Last night, after a nearly two-year wait, AMC's sad but glittery crown jewel Mad Men returned for a fifth season. So how did the premiere measure up against all the aching anticipation? Pretty well, we'd say. It was a fast-paced and somewhat scattered two hours that caught us up with just about everyone while also moving the story along.
Obviously the biggest curiosity of the evening was to see the state of Don's quickie marriage to his former secretary Megan, and, wouldn't you know it, it turns out that they're doing OK! Oh, they're not doing wonderfully, no siree, but considering what we've seen of Don's past relationships, the fact that he and Megan are living in a stylish high-rise apartment in relative comfort and not making death stares at one another is pretty good. The major set-piece of the episode was a surprise party that Megan threw for Don's 40th birthday, which Don wast initially not very gracious about. But in what was ostensibly a dangerously charged sex scene a bit later in the episode, Don gently confessed that he was terse with Megan about the party because he didn't like all those people entering into his private life, he wanted his intimate life to stay just that, close to the chest and unexamined from the outside. So, Don hasn't changed much! And clearly his relationship with Megan isn't destined for greatness, but for now at least they're doing better than we expected.
Though obviously the first thing to go in their relationship will be Megan's employment as a junior creative type at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, a job she's apparently been doing for the past few months. It's not that she's bad at the work, it's just that people treat her strangely because she's the boss's wife, and because, at the party, she did a sexy song and dance for Don that had the men of the office, perhaps none more so than dorky old Harry Crane, vocally lusting after her. So yes, Megan's newly elevated status at the firm is an awkward and tenuous, and I fear that she may be headed for some kind of emotional catastrophe at some point in the season. Doesn't she seem like such a delicate fawn? Like she's being set up for a big fall? This show roils with that desperate sadness that is always hungry to claim another soul, and I fear Megan's may be its next meal.
Other things we gleaned from the party were that Peggy is still with her gently obnoxious bohemian writer boyfriend, Roger is dating another young ditz (is it the same ditz?), and Pete's wife Trudy is not terribly up on the whole civil rights thing. Yes, it's 1966 now and the movement is in full swing, with blacks and their allies protesting the OEO and jerky young copywriters at Young & Rubicam dropping water balloons on them from on high. The episode was bookended with this little slice of imperfect history, with SCDP responding to Y & R's callousness by putting an employees wanted ad in The New York Times that highlighted the agency's equal opportunity hiring policy, in an effort to make their rival look stodgy and racist. So, SCDP is officially a progressive company now, though not everyone is exactly on board. Trudy's obliviousness to the issue at the party was mirrored in Roger's blithe insensitivity when a dozen or so black people actually showed up to interview for the advertised job — what was an inner industry jab was actually a real thing, represented a real opportunity, for other people, and of course Roger simply made a snide crack about it and lit a cigarette. The ethos at SCDP is nominally progressive, but of course that's mostly for show.
That historical pinpoint was a bit heavy-handed perhaps, but maybe also necessary to both establish the time and to keep all the frothy goings on in the office in perspective. This was a very work-focused episode, with only a few domestic scenes, among them a tired Joan caring for her newborn son, sprinkled throughout. Matthew Weiner has said that this season is very much going to be about an "every man for themselves" mentality, so it looks, initially at least, that a lot of that will play out on the ad floor. Which is fine! This show is still at root about the company. But there have been so many detours into existential dread and unease in seasons past that it was a little surprising to have this two-hour premiere episode be so surprisingly light and office-based. Obviously there were hints at depths to be mined — Don and Megan's curious marriage, Joan's alienation from her pre-baby life, Cooper's seeming descent into senility — but the premiere kept things relatively airy. That's not a complaint exactly, we were just maybe expecting a little more heft after such a long hiatus.
That said, the party scene was expertly done, filled with little telling details and the meandering energy of an Altman film, and the episode's quieter moments, like Sally waking up in Don's strange new apartment or Pete standing in his suburban kitchen drinking from a bottle of milk (or something), resonated in that way that the best Mad Men moments do. The show often imbues the mundane with an almost magical quality, one that makes the characters seem both lost and specifically found in time. We'll obviously have to see some more episodes before any sort of season-long theme begins to emerge, but so far everyone seems to be pressing at the borders of strange new lives that they've suddenly found themselves in, while, as ever, the outside world nags away and time, cruel and relentless as it is, marches on. We're back in Mad Men land, you guys! It's not the happiest place to be, but surprisingly it's not that miserable either. This time around, at least. And only so far. We've a ways to go, after all.
Oh, and here's that song that Megan sang to Don, "Zou Bisou Bisou."