After a loooong hiatus, Mad Men finally returned last night with a two-hour season premiere. So what is it about this show that that causes such uproar?
Let’s break it down after the jump.
There’s a reason why Mad Men has consistently been considered one of the best television shows of all time, and true to form, season five’s opener did not disappoint in this respect. Although I wouldn’t say last night’s episode was one of the series’ best, it did encapsulate what makes the it so intriguing. Mad Men is meant to be savoured and digested; its images and themes need time to steep in the subconscious. When things finally start to gel, the viewer is treated to a richly satisfying feeling rarely achieved from the small screen.
We revisit our characters in the summer of 1966, and a couple of huge questions left from last season are quickly answered within the first few minutes. Don (Jon Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) did indeed get married and Joan (Christina Hendricks) had her baby that was presumably Roger’s (John Slattery). This is one thing I quite appreciate about the show – it doesn’t need to walk us through everything. Motivations and dangling questions aren’t ever spelled out explicitly, instead subtly revealed in due time. Does Don regret his hasty engagement? How is Joan coping with the implications of having Roger’s baby? We get hints of this throughout the episode and will likely get more throughout the season, but much like real life, we don’t get definitive answers. And that’s not the point. The point is to relish in the journey as we learn how richly layered these characters are.
What struck me throughout the entire episode are the lengths that our characters go through to continue the artifice of their success. In fact it’s their insatiable pursuits for idealized happiness that is likely their only source of joy. Megan, who has been promoted to lead character, gives us a window into this theme. She perfectly sums it up in her criticism to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss):
“What is wrong with you people? You’re all so cynical. You don’t smile, you smirk.”
Ill-content with their lives, these characters thrive on the analysis and criticism of others. Think about how many characters interpreted Megan’s “last-minute” invite to Don’s surprise party, reflecting insecurities regarding social status, job security and etiquette.
And although Megan is relatively new to the scene, she’s also succumbing to her insecurities. After her failure at seducing Don during her infamous ‘Zou Bisou Bisou’ number, she defiantly strips to her underwear and gets down on all fours to clean the apartment in front of him. She proclaims “All you get to do is watch…You don’t get this!” demanding to be objectified even though, as Don accurately predicts, she “wants it so bad.” Their post-coital discussion regarding the ruined white carpet further illuminates their predicament. As it will be inevitably tainted and stained, there are always four or five white carpets on hand as replacements to keep the charade going.
And what about Pete (Vincent Kartheiser)? He’s checked off all of the boxes of life (junior partnership in the firm, wife, baby, an acreage) but as evidenced in his candid conversations on his morning commute or how he lingers alone in his big kitchen after Trudy (Alison Brie) announces that she’s headed to bed, Pete isn’t a happy guy. His fervent desire to get a bigger office is a manifestation of his success and role in the firm. He claims it’s not about the office to Crane (Rich Sommer) but his triumphant posture sitting in his new digs and looking out his window would suggest otherwise.
Joan’s struggle is more transparent. She tries to maintain her status as queen bee even in her absence, but there’s a reason we see her awkwardly try to enter SCDP’s doors with her massive baby carriage. The insipid receptionist doesn’t help her, takes a while to acknowledge who she is, and she further fuels Joan’s suspicions that she’s become obsolete. A subordinate who clearly has more power over the now de-throned Joan.
And let’s not forget about Lane (Jared Harris) and his cheeky phone conversation with a woman whose picture laid in a found wallet. Even though his wife has taken him back, the fantasy of the woman in the picture is far more titillating. Lane steals the picture from the wallet before returning it to its owner, putting it in his own. So many interpretations come from this small action: Does Lane’s wife see this picture when he gives her some money? Does the owner of the wallet notice the picture is missing as he pauses slightly when thumbing through the dollar bills? Was the woman on the phone even the girl in the picture? Will we ever see this woman? The possibilities keep us on our feet and likely give Lane the only glimmer of happiness in his otherwise boring life.
I also thought Roger’s hateful marriage to Jane (Peyton List) is pretty eye-opening. Remember how just a few seasons ago their affair was as provocative as Lane’s phone-flirtation? Now Roger is bluntly telling her to shut-up when she inquires where he’s slipping away to in the middle of the night. Yikes.
I could go on as a two-hour installment gives us plenty to reflect on. Mad Men is densely layered and meticulous in every minute detail, from set design, costumes, performances, writing, direction and cinematography – all maximized to allow viewers countless elements to nosh on. It’s a cognitive experience, and compared to a slew of shows that dishonour viewers by thinking the only way they’ll understand anything is to unceremoniously cram it down their throats, Mad Men offers a different kind of entertainment. It’s a show that, even as it enters its fifth season, proves it is worth the effort of engagement.
- I’m not sure what to make of Peggy’s “Bean Ballet” pitch. I tend to disagree with critics praising Moss’ performance in the scene. She’s delightfully awkward, but it just doesn’t work for me. It seems too easy for Don to come in and agree with the clients. Perhaps if he had done the typical ‘Draper magic’ and further pitched the concept, I would have appreciated the contrast between the two.
- I loved the scene between Crane and Sterling discussing the office change-up. Sommer is great at the subtle comedy and Slattery just rolls with the punches.
- The support beam in Pete’s old office is brilliant. What a fabulous use of set design to really hammer home a narrative theme.
- Interesting that Lane is so distrusting of the cab driver, presumably because he’s black. Wasn’t it just last season that he was in love with black playboy bunny, Toni (Naturi Naughton)? I had hoped he was more open-minded but it turns out that he was likely exoticising her.
What did you think, Mad Men viewers? Was the premiere worth the wait? Do you think Don and Megan will last? Will Faye (Cara Buono) make a triumphant return? How do you think the show will handle issues of race, considering the episode is bookended with civil rights events? Think it’ll tackle race issues more this season? Sound off in the comments section below!
Mad Men airs at 10pm EST Sundays on AMC.