"Mad Men" Recap: Season 5 Opens Not With A Bang, But With A Splat
But what happened afterward? We all know the general story: creator Matt Weiner and AMC fought over creative and monetary differences, and as a result the fate of the award-winning show seemed uncertain. Even when the fate of the show was secure, no one was quite sure what to expect from the 2-hour, Jon Hamm-directed episode.
And after a 17 month long wait, season five finally opens not with the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce or at the home of a main character, but with a group of snickering ad men dropping water bombs on civil rights protesters.
It is post-Memorial Day weekend in an as-yet-uncertain year; the summer heat is in full swelter, and black and white workers are protesting in the streets for higher wages. The aforementioned snickering ad men fill a paper bag with water, and let it fall into the crowd below. But this is not like before, when stunts like that happened and nothing much was done about it—when some of the protesters go inside the building to seek out the men involved, everybody hears about it.
We move back into the universe of the show’s main characters with Sally Draper. She sleepily wakes up and moves through haphazardly-finished hallways in a mod-styled apartment to knock at a door. When it opens, she sees her father Don and in the background, a naked Megan in bed. Indeed, the two are still together.
While they’re with Don, Sally, Bobby (whose actor has been replaced yet again), and a talking Gene Draper let drop that the next day is Don’s birthday. Alongside Megan, Don and his gaggle of children seem the picture of a charming family, but the illusion ends when Don drops the kids off at a sinister-looking house in the dark, bidding them to return to “Morticia and Lurch” (the as-yet unseen duo of Betty and Henry).
Then we meet a man on the train… sound familiar? But instead of Don, it is Pete who now must make the commute into the city from the suburbs. His ambition has taken no break, as even though his wife Trudy just had a baby, Pete finds himself yearning to be in New York.
And in New York, Roger enters the episode to the tune of some swanky music at the SCDP offices, bribing Don and his shared secretary to come sit at his desk for a while (she takes the money but doesn’t move). While Pete dreams of a place at work big enough to satisfy his ambition, Roger dreams of having enough work to justify the space he holds.
Joan once memorably captivated the screen with her posterior, but the ass featured prominently on screen this time is her baby’s. Little Kevin is at home with his mother and her mother, but it’s clear that caring for the baby is taxing, as she gladly hands him off in exchange for some much-needed “me time.”
Back at SCDP, the work day starts off late. Ken, Peggy, and Stan prep with Pete for an upcoming presentation with Heinz, and their conversation reveals that Megan is indeed working in the creative department with the team. Roger and Pete get off to the day with a rocky start as Roger hits on Pete’s secretary, and then Don and Megan saunter into the office cute as can be.
Don’s infatuation with Megan is clear; it’s almost unnerving how happy he seems with her. The folks at SCDP also decide to pull a prank on the aforementioned water bag wielding ad men—turns out it was rival agency Y&R. They decide to make a mockery of the situation by buying space in the paper showcasing SCDP as an “equal opportunity employer.”
Don and Pete have a conversation about possibly getting the once-spurned Mohawk Airlines as a client, while Peggy and Megan have a chat. The topic: a surprise birthday party for Don, who’s turning the big 4-0. Megan confides in Peggy, for she’s the one “who knows Don best,” and Peggy hilariously goes through Don’s rolodex (and the show’s past) in a sweet moment of female bonding.
On the flip side, Joan and her mother get in a row over Joan’s desire to go back to work at SCDP. Her mother wants her to stay, but Joan’s excuse—“I don’t want to break my promise”—has clear overtones of how badly she wants to be needed and respected in that work environment again. When her mother tells her that husband Greg, who’s still at Fort Dix, wouldn’t “allow” Joan to work, this infuriates her even more.
While Roger tries to step into Pete’s pitch for Mohawk Airlines, Stan and Peggy pitch “bean ballet” for Heinz. The client’s not sold, so Don steps in—but instead of working his usual silver-tongued magic, he shrugs the pitch off and tells the creative team to try again. Peggy, bewildered by his reaction, confronts him, but Don essentially just tells her to do better next time, leaving her stunned.
Pete stumbles back from his Mohawk Airlines meeting smack into the standing column in his office. As he nurses his bleeding nose, Ken walks in, and the two talk about Roger. Pete’s pissed that the man nosed into the Mohawk meeting, while Ken instead marvels at the company’s stability and gives viewers an insight into the ultimate goal of SCDP: to go public.
At the same time, Peggy airs out her frustration with the new, “kind and patient” Don—in another time, Heinz would’ve walked away happy with the bean ballet, but post-Megan Don is going around saying clients are right.
Then, it’s time for Don’s surprise party, and here’s where the time jump really shows. Don and Megan’s super mod space (or would “flat” be more appropriate) is lit up in spectacular color and patterns. Peggy’s still with super-cute liberal writer Abe, there’s live jazz in the background, and partygoers are smoking up “tea” on the balcony.
But Don’s surprise is ruined when Roger and “glamour puss” Jane (that color is seriously unnatural) show up right before Don and Megan do, and the unease of that meeting sets the tone for the rest of the party.
While Peggy, Abe, Pete, and Trudy have a charming conversation, Peggy strikes out with Don and Megan when she brings up the re-do of the Heinz pitch in front of Don in her drunken haze. Megan switches up the mood of the party by singing a special song for Don—an instantly canonical rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” that gets the rest of the party flustered but leaves Don cold. And after the party, as Megan stays up to clean up, Don roughly directs her: “Don’t waste money on things like that.”
The next morning, Lane Pryce finds a stranger’s wallet in a cab, but instead of trusting it to the cab’s black driver, he holds onto it. At the office, Pete announces that Mohawk had called him at home, and calls a partner’s meeting. Lane and his wife then have a tense conversation about money, while he fiddles around with a picture of a pretty girl in the wallet he found.
Back at chez Harris, Joan comes in to find a hunky plumber charming her mother and her baby. In the tiff that ensues, Mama Harris shows Joan SCDP’s fake Y&R-ripping ad; Joan takes it for real, but being her, decides to go to the office and see what’s up.
Back at SCDP, Roger does a hilarious spoof of Megan’s dance, but Don doesn’t find it funny, and the partners assemble in Pete’s sad little office (seeing four grown men squeezed into that tiny little couch was rather depressing). And there, Pete delivered his real message: Mohawk wasn’t completely sold, but in order for Pete to even invite their reps in, he wanted a bigger office: Roger’s office. Roger was naturally miffed, and none of the other partners wanted to back Pete up.
Stan and Harry have a go at Megan’s comely birthday performance, but the conversation gets awkward when she walks into it. Someone calls into the office for Lane’s found wallet—and he finds something too, as he gets into a totally creepy conversation with the girl on the line, who he assumes is the girl in the photo from the wallet.
Meanwhile, Harry gets called into Roger’s office. The conversation starts off strange, as Harry believes he’s getting fired for his comments about Megan, but instead Roger makes him an offer: $1100 for Harry to trade his office with Pete. Harry takes it reluctantly, but only after Roger instead threatens to fire him.
Joan then makes her grand reentrance (in a seriously head-turning dress) into SCDP… only to struggle with her baby carriage at the agency’s doors. She isn’t recognized at first by the absurdly perky front secretary, but she’s embraced by the rest of the office.
Eager as ever to know everything, she asks Megan about Don’s birthday party—don’t think she doesn’t notice that Megan dodges the question. And after seeing Megan hold baby Kevin, she turns to Don with a knowing look and asks about a possible addition to the Draper clan, which he shakes off.
Somehow, baby-phobic Peggy ends up with the baby, but she then passes it onto Pete, in a knowingly framed shot that shows the family that could have been. Later, Megan accuses Peggy of ruining Don’s surprise party by bringing up the Heinz account, but lets slip that it’s Don’s cold reception of the party that’s really leaving her upset.
Lane and Joan talk finances and SCDP’s status, but the former enemies turned to hugs and tears when Joan breaks down as she reveals how SCDP’s joke ad led her to believe that she was being fired. Meanwhile, Pete ends up, as usual, getting something close yet so far to what he really wanted: he has the new, bigger office, but his authority and status at SCDP haven’t really increased at all.
Peggy, in a masterful moment, “apologizes” to Don for her Heinz comment, spurring him in a rush home. Someone arrives to pick up the lost wallet Lane found, but instead of the young woman who held the promise of a thrilling encounter, it’s a large man instead, who rewards the crestfallen Lane.
Don comes home to find Megan furiously cleaning from after the party, and she slowly seduces him with a mixture of pouting, faked fury, and lingerie. Meanwhile, Pete decides to play Roger at his own game by telling his secretary to make a fake appointment on his calendar, knowing that Roger dawdles around at his secretary’s desk in order to see what Pete’s up to.
The episode ends with a double-header of images. The first is a montage of the various characters dealing with their dissatisfaction in different ways: Don opens up to Megan about his fears of work and home colliding, while she reveals that she feels uncomfortable around the office; Roger takes Pete’s bate and wakes up early for an appointment that doesn’t exist; Pete plays cards on the train on his long commute into work; Lane comes home and gives his wife his reward money for groceries; Joan and her mother shush baby Kevin to sleep by riding up and down on her building’s elevator.
But the new day at work is all turmoil, as SCDP’s Y&R-mocking ad has backfired. The front office is filled with black men and women looking for work; when Y&R fires back at SCDP, the partners are forced to begin looking through resumes to hire a secretary in order to avoid more fallout from the entire incident.
That’s it! The two-hour episode was a monster to cover, but in that time, the main bodies of “Mad Men” (minus Betty and Henry and Sally, whose actress Kiernan Shipka now has much higher screen credit) all had their storylines fleshed out, and provided no shortage of amazing comedic and damningly annoying moments. Who knew Lane was quite so desperately sad/creepy, or that Megan would prove to be such a likable character? Longtime viewers, what are your thoughts as to the direction everybody’s headed in? People who tuned in for the first time, any idea at all as to what is going on?
Ed note: This recap was more informational in nature, but future reviews will be less summary and more analysis. Given the show’s hiatus, I wanted to establish the world of season 5 before I started digging deeper into it; I know, that’s a lot of text between the headline and here!