For all that’s been written about Mad Men (of the fashion and the thematic concerns of sexism, consumerism, commercialism, and hypocrisy, as well as, of course, the parallels to contemporary American mores), perhaps the neatest trick that creator Matthew Weiner and his various writers and directors have pulled was to fool us into buying into a classic fictional structure only to perversely subvert it in the last few episodes of the fourth season. Is there any doubt that we had, despite his considerable misbehavior, accepted creative advertising director Don Draper as a dubious hero along the lines of Gordon Gekko? As played by the charismatic and good-looking Jon Hamm, however, Don suggests a fundamentally decent man doing awful things that are almost beyond his control, stirring conflicted feelings in even the most principled viewers, who find themselves forgiving and quietly relishing Don’s boozing, womanizing, and relentlessly self-involved corporate power plays. Don is a character that allows us to safely indulge, with little in the way of moral inconvenience, our vicarious inner amoral shark.
For most of the first four seasons, Weiner and company suggested their hero might be more than a polished suit, with a melodramatic—and, at times, laborious—backstory gradually revealing that Don was once a poor farm boy called Dickie who eventually assumed the identity of a military superior in a desperate bid to earn transfer out of Korea. Mad Men has often asked us to see Don as a tortured artist who might have found a more rewarding means of expressing himself and exorcising his demons given a slightly different turn of events, an implication that became explicit when, after divorcing Betty (January Jones), he started swimming and writing, as well as initiating a relationship with a beautiful woman who challenged his self-absorption and insularity. The fourth season appeared to be building to a realization of what the series had always more or less promised: a hero who’s a sympathetic and unusual human being dogged by the social complacency that surrounds him, a romantic notion that plays to our own hopes that we’re somehow remarkable, different from every other Joe sitting next to us on the bus or in the next cubicle.
The controversial fourth season finale managed to effectively pull that comfortable rug out from under us. Don dumped his new girlfriend so he could impulsively marry his new secretary, Megan (Jessica Paré), a gorgeous sycophant clearly interested in ascending the corporate ladder, who represented most everything that Don resented in Betty. The ending was so shocking, in fact, that it seemed to present an ideal completion to the entire series, establishing it as a morality tale in which the hero fails to grasp the moral at hand. But a show as monstrously successful as Mad Men doesn’t go to bed that easily.
You may have two questions going into season five: What’s next, and will Mad Men jump the shark as The Sopranos did in its fascinatingly bizarre yet ultimately misguided and essentially pointless later seasons? And in truth, those questions remain unanswered by the time the 90-minute season premiere reaches its end credits. As is usually the case with a landmark show’s return, the two-part opener, “A Little Kiss,” is primarily concerned with establishing mood and with dropping hints as to where the narrative may lead us. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Roger (John Slattery) appear to be rapidly heading toward a confrontation that’s probably a delayed reaction to their unresolved bitterness over the latter’s senseless mucking up of the Honda deal last season. Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) is obviously miffed and feeling a little upstaged by Megan’s placement on her creative team—a tension that could bring her ambiguous relationship with Don to a head. And Lane (the endearing Jared Harris), most strangely, would appear to be developing a romantic preoccupation that might once again spur the wrath of his creepy domineering father.
Don is pointedly secondary in “A Little Kiss,” and most of the episode’s tension derives from the notion that he, distracted with his hot wife, may have lost the “edge” that’s empowered him to swim these waters for so long. Rather than allowing the first four seasons to speak for themselves as a (spiritual) rise-and-fall story, season five appears to be intent on exploring the fallout from Don’s most recent cop-out, an implication that’s most vividly expressed in a sexy yet potentially disastrous dance that has Don playing JFK to Megan’s Marilyn.
“A Little Kiss” is ultimately a haunting character study that’s slower and more melancholy than perhaps any episode of Mad Men that’s preceded it. There’s a Cheever quality to “A Little Kiss,” an unsettling sense that every inhabitant of the show is reaching a moral stasis and crisis simultaneously and exactly at the same time. Yet Weiner still manages to steer clear of the trite “greed is bad” moralizing that sunk films like Oliver Stone’s disastrous Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, as Mad Men still allows the characters’ temptations to be authentically seductive. Season five might go on to suggest that concluding the series after four seasons would’ve provided a narratively convenient illusion of containment that’s less mature and ambitious than following the characters as they ebb and flow and ebb again, as they learn and unlearn and learn yet again.