The much awaited return of AMC’s masterful tale of Madison Avenue advertising executives in 1960’s Manhattan, Mad Men, premiered yesterday evening after an 18 month hiatus. Will Don Draper find happiness with his new, young wife Megan? Will Joan fool her husband into believing Roger’s baby is his own? Will Peggy ever get the recognition she deserve?

Note: Spoilers ahead.

The new season opens with what appears to be a civil rights demonstration. In typical Madison Avenue ad exec fashion (or as the show would have us believe is typical), a group of white office workers are throwing bags of ice at African American demonstrators on the streets below. The cinematography and the quick cuts of the camera convey an energy to this season making it as markedly different than those that have come before it as season four was last time around.

The music that plays during Sally Draper’s scene is both electronic and pseudo-psychedelic, as if she is wandering through a different world and really complements the whole aesthetic presented thus far. It is artful and well-crafted openings like this that cement AMC’s reputation for making some of the finest shows on television. The apartment Don shares with Megan is modern, both for its time and in contrast to his old home on Long Island with Betty as well as his bachelor pad in season four. He prepares breakfast for his kids while Megan sleeps. Gene is older, as are both Bobby and Sally – it would appear some time has passed since the last season but not a lot of time. Don is turning 40, a big occasion in life and often a turning point but if he has anymore turning points in this series the audience may become emotionally exhausted from the turmoil.  Of course, the outer veneer of domestic tranquilty evidenced by these opening scenes is likely belied by domestic undercurrents and office conspiracies.

Next we cut to Pete on the Long Island Railroad commuting to work. A passenger points out that he has white specks on his jacket shoulder, implying that he has dandruff when actually it is baby spittle.

Bert Cooper is still with the firm, which is awesome to see, when the show cuts to focus us on Roger in the office. Joan has had her and Roger’s child as expected. There is some palpable tension between Joan and her mother but it could just be because Joan is frayed from being a mother. Even while collapsing onto the bed, Joan evokes a certain type of feminine beauty that is from another time. In many ways, she is the most resilient of all the characters.

Mad Men: Season Four [Blu-ray]

Both Roger and Pete have trouble keeping their secretaries in line, but famously Pete’s secretary Clara is occupied with flirty Roger who hasn’t been changed by his marriage to his young wife Jane one bit. Don and Megan arrive at work simultaneously, dramatic evidence of the change in the dynamic between the genders in regards to the formerly strict separation between home and office. Now that we have the merger of the two worlds, we can assume that drama from the home will bounce back at SCDP and give the writers even more avenues for dramatic exploration.

The executives have their meeting  in the hall while Mr. Cooper sits waiting in the conference room. Pete is persistent in his need to speak to Don, who is way more interested in screwing his secretary-cum-wife in the office. It’s good to see that things are changing but Don remains a dinosaur. Even with his wife accompanying him to work, it’s a superficial endeavor, as she comments that she has to give off the appearance of doing actual work to which Don demands to know who would object to what she does. Then she flashes him. Life’s joys for Don Draper really do rest in the simpler things.

Megan tries to enlist Peggy’s help in planning a surprise party for Don which she thinks will be fun for everyone because they can come to the party then go home later and have sex. Her words. So, yes, Megan’s kind of a liberated idiot. She’s not terribly noticeable until she tries to be sexy and makes the audience wish Joan or Betty were around to clear up the air.

Mad Men: Season Four [Blu-ray]

Joan’s mom tries to convince her to give up her job because her husband is a doctor but Joan holds to her commitment to Sterling Cooper Draper Price and refuses to even entertain the idea. Pete interrupts Roger at a business luncheon, claiming that there is an emergency back at the office that requires Roger’s attention. Pete replaces Roger at the table so we don’t know if the emergency is real or opportunism on Pete’s part. We come to find later that Roger has been poaching Pete’s clients, a phenomenon both humorous and nonsensical since they both supposedly play on the same team. Of course, with Roger and Pete is not every moment another opportunity for some scheme?

Peggy is giving a commercial presentation for Heinz canned beans. Part of the presentation emphasizes the cutting-edge technology that will be used to film the commercial. Don comes into the meeting to back up Peggy’s very ‘artistic and bold’ commercial for Heinz canned beans. The rejection of the concept impacts Peggy, especially because Don did not back her up at all – instead, he agreed with the client and told them to rework the concept.

‘Clients are right all of the sudden? I don’t recognize that man.’

In many ways, neither do we but this is not an entirely negative thing. The last season left us with a Don Draper liberated from his past and it also gives the real possibility that he may escape his demons and find some kind of happiness. Yet, what if Don is not evolving, merely regressing and falling, as shown in the opening montage? Perhaps Mad Men will ultimately be the story of the fall, and not the rise, of Don Draper.

Pete’s coming home to a house in the suburbs is a change from his Manhattan flat in another visual role reversal. In the last season, Pete lived in a high-rise, and in this season it is Don that lives in a high-rise.

Roger and Jane ruin the surprise birthday party Megan is planning for Don because they’re outside Don’s apartment arguing about the proper protocol with entering a surprise party after it has already started. Don’s birthday party is wild in the most awesome way because he looks so out of place in his own home. Peggy is dating her radical boyfriend from the last season which is good to see. She represents so many different social currents that it is nice the writers decided to complement her character with a likely match. She intentionally causes tension between her and Don when she brings up the Heinz pitch that she needs to work on later. This moment between them will have ramifications later on in the episode.

Mad Men: Season Four [Blu-ray]

Megan begins to perform a song for Don in front of everyone is one of the more awkward moments in the show. A change from Betty? Just a little bit. .

Don tells Megan to not spend money on things like his birthday and says that she should not embarrass him like that again. Betty never had a birthday party for him because he ‘forbid it’ and he does not need to be the center of attention. Megan leaves him so she can cleanup the apartment which has been totally ruined by a party that was ultimately unappreciated. Perhaps it is settling in that she married too quickly and that the age and concomitant expectations difference might be a problem for them going forward.

Joan’s mom is warning her that she may be on the way out at SCDP and calls Megan conniving. Roger mocks Megan’s dance in front of Don to which Don responds that ‘we don’t make fun of each other’s wives at work.’ Pete has a meeting about taking Roger’s office to which Roger takes the alpha-male approach while Pete merely reiterates his need for a more appropriate office space, a petty concern but yet another string of scenes evidencing that he is trying to build a company while Don and Roger are even further engaged in their personas.

The side-plot with Pryce and the lost wallet is strange – really, I don’t know what to make of him after all this time. Harry Crane’s comments about Megan were classic. In truth, Harry’s behavior in every scene this episode has been erratic. Roger tells Harry that he is giving Pete Harry’s office. Harry thinks he is being fired for making fun of Megan. This episode reinforces how much I like Roger, especially when he buys off Harry Crane to trade offices with Pete with $1,100 cash.

Next scene shows Joan struggling into the lobby with her baby carriage. The new girl does not know who Joan is, evidence of her waning influence in the office. Megan’s hesitation to encounter Joan might breath some truth into Joan’s mother’s worries but it could just be that Megan is intimidated by Joan’s presence. Joan’s baby gets transferred around from Peggy and then to Pete and the rest of the office. It is almost like a psychology test watching each character react to this baby in a different way. Megan causes an issue with Peggy about her comment to Don at the party about having to work on the advertising campaign for Heinz. Ultimately Megan’s frustrations with Don are revealed in the spat with Peggy.

Mr. Pryce reassures Joan that they are not looking for a replacement for her and that the ad was a barb at a rival. He tells her what we already know, that without her SCDP would be lost. ‘There would’ve been a cake but you weren’t here to arrange it.’

Interestingly enough, Don is found in his office cutting advertisements out of magazines while all of the ad work shown so far in this episode has involved film. The episode ends by showing all of the various major players getting up early in the morning and preparing for their daily schedule. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is forced by circumstances to open up applications for a secretary to the African Americans gathered in their lobby in response to SCDP’s ad about being an equal opportunity employer. The ad was initially taken out as a jab against Young and Rubicam for being racists. Now, SCDP is having their hat thrown into the civil rights debate. Interesting how that little ad has spurred on so much of the action of this episode. This season opener of Mad Men was much anticipated and delivered on every major front. We did not see Betty or Henry, nor do we really know much about Don’s kids. The show seems to be more alive now and more fast paced than it was when it first began. Indeed, in so many ways, it could become a different show entirely if certain elements fall into place. The character of Megan will prove an unpredictable and possible catastrophic element in Don’s life, but we will have to see.

 

All photos courtesy of AMC.com.

 

Watch the Season Premiere of Mad Men Season 5 streaming on AMC.com.