March 26, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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WHERE WE WERE:  Reeling from the news that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) had proposed to his French-Canadian secretary Megan (Jessica Pare).  In other cubicles at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Joan (Christina Hendricks), pregnant by Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and not her doctor/soldier husband, had decided to keep the baby after all, assuming hubby wouldn’t do the math, while Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) continued climbing the Sterling Cooper ladder, having brought in a desperately needed client after Roger’s client Lucky Strike deserted the agency.  Roger was thus beginning to become less relevant, while Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) rose in agency status.  Meanwhile, Don’s ex-wife Betty (January Jones), about to move with her second husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) to a new house with her and Don’s 3 kids, abruptly (and, of course, neurotically) fired the long-time nanny, much to both Don’s and Henry’s irritation.  Don’s engagement and Betty’s move signaled the fact that once and for all, their marriage was permanently over.

WHERE WE ARE:  Monday, May 30, 1966–we can be that specific, because we fade in on the conclusion of the long Memorial Day weekend.  Joan has had her baby boy and is ambivalently looking forward to her return from maternity leave–she’ll hate leaving her son with a sitter, but she’s afraid of losing her job (and on some level she doesn’t quite consciously admit, the office is where she finds real fulfillment).  Also, Don and Megan really have gotten married, and now live in a modern, airy high-rise Manhattan apartment. 
It’s been a well-publicized 17 long months since MAD MEN last aired an original episode, thanks to a combination of the extended negotiations between AMC, production studio Lionsgate and series auteur Matthew Weiner over the terms of additional seasons, and then AMC’s desire to air The Walking Dead as its fall/winter flagship series, pushing Mad Men to spring.  (As part of the deal with Weiner, initial airings of new episodes will run 64 minutes, so that the network can add commercial time without Weiner having to reduce the running time of the show itself.)  
Tonight’s 2-hour (which is to say 128-minute) season premiere, written by Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, is a reminder of just how different Mad Men is from every other show on television.  After such a long intermission, most showrunners would feel the need to start the new season with a bang, kicking off some major narrative arc to carry us over the next 13 weeks.  Not Weiner, though–the premiere’s storytelling was almost entirely concerned with little moments, while the social commentary (aside from a bookending set of civil rights-themed sequences) was located in the subtext and details.
The show also defied expectations by introducing us to a new Don Draper:  a basically happy one.  His marriage with Megan may well sour (there were enough reminders throughout the episode of Roger’s foundering relationship with his younger 2d wife Jane to serve as signposts), but for now, she continues to be the polar opposite of Betty, a kindhearted girl who wears her emotions on her sleeve and errs only by her overenthusiastic efforts to please.  The central event of the episode was her ill-advised surprise 40th birthday party for Don (even though she’s aware his real birthday as Dick Whitman was 6 months earlier–Megan doesn’t worry overmuch about existential identity issues).  Not only does Don loathe surprises, but her gift is an all-out performance of a sexy French song, drawing what wasn’t yet called universal snark from the observers at large.  This puts some of the more familiar darkness back in Don’s eyes in the second half of the episode.  But while Megan is naive and–now that she’s been promoted to junior copywriter under a wary Peggy–probably not very good at her job, she won’t let Don obsess over his frustrations with her the way Betty did (she just cleans the apartment in her underwear and lets Don have his way with her, which seems to work).  Don and Megan even appear to be doing fine with Don’s kids, including Sally (Kiernan Shipka), who we know has her own problems.
The Sterling Cooper stories were relatively small-scale as well.  Pete, stung by the fact that he’s still treated as the agency kid (with that concrete pillar in his office) when he’s bringing in more business than Roger, pouted until Roger maneuvered Harry (with an under-the-table $1100 bonus) to switch offices.  Peggy, as ever, felt undersupported by Don when her “bean ballet” pitch didn’t work for Heinz.  Lane (Jared Harris) fantasized about a relationship with a girl on the phone whose boyfriend’s wallet he’d found, but to no avail.  And the outside world continued to encroach on Don’s–aside from the agency guests, no one Megan invited to Don’s party (gay, bohemian, pot-smokers) would have been allowed in Betty’s house, and when black applicants showed up to interview for a Sterling Cooper job, the white men of the agency huddled in a hallway and finally decided they’d better take the resumes.
Mad Men doubtless has more intense drama on the way in episodes to come, but tonight served as more of a prologue, a reminder of the sparkling dialogue, superb acting, and spectacular visual design that has always underlaid the series.  For one night, Mad Men chose to remind us that more than any other show on TV, it’s a state of mind.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."