Other than Megan’s big number, there isn’t a tremendous amount of action in “A Little Kiss,” but the episode successfully brings us up to speed on all the main characters — with, of course, the glaring exception of Betty. I know Betty has more than her fair share of detractors, but I must say “Mad Men” isn’t quite the same without her perfect buttery coiffure and boiling resentment. I’m guessing January Jones’ pregnancy might have had something to do with her absence, but I’m dying to see the inside of her haunted mansion. We only see the new Francis residence in a shadowy profile, making it look a whole lot like Mrs. Bates’ house from “Psycho”; hopefully this doesn’t mean Sally is keeping Betty’s mummified corpse hidden in the cellar.

But I digress. Since we last saw him, Pete has lost some hair, gained some weight and moved to the suburbs. He seems destined for the life that Don left behind at the end of Season 3 — heck, even his new Connecticut home looks like a rearranged version of Don and Betty’s old place. And, like Don, city-boy Pete is gripped by a bad case of suburban ennui. In a sign of his reluctance to commit to his new lifestyle, he still hasn’t learned to drive. It doesn’t help that, now that she’s a mother, Trudy has taken to wearing (frankly adorable) housecoats and minimal makeup. (Pete should just be glad he’s not married to a TV blogger.)

At the office, Pete’s engaged in a turf war with the increasingly useless Roger Sterling, whose evolution from charmer to putz seems just about complete. The trappings of wealth and privilege he once flaunted have now backfired: His marriage to trophy-wife Jane has reached a state of open hostility, and his willingness to ply clients with liquor means he’s viewed as the office slacker, not the guy who brings in new business. Even Caroline, the secretary he shares with Don, openly disrespects him. In what may be Roger’s second-most pathetic moment of all time — the first being that fake phone call from Lee Garner  Jr. — he bribes Harry $1,100 to move into Pete’s office, all in a desperate bid to maintain the illusion of his own importance.

It certainly can’t help Roger’s state of mind that Joan is now raising their secret love-child on her own. Another dramatic inter-season moment we were deprived of was Roger's discovery that Joan didn't go through with the abortion. Did Roger freak out? Beg her to leave Greg? Cry? Scream? Gnash his teeth? We'll probably never know. Whatever went down between these two, they’re certainly able to keep up appearances during Joan's surprise visit to the office.  With her ladylike pram and eye-popping hot-pink dress, Joan is able to make motherhood seem like the most glamorous thing in the world, proving that nobody puts on a façade as effectively she does — except for maybe Don.

The not-so-secret purpose of Joan’s mission is to find out if her job is in peril, and Lane quickly assuages her fears.  “The books have been held together with spit in your absence,” he reassures her. Of course, we all knew as much, but Joan, driven to desperation by her bleak circumstances and surging hormones, needed to hear it, and the news brings big, fat tears to her eyes. Their new-found rapport is a considerable change of pace from last season, when Joan could barely disguise her contempt for the penny-pinching company man. It’s a lovely little moment for Lane and Joan, two characters who break my heart with their mixture of strength and desperation.

In the second half of the episode, Lane’s bizarre storyline almost steals the show. It’s a narrative that’s wonderfully isolated from the rest of the drama, so that it plays almost like a short story: Beleaguered English businessman becomes obsessed with a snapshot of a woman he finds in a lost wallet. Lane’s story line does little, if anything, to advance the larger narrative, but it’s so strange and sad and human it doesn’t much matter. Given that Dolores sounds exactly like Paz de la Huerta’s character from “Boardwalk Empire,” I’m glad she and her “Xs + O's” remain but a fantasy for Lane.

Last season, “Mad Men” was at times incredibly dark, but it was also the most broadly funny one to date (two words: Ida Blankenship). “A Little Kiss” appears to be building on this trend, balancing all the angst with some big laughs, like Pete’s collision with the column in his office, the deliciously awkward moment when Peggy winds up stranded with Joan’s baby and, oh yeah, everything that Harry does in the entire episode. If this is a taste of what’s come this season, then I have but one thing to say: Oui, oui!

Stray thoughts:

— Once again, Pete proves to be the real progressive at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce when it comes to matters of race.

— Don is now living in one of Manhattan’s white brick apartment buildings, but we don’t know which neighborhood just yet. Perhaps the Upper East Side?

— I’m happy to see that Peggy and Abe are still together, and that he’s still spouting off about things like “monolithic communism.” I wonder what underground publication he’s writing for. Maybe the East Village Other?

— So… I guess Bert rescinded that resignation?

— “Kevin”?! Was anyone else disappointed by this name?

— Pete on Roger: “They love his pickled guts.”

— Pete and Trudy, dressed in plaid and Pucci, win the prize for most clashing couple.

— Faye scored the Heinz account for the agency, but Don says it “came in over the transom.” Way harsh.

— There are a few cryptic hints about Don and Joan in this episode. “I can’t even imagine how handsome that man must be blushing,” Joan says, in a strangely unguarded moment. Earlier, her mother pointedly suggests that Megan intentionally waited until the last minute to invite Joan because she doesn't want her around Don. What does it all mean?

— When, exactly, did Harry Crane turn into Tom Arnold? Also, when did he lose all that weight?

— Was that the back of Betty’s head I spotted in the preview for next week? I sure hope so.

— Roger:Why don’t you sing like that?” Jane:  “Why don’t you look like him?”

 

 

RELATED:

How groovy will "Mad Men" get? '60s experts make predictions

Matt Weiner keeps fans in suspense about Season 5

Full coverage: "Mad Men" episode recaps and more

— Meredith Blake
twitter.com/MeredithBlake 

 

Photos (top): Joan (Christina Hendricks) introduces Roger (John Slattery) to son Kevin.  

(bottom) Don (Jon Hamm) flashes a grin at his birthday party.

Credit: Michael Yarish / AMC (top) Ron Jaffe / AMC (bottom)

 
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