Warning: Stop reading if you haven't finished season four and still think you're going to get through it on Netflix this weekend. We can't talk about season five without spoiling the seasons before.
Season five of "Mad Men" is upon us, ushered in by a white-hot publicity inferno paired somewhat uncomfortably with a cool information blackout.
We've been served enough of the cast in soundbite mode -- across newspapers, morning shows, glossy magazines and blogs -- to choke on their dash, loveliness and charming happiness to just be reading such great scripts.
But for all that, we still barely know anything about what's going to confront Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce this season.
Matthew Weiner, it's now well-known, demands CIA-style secrecy around his scripts. If not for a cheeky Bloomberg reviewer, we wouldn't even know that the initial action will take place in 1966.
Other anticipatory buzz, while uniformly positive, has given up few details, save word of a rollicking sex scene involving Jon Hamm's Don Draper.
Mr. Hamm, who'd been beefing up his non-"Mad Men" appeal with work like that great supporting turn in "Bridesmaids," is now promoting the show by beefing with his cultural photographic negative, Kim Kardashian.
Ratings will tell whether this cone-of-silence PR strategy will work, but until the two-hour show Sunday night there are only two things left to do: recap and speculate wildly.
The Big Questions
The plot's immediate future can probably be summed up in a few arcs thanks to the previous, gradual elimination of minor characters such as the pompous, civil-rights-obsessed Kinsey and loveable gay art director Sal. Here goes:
- Can Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce come back from the brink? Season four ended with the the agency's nigh-collapse as stalwart client Lucky Strike consolidated at BBDO, tearing out a good chunk of the agency's revenue, tattering its reputation and leading old clients, such as the award-winning Glo-Coat, to flee. An agency cannot survive on Sugarberry Ham and Vick's Chemical alone, so expect a new-business frenzy.
- Will there be more to the future Mrs. Draper than French-language singalongs and swift, calm clean-ups of spilled milkshakes? His business being under siege didn't prevent Don from finding sudden love in his young secretary, leading him to throw the more sensible choice, a market researcher named Faye, under the bus. Will happiness follow?
- Will Joan have Roger Sterling's baby? In season four, the stress of a mugging ended up with the two ex-lovers bonking once again. The aborted abortion would lead us to believe she's determined to have the baby, as her doctor husband is off serving his country, which, by the way, leads to a minor subquestion. What are the odds of that dude, last seen sweltering in a Southeast Asia military base, making it home? In TV and movie logic, the good doctor's demise could only seem more likely if he were black.
- Will the Draper-Campbell alliance endure? Don's identity theft cost the agency what would have been a much-needed defense industry client. Pete, oft-courted by rival agencies, took the fall and Don repaid him by covering his obligation in an emergency funding round designed to keep the agency afloat. Over the years, the two have been on-again, off-again allies, a satisfying relationship that highlights the tensions between creative and account services, old money and self-made men. It might make sense for this youngish power bloc to endure as Mssrs. Sterling and Cooper amble into irrelevance and dotage.
- Will Betty ever lose that pinched expression, understand that the world is not her dollhouse, and find some semblance of contentment?
- Stan Rizzo and the other pheromonally-sensitive oinkers in the create department have already caught on to Peggy's late-season fling with Abe Drexler. Will that relationship blossom into a rare positive relationship for Peggy?
1966 and Smokes
So what does the plot being in 1966 mean? In broad historical strokes, 1966 was dominated by the domestic unrest about the Vietnam War and race riots. In ad terms, the year was an important one because it was the beginning of the end of tobacco companies as mass advertisers. In January, the Surgeon General's warning began appearing on cigarette packages, telling people that "Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health." Four years later, Congress banned cigarette ads on TV and radio.
When we left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Pete and Don were angling for work from the American Cancer Society. With Lucky Strike already out the door and Don having prefigured Goldman Sachs' Greg Smith with his "Why I Quit Tobacco" ad, the stage is set for the agency to switch sides in a big way.
Historically, this makes sense. Anti-tobacco advertising began in earnest around that time, thanks to an application of the Fairness Doctrine. By 1967, for every three pro-smoking ads on TV, there was one against and the industry was going into a tizzy. Time for Lucky Strike's former agency to get some of that action.
She Got Legs
At the end of season four, Peggy and Ken Cosgrove reel in a pantyhose account, a brand called Topaz. I initially thought this a throwaway development, in there along with the shop's courting of Heinz to show a flicker of life at the otherwise rapidly expiring agency. But after reading an article in Smithsonian Magazine called "50 Years of Pantyhose," I've come to think of this win as more significant:
The panty-stocking combo did not grab most women's attentions at first. Though the convenience of not having to wear a girdle or garter belt was a plus, what helped pantyhose take hold was the rise of the miniskirt in the mid-1960s.
For the fashion-conscious woman looking to wear a skirt that ended before her stockings began, long pantyhose were the perfect fit. When iconic models such as Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy donned their miniskirts, demand for pantyhose exploded and women flocked to the stores for pairs of their own.
"When Twiggy came along, you couldn't even bar the door," said Allen E. Gant Jr., who now holds his father's previous position as president of fabric company Glen Raven Mills.
So, basically, Peggy's measly little account could end up being a blockbuster. And one that has some, um, legs.
Random Thoughts About Swimming Pools
It only dawned on me when re-watching season four how important pools are to the plot of "Mad Men." In that season alone, there are the laps Don swims to cleanse his body and mind, and the California pool into which Megan, already a surrogate mother splashing around with his children, beckons him. Don first declines, then broods in his hotel room. He slips into his swim trunks, and, with a nicely formed cannonball, the deal is done. Some sort of threshold has been crossed.
The pool motif goes back further. Remember back in season two when Don goes to California and encounters a bunch of weird and wealthy European nomads? There's plenty of pool action in that one. Don meets them near the hotel pool, a setting that for Don's pasty traveling partner Pete Campbell signifies possibility and change.
What to make of this? I dunno. Making pools about transformation is kind of a swerve away from the usual symbolic meaning of swimming pools in midcentury culture, best exemplified by the John Cheever story "The Swimmer." The 1964 story tells of a suburban man who decides to travel home by way of all the pools in the county. Idyll turns into bleak surrealism midway through, turning the story into an indictment of the bland appropriation of nature, the malaise of the suburbs, the disconnection between economic privilege and happiness, and the ravages of alcoholism.
By the time Cheever's protagonist, Neddy Merrill, reaches his own home, he finds things have changed, dramatically. Upon re-reading Cheever's ending...
The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.... I couldn't help but think of the final moments of season four, with Don and Betty alone in their old empty house, the maid fired and only some boxes and a stowaway bottle of Canadian Club left.
I'm not sure what to expect from season five, but if the smell of chlorine is in the air, character crisis is nearby.