After almost a year and a half sabbatical, Mad Men has returned to television, with more alcohol and licentious behavior than ever. Accruing over 2.92 million viewers and 19 Emmy nominations last season, Mad Men sought to continue their lucky streak with a boldfaced advertising campaign for its long-awaited return, “Adultery is Back.” New York residents complained that the iconic billboards of a man falling through the high rises of New York City was insensitive to the events of 9/11. Whether or not the producers of this AMC hit needed to resort to such shocking ads, we’ll never know, but it certainly set the tone for the season five premiere this Sunday.
Praised for its visually pleasing set and periodic costumes, America has become quite attached to the cheating, drinking, lying, brown-nosing men, and women, of New York’s Madison Avenue c. 1960. Banana Republic even rolled out a Mad Men-inspired line of sheath gowns and sharp suits. The past four seasons have been a rollicking ride as the characters confront adultery, blatant sexism, various countercultures, identity crises, and racism, all while puffing at that ever-present cigarette and clinking that whiskey on the rocks.
Critics have accused Mad Men’s writers, including creator Matthew Weiner, of carrying on like a soap opera, touching lightly on these immense subjects and then resolving them with shallow reflection and little consequence. While this may irritate the romantics of our day, it suits the psychologically scarring aspect of Madison Avenue. Who can imagine Don Draper (Jon Hamm) actually coming to terms with his double life and his insatiable desire for a nice pair of legs? This is what drives the plot of the show. The characters are fixated on their respective vice, be it pride or jealousy or discontentment, but they sometimes slip up and reveal something bigger, something redeemable. It is these moments that make viewers both identify and sympathize with Mad Men’s success-crazed cast. Can we really say we’re all that different?
The two-hour Season five premiere opens on a few executives dropping water bombs on a civil rights march processing outside the new firm’s building. Undeterred, the black women storm up to confront the white persecutors with the line, “And they call us savages.”
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has coagulated into a tense power play, but a successful one nonetheless. The new digs are fresher and cleaner than the old office, and business is stable. But in the words of account executive Peter Campbell, “Stable is one step back between success and failure.” The characters of Mad Men continue to conduct their lives with the same careless selfishness, flying in the face of the new equal opportunity movement, and any other call for humanity.
The scene switches to a mod apartment half moved into. Sally, Don Draper’s daughter, accidentally wanders bleary-eyed into her father’s new bedroom — she thought it was the bathroom. Don and Betty are officially quits, and Don has already married Megan Calvet, the Montreal native whom he proposed to on a trip to California last season. Her sexuality might please Don, but her kitten-like playfulness seems to jar against Don’s steely gray exterior. The children enjoy Megan for the most part, while Betty (January Jones) is noticeably absent from the entire episode.
The main event of this episode is Megan’s surprise burlesque “birthday” for Don (his real 40th was six months ago). Megan knows Don’s true identity, but is determined to fulfill this fantasy of a mutually doting husband and wife. Unfortunately for Megan, she goes about it entirely the wrong way. After inviting all the wrong people and singing an arousing rendition of Zou Bisou Bisou, the audience shares a mutual cringe with Don. His age and displeasure shows when he fails to reward or even thank Megan at the end of the night. She angrily spends the next day cleaning the wrecked apartment in her lingerie, crying, “You don’t like nice things … you don’t want people thinking you’re getting this.” They eventually reconcile in a passionate tete-a-tete on the soiled white carpet, but Megan’s youth and naiveté still glares against the Don we already know and love.
Meanwhile, back at the office, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) still struggles to overcome the uncreative atmosphere in the office. Her bean campaign falls flat in the conference room, and she is outdone by Don’s intoxicating and reassuring smile as he escorts the unimpressed clients out the door. Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is still the ambitious ass, more concerned about the size of his office than anything else.
The return of the curvaceous Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) is the more interesting segment of this episode. Joan is now the mother of a fussy baby boy, supposedly the son of sly, silver-haired Roger Sterling (John Slattery). Despite the lack of sleep and a new dependence on her mother, Joan is frightened back into the office by an equal opportunity employment ad for the new firm (actually printed as a facetious prank). Her scene with Pryce is heartwarming; he admits Joan is essential to the office, and all Joan can do is cry with relief. Pryce, on the other hand, is slapped full in the face by the reality of his own loneliness when he tries to return a lost wallet and is irrepressibly intrigued by the flirtatious voice at the end of the other line. His desperate attempts to meet the appealing Dolores (whose image he found tucked into the wallet) fails miserably when the painfully American owner shows up to claim it. The Yankee slaps a bill into Pryce’s jacket and calls him “a true gentlemen,” but, at that moment, Pryce feels anything but.
The episode ends on an awkward situation in the reception area. Over a dozen African Americans had taken the equal opportunity advertisement seriously. Pryce somewhat discreetly dispels the male crowd. “You are free to leave — that is, you are welcome to leave — I mean, you may go.” But he is forced to collect the female résumés, the line of applicants forming a quick contrast to the sturdy wall of white executives barring the way into the office.
Thus, the writers of Mad Men have preserved the show’s addicting mood and flow without compromising its believability as a portrait of the 1960s. Viewers can still berate and ogle the cast for their misbehavior as they go through the motions of the American dream of success, homemaking, and lovemaking.
Meghan Thomassen is a Boston native studying English, Philosophy and Literature at the University of Notre Dame. She aspires to work in publishing, or travel the world, or do both. Her favorite authors include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Plato, and Oscar Wilde. She can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow her on Twitter @thomassentropes.