On the 'Mad Men' Season Premiere

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by G.D.

If you haven't had a chance to read Now The Hell Will Start, the gripping historical thriller by Brendan Koerner (who guested here last week), I humbly importune you to get up on that. Much of the book, about an epic manhunt for a black soldier during World War II, takes place in Burma far far away from frontline combat. The Army needed warm bodies to throw at a dubious boondoggle that they hoped would make supplying China easier, and so they sent battalions full of black troops who had been drafted—but who weren't allowed to fight or do much else—to build a road. Think about that. The Army conscripted men who were doctors and mechanics and engineers in their civilian lives, but because of its policies, couldn't find much use for them in wartime besides having them crush rocks in the jungle. There are all manner of compelling moral and ethical arguments against codifying inequality, but there are obvious practical ones as well: institutions that do so are wasteful and inefficient.

This oddly comes to mind whenever I watch Mad Men. You have Joan, who is hypercompetent and discreet, playing the back to twits like Harry and Pete. Does anyone doubt that she could do their jobs better than they do? The soap opera project from a few seasons back hinted that this, and she's every bit as charismatic and shrewd as Don is. In the season premiere, we first catch her behind a desk in her own office (!) which hopefully augurs big things for her at the fledgling Sterling Cooper Draper Price, which is struggling to drum up business. Maybe with their backs against the wall, they'll finally let Joan and Peggy loose.

Peggy also seems newly empowered in the new digs. Don tries to pull rank on her, and she deftly claps back at him. Lest we not forget that Don is a fairly despicable cat, he lets her know she's getting uppity by barring her from a meeting. "I just think it would be better not to have a girl in the room." See? Wasteful and inefficient.

The drama on the show shifts back to the office, which is a smart and probably necessary pivot. The central dramatic tension at home for Don Draper—that he isn't, you know, Don Draper—came undone when Betty finally found out his secret. The subtext, that the two of them quietly loathed each other, became all text, which had the potential to become both soul-crushing and dull very quickly. The scene in which Betty finds out about Don was a high point for both the character and for the show, but it didn't seem to slow her slow devolution into caricature. Betty's new husband is showing signs of having a white knight complex; he seems less interested in her than feeling like he's saving her from some terrible fate. (Peep the way he practically mauls her in the car after Don comes to pick up the kids.)

Back at work, though, the Don Draper masquerade is still intact, and SCDP have tethered their wagons more tightly to his reluctant star. Don rolls his eyes at the suggestion that he has to be the new company's face, but by the end of the episode, he finally accepts this, and gives a reporter a swaggery portrayal of how the principals at SCDP jumped ship. But you can already see the storm clouds. All that fresh scrutiny on Madison Ave. for a dude who is perpetrating an elaborate, untenable fraud? It's not just Don's marriage at stake now, but a bunch of people's entire lives.

What did y'all think?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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