Mad Men: Season 5 premiere

The long anticipated return of our favorite pack of cigarettes has happened. Mad Men has returned in all its boozy glory. Like a comfortable series should, it picks up right where it left off, more or less mirroring the appropriate gap between this season’s premiere and the close of season 4. It’s now Summer 1966, and the country is in the midst of rapid change.  We can look forward to rapid changes at the agency as well. The old guard is on the wane, the young Turks are moving up to take their rightful place in the new world. They ‘times they are a’changin’ and ‘time will tell, just who was fell, and who is left behind’.

The series is stuffed with characters that we care about – at least in the sense that we want to see where they are headed. And the 2-hour season premiere only scratches the surface of the cast of characters. Don Draper is happily married, he’s the kinder gentler Don. For now? He’s still uncomfortable in certain situations, as when his wife throws him a 40th birthday party, celebrations which he hates. His wife does a very sexy dance for him which astounds the whole gathering. He’s not pleased which leads to their first spat. They make up in an even sexier scene which ends with Don revealing his new separation of Church and State policy – or in this case the separation of Work and Home life. Work is sullying and he doesn’t want the work environment to  invade their bucolic home life. He confesses to his wife that he doesn’t even want “them” in their home. Don remains the most enigmatic character: it will be fascinating to see where he ends up in the new order. Don also seems to be fondly thinking of how he’s enjoying his kids now, and Megan seems to enjoy them as well. The eldest (previously troubled Sally) seems to be in active observer mode, grown up beyond her years.  There is – and always has been – a lot going on in her head. We get only a glimpse of the contrast between Don’s home – a dark contrast it appears it will be – and Betty and Henry’s, when Don drops the kids off outside their mother’s home (he does not go in).

In the meantime, Pete is now the driven one, demanding a bigger office since he is now the biggest earner in the group. After a confrontation with smokestack Roger Sterling he gets his wish when Roger comes to “an arrangement” with the tv guy, Harry. Still, Pete gets his space, but not the recognition and acknowledgement that he was really seeking. Pete is turning into the junior version of the old Don – the uneasy dissatisfaction with his home life is starting to dominate his persona at work. Except that Pete doesn’t really seem to have an ounce of the bold vision that Don ever had. He’s driven, but he’s increasingly a “Madison Avenue type”, verging on blending into the background. Except for the bizarre plaids he trots out, believing the are the symbol of bold thinking – or at least a substitute for.

Peggy is one of the new turks as well, wanting to push the envelope. She sees Don as not so much a mentor anymore, less of an ally. To her, he seems to have lost that old spark. Worse, and ironically, Megan works for her, yet she can only boss her around so far. Megan has replaced Peggy in Peggy’s eyes.

Civil Rights is much in the air. It’s likely that this aspect of life in the mid sixties will be a major theme this year. In a running joke/fuedwith another agency, the practical jokers at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce place an ad in a trade journal touting their Equal Opportunity Employment status. This back fires when an office full of “negroes” show up to apply for the advertised job. Joan (on maternity leave) sees the ad and is upset as well. She thinks she is being replaced, which is not the case. This is made clear by Lane. How she will handle her childcare and her husband (the kid is not her husbands, but Roger’s, remember?) is to be determined. Her mother, who has been helping, advises her to be a stay at home mom. Joan only really feels her self worth in the work environment. The balancing of work and personal life seems to be an increasingly important place in the lives of these mad men – and women.

Most interesting story lines on the horizon? There are so many, they all leave us wanting more, now. But it’s the dynamic between Don and Megan which I’m favoring at the moment. This includes a public-private component and an erotic dynamic that will eclipse much of what you will see on tv theses days – and without any nudity.

Much is made of the meticulous sets (and this is absolutely accurate) but individual scenes are so multilayered as to be incredibly dense. As for me, if I watched each episode three times, I’d pick-up on only a small percentage of what they are offering up. Makes me feel an inadequate tv watcher. Maybe this comes from years of nothing much to think about on television. This series has radically changed the concept of tv viewing.

As has been the hall-mark in this series (and only a few others like The Wire and The Sopranos) the ending scenes of each episodes are truly exhilarating, moments to savor. After Megan shows Don whose in charge at home, after they’ve released their tension and frustrations (in the All-America way of great sex) we see Don and Megan in a scene of such tender intimacy (alluded to above) that it’s nearly unbearable, unusual as it is for couples in this series. They speak of white carpets, which Megan says they’ll have to replace (after the sullying by the outsiders). Don confesses that white carpets are always impractical, bur Megan wanted them, so he did too. He wants to giver Megan everything she wants. The contrast to how these things went with he and Betty is marked. Their scene dissolves, as we swing around to the contrasts with the others. Roger is up early to steal away on a fools errand that Pete has engineered (snappIng at his wife to “shut up”). Pete is seen on his commute planning his materialistic acquisitions, what he believes are the markers of his status and success. Lane…Joan. Fade to next morning as Don and Megan enter the office.

The lobby is full of what appear to be “negroes” as a result of Don’s advertised practical joke. Don says “I don’t know why we can’t just hire one!” They are forced to at least go through the motions of interviewing. This as the old Dusty Springfield classic gradually fades up, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”. As incongruous as it is, it’s an absolutely perfect coda to the opener (accurately, #35 on the Billboard Top 100 of 1966). Resumes are collected as all of the female applicants (the males have been given a thanks-but-n0-thanks) file out. Credits roll.

I forgot just how great this series was.

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