Season Premiere: Mad Men – “Out of Town”

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“Out of Town”

August 16th, 2009

“Tell me about the day I was born.”

One of the most fascinating elements of Mad Men in its first two seasons was a spin-off of this question, asked by Sally Draper at the end of the show’s third season premiere, “Out of Town.” Birth has played a substantial role in the series to this point, whether it is Peggy’s child at the end of Season One, or the birth of the lie of Don Draper which has been present throughout the first two seasons, and questions of birthright play substantially into the complicated history of Pete Campbell. If we take these three character as our most substantial (which the episode doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in time), we realize that this question is more loaded than it seems.

For instance, the day Sally was born could mean something very different for Betty, who remembers it in the most romantic way possible, than it does for Don, who remembers the experience within the context of what could have been earlier infidelity, or struggles (as we learn in this episode) to reconcile with his own complicated childhood. Don remembers the time, and he remembers the weather, and he remembers what he was doing that day, but he’s blocked out the emotions, the experiences – he starts the story, in its simplest form, but Betty is the one who adds the sentimentality, fills in the details of how they felt (which is what Sally really wants to here in that moment).

What “Out of Town” accomplishes most of all is establishing how various characters, in their response to new pressures in the workplace as well as new personal pressures, are coming to terms with the intersection of the emotional and the social expectation. All of the show’s characters know what they’re supposed to do in these situations, but actually doing it with a straight face and hiding their inner frustration, their inner desire, or even their inner happiness is proving far more challenging. And yet, the way the series structures itself, these people don’t have anyone to turn to, as the British Invasion of Sterling Cooper combined with the secretive and judgmental nature of the period have made this even less advisable than it was before.

It’s created a scenario where, just as with Peggy last year, there are that many more characters who can empathize with what Don has been doing for much of his adult life, although in ways different enough to only add to the show’s diversity rather than creating a sense that there is only one type of conflict the show can truly handle. This is not a series rebirth, certainly, but by allowing individual characters to come to terms with the birth of their own sexual awakening or the frustration of being unable to get to that point of achieving something substantial, the show is yet again reinvigorated by a leap forward in time (to the Spring of 1963) for a new season and a new set of complicated interpersonal circumstances for us to enjoy and, as you’ll soon see, for me to analyze extensively.

Don

“It’s my job to be out of town.”

It is tough to particularly place Don Draper in the structure of this episode: there is no question that he is at its centre, considering we both open and close on his return to his own past and witness his excursion in Baltimore in quite clear detail, but his actual behaviour is par for the course. While there may have been some part of us who believed that Betty’s pregnancy and Don coming to terms with Betty’s anger and his need for her would reconcile his adulterous ways, I think we all knew that this was too simple, and weren’t surprised to see him enjoying the company of an all too eager stewardess upon their arrival to New York. There was no hesitation in his actions, nor was there really any subterfuge: he decided he wanted her, made his move when it seemed appropriate, and was only interrupted by the fire alarm. It didn’t seem like the fire alarm was any sort of wake up call for him, as if it stopped him from doing something he would regret: it was just an inconvenience, an annoyance and little more.

This isn’t to say that this fact isn’t fascinating, or that the entire scenario wasn’t more complex than it first seemed. By taking on his brother-in-law’s identity, and falsifying employment so as to remain anonymous, Don was creating a new persona with which he would bed this young woman. It wasn’t Don Draper, a false identity in and of itself, seducing this young woman, but someone else he constructed for the purpose. Perhaps this is Don’s way of disconnecting himself from the adultery, which to be entirely fair he didn’t particularly construct on his own: note how he never explicitly makes a move on the young woman, never refusing her advances but also never making one himself. Rather, he constructs the conditions which allow it to happen, accepting the dinner invitations and seeing the various coincidences as a sign that if this is meant to happen it will. It’s essentially a Laissez Faire adultery strategy, simply accepting that the universe has given him a reservation at a fine restaurant, a beautiful woman who wants him badly, and the opportunity to continue to live this fantasy.

Considering that we last saw Don more or less reconciling Dick and Don, coming to terms with the necessity for Don Draper to exist in order to sustain his family who he truly cares about, this is a whole new level of Don’s struggles with his own identity. What’s problematic about it is how aware of it he is: he doesn’t lie about being married, and when he says it’s his birthday he’s actually being more open with her than he is with Betty (who wouldn’t know of Dick’s birthday at all). The one thing he doesn’t have, outside of Anna Whitman who we met at the end of last season, is someone to talk to about events like the nature of his birth: the son of a prostitute his father sleeps with out of frustration following his own mother’s struggles with childbirth. We’ve always known that Dick’s childhood was a mess, and quite complicated, but we have been so focused on his more recent identity shift that we have never really delved into his earlier life in this fashion.

What it raises is a whole host of new questions, many of which surround this affair with the woman: he seems to be relishing in his lack of an identity with her, reverting into Dick not in name but in spirit, free from Don Draper and capable of living a lie far better than Salvatore (who I’ll get to in time), and I don’t know if there’s a point where that kind of behavior gets curbed. If anything, it seems as if Don has been emboldened by Betty’s pregnancy, on the one hand wracked with guilt over the nature of his own birth (not knowing his Mother, his father’s infidelity perhaps reflecting his own experience) but on the other hand so desiring to disconnect from his Don Draper persona that he gladly accepts the opportunity to masquerade as someone else. The episode gives no sense of whether this is the first time he’s done this since Betty’s pregnancy, but the nonchalant way he lets it all happen, and the way he brazenly tells the girl that he’s been married for a long time and that she’ll essentially get used to it, would seem to indicate that he remains every bit as damaged as he was before.

At this point, it seems as if Don’s trajectory this season is trying to, in the wake of the birth of his third child, come to terms with his own childhood, and his own position as both father and husband being balanced with his infidelity. His concern seems to be less that he’s lying to others (something he’s far too good at to be too self-conscious) and more that he’s perhaps lying to himself, and it could well be that he went through similar phases with the births of Bobby and Sally as well. Although we spent a lot of time with Don this week, his storyline was more surprising in its lack of drama and the ease of his adultery than it was for shocking us with any new revelations or discoveries.

Salvatore

“Our worst fears lie in anticipation.”

Don’s traveling partner, meanwhile, is not Don Draper and he never will be. Where Don is suave in the way he has become an entirely different person in order to fulfill social expectations, Salvatore is not so strong-willed. While he has been living in the closet, complete with a wife, for his entire life, his subterfuge is biological, hiding his deepest desires and attempting against the odds to live as a heterosexual out of fear of social backlash. And it’s clear from this episode that he’s not good at lying in general: when it comes to he and Don’s little charade, he’s always one step behind when it comes to the various elements, and while he’s able to play along he’s always one step behind.

The issue with Salvatore is that his lies are always carefully chosen, elements of his job that he needs to keep underwraps. When later in the episode Kinsey asks him what he’s casting in terms of the man in the London Fog advertisement, he immediately lists off a series of emotional responses: he’ll look shocked, he’ll be intrigued, etc. However, Kinsey was looking for a physical description, something that Salvatore seems to have conditioned himself against offering so as to avoid revealing what he really thinks on the subject of the male figure, or anything so potentially volatile in the 60s environment. Salvatore may not be the best liar, but he has convinced himself that these withdrawls from types of conversation and a choice to live a false lifestyle would be easier than facing the judgment of people like his mother, or his co-workers.

But in the Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore, he is overcome by what Ken Tucker refers to as a “horny bellhop,” who senses Salvatore’s attraction and goes in for the kill, so to speak. While Don being interrupted by the fire alarm was an instance of self-preservation (he wanted to get out so he would be safe and be able to continue living), but Salvatore there is every sense that he would have let himself burn should the bellhop have been willing. We’ve seen him resist these types of rendezvous before (including, less than conspicuously, in the “Previously On Mad Men” which opened this episode), and here he is finally experiencing his sexual awakening (or what we at least believe to be his sexual awakening based on all evidence provided) but finds it interrupted by first a fire alarm, and then by a shocked Don Draper at the hotel room window ushering Salvatore to get out as soon as possible right when the bellhop, sans uniform, rushes back into the room.

Ultimately, it seems as if Don’s own history of lying and his general “personal relationship over cultural stereotype” character trait make him sympathetic to Salvatore’s position, even with the fakeout on the plane. However, for Salvatore, this raises a whole host of questions about the degree to which this really is an awakening, and whether a new person was born in that moment. We have been present for the defining moments in many characters’ lives, and like Peggy’s child being born this feels like a moment where his life could potentially change, and how he moves on from this point (maintaining the charade or seeing it all fall apart) will be a key element to watch as the season progresses.

Sterling Cooper

“Mr. Peterson has left the agency.”

With things at Sterling Cooper, the real story remains the central metaphor of the Japanese print in Bertram Cooper’s office, where an Octopus overwhelms a young woman: in the metaphor, the British invaders known as Putnam, Powell and Lowe are the octopus, and the people of Sterling Cooper can’t help but feel like the woman losing control of her senses. Burt Peterson was not the first person fired, but rather the one who seems to have been the most substantial – delayed due to his wife’s cancer, Peterson’s (played by Michael Gaston, late of Jericho and most recently Fringe) firing as head of accounts is just the latest in a long line of cuts led by Lane Pryce, who has taken on the role of the overseer of Sterling Cooper’s affairs, essentially. We learn later in the episode that 1/3 of the work force is gone, and the staff are on pins and needles about it.

I’ll get to the question of Peterson’s replacement in a second, but the British invasion at Sterling Cooper has become a source of opposition for two characters who went through some pretty remarkable moments late last season and yet are largely undercut here. Peggy has her own office and her own secretary, but finds that the secretary is too busy doing typing for Pryce’s assistant to get her own work done, and it seems as if Peggy has made no further inroads into the company (although that she wasn’t fired says something about Don’s level of influence, if nothing else). We saw her finally tell Pete the truth in the Season Two finale, but now it seems like she’s mired in the most mundane of circumstances, and there really isn’t any deep personal tension there – as a character who has always been the female lead of the show for me, it seems as if she was really marginalized here.

The same goes for Joan, who was already shortchanged in the season finale and now finds herself yet again marginalized. I think, though, this was an example of the show being very purposeful in not explaining what took place in that gap we’ve seen. There’s every indication that Joan is still engaged to the fiance who raped her late last season, considering Peggy’s comment about the ring and her own insistence that she will soon be gone from Sterling Cooper. However, considering Joan’s personal status, there is every chance that she has broken off the engagement, but wears the ring so as to keep from having to explain the lie, and who mentions leaving out of fear of what would happen if she told people she intended to stay in what most view as a dead end job.

It’s not yet clear which scenario is true, as both are plenty complicated, but I surely hope she ditched the husband-to-be; while most storylines on Mad Men move beyond emotional expectations/hopes and into the point of critical analysis, Joan’s rape was so horrifying that I can’t imagine the show justifying her decision to stay with him in the long term. Joan was in fine form throughout the episode, emphasizing to Moneypenny (or John to the switchboard ladies, or Mr. Hooker in his own mind) that she could be far more helpful if the British would let her into their world, and then screwing him over by playing to his ego and offering up Burt Peterson’s office as his own personal space only to have Pryce tear him a new one for daring to put himself in that position. However, if all of this is happening while she continues to devalue her self-worth, I don’t know if I can honestly forgive Matthew Weiner.

In other instances, the break between episodes is used in order to create a slight distance between us and the characters, and for that matter the show’s environment. When Roger isn’t at the meeting, he’s busy recovering from a honeymoon in Greece, implying that he has in fact married Jane in the interim period. And when Harry shows up at the accounts meeting, helping to divy everything up, he exposits that 42 cents of every dollar is spent in the Television department at this point, indicating that he is moving up at Sterling Cooper despite his lack of a personal office and that the media culture surrounding the show continues to change on a regular basis.

For the most part, the major changes at Sterling Cooper were those which don’t effect us as viewers: the characters we know are still there, and the firings were mostly done between seasons. What we saw in Peterson’s departure was a replay of what had surely happened numerous times before, and as Don notes it is sad that he’s getting used to these meetings – this has become commonplace for them, which makes it that much more eventful for us. It’s clear that this is not the same Sterling Cooper we left, and there’s something about that which reflects on the changing times: when Don and Salvatore go to Baltimore to meet with London Fog, they do so to reassure them of their commitment and yet find themselves dealing with a client thinking about diversifying and struggling to find a way to do so. For Sterling Cooper, change has been coming for a while, and Sal’s final ad copy he draws on the napkin is something provocative in a way that I don’t think they would have been in seasons past. We still haven’t seen the full effects of those moments, but it’s clear that despite the London Fog campaign fitting in with previous examples things are shifting.

Pete

“Why can’t I get everything all at once?”

The defining moment for Pete Campbell in this episode is his final scene, when he walks into Don’s office to vent about his situation. The plan from the London office to pit Pete and Ken against each others as head of accounts is his absolute nightmare, giving him the sense of authority and entitlement he so craves but siphoning half of it off so as to make him feel inadequate. For Ken, this is a huge opportunity: he gets half of the accounts, and the chance to prove himself. When the two men meet with Pryce, Ken wants to know the salary, wants to know what it will get him; when Campbell meets with him, he stumbles over himself, struggling to make small talk and hide his inner excitement at reaching his goals.

Ultimately, Ken’s perspective is problematic for the London office – they want someone who will merge into their way of business, and Ken was almost too eager for the raise, too excited to be sharing duties and not willing to engage in competition. Competition is clearly what Pryce is after: he really only wants one Head of Accounts, but rather than take the risk of one or the other he’s choosing to see who proves themselves worthy of the position. Pete, being the eternal pessimist he is, senses this immediately, and thus his reaction: he wants everything all at once, tired of having to sit around and wait while it all happens. He lost out on his father’s money, he lost out on Peggy’s child, and now he’s losing what he thought was going to be his chance to make a change in his life: he, unlike Cosgrove, never asked about salary, never considered anything but how much of an honour it was. That does actually go a long way, but unfortunately Pete is so caught up on the sudden change that he risks it all.

Until, that is, he walks into Don’s office. There, he’s ready to vent to Don, the person he trusts the most in the office and who he views as a father figure…and there’s Roger Sterling sitting there, watching him. This is followed by Bertram Cooper, requesting a drink and gossiping about the Londoners. What he realizes in that moment is that his sleazy nature means that he can’t not want to be one of these men, sitting in a room like this chatting about this and other subjects: he is someone who has forever desired to get into this room, and now that he’s inadvertently found himself here he doesn’t want to have to leave. His wife’s logical reasoning of how this is still good news for him is more or less ignored, but somehow that meeting in Don’s office convinces Pete to see this through and prove himself.

I think it’s a very strong storyline for Pete, especially since Vincent Kartheiser is so good at getting to both Pete’s boyish insecurities and his reaction to success (his little dance upon believing himself to be the only Head of Accounts was a fine example of this). The scene with he and Cosgrove in the elevator was played largely for comedy, but the wheels were so clearly turning, and this was the storyline which certainly felt the most like clear premiere setup. However, it’s really interesting to see how these dynamics will work, and more importantly to see how Pete (who we certainly spend more time with than Ken) will respond.

Betty

“Am I ever going to sleep again?”

I end with Betty here primarily because she is (like Peggy and Joan) marginalized in the episode, seen only at the beginning and the end and only in the context of her time spent with Don. Based on episode descriptions we’ll be seeing more of Betty next week, but what we know right now is what we could have presumed: Betty is pregnant, fussy, and kind of hilarious. Her line about Sally turning into a Lesbian for using Don’s tools was social insensitive, sure, but Betty’s childish innocence has always fascinated me, and seeing that come out in the context of childbirth was quite enjoyable. She is so accepting of traditional social roles that the neediness of her baby immediately convinces her that it’s a girl (“She knows what she wants!”).

Like Joan, Betty is a character whose major Season Two arc is primarily left to be lost entirely here: Don was not the only one who was unfaithful, and her backroom tryst with a man at a bar was the kind of situation that she had before not had the courage to follow through with. Now, having been emboldened, we’re not entirely sure what it has done for her: has it made her more understanding of Don and his various ways? Or was her pregnancy the sobering thought that convinced her that staying with Don was the right thing to do? Their marriage is on the surface in fine shape, but we know that she too is now hiding secrets in the way that Don did, and I personally don’t feel this character can internalize like her husband can.

And unlike Peggy last season, and even Salvatore this season, Betty doesn’t have Don’s help. There’s this sense that Don makes up for his own mistakes by helping others recover from their own: he’s generally nice to Pete, he’s supportive of Peggy, and he’s willing to keep Salvatore’s secret without batting an eye. Betty, however, can’t reveal her own betrayal to him, and thus has no one to confide it (as far as we’ve seen so far). She seems really normal, but it’s a normal that’s too romanticized, the pregnant woman sitting in bed struggling to sleep and resting – when we begin to see her around a bit more, and how her life is constructing itself, something tells me that we’ll find a very different story.

Some Final Thoughts

A lot of this has taken on a character analysis point of view, but I want to just say qualitatively that I think this was an enormously strong premiere that frustrated in ways that were clearly designed by Matt Weiner and confirmed by Phil Abraham. Everything that we’re annoyed to see unresolved has gone unresolved because Weiner enjoys keeping us guessing: he took over half a season to really explain what happened to Peggy last year, and by all accounts he’ll be taking his time here as well. The time gap is an interesting narrative tool that Weiner has clearly taken to, and as long as he remains focused on the core values of the series (which he has clearly done throughout this episode), I think that the show will continue to use that to its advantage.

If I had one complaint, it’s that I think we needed to see a bit more of Peggy: there was no point where Peggy got to interact with Don or Pete, and her lack of conflict with Joan (their conversation in the lobby was perhaps the least tense they’ve ever had, agreeing on “Moneypenny” being repugnant) took away some of the bite. I know they’ll get to Peggy eventually, but her position in this new Sterling Cooper is something that I find really fascinating, and that was one thing that I felt needed to be addressed within the context of both her personal storyline and perhaps more importantly the broader Sterling Cooper story as well.

But in the end, a great premiere, and a most welcome return for my favourite drama on television.

Cultural Observations

  • Now that you’ve read (or, honestly, skimmed) my review, check out a few more: there’s Alan Sepinwall, Mo Ryan, Keith Phipps, James Poniewozik, and (if not at the moment of this writing, eventually) Todd VanDerWerff.
  • Sepinwall also has an extensive interview with Matthew Weiner where they discuss the premiere and what its implications will be on the rest of the season – seems pretty thorough, and more or less free of what I’d call spoilers.
  • I enjoy John Slattery a lot as a dramatic actor, but as a comic one he’s just brilliant: arriving late for the meeting, realizing that it’s “a sad meeting,” and then repeating the “We’re very sorry” line was comedy gold.
  • The origins of Dick Whitman’s name (after his mother’s wish regarding the man’s, well, you know) was one of those things that’s almost a bit too unbelievable to really follow (especially since it’s not entirely clear how Don would know all of these memories), but it fits enough with the back story to work in its cleverness.
  • If you’ve seriously read every word to this point, you’re officially insane but also most appreciated.

10 Comments

Filed under Mad Men

10 responses to “Season Premiere: Mad Men – “Out of Town”

  1. That Sepinwall interview with Matthew Weiner reveals that Joan neither ditched the fiance or is still engaged – she got married in the interim.

  2. Abe

    Terrific review of the episode!

  3. Annie

    As usual, I always like hearing your take on shows, and I definitely want to rewatch the premiere after reading this. One thing I will sort of disagree on, and that’s your mention of the Japanese print as a metaphor on the Brits strangling the people of Sterling Cooper. While I agree that things for the company employees are uncertain and a struggle, I have to point out that the Japanese image wasn’t of a woman being strangled. It’s called “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” in which the woman is being pleasured by two octopuses. (Octopi?) http://bit.ly/3pPjL3

    • Yeah, I didn’t want to read any other reviews before I wrote this, so I didn’t see that it was actually tentacle erotica and not just quasi-erotic.

      Let’s shift it to “overwhelming” the people of Sterling Cooper…either that or it’s the small octopus. I don’t know – as much as I enjoy the selection from a “WTF” perspective, it’s weird placing Mad Men in the context of tentacle erotica. Sue me. 😛

      • Rue

        I know I’m late to the party here but I also wanted to point out what Annie said. To respond to you, Myles, that painting as been in the series from the very beginning. It’s always hung in Burt’s office very nonchalantly, and it is also very easy to miss if one doesn’t recognize it.

        So as far as placing Mad Men in the context of tentacle erotica, unfortunately, it always has. Or at least, the painting has always been there. What that means for Burt’s character might be a related topic, as I would take his decision to hang such a painting a sign of his sincere acceptance of Japanese culture. Sure we see him not wear shoes in his office and even ask others to take their shoes off, but it’s a whole other thing to have the guts to display such a painting.

  4. nizzy

    so i’m insane after all! 😀

    great as last season, looking forward to more great writing this season 🙂

  5. Rosie

    Perhaps it’s best that Betty doesn’t internalize the way Don does. Frankly, I think she and Don would be better off without each other. I don’t think they are suited or good for each other.

  6. Jian Xuan

    Why would it be insanity to read through this analysis?!

    It’s piercing and crisp and most of the time, you manage to pick up on all the details and layers so richly painted on by Weiner I’d have neglected otherwise.

    Am trying to clear my backlog of MM episodes and this analysis makes an excellent supplement.

  7. Pingback: Catch Up on Mad Men Season Three | Tired and Bored With Myself

  8. Pingback: Catch up: Mad Men – Season 3 | No Flipping

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