April 14, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Mad Men”


MAD MEN:  Sunday 10PM on AMC

Fresh episodes of MAD MEN will likely still be airing more than a year from now, so all the obituaries for the series that have been appearing lately run the risk of sounding like “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” when they’re repeated in 2015.  The only reason the 7 hours airing this year are part of  “the final season” is because AMC saves some money by ordering and producing them in a single bunch along with the 7 for next year.  Nevertheless, with tonight’s season premiere we’ve arrived at something like the beginning of the end.

It was clear from the premiere, written by Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher, that Mad Men isn’t letting any of its characters off the hook.  The very grim Season 6 ended with some notes of hope:  Don Draper (Jon Hamm) may have had a mini-breakdown that culminated in his being indefinitely suspended from Sterling Cooper, but the last scene with his children suggested that he might finally be starting to integrate his difficult roots into his present life; meanwhile, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) was deliberately posed at the end to suggest that in Don’s absence, she would finally get the recognition and power she’s deserved.  Two months later in January 1969, when the new season begins, none of that has come to pass.

Don’s suspension is still in effect, and he’s been reduced to writing Cyrano-type pitches for Fred Rumsen (Joel Murray) to deliver at the agency as though they’re his own.  (Peggy, with no idea of the deception, amusingly underrates one of “Fred’s” ideas before reluctantly concluding it’s better than hers.)  Don is still technically married to Megan (Jessica Pare), but she lives in LA now, and their weekend together when Don visits is awkward, without any of the verve they once had.  There isn’t a mention of Don’s kids in the episode, so no indication that his taking them to see the house where he grew up at the end of Season 6 was a genuine breakthrough for them.  Don couldn’t even be roused to make a move on the lovely passenger (played by Neve Campbell, so we may see her again) sitting next to him on the plane back to New York.  (Cultural references on Mad Men are never random, and during the episode Don watched the prologue to Lost Horizon, a film about a society that never ages or changes, frozen in a perpetual present.)  His job has always been the true love of Don’s life, and without it he’s at loose ends, solitary on his cold apartment balcony at the episode’s end.

If anything, Peggy is in worse shape, completely unappreciated for the first time in her career by Don’s replacement Lou Avery (Allan Havey), deserted by ex-lover Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), who moved to LA to save his marriage, and alone in an Upper West Side apartment building that’s years away from becoming fashionable and is falling apart.  (It might make her feel slightly better to know that Ted seems miserable in LA, pale and longing for bagels.)

Things aren’t much better for the rest of the gang.  Roger Sterling (John Slattery) has become utterly debauched, even by his standards, sharing his bed–and the rest of his furniture–with men and women as he hosts orgies in his hotel room, and completely nonplussed when his daughter tells him, with the composure of someone who’s joined a cult, that she’s forgiven him for his bad behavior.  Joan (Christina Hendricks) is still being talked down to by the men in authority–even Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), whom she outranks–although she may be making progress at becoming an account executive, if she can keep the shoe company she’s been thrown from walking away.  Even Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), who claims to be thrilled with the LA lifestyle, its tans and tennis clothes, is probably riding for a fall with his extremely flirtatious realtor girlfriend.

Weiner and his cast are dazzling at depicting varieties of misery, and Mad Men is, as always, a pleasure to watch.  The show’s picture of its era is marvelously particular and gorgeously realized, and Hamm and Moss are first among equals in the depths with which they’ve explored their characters.  The dialogue is unerringly smart, with reverberations that reward multiple viewings.

With the start of its “final” season, Mad Men becomes the next series to face the enormous pressure of delivering a finale that both sums up and satisfies, a challenge many great television dramas (and some comedies, like How I Met Your Mother) have failed to provide.  We won’t know for roughly 14 months whether Matt Weiner has the goods, but however it ends, the premiere reminds us what a remarkable, original journey it’s been so far.

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."