The fifth season of Mad Men opened with all the subtlety of a jackhammer and all the nuance of a steamroller. A protest outside the offices of rival Y&R announces that the Sixties have truly started and our characters are at the water's edge of the most radical social transformation of the 20th century (they just don't know it). Over the next two hours, Matt Wiener unfolded a scattershot of plot lines that are sure to keep die hard fans eager for another Sunday night of entertainment.
In the new Draper household high atop a skyscraper in New York City, Don is celebrating another birthday - his 40th - and the imagery is interesting. At the beginning of Season 3, Don also celebrated his birthday - his "real" birthday - with a painful flashback to his conception and birth to a prostitute who died shortly after delivering him and named him "Dick" after suggesting his father's penis should have been boiled in hog fat. That scene took place in the first Draper family home, at night, without anyone around. In 1966, Don is dutifully making breakfast for his three children as sunlight streams through the apartment windows and his new wife Megan ambles out to join the family.
The birthday he will celebrate on June 1st is not his, but rather, that of the real Don Draper, but the season premiere suggests that the Don Draper we have known for the past four seasons, who lives in shadows, is petulant and egotistical, and swallows his misery in whiskey is gone, replaced instead by a man at peace - who does not attempt to talk Heinz into accepting a creative pitch, rarely touches the bottle and arrives (and leaves) work on time, with his wife. After refusing to back up Peggy in her Heinz pitch she says of Don, "I don't recognize that man. He's kind and patient … it concerns me." Peggy's concerns could be shared by viewers who were probably saying the same thing - who is this guy? It was telling that Don had shared the "Dick Whitman" secret with Megan (think of the years he withheld that information from Betty) and engaged in erotic role play with her in the apartment - he wants to be happy (and he notes, in opining on the futility of white carpet, wants to make Megan happy).
If it has taken Don until mid-1966 to find happiness, junior partner Peter Campbell appears to be at the other end of the suburban anomie train that led Don to 6th and Waverly and the arms of his 25 year old secretary. Same train, same commute, same wife and daughter (even the same home layout that has Pete entering through the kitchen). But whereas Don's sense of alienation stemmed from his belief that he did not belong, that he was somehow a fraud, Pete's frustration comes from lack of recognition for work well done - "there's no fruit to my labor," he whines to Trudy after a long day at the office. To which ever cheerful (and quippy) Trudy reminds him "dissatisfaction is a symbol of ambition." Of course, Pete's problem has never been a lack of ambition, but as opposed to the naked version of it he showed early on, now his desire for career advancement is tied directly to years of dues paying, to cultivating new clients, growing small accounts into larger ones and now, with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce poised to rebound, to the future of the company.
Pete's pushy manner in Season 1 led him to try and blackmail Don into promoting him, but now, Pete tries to make a rational argument for taking Roger's corner office. Roger, sadly, is not even a shell of his former self, having brought in no business since the departure of Lucky Strike nearly a year before, he appears to be resting on a rather large stack of money that he uses to bribe his former full time secretary into coming back and sitting in front of his office and into paying off Harry Crane to switch offices with Pete so Roger will not have to. In his personal life, Roger and Jane appear bored and uninterested in each other, though for what reasons we don't know, Jane has become a cipher who makes a random appearance and then sort of fades out, but Roger slips a not so subtle warning to Don when he notes that they (second wives) are great until they "start asking for things."
The set piece for A Little Kiss is Don's surprise 40th birthday party, an event that the writers use (albeit a bit ham handedly, to me it felt like Mad Men meets Austin Powers) to show the swiftly changing culture, in the vibrant colors of psychedelia popping on Trudy's dress, the shortness of Megan's hemline and the casual use of marijuana on the apartment deck. While youth mingle regardless of race or sexual orientation, the men of Mad Men belie their comfort with the counter culture by the amount to which they cling to the fashion of yesteryear - on the extreme from stodgy jacket and tie for Don and Roger, to Ken's middle ground, and toward Pete (in a jacket one can only hope ended up being burned) and Harry, who appears to most fully embrace the times (although his wife has not been seen since Season 3's "My Old Kentucky Home."). What is most interesting about how this narrative will play out is the audience knows that the Summer of Love is just 12 short months away, that political assassinations and a chaotic Democratic National Convention are 2 years away, and a war that was distant and largely ignored will take center stage and split the country for years to come.
In the balance, a few crumbs were tossed to viewers - Roger's glib comment that Joan's baby always needed attention suggests little Kevin is a chip off the old block, Abe and Peggy are still dating, and Lane may have died and gone to "chocolate bunny" heaven when he collected resumes of the black women who sat in (in) the lobby of SCDP in response to a gag ad the firm placed in the New York Times (the presence of his wife in New York appears to have made him more unhappy, not less). In the end, if Season 4 was largely about how women's roles were evolving in the 1960s, it appears quite clear that Season 5 will be about men and how they experience the change around them. Roger, clinging to his role in the office, Don, striving for happiness and balance, Pete, trying to bridge that half-rung that stands between him and the other firm partners while transitioning to suburban life, and the others, grappling their way through what will be turbulent years (and horrible fashion).