by KARA VANDERBIJL
creator Matthew Weiner
We left Don Draper in a bar making eyes at two women over an old-fashioned, a scene that is now as familiar to us as pretty much everything else he does. Yet this was a significant moment. Up until those last few minutes, Season 5 was a loop of repetitive images: Peggy feeling underappreciated, Megan crying, Betty eating, Roger bribing everyone to do his bidding, and the drinking. Oh, the drinking. But then Peggy quit Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And Lane hanged himself. And Don, who had been frighteningly faithful to Megan all season long, suddenly slipped back into his old familiar skin. We don’t know for sure whether or not he cheated that night, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the pattern broke.
It sucks a little bit when you realize that even your favorite shows have their limitations. It isn’t that Sunday’s premiere was boring, but I will say that I would have preferred if the entire thing had been a shot of Sally sassing her mother over a half-consumed jar of Smuckers in the Francis family mansion. Sally, who in her pre-teen bloom resembles nothing as much as a young bloggeur, calls her mother by her first name now and twists phone cords around her finger. She is the only one, at first blush, who has absolutely nothing to worry about. Even baby Gene should have some residual anxiety about his lack of screen time, especially since everyone still thinks he’s a baby. Shouldn’t he be at least 8 by now?
Matthew Weiner makes a point of concealing what year it is, but judging by the hairstyles and Jetson-esque costumes the ‘70s are right around the corner if not upon us. It is Christmas. Carols surf the radio waves in Hawaii where Don and Megan are vacationing. Of course, it’s for business: Sheraton wants SCDP to sell their latest hotel experience. Only Don seems to understand that success in an advertising career depends entirely on the amount of pleasure you experience on a regular basis. He’s reading Dante on the beach while Megan gets asked for autographs. Obviously, times have changed. Everyone looks older, but Don just looks tan.
If his series of reinvented selves have driven the series thus far, then it's his inability to change that closed last season and opens this one. The people who once tightly surrounded him have scattered. When he isn't writing the script, he hasn't got much to say, which is why we have to listen to Megan talk about how much better sex is when you're high for the first fifteen minutes of the episode. She is radiant and he doesn't give a shit. Like Betty and Peggy, she has moved so far out of his line of vision that when he looks at her, he's only looking at a past version of himself that he is no longer interested in embodying. What Don hasn't figured out, but what we're beginning to understand, is that none of this is about him.
I'm so proud of Peggy, even though I like her a little bit less with each season. Is it sacreligious to say that? She's kicking ass and taking names at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, but it seems like she is still unhappy. I am waiting for her to become who she is instead of who she thinks she wants to be, that is, a female rival/foil for Don, who literally doesn't even remember her. Her boyfriend Abe lost last season's leather jackets in favor of a bad Jesus or John Lennon impersonation, but he's the muse behind her work and brings her sandwiches, so I suppose he can stick around.
Altogether the crew at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is a little shaggier and saggier. Stan has become a pothead which isn't any great surprise to anyone. Kenny's hair is parted differently, and Pete has sideburns. They appeared to repeat the same lines from some previous episode. When Don chides them for trivializing the word "love" in an ad for oven cleaner, I miss Peggy so much it hurts. They've replaced her with an older woman whose name I didn't catch, but here's hoping they give her more camera time than baby Gene. At least now there is a grand staircase leading to a second floor and so many employees that Don can't keep them all straight. Business is booming, but for how long? A sense of unease filters through even the most idyllic vistas.
It's not just the riots, the misunderstood hippies, or Henry Francis' awful Christmas sweater. Peggy and Don can't pitch the ads they want to pitch because their best ideas are all suddenly about death. Vietnam is sending men home in bags. When Don suggests that Sheraton capitalize on the idea of shedding one's skin on the shores of Hawaii and launching off into the great unknown, the clients aren't the only ones thinking about suicide.
Lane Pryce's death last season was just the beginning. Underneath the luster of success looms impending doom. Don and Megan's doorman has a heart attack which he barely survives. Roger Sterling's mother dies, throwing him into the only version of an existential crisis he is capable of experiencing; the women in his life file by. He weeps when the man who shines his shoes also ends up dead. When Don stands by his office window and recalls the shores of Hawaii, I keep thinking he's going to jump. If the opening credits are any indication, he has a big fall coming.
He's having another affair. It's with his downstairs neighbor, Dr. Rosen's wife, which wouldn't be so bad except that we spend the entire episode thinking that Don and Dr. Rosen have developed a friendship. I'm not sure I really want to watch Don anymore. He has moved to the periphery of the room, has had too much to drink on an empty stomach and sleeps through the most important parts. Betty just became a brunette and she's big and bold and I'm sure Sally has a picture of a boyfriend or an unfinished novel hidden in some girlish sock drawer somewhere. Megan is gracing a soap-opera screen four nights a week and Peggy is inspired. His end is just their beginning.
Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about .gifs. She twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.