The New York advertising world is the lens through which "Mad Men" filters its expanding array of themes, from counterculture to aging to war to — at last, as promised by the scenes bookending last night's season premiere "A Little Kiss" — race. But foremost, for me at least, it's always been a show about gender, about masculine ideals (Don Draper, miserable in the hard-won, seemingly perfect life with which he started the series) and shifting female identity (Peggy and Joan and their workplace struggles, Betty and her need to be both commanding adult and indulged child, the many ladies in Don's life).
"A Little Kiss" adds a massive complexity to its take on the topic with what's become of Megan Calvet (Jessica Paré), now Megan Draper, the girl Don (Jon Hamm) impulsively proposed to at the end of the last season. When it happened, Joan (Christina Hendricks) predicted to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) that "he'll probably make her a copywriter — he's not going to want to be married to his secretary" and we see that's become the case. Megan's been put to work with Peggy in the job in which she expressed interest ages ago, though she's mainly there because Don wants her close — the two are still in a grabby, googly-eyed honeymoon phase in which they roll into the office late and leave early, to the annoyance of those left to pick up the slack.
Megan's become a kind of alterna-Peggy — the two both started as Don's secretary, but while Peggy's career path stemmed from her talent and Don's mentorship, Megan seems to have pulled off the same thing by being beautiful and hopping into his bed.
It must particularly sting for Peggy because that's how everyone assumes she got where she is. And while she surely knows better at this point than to want any kind of romantic entanglement with her boss, it can't feel great to watch the man who's explained to you he never pursued you because he has rules about that kind of thing in the workplace flaunt how little he actually meant that.
While Joan turned about to be right about Don not wanting to be married to his secretary, that's also exactly why he proposed to Megan after knowing her for only a short while — in his time of crisis, she was there faithfully anticipating his needs at work and, after his ex-wife fired their nanny shortly before he was due to take the kids to California, at that dreamy, on-the-road equivalent of home. But Megan's a human being, not just a pretty face there to provide support for Don in the office and in his new swank new apartment, and her dissatisfaction with the way things are going comes through during the episode's centerpiece, the surprise party she arranges for his 40th birthday.
At 25 and a relative newcomer to New York, Megan hasn't yet figured out the infinite complications of Don's world, from his desire to keep work and home separate to the office politics into which she's been thrown. She doesn't realize that her impulsive planning makes everyone in the insecure firm assume by the late invite that they were inititally overlooked, and she has no idea that Don would be mortified by her sex-kitten rendition of "Zou Bisou Bisou" in front of everyone of importance from his professional life. (It resonates with an earlier party performance — in French as well! — when Joan has to tamp down her fury at her husband as she's corralled into accompanying herself on the accordian while singing "C'est Magnifique.")
Don's used to having a beautiful woman on his arm, but he doesn't want to be made to look ridiculous because of it — doesn't want to see himself as Roger (John Slattery), who also married a young, fetching secretary, though the bloom seems to be off his relationship with Jane (Peyton List). ("Why don't you sing like that?" he murmurs to her. "Why don't you look like him?" she fires back.) There are echoes of Jane's drunken season-three plea to Don — "You don't like me. I'm a nice person." — in Megan's distress after the party, as she snaps at Peggy "What is wrong with you people? You're all so cynical, you smirk!" Roger's pursuit of Jane exasperated Don, but here he finds himself on the other side, insisting to his colleague, "We don't make fun of our wives here. Understood?"
Joan's story in the episode offered a different angle on being a woman in the workplace — she's had her baby (Roger's, though her husband doesn't know) and is home caring for him with help from her undermining mother. (Joan, who never wastes a word, manages to conceil daggers in the suggestion that it might be time for her mom to head home: "I got my money's worth.")
She, too, has gotten a not-quite-perfect version of the life she always claimed to want, with a doctor spouse (away in Vietnam), a child, and a nice apartment painted to match her red hair. And yet all she can think about is what's going on in the cramped hallways of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, leading to the sweetest moment in the episode, as she stops by the office, certain she's going to hear she's been made unnecessary.
She and Lane haven't always gotten along, but the conversation between them in which he confesses to just how much a mess things have become without her was lovely and touching, not just because it featured the unflappable Joan letting her guard down in a rare moment of exhaustion and relief. "There would have been a cake, but you weren't here to arrange it," Lane soothes.
It's a pleasure to hear Joan admit that she actually loves and needs the office life she's always glided above and pretended she could easily live without, because we want her there, and because we love it, too. These people may totally be cynical, as Megan observed, and needy and competitive and deeply flawed. But aren't you so glad they're back?