After an unendurable 17 month hiatus, “Mad Men” returned Sunday night with an epic two hour season premiere and its biggest ratings ever. If you have somehow shielded yourself from the buzz, the four-time Emmy-winning Best Drama takes a look at the lives of employees of an advertising agency in New York throughout the 60s amidst social and political upheaval. After binging on 10 episodes Sunday afternoon as a refresher, this writer is convinced it’s easily the best show on TV and probably one of the finest dramas ever forged. (If you have yet to watch this somehow. it’s on Netflix Instant. You’re welcome.) The show is the creation of former “The Sopranos” writer Matthew Weiner, whose uncompromising vision extends to every aspect of the show, including the way it’s marketed. In order to preserve the experience for fans of the show, Weiner won’t allow any spoilers prior to the season premiere. This includes incidental details like the year it takes place, or which characters will be returning, and means that commercials feature only footage from previous seasons and interviewers have to find clever ways to get even the vaguest hints about what might be coming up on the show.
The juiciest nugget revealed by Weiner to the NYTimes prior to the premiere was a line from the upcoming third episode of this season where a character asks, “When is everything going to get back to normal?” which is a question that many fans were asking after Sunday’s premiere. Every season has a thematic throughline, and many of the story threads that pay dramatic dividends in the later episodes are all being quietly placed on the board at the very beginning of each season. So with the first two hours of season five behind us and many of the pressing questions answered — When does this season take place? Did Joan have her baby? Did Don really marry Megan? — we thought now would be a good time to dive into the premiere (which you can watch below in its entirety) and look for clues as to what might be in store for the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office this season.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm)
When we last saw Don, he had impulsively ditched his intellectual equal girlfriend Doctor Faye (Cara Buono), and proposed to his secretary Megan (Jessica Paré). This came as a shock not only to his co-workers but to the audience as well, who had never seen their brooding lead appear so happy-go-lucky. When we check in on Don in the premiere, he’s still very much in the honeymoon phase of his relationship with Megan, who is now officially Mrs. Draper. The former bachelor can barely keep his hands off of her which leads to some kinky interplay between the two both at home and at the office, where Megan has been promoted to copywriter. Mixing work and relationships is almost always a recipe for disaster, and signs of strain have already begun to show with the couple showing up late and leaving early to deal with personal issues.
There was a lot of online chatter about how Don is supposedly happy now, and while we definitely saw a side of Don that was a bit different than we’re used to, we wouldn’t exactly call it “happy.” He’s certainly getting very frisky with his new wife but he’s also incredibly distracted at work: “I don’t care about work” is a thought that would have been unthinkable to the old Don, so it’s a clear sign that his priorities have shifted drastically in recent months. Hamm spoke to TV Guide explaining, “Don is seemingly becoming a little bit disengaged at work. What happens when you have it all? What happens when you’re satisfied? Maybe you lose some of that fire.” This comes at an especially troublesome time considering the shaky financial ground that SCDP is on, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Another milestone during the episode was Don’s 40th birthday — though technically he turned 40 a few months earlier — and it appears aging is going to be a big theme this season. Megan playfully calls him “a dirty old man” and Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) gives him a “walking stick” (basically a cane) as a birthday present. Prior to his birthday, Don asks his 10 year old son Bobby, “So when you’re 40, how old will I be?” to which his son replies, “You’ll be dead.” If this isn’t a sign of changing times, we don’t know what is. Weiner told EW, “He is coming into middle age, which was closer to old age back then” which never seemed truer than it did at Don’s surprise birthday party. Sitting in his groovy new penthouse apartment amongst the younger, hipper, guests, he has never looked like more of a square. The times they are a-changin’.
Roger Sterling (John Slattery)
Roger is a character who never seems to be without a good line. (Highlight from the premiere: “There’s my baby. Now move that brat out of the way so I can see her,” he says to Joan, referring to their love child.) But things are not going well in his marriage with Jane, who had made him so happy last season, and they’re going even worse at work. Since losing Lucky Strike, he’s taken to peeking at Pete’s schedule and elbowing in on his clients. Weiner described Roger’s current state as “disenfranchised,” and said, “Roger is someone who lost Lucky Strike and is struggling. He’s still president of the agency. He’s obviously still financially well off. He’s pulling money out of his pocket to get things done, but he’s using Pete’s leads. He doesn’t have a secretary. That’s not good.” Whether Roger’s marriage or business will survive the season is anybody’s guess.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser)
Pete seemed to have been conceived as a weasley adversary for Don in season one, but has become yet another example of the kind of complex characters that make this show truly great. There are no villains, and more and more, Pete seems to be the voice of reason. As his senior partners are distracting themselves with other things, Pete is holding the business together with the bulk of their client work. While it’s not surprising to see his ambition at the office, what was surprising was seeing him taking the train. “If I’m going to die, I want to die in Manhattan,” Pete famously told his his wife Trudy (Alison Brie) when the U.S. was under threat of nuclear attack. So it came as quite a shock to see him commuting from the suburbs in a house that looks a bit like Don’s old suburban home.
Though the nuptials started off a bit rocky — he did sleep with Peggy on the eve of his wedding and profess his love to her a year or so later — Pete and Trudy’s marriage has grown into one of the strongest on the series. (Maybe a low bar there, but that’s besides the point.) There are big changes in the Campbell house: After years of trying to get pregnant, Trudy finally had their baby; that could come at the expense of the spark in their marriage. He tells a fellow commuter, “there was a time when she wouldn’t leave the house in robe” but with a newborn baby at home, she’s not quite as dolled up and perfect as she used to be. They seem in good spirits at Don’s birthday however — and check out Trudy’s groovy-chic wardrobe! — so we’ll just have to hope that they can work it out.
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)
Peggy continues to be an MVP at SCDP, and that’s something that becomes even more apparent as Don becomes a little bit checked out. After a presentation to Heinz that doesn’t go so well, Don shows up and instead of helping to push back on the client, he rolls over easily, telling them they’ll come up with something else. Peggy says of her boss and mentor, “I don’t recognize that man. He’s kind and patient.” With Peggy growing more independent and driven at work — she and Pete will be running the place by the season’s end at this rate — and Don pursuing his life outside of the office, expect the two to butt heads as the season rolls along.
Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks)
Joan is one of the characters who appears to have been affected most during the time offscreen, as she has a new baby boy, Kevin. Her husband is still at war, the father (Roger) is still married, and apparently no one from the office has come to visit her on maternity leave. To make matters worse, her mother is staying with her to help with the baby and possibly putting more strain on Joan, who is anxious to get back to the office. Jon Hamm let slip that “the Don/Joan dynamic is something that we do explore” and gossip blogs immediately lit up with the thought of an onscreen hookup. While that does seem unlikely — this isn’t “Friends” or “Gossip Girl” after all, where every lead character will pair off with another eventually — there were a few hints during the premiere that something is definitely up between the two.
After Joan comes to visit the office for the first time since her pregnancy, Don gives her a warm greeting, complimenting her voluptuousness and telling her to get back to work. She returns the favor a few scenes later, as Lane recounts Don’s birthday embarrassment and she says she can’t imagine how cute Don would be blushing. Fans have often pointed to season three’s “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” (the lawnmower episode) — where Don and Joan share an intimate moment together in a hospital waiting room — as an onscreen pairing they’d like to see more of, and now they may get their wish.
Betty Francis (January Jones)
For the first three seasons, Betty was a central character on the show who received equal importance with Roger, Joan or Peggy. But after her divorce from Don, it became clear that the story of her second marriage was not one that Matthew Weiner had much interest in exploring. We only got glimpses of her life with new husband Henry Francis, in what must have amounted to about 20 minutes of screentime all last season, and it appears that we’re going to be seeing even less of Betty in season five. She was nowhere to be found in the premiere, though Sally, Bobby and Gene were dropped at the foot of her ominously huge mansion. According to Weiner, Jones’ real-life pregnancy will keep her out of the show even more than last season when that wasn’t a concern. When we do get to see her, we imagine she’s not going to be picking up any Mother Of The Year awards, nor will her marriage to Francis be improved much, despite their spacious new digs.
Megan Draper (Jessica Paré)
Many speculated that the marriage would not last long, while others thought the whole relationship might implode in the span of time prior to the season premiere and we might not see Megan at all. On the contrary, Megan’s birthday dance to Don became the talking point of the two hour premiere, and in many of her scenes with Don, she was the focus. As we speculated above, the working relationship between Don and Megan is bound to end badly, and that’s something that she seems to recognize during this first episode. She suggests that it might not be a good idea, but Don insists he doesn’t care.
An interesting aside for her character, which we had barely picked up on our first viewing comes a bit earlier in the party sequence: A friend of Megan’s tells Don, “You know, she’s a really good actress,” which could mean nothing, and just stand as an interesting parallel to his ex-wife Betty, a former model. Or you could take a much darker read, that Megan’s marriage to Don might be a big act in itself, so she can climb the corporate ladder: She’s already made it from secretary to copywriter, and though she certainly seems to love Don, it might be in the service of greater ambitions. Weiner spoke to NPR about the Don/Megan relationship: “What’s wrong with it? All I can say is, ‘You know already. You’ve been told. But it’s not what you think.'” While it seems like a long shot, especially considering how genuine and open she is, anything is possible with this show.
Sterling Cooper Draper Price
As Weiner told EW, “the survival of the agency is still at stake” and from what we saw in the premiere, that appears to be the case. The partners of the agency are forced to share secretaries, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) is scrambling to hold the business together, and while Roger tries to bribe Harry with a bonus to switch offices, Harry says “there’s no bonuses, we have no money.” With the crew already having survived a corporate merger and layoffs, going out of business seems unlikely, but where else could this be headed? Don gets his act together in episode 11 and lands a big account saving the day for the finale? Sure doesn’t seem like the show’s style.
Fans may have been puzzled in the opening of the episode to notice the “Goldwater ‘68” election banner hanging in the window of the Y&R offices, thinking that the show may have exceeded the “healthy time jump” promised by the creators, by going straight from the October 1965-set finale, directly to the election year depicted on the flyer. But thankfully, we haven’t missed quite that much time, as the first episode picks up just after Memorial Day 1966, about seven months after the finale of season 4. As you can see, the civil rights movement has landed on the doorstep of the agency, but Weiner says it may not be as big of an undercurrent this year on the show as you might expect.
He told TV Guide, “I’m never going to rewrite history and it’s out of respect. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, now civil rights is a big deal to these people.’ It’s not. As you can see, this comes into their house and it’s totally a practical joke. What I love is, change is happening and they can’t do anything about it. They don’t even know it, and that’s part of the entertainment of the show.” Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t assassinated until 1968, so that likely won’t make an appearance on the show until season six. And aside from the Summer of Love in ‘67 (in San Francisco) we’re not sure if there are any other major historical events to keep an eye out for, like the Bay Of Pigs or Kennedy’s assassination in previous seasons. It is clear from Don’s birthday that the out-of-work fashions have come quite a long way, as we’re now entering a groovy, “Valley of the Dolls”-era ’60s which is not the buttoned-up era in which the series began.
The premiere episode was a lot of catch-up certainly, and while most seemed to love the episode, a few have expressed a disappointment they can’t quite put their finger on. It can’t be that “nothing’s happening,” because there are, without a doubt, tons of new developments with these characters, but instead might be just what those developments are. If the premiere was a disappointment at all, it was purely a personal one. It was disappointing seeing Don admit he didn’t care about work. It was disappointing seeing Joan, so strong and confident at the office, trapped at home with her baby. It was disappointing seeing Pete living in the suburbs, and seeing how Harry Crane has turned into kind of a dick. It was disappointing seeing Don and Roger looking older and out of place at Don’s party. During earlier seasons, Don could take a trip down to Greenwich Village and put the beatniks in their place, but we’re not sure he could do that now. Don is getting older and he’s losing his edge. And this appears to be where the show is headed (for now, anyway).
Creator Matthew Weiner has spoken about the perils of giving fans what they want, saying they only think they want more of something, but ‘you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ provide those thrills. We’re resistant to seeing our beloved characters in these positions because we don’t like change either. If it was up to the audience Don would always be the coolest guy the room, but that would be a far less interesting show. The audience (and hell, the advertising) may have built these characters up, focusing on the glamorous aspects of the show: drinking, smoking, cool-looking suits, mysterious pasts! But the show has never been about those things and Weiner is following a truer path, one that has rarely been traveled in television.
Take last season’s pivotal episode “The Suitcase,” for example, where a drunken Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) shows up at the offices to find Don and Peggy working late. He mistakes it for an illicit affair, calls Peggy a whore and Don takes a swing at him. If the show had any interest in making Don look “cool” or “heroic” he would have decked Duck and the audience would have cheered. Instead, he swings drunkenly, misses entirely and get’s quickly pinned to the ground by Duck. He surrenders. And that is why the show is great. It doesn’t pander to its audience, instead it follows a more honest path, where the plot is in service of illuminating character and not the other way around.