Liminal (adj.) – on the margins or the threshold; neither this nor that or both this and that.
The first episode of Mad Men, “A Little Kiss,” this year had many elements of the liminal that I haven’t seen many people speaking about, but which I found vital to the structure of the episode. (The first two episodes were presented together in a two-hour episode, with tonight’s labeled episode 3.) Liminality is the state of being in between, on the margins. It’s often associated with a particular space, but it can also refer to characters within narratives as well.
The episode begins with Sally waking up in an apartment wandering down the hallway, soon mistaking the door to the master bedroom for the door to the bathroom. As she speaks to her father, Don, who is dressed in pajama pants but not wearing a shirt, Sally looks past him to the bed, where Megan sleeps naked, facing away from the door, her back and buttocks exposed to Sally’s eyes. Megan is the woman sleeping with Sally’s father, but not Sally’s mother. She is Don’s wife, but in Sally’s eyes not fully family. She is something in between.
At work, Megan is likewise on the margins. She is Don’s wife but also an employee. She’s dabbling in the creative side of the ad business, but doesn’t have any real experience in it. Peggy is mentoring her and overseeing her work, but because she is Don’s wife, Megan holds a certain power over Peggy that Peggy is well aware of, even if Megan knows little about the work that they do. Megan arrives with Don and leaves with him. She is not exactly autonomous there, but she does have the authority of being the wife of one of the partners of the firm.
Back to the apartment. This apartment and what transpires in it is central liminal space in “A Little Kiss.” It’s a modern, up-to-date, 1960s apartment with a showcase living room with built-in shelving, a sunken floor, and a fabulous white rug. It’s their home that they’ve made, and as such it’s the space where they entertain. And the surprise party for Don’s 40th birthday is the centerpiece of the two-hour episode. But as a home space, during this party it is populated pretty much solely with people who work with and for Don. We might well ask, “Who are their other friends? Do they have other friends?” With this party, it’s hard to see any. So the party operates as a liminal space between work and home and the challenge of the party for the guests is how to negotiate the in-betweeness of SCDP and Don’s home. With her overt mention of the effort she is putting into a current ad campaign, Peggy struggles with this. Her boyfriend asks, “What are you doing?” and she answers, exasperated with herself but also confused as to what she was supposed to say, “I don’t know.” Harry Crane, not surprisingly, doesn’t bring his wife, allowing himself to act the creep in front of his colleagues. Lane Pryce and Ken Cosgrove are much more at ease and more readily blend in.
And while Don is able to negotiate the liminality of his home/work – and it shouldn’t surprise us that he can, since he is the master of being able to do just this sort of thing, Megan isn’t as proficient with it. Her song-and-dance routine to “Zou Bisou Bisou” is so sexualized that few if any of the men know how to handle it. There’s something about it that might be a little inappropriate, though it shouldn’t be. This sort of thing goes on at parties, and is clearly what Megan has in mind when she tells Peggy that everyone will leave the party and “go home and have sex.” The element that makes the routine risqué is that the witnesses to it are all colleagues from work. This is what leads to the discomfort.
Of course, for Don, the discomfort is that it isn’t actually his birthday. It’s Don Draper’s birthday, but Dick Whitman’s was a few months ago. This leads back to one of the main themes of Season 4 (and the series as a whole) – “who is Don Draper?” Is he Don or Dick? Neither or both? His unhappiness at the party, he says, isn’t because he doesn’t like surprise parties but because he doesn’t like birthdays. And this is a big one – 40. He’s aging. Megan calls him old a number of times, sometimes teasingly, sometimes less so. And as a 40-year-old, he seems to identify with the older generation of Roger Sterling, Lane Price, and the other “grown-ups.” He sees the others as more akin to kids. Their interest in marijuana and new music doesn’t interest him. (Not that he isn’t familiar with them. Do recall his first-season affair with Midge and attendance at West Village Bohemian nightclubs. But he’s done all that already.) And he is married to one of these kids. Megan is clearly of the new generation. Her version of “Zou Bisou Bisou” is evidence of her comfort with a new overt sexuality that is fully new to Don and the men of the older generation.
The other figure we should take note of at the party is Pete Campbell, dressed more formally than many of the others, with what I would call a country-club plaid sportcoat. Pete wants no part of all the things that the others of his actual generation want. He wants what the older men want – money and power. At work he is in a figurative liminal space – neither a full partner, nor a regular employee. Not treated by the big boys as equal, but actually the one bringing in the most business. Pete wants to be seen as the equal of the other partners, though he isn’t. Curiously, it’s Don who is most sympathetic to Pete. Does he recognize something of his own situation in Pete’s?
All this hints at what may be one of the main themes of the year – Who will best be able to negotiate the liminal, the in-between? And where will allegiances lie as things become better defined? When we put this in its historical context of 1966 and 1967, which when this season seems set, big things seem to be on the horizon.