Mad Men season 5 episode 1 review: A Little Kiss

Season five of Mad Men gets off to a fabulous start with a two-hour episode that was well worth the 17 month wait


This review contains spoilers.

5.1 A Little Kiss

The only thing better than a brand new episode of Mad Men? Two brand new episodes of Mad Men. 1966 finds the hemlines running as high as the tensions at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and the swinging sixties finally starting to swing.

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Matthew Weiner began the episode with a little misdirection, opening on a new agency and unfamiliar characters. Had the loss of Lucky Strike scattered the SCDP lot to pastures new? Was the new venture now kaput? No, the audience was just being kept, as ever, on its toes. 

Cleverly, via a series of escalating chess moves between agencies, the Y&R boys’ infantile water balloon protest led to SCDP being shamed into fast-forwarding the civil rights movement along Madison Avenue. The joke is that history will rewrite the story (just as Don impulsively rewrote the anti-smoking story in season four), and hindsight will reveal the company to be an equality trail blazer rather than somewhere senior partners laugh at racist gags and exclaim over the number of “negroes” in the lobby.

Thanks to accidents like this one, SCDP is well on its way to becoming the most unintentionally progressive ad company on the avenue. They’ll haplessly stumble on carbon footprints after a botched barbeque at Pete’s suburban duplex before the year’s out, mark my words.

The opening shots of Sally waking up in an unfamiliar house was another sleight of hand from Weiner, who wrote this extended episode. Last time we saw young Sally she was being packed off to her new house in Rye, so was this expensive modern place it? Had that little time passed between seasons? No again, as the house turned out to be Megan (now Mrs Draper) and Don’s new apartment.

Which brings us to the new Mrs Draper, the beautiful twenty-five year who went away for the weekend as Don’s secretary in the season four finale and returned as his fiancée. If Mad Men’s perennial question has been ‘Who is Don Draper?’, A Little Kiss tackled the question ‘Who is Megan Calvet?’ – well it more or less had to, seeing as even the partners had a hard time placing her (Roger’s baffled “Who the hell’s that?” after Don announced whom he was marrying remains a personal high point of that episode).

So who is Megan? Just a sweet girl from Montreal who’s good with kids? Think again. Can you see Maria Von Trapp acting the dominatrix with the Captain on the living room carpet? Or transforming into a purring brunette Brigitte Bardot in front of a packed room? “You don’t know her at all”, Don tells Peggy later in the episode, and he’s right, none of us do. 

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What we do know about Megan, as we’re reminded in the episode, is that she’s a great actress, an ex-waitress who knows how to work her sexy accent to rake in tips. Her birthday ‘gift’ of performing a saucy song to Don (straight in a list of top Mad Men scenes with a bullet) wasn’t just misjudged, it was a display that had the women raising their eyebrows and the men dropping their jaws. Everyone will go home from her party and have sex, Megan promises, and it sounds as if she was right on the money. Roger even nakedly advertised how much he covets Megan now he’s not the one parading a box-fresh secretary-turned-wife. 

In symbolic terms, Megan is the white rug that came up in her and Don’s post-coital conversation. Brand-new, it looks pristine, impeccable and makes you the envy of everyone else, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. Don should know, he’s shot hundreds of them, and knows all too well how quickly they need replacing.

Roger and Jane are a version of Megan and Don’s future, a relationship where the lust has fizzled out to be replaced by open hostility. Roger, ever the charmer, asks Jane to purr for him in Megan’s sultry accent but she refuses for the combined reason that she doesn’t speak French and she doesn’t like him, just one of Sterling’s great quips. Oscar Wilde by way of Gene Hunt, Roger even keeps the one-liners coming while staring his illegitimate new-born son in the eyes for the first time.

Business-wise, Roger is struggling to cope with his ever-shrinking sphere of influence after the loss of his only account, while Pete, as usual, is complaining about things not being fair. It just so happens he has a point this time, and after some jiggling around with the offices, Pete closes the episode with a new view and a prank to pay Roger back for trying to muscle in on his clients.

Pete’s home-life hasn’t turned out quite as he expected when he boasted “There’s going to be dinner waiting for me when I get home” in season one. He bemoans how long wife Trudy is taking to “get back to normal” after the baby to a fellow commuter (normal for Pete means Trudy back in heels, pointy bras, lipstick and his bed), and sighs after her retreating form like a man contemplating a light bulb he can’t be bothered to change. 

Joan bringing new-born Kevin into the office provided a momentary tableau of Pete, Peggy and pram, a fabulously understated glimpse of the secret that links them and what could have been, as the pair bickered over who took care of the baby. “Does it look like I’m wearing a skirt?” asked Pete. Only in Mad Men.

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And so to the two women who prove that to get ahead at SCDP, a woman doesn’t just have to be twice as good as a man, she has to be better than the whole lot of them combined (luckily for Peggy and Joan, they are).

Peggy was frustrated that Don didn’t work his customary magic on Heinz and convince them her idea was just what they wanted (there was a very good reason for Don’s flaccid performance in the boardroom, his energies were being exerted elsewhere), while Joan was lonely, her maternity leave having replaced the position she loves with childcare cabin fever. 

The image of Joan riding her building’s elevator to try and hush baby Kevin to sleep at night is one of those Mad Men moments of genius. Up she goes, right to the top, then just as quickly back down again, repeatedly hitting a ceiling and getting nowhere. Again, only in Mad Men.

The line of the episode has to go to Megan though, for desperately posing the question Matthew Weiner and co. have been answering elegantly, steadily and insightfully over the course of four and a bit superlative seasons:  “What is wrong with you people?” Where to start, Megan, where to start…

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