Published March 27. 2012 4:00AM Updated March 28. 2012 12:02PM
Thank the TV gods that Mad Men creator Matt Weiner saw fit to drop us back into the Mad-i-verse somewhere familiar. Times may be a-changin' but it's business as usual in the Madison Avenue offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — for now.
The series was buried in hype during its 18-month hiatus following the fourth-season finale in October 2010. Viewers, aching with anticipation, speculated where season 5 would take us, with no help from Weiner, who's famous for remaining mum on show details. Would he send viewers into the later '60s, saturated in psychedelic hues and impassioned civil rights demonstrations and protests to end the war in Vietnam? Would a jaded Peggy skip work to go to Woodstock?
Judging by the age of Joan's newborn baby (and whether he bears a resemblance to his silver-fox father is yet to be determined), it looks like we're less than a year away from the season 4 finale and right on the edge of major cultural changes in and out of the office — and this anticipation is welcome and well-played by Team Weiner. Our characters' stories are too great for too long a storyline fast forward. I want to see every blessed glance between Joan and Roger; every dismissive remark Don silkily lobs at Peggy; each biting (but usually true) observation from Pete, who, a friend predicts, will go "the full 'Revolutionary Road' this season." Agreed. I hate to see a true New Yorker like Pete living in the suburbs.
Change, of course, was to be expected, but Sunday night's episode indicates some truth to the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay same.
Don and (his ex-secretary) Megan are married, living in a rockin' huge Manhattan apartment. Even Don's kids seem to like their new mommy!
At first glance, they seem happy — Megan even works a bit, offering coupon campaigns to creative (much to my and Peggy's dismay; I mean really? Suddenly Megan's a qualified copy writer?).
One clever person on Twitter noted bitterly that she hadn't waited 18 months to see a "whipped and happy Don," who, some might argue, is at his dramatic best when he's miserable.
Don "Double Life" Draper knows he's one lucky SOB to have found another chance at happiness. (Megan puts it more plainly. Referencing his true identity, she notes, "Nobody loves Dick Whitman.") But he's just too conflicted to go quietly into happy domesticity. Life as a dead man is funny like that. Adding salt to the wound is his 40th birthday — a milestone he prefers to ignore — only exacerbated by the much younger Megan's insistence on throwing him a surprise party. Don hates surprises and loves his privacy. But then again, he also hates to be upstaged, but here comes the next generation of creatives and movers and shakers, ready to provide the soundtrack to the latter half of the '60s — right in his living room.
Even a spirited birthday "burlesque" by sassy Megan can't convince him to sit back, relax and enjoy his fragile life. Her values are not entirely his values; where she intends playfulness, he perceives weakness and lack of control. In literally bringing the office home, Megan rattles Don into a fabulous sulk — and her performance provides the office with heaps of gossip-mill fodder.
So much for privacy.
Before long, Don is shutting out his wife (when he's not engaging in angry sexual game-playing with her), which sends her into a tailspin of doubt about whether life as a working girl is for her — thereby planting the seed for a bumper crop of resentment that might only rival that of Wife #1, Betty.
Through it all, Don remains the show pony of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It doesn't matter just yet how obsolete or distracted Mr. 40 Year-Old becomes; Don is his own best product in the world of Madison Avenue, where his legend remains intact. An appearance by Don is a seal of approval clients — and staffers — still want, but here comes that change again. Peggy, angry that Don didn't do more to sell her dancing beans idea to the Heinz people, hamhandedly attempts to guilt him into sympathy for her. Too bad she choose to do it in a drunken haze at a non-work event.
Remember, that's an image of falling man in the opening credits. The world moves on, and there's little SCDP can do to glamorize or buff away society's indignities, try as they might. Sometimes, a can of beans is a can of beans, and a fledgling airline account is better than nothing. And while SCDP's people didn't throw water bombs at civil rights demonstrators, their effort to capitalize on their rival firm's misstep forces the bosses to put their money where their collective mouth is. It's rough justice, but it could breed progress — and huge ratings for AMC going forward.