How big is the return of Mad Men? Well, after a 17-month hiatus, the proverbial red carpet has been rolled out for the two-hour season premiere. There has been non-stop media coverage of the arrival of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and the rest of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Everyone is seemingly in on the game, trying to pick off a piece of AMC's flagship program and let the world know how aware they are of a program so innately self-aware.
Creator Matthew Weiner has offered almost nothing beyond an enigmatic image of Don Draper staring through a storefront window at a pair of mannequins, so it's ironic that a show telling the story of ad men is effectively utilizing the media's interest in the secrecy of season 5 to sell the premiere.
At the onset of this season, we're unsure just what will be waiting for us once the curtain is finally pulled back on 'A Little Kiss,' parts 1 & 2. Season 4 certainly left more than it's fair share of questions that have gone unanswered long enough. Has Don gone through with his proposed marriage to Megan Calvet (Jessica Paré)? Did Joan (Christina Hendricks) have, or is she still carrying Roger Sterling's (John Slattery) child? And, most importantly, where does Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce stand after being dealt the blow of losing its primary moneymaker in Lucky Strike?
Perhaps that's why there has been such a hubbub regarding season 5. Ruminating on season 4 (and earlier) has fans downright nostalgic for a show that often times revels in nostalgia. But it's a realization born through the ease of watching time effortlessly float by. While Mad Men can take us back or, for some, introduce us to a time when things where different, it is careful to never be only about that time, or that place in history. It's merely about people, who were like us now: in the moment, while time marched on.
And so with the start of season 5, we are brought into things as Don Draper is welcoming his 40th year – though Dick Whitman celebrated it months earlier. We see a Don that is content in his home life, in love with his new wife and, relatively, happy at work – a fact that has those who know him a little on edge.
Matthew Weiner does a fantastic job of setting up this new Don is such a way that leaves the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop. Don has been aimlessly wandering for so long – he's a sham, literally living as another man's life – that for him to display an air of contentment is like coaxing the Mississippi to run backwards. Even more shocking is the fact that Megan knows Don's real name, and seems okay with it.
That's what puts Don most at odds with the rest of the characters in 'A Little Kiss': he's seems delighted by the change that has occurred in his home life, while most everyone else seems less accepting of what changes have befallen them.
This is most evident in Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) bemoaning how his wife has seemingly given up on presenting herself in a way befitting of his standards, or at least the way she used to be before they moved out of Manhattan, before having a child. Trudy (Alison Brie) misinterprets Pete's frustration with home as a longing for something more at work, and tells him dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition. But work's fine for Pete, he's successful; and aside from Roger attempting to poach the clients Pete is bringing in, and refusing to switch offices with him, work is where Pete's joie de vivre comes from – and nearly everyone else's, for that matter.
Many at SCDP have reached a point where life outside of work doesn't hold for them the meaning their duties at the agency do. As Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) later says to Joan, "It's home, but it's not everything."
In fact, like Lane and Pete, home is not a place Joan particularly wants to be despite the presence of her new baby. She comes to the office and things have changed; she's neither recognized in the lobby, nor does she recognize the receptionist who (barely) greets her. This is probably the best way in which Weiner has shown the progression of time, both in between the seasons and in Mad Men overall. Young Kevin is passed around, his presence holding different meaning to everyone, and he eventually lands in the reluctant arms of Peggy (Elisabeth Olsen), who manages to get Pete to take him off her hands. And without a word, we are reminded of exactly where these two characters began their arc four seasons ago, and we are tempted to look back at how far everyone else has come in the process.
It's in that progression that the sense of being unfulfilled is most pervasive in the episode, but it is also acutely felt during Don's unwanted birthday celebration. At this point we're still mostly unsure what to think of Megan's role in Don's life. She's working with him now – something she had mentioned a desire to do during season 4 – and there is a general unease around her in the office, but she is treated with a certain measured respect (to her face, anyway) that seems born of Don's influence more than it is any knack she has for the work.
The party offers up the first sign that despite the blissful nature of the newlyweds, there is a disparity between the two that no amount of truthfulness on Don's part will be able to overcome. During the party, Megan puts on a performance that is more to show everyone what Don gets that they don't, but it also puts Don in the passenger seat, with all eyes on him – something he later confesses displeases him very much.
More troublesome still, we catch a glimpse that time has begun to pass Don Draper by. Megan is entertaining a group of friends that Don doesn't know, and doesn't want to know. They are the sign of a changing generation, one that he'll still be responsible to market products to, but they seem almost alien to him. For once, the world is moving forward and Don doesn't seem to be on the verge of it.
That problem is seen again in large part because SCDP (mostly Don and Roger) take out an ad that's intended to be poke fun at a racially charged incident involving a group of African-American protesters and some water bombs dropped by ad execs at Y&R. The joke is only funny to Don and Roger, and manages to stir up some panic in Joan that she's being replaced, but more importantly, those protesting at Y&R see it as an invitation to apply for a job. Naturally, no one in the company has given much thought to the idea of civil rights – as evidenced by the ad having been run in the first place. And so, with that, the men of SCDP are forced to accept the changing era through the blunder of a misguided overindulgence. Whether they are aware of it or not, has yet to be seen, but the incident makes it clear where this season is headed.
As Don Draper finds himself on the wrong side of 40, seemingly content with his new wife and the children he had from his previous marriage, he is forced, or will be forced to confront the idea that, eventually, even his time will be over. And someday, a young ad exec will be clamoring for his office – much like Pete Campbell did while making a sensible plea for the office currently occupied by the aging, and increasingly ineffective Roger Sterling.
And this is when Mad Men truly excels, when it is about the observation of character. However much it may seem, Mad Men is not about history; it simply takes place in our history. Mad Men can do what it wants because it is not tied to the beginning or end of anything larger than the lives and experiences of its characters. Lives that, it quickly becomes clear, have already done most of their living.
Mad Men continues next Sunday with 'Tea Leaves' @9pm on AMC.