Mad Men (S3:E1) – Out of Town
Posted by Christopher Moltisanti on August 17, 2009
“I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I’ve already been.” – Don
Most viewers probably felt the same way during “Out of Town,” the third season premiere of Matthew Weiner’s stylish, funny, dark and culturally resonant ad man drama. We had a cheating Don Draper, an idealistic Betty Draper, a petulant Pete Campbell and Joan saucily strutting around the office.
The plot of the episode centers around a business trip to Baltimore for Don and Sal and a hierarchical overhaul at Sterling Cooper that pits Pete and Ken against each other. The action was there, but, unfortunately, for much of the episode, the dialogue was uncharacteristically empty and uninspired. Conversations seemed to linger and lacked the weight of previous seasons. Add in a particularly preposterous scene in a Baltimore hotel, and you have one of the weaker “Mad Men” episodes.
That said, it was still “Mad Men” with all of its brilliant subtleties.
The ominous opening scene, with Don in the kitchen heating up milk, which echoes the opening of season one’s “Babylon,” shows a home where facades have been removed, wounds are exposed and idyllic suburban life is a fantasy. Shrouded in darkness (not the false light of the season one episode), this scene preludes a season of tumult for the characters–or at least one where the material happiness that sustained their marriage is no longer sufficient in itself. Still, Don and Bets’ conversations, as contrived as always, remain superficially loving and Bets has regained a lot of her old idealism. But, as it was at the end of season two, it remains a fragile peace.
At the center of the episode is Don’s dualistic relationship with his identity (an oft-visited theme throughout the first two seasons). While he struggles with his anonymity as a “baby in a basket” during an extended scene where he imagines his birth (and where we discover the origin of his name. “His name is Dick – after a wish his mother should have lived to see.”) and when his daughter asks him to tell her about the day she was born, we see him reveling in it on the business trip to Baltimore, where anonymity means freedom and acceptance. At home, he still struggles to reconcile his two sides, telling his daughter, “I will always come home,” moments before covering for his infidelity by giving her the flight attendant’s pin she finds in his bag.
Meanwhile, at Sterling Cooper, the folks from Putnam, Powell & Lowe are in control, pulling the strings and orchestrating a competition for the heads of accounts position vacated first by Duck Phillips and then by Burt Peterson between Ken and Pete. Pete, as angsty and insecure as always, whines to Trudy, “Why can’t I get anything good all at once?” while Ken welcomes the battle with glee.
In the end, only 15 months removed from the end of season two, not much has changed, which is a hallmark of the show’s realism. There are circumstantial transitions, tensions and undercurrents of change happening all the time, moving characters in different directions, but the core of these characters’ personalities (like most people’s) never change. So, yes, as Don tells the flight attendants, we’ve seen this movie before, but it’s as compelling as ever and, like him, we don’t see any point in turning away.