It’s been two years but Mad Men feels like it hasn’t missed a step. If anything, it feels like a different show entirely, like a spin off rather than a new season. One by one we’re reintroduced to the characters where they are now. Sally Draper, the new generation, awakes to the kind of music that belongs in a psychedelic dreamscape and wonders through a new age house, lost amidst the newness and sleekness. The episode doesn’t immediately tune the viewer into which house this is. We know Betty was moving so the natural assumption is that this is Betty and Henry’s new house. But it’s not, and in retrospect it never could be Betty’s house. This new, shiny apartment just isn’t a part of Betty’s style. Don is the creative one, the one who would be intrigued and inspired by the newness.
So we get introduced to Don, Megan and the kids first, which makes sense. Don has always been central to the show, but it’s not his perspective that welcomes us to the new season. It’s Sally’s point of view. She seems in awe of Megan, a highly sexualised young woman who is calm and welcoming, unlike her mother but maintains a sense of control with her siblings. She presents their father with the gift and politely explains when they’ll see him next. It seems a bit removed from the rebellious little girl from last season who yelled at her mother and ran off to her father’s house
Speaking of Megan, show runner Matthew Weiner, did a fantastic job of, first introducing her as the other half of Don Draper; the woman at his side at breakfast, toeing the line between a good work ethic and some flirtatious flashing in the office and taking some initiative that Betty would never have done. She throws him a surprise party and then sings and dances in front of everyone. Betty would have been affronted at the very idea of it. But this is because Megan is a new woman, not just to Don but in terms of the times they live. As we move through the 60s which the show has been doing through the first four seasons, we can clearly see a shift in attitudes towards many things like sex, money and marriage. Betty is very much a representation of the old way of life; the perfect 50s housewife who maintains an air of poise and control in every aspect of life, whereas Megan reflects what is to come in the 70s. Women with ambition, open to exploring their own sexuality and having an individual identity separate from their husbands or fathers.
And the show is effective in displaying this individual identity by showing Megan in both her own work space and interacting with Don at home and in the office. Betty was often shown by herself in earlier seasons but most of her interactions tended to be concerned with family and what Don was doing or thinking. Megan interacts with Peggy and can clearly talk frankly about work without worrying about family or Don. She enlists Peggy’s help also to work out a surprise party invite list. It’s Peggy who worries about how Don will react; Megan is just willing to do it because it’s fun. And in a way, it makes their marriage seem very real and very believable in a very short space of time. By twenty minutes into the first episode, we already have a very clear view of what their marriage is like. It’s new, exciting, and heavily sexualised but it’s also very open and honest, something he never achieved with Betty.
The next character to be reintroduced to us is Pete Campbell. It seems like Pete has switched places with Don. Don is living in the city and now Pete is the one with the country home taking the train like Don did in season one. It’s not Pete who is fighting with Roger Sterling on issues rather than Don, again much like season one. But since season one that has been exactly what Pete wanted; to be Don Draper, or as important as Don Draper. But as the episode’s power play for Roger’s office showed, he’s not that important yet. Roger is still the account guy that all the people at meetings remember. His name still has the sway that Pete’s doesn’t. Pete wants to be important but he’s going to have to wait a bit longer in order to fill Roger’s shoes because if last week’s episode proved anything, Roger Sterling is still every bit as relevant to the company whether he’s drawing in the accounts or not.
And concerning Roger, it’s interesting that we actually get very few scenes where Roger isn’t at work or working in some way. The only moments he steps out of the office that we really see are the party scene and a scene at the end where he tells his wife to ‘shut up’. Clearly, all is not well there, but then their marriage has lasted a lot longer than I ever thought it would.
Bert pops his head through to show that’s still alive.
Joan Harris is at home, caring for her new child but clearly missing work. In terms of the new age, Joan is a pioneer. She was around long before Peggy came on the scene with all her ambition and it seemed like she knew her place. And she did know her place, but her place was actually at the very top. As Lane Pryce puts it, the place is held together by spit in her absence.
Pryce is…a bit creepy as far as this season’s opening episode goes. He finds a wallet but doesn’t trust the black man to hand it in. But didn’t he date a black woman a few months ago? He’s somehow managed to get his wife to come with him to America but then steals a photo from the wallet after having a rather strange conversation on the telephone. I’m not really sure where any of this is going in terms of Pryce’s character. The new black secretary might make him revaluate his attitudes towards race and politics. I suppose he might start a telephone affair with the girl but Pryce is actually one of the characters that seem to be a bit strangely directed this season thus far.
Peggy, Stan and Ken Cosgrove are all introduced at once, with Stand and Ken happily making light of their holidays and Peggy being Peggy as always. Ken and Stan haven’t changed much, but Peggy seems pretty annoyed that Megan is getting to do the job so quickly when she spent practically an entire season trying to become more established as a copywriter. She seems rather annoyed too that her work is quite as appreciated as she thinks it should be. But in a lot of ways Peggy is like Pete. She ambitious but she’s also impatient. She doesn’t want to wait to have the reputation and respect that Don has. She wants it now.
But, perhaps more interestingly, the show doesn’t start with any of those characters. None of the main characters get the first scene, but instead it’s devoted to an equal rights protest outside another advertising firm. The episode presents the era quite clearly before it begins to narrow down the focus to individual characters. It’s a tumultuous political climate. Y&R don’t take it seriously and face serious repercussions in terms of being a laughing stock, but Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, in trying to further their humiliation put themselves in the line of sight too. We’ve already seen from last season’s episode ‘The Beautiful Girls’ that some clients are discriminatory in their practices so it’ll be interesting to see in future episodes whether SCDP’s little joke has been more to their detriment than their success.
All in all, however, it’s been a nice to have Mad Men back on our screens and I really did enjoy this two hour season première. We got glimpses of how things have changed and the future might pan out. Though Betty was obviously missing in person, her presence was constantly felt in Don’s life. And I don’t think that means she won’t be as important or as involved this season. I just think that it means this was the calm before the storm.