It was Sunday night. As 7 p.m. approached, I began to notice the faintest hint of Lucky Strikes and whiskey in the air. This meant only one thing: Mad Men was returning. I was about to embark on the two-hour Season Five premiere, long-awaited throughout the show’s 17-month hiatus.
When we left off, it was 1965. Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce was verging on bankruptcy after losing their biggest client, Lucky Strike, and Don flouted all attempts by the audience to sympathize with him when he proposed to his secretary, Megan, and told everyone else before his girlfriend.
Matthew Weiner and the folks at AMC have a tremendous talent for presenting us with scenarios reprehensible to our modern sensibilities but still making them oddly seductive. Don Draper is not a good man, but we’re stuck with him, and we’re OK with that. The show is still aware of its audience and careful not to veer too far off-course: overt racism is kept at a minimum, and despite the “man’s world” setting, it has produced one of the best female protagonists in TV history, Peggy Olson. Moreover, with the ’60s being such a formative decade, we have seen broad cultural changes reflected in our characters, and it will only escalate from here on.
It is June 1966; we begin with a scene of Civil Rights protesters marching down Madison Avenue while some cackling young ad execs drop water bombs on them. From there we transition into a weirdly blissful domestic scene with Don, his kids and the new Mrs. Draper. It is a startling juxtaposition with last season’s depressing bachelor pad and the sterile home life with Betty that preceded it. However, we get a rush of nostalgia when Megan decides to throw a surprise party for her husband and his sour reaction disrupts the sense of comfort in the Draper residence.
Meanwhile, new tensions arise at the office, as Pete tries to supplant Roger as the firm’s recognized breadwinner, while Roger does his best to keep him down. These office antics showcase some of the best of Mad Men charm and humour between Roger’s dry, egocentric wit and Pete’s Machiavellian folksiness. The relationship stays true to the evolution of the characters, with Roger growing insecure about his importance at the firm and Pete always insecure about his partners’ appreciation for his work.
I can’t say the episode dazzled me, but it certainly delivered on every level. The set oozed atmosphere, oscillating between the swanky mid-’60s Draper apartment and the urban chic sterility of the SCDP agency. Cinematography is still top-notch, exploring lingering close-ups that teeter on the brink of revealing all the emotion bubbling underneath but still holds something back. The trademark character nuances are brought back in full force, from Don’s stride to Roger’s smirk to Peggy’s sigh. And the dialogue is still witty and biting without losing its edge of realism and human fragility.
But I’m starting to gush. The episode had a few rougher points. When last we saw Bert Cooper, he was packing up his things and leaving the firm, but now he is back with no explanation. Ice queen Betty Francis is notably absent; although this is done for practical reasons (January Jones was still pregnant during filming) it still leaves an unmistakable hole somewhere in the action. And Pete Campbell’s subplot about his growing disconnect from his domestic life did not quite get the attention it needed among everything else going on, and may have been better left for a different episode.
Now that we are into the second half of the infamous decade, change is inevitable. SCDP is going to become a bit more diverse now that they have inadvertently attracted a host of black job applicants. Civil Rights will certainly become more central this season, and Don will see himself involved whether he wants to be or not.
So what is going to happen over the next 11 weeks? Right now, it is too early to call whether we should expect to retread old territory (Don Draper affair No. 8, for instance) or whether Season Five will head off into totally new realms.