“Something always happens. Things are different.”
Rejoice, for finally Mad Men is back! After 17 months of alleged behind the scenes wrangling at AMC TV, thankfully everything was settled in terms of writers, producers, cast and budget (that latter at the expense of The Walking Dead, reportedly). The men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce showed up for business on Sunday night in the US, and straight away we were immersed in the show’s trademark subtle vision of the 60s.
So subtle in fact that, as usual, I couldn’t immediately tell what year they’d moved on to this time. Mad Men is like that; it doesn’t do exposition. You have to work at it as a viewer, because none of the answers are spelled out in dialogue. This is never more true than in a season premiere, where the timescale between seasons can range from months to years, with the concomitant change in the characters’ circumstances. Part of the fun is working it out, and the show doesn’t give an inch. After all, why have a line of dialogue when meaning can be conveyed by Don Draper staring moodily into the middle distance through a haze of cigarette smoke?
Anyway, it’s 1966 (I eventually discovered), and I guess it’s about nine months after the end of the previous season. I know this because Joan has actually gone ahead and had the baby fathered by Roger after their illicit post-mugging liaison in an alley. As she was a couple of months pregnant last time, and her baby looks a couple of months old here, I think an intervening time of about 9 months is the right area.
Thankfully Don has moved on from the dark place in which he spent most of last season, when he lived in a tiny apartment and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Initially he seemed quite happy with new French-Canadian wife Megan, who seemed to have an inhuman level of tolerance with his grumpiness. Said grumpiness was brought on by her staging of a surprise birthday party for his fortieth in their swanky new pad, a surprise that was (typically) blown by Roger turning up with a bottle of champagne just as Don and Megan reached their door.
This season premiere was basically two episodes glued together, and the first concerned itself largely with the party. Don doesn’t like birthdays; he never celebrated them when he was Dick Whitman and he doesn’t want to now. Megan can’t grasp that, and Don ends up fidgeting uncomfortably through what looks like rather a good party.
As the centrepiece of the episode, the party was staged very well. All the major characters were there, together with a lot of young people who were presumably friends of Megan’s. Straight away, Don’s obvious discomfort pointed up what his problem was – he’s getting old. Or at least he feels he is, particularly when surrounded by modern, with-it people almost twenty years his junior, like his new wife. I think this is a theme we’re going to be returning to quite a bit this year.
Meanwhile, we got a flavour of the times as people at the party discussed current events, a good way of setting the scene. Vietnam is just getting into full swing, and already Bert Cooper and Peggy’s beatnik boyfriend Abe are discussing it as an unnecessary war run for profit which maims and kills young men (much to the discomfort of the young sailor standing next to them; “I thought there’d be women here,” he muttered).
Vietnam is presumably going to be a recurring theme this year. Joan’s abusive doctor husband is at Fort Dixie, presumably about to be transferred there. As a result, an unusually flustered Joan is being helped by her acid-tongued mother with caring for the baby. Their bitchy bickering is hugely entertaining, and hopefully we’ll see more of her.
Joan is actually stuck there with no certain knowledge she can go back to her job, as the limited women’s rights of the 60s didn’t include maternity leave. Indeed, the challenge for women’s rights was implicit throughout, catching up with the struggle Peggy’s had since the outset of the show. Don still expects his new young wife to be obedient and submissive, which she’s having none of. He’s plainly forgotten that attitude was instrumental in losing him his last wife (well, that and the constant infidelity and lying). And Joan’s mother is startled that Joan might defy her husband and return to work rather than care for her child full time. Peggy might have got in early, but by 1966 Women’s Lib was getting into full swing, and I imagine it’s a theme the show will return to frequently.
I suspect another driving theme of the times is going to be the Civil Rights movement. We were plunged into this straight away, as some foolish young execs from rival ad firm Y & R got into racial trouble by water bombing a protest march from their office window. This led to an amusing sniping war, as Roger took out a gloating ad for SCDP in the paper calling them an “equal opportunity” firm. The joke backfired towards the end of the episode, as it had been misinterpreted as a vacancy ad, and suddenly the all-white Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was besieged with eager black job applicants. “Why is the office full of Negroes?” enquired a flustered Roger.
Indeed, Roger’s racial attitude summed up the time period. When it was suggested they take one of the black girls on as a receptionist, he snapped, “we don’t want one of them out there!” The all-pervading racism of the 60s has been an ongoing subtle theme in the series, and it looks like this year it’s going to be pushed more to the front. It even hangs over little moments; why else would Lane, having discovered a lost wallet in a taxi, not trust the (black) driver to return it to its owner?
The wallet, in fact, led to another amusing subplot that may or may not be continued. Discovering a picture of a beautiful young lady in it, Lane called her to enquire about returning the wallet (which belonged to her boyfriend), and ended up flirting outrageously with her on the phone. It was a funny scene, well-played by Jared Harris. But it might spin out into something more serious. Plainly Lane’s marriage is not going that well; beneath their English reserve, you can tell that neither he nor his wife are happy. He was disappointed when it was the wallet’s owner who turned up at the office to collect it rather than the beautiful Dolores. But since the wallet’s owner had an Italian surname and was almost a stereotypical Mob hood, Lane may be getting himself into trouble if he goes after Dolores.
Elsewhere, the ever-uptight Pete is as unhappy as ever, and the script chose to emphasise that he has dandruff and is starting to go bald. I’m glad the dialogue spelled that one out, as actor Vincent Kartheiser seems to have a perfectly full head of hair. But he was as excellent as ever as the perpetually unsuccessful Pete, whose rivalry with Roger has been stepped up a notch for some more humorous scenes. Roger has taken to sneaking glances at his calendar to steal his leads; so Pete responds by setting up a fake meeting with a big client at 6am, which Roger gullibly goes off to.
Harry Crane is unhappy too, having expressed his lust for Don’s wife while the lady was actually standing right behind him. This led to one of the funniest scenes in the episode, as Harry was carpeted by Roger and immediately assumed he was being fired for the incident. But all Roger wanted to do was convince him to trade offices with Pete, whose tiny cupboard of an office had a big post in the middle of it that Pete managed to walk into hard enough to make his nose bleed. Pete had made a fuss about wanting a better office, but he was still furious; as Roger had correctly worked out, it was Roger’s office he really wanted.
All this, as usual, moved at a pretty leisurely pace. In terms of actual plot, not a great deal happened. But then, in Mad Men, plot has a way of creeping up on you incrementally. At the end of the day, even with a period setting, it’s basically a very classy soap opera, which depends on you being invested with the fates of its characters. This opening instalment set out its stall very well for the coming year in that regard. Interestingly, while watching I tried to imagine what it would be like if this was the first episode I’d seen, with no knowledge of the characters’ tortuous back stories. And I was surprised to decide that it was actually still just as accessible as a jumping in point. Only the business about Don’s former identity, knowledge of which he’s entrusted to his new wife, might have confused fresh viewers.
Again as usual, it looked great; it’s almost worth the frustration of The Walking Dead being stuck on a farm all year to justify the expense in bringing this to the screen. Don and Megan’s new apartment is the height of 60s chic (though its white carpet can’t stand up to an eventful birthday party). The clothes, too, are as well observed as ever. Don, Roger and the old guard remain as impeccably suited as ever, but the younger guys are wearing casual clothes in the office; and Pete turns up at Don’s party sporting a jacket that’s surely a crime against the eyes of humanity.
So, the stage is set. We know where most of the characters are, and where they’re trying to go. No sign of Don’s cold ex-wife Betty yet, but I’m guessing she’ll show up next week. On the evidence of this opener, it was worth the 17 month wait to have the show back. Creator Matthew Weiner’s writing is as sharp, subtle and humorous as ever, and the top notch cast are still superb at the subtle acting style the show demands (though my absolute favourite is John Slattery as Roger, who’s often far from subtle). Over the next few months, I’m fully expecting Mad Men to be as compelling a drama as it always has been.